On January 16, after serving Maui for 31 years, the Wharf Cinema Center movie theater shut its doors for good. Following its initial unveiling as Maui’s first multiplex, three-screen theater, the Wharf Cinema Center became a reliable movie house for Lahaina residents.
When it opened in the spring of 1989, there were only two other movie theaters on island: the Maui Theater and Holiday Theatres, both single screen and located in Kahului. The attraction of a new movie theater housing three screens, additional movie choices, and coupled with the option of the once-bustling Fun Factory at the bottom floor of the Wharf Cinema Center, made the theater a major family destination.
With the Whaler’s Village Cinema closing down years earlier, the Wharf Cinema Center provided the only means for Lahaina film buffs to catch new releases without leaving the zip code. (Remember, these were the pre-internet days when only cable TV and video stores were the alternative.)
The Wharf Cinema Center, tucked in on the third floor of the shopping complex, managed to outlive the competing, four-screen Front Street Theatres (1994-2012). Over the years, with added competition in the form of the Queen Ka’ahumanu Theatres (1994-present day), Maui Mall Megaplex (1999-present day), and the popular-then-gone-then-back-and-better-than-ever Kihei Cinemas (1992-2012, reopened in 2018), the Wharf Cinema Center lost its wider appeal as a prime movie theater option. Yet, another significant thing happened: Lahaina audiences (and not just curious tourists) remained faithful and it maintained a mom n’ pop appeal. Movies that vanished quickly from central Maui theaters (from quick hits like Downton Abbey to the forgotten Owen Wilson thriller No Escape) became word-of-mouth sleeper hits at the Wharf Cinema Center.
A typically well-rounded selection (a family movie, an R-rated drama, and a mainstream blockbuster would play in the auditoriums) catered to a loyal customer base. Although the theater renovated and upgraded their movie houses, making for cozy seating with terrific sound and picture quality, the original look of the place (including plush wall art in each screening room) never changed. Also, it was the only theater on Maui without reserved seating. For longtime Maui movie buffs, the theater was a secret handshake among the faithful.
My memories of the theater are fond and extensive. I was there on opening weekend, when the grand unveiling offered Twins, Beaches, and Working Girl. I recall Maui movie buffs who used to “chase” movies they love, meaning they’d attend the opening weekend in Lahaina, then catch it again in when the film moved to a theater in Central Maui (like my neighbor, who “followed” Rain Main to Lahaina) or vice versa. Because Lahaina was suddenly a spot for premieres the rest of the island wasn’t getting, that meant long drives if your zip code wasn’t 96761.
It was clear when a movie was going to open big, as some titles had audiences in lines that stretched all along the third floor of the Wharf. I recall massive, opening night lines for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Back to the Future Part II, Boyz N The Hood, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and IT that snaked around the third level.
In the weeks leading up to the big unveiling of Dick Tracy, Disney’s massive 1990 summer comic book movie, the studio promoted the gimmick of audiences buying their tickets early… in the form of a t-shirt. It sported a picture of Tracy’s abdomen, the words “I WAS THERE FIRST,” and the showtime for opening night. It was a silly gimmick but, once opening night arrived, a sea of moviegoers wearing those dumb shirts swamped the theater.
Halfway through a screening of the 1992 Disney musical Newsies, smoke began pouring out of the projector booth. The lights came up and the audience was quickly told to exit the building. After hanging around for 20 minutes, those of us still standing in the lobby were informed we could come back inside and finish the movie (no firemen arrived and the incident was contained).
I saw my first R-rated movie there (it was Die Hard 2), saw my last movie with high school buddies there before college (it was Chain Reaction), and once endured a teen girl sitting behind me who talked all the way through a movie because she knew every line in it beforehand (it was the Buffy the Vampire Slayer from 1992). The first movie I watched there was Field of Dreams (admittedly a substitute for the sold-out screening of No Holds Barred) and the last was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. The latter I caught with my friends, veteran DJ Michael McCartney and lifelong educator Marti Wukelic, Lahaina residents who, like myself, wanted to experience the charm and legacy of the historic theater one final time.
Image courtesy Flickr/Jaspero