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The Queen Theater’s neon marquee has been dark for years, its double doors shuttered.
Some people would love to see the venerable Kaimuki venue reopen for live shows or classes and have even formed a Friends of Queen Theater organization.
But the theater’s reclusive owner, Narciso Yu Jr., is said to be reluctant to sell the space.
Once a neighborhood anchor at the corner of Waialae Avenue and Center Street, the Queen is now the quietest building on the lively block.
In bygone decades, it screened Disney cartoons, surf films and porn flicks, and its history is as quirky as Kaimuki’s business district.
Yu, who couldn’t be reached for comment for this story, has been hesitant to commit to long-term plans and hasn’t accepted any offers from potential buyers. But a pair of artists who know him personally have been working to scrape together enough cash to reopen the theater.
Business partners Michael Kratzke and Juju Bodden say they are willing to put proceeds from their nearby, newly opened restaurant, Techu, toward the Queen.
They’ve been working on the restaurant, which features its own stage for live performances, for two and a half years.
Techu has only been open for a few weeks and Bodden said things have been up and down as they’re learning more about the business. He said Kaimuki business owners have been supportive of the new restaurant and stop by to eat.
A theater’s marquee “lights up the whole neighborhood,” and the Queen, if reopened, could do the same for Kaimuki. — Lowell Angell, co-founder, Friends of Queen Theater
Similar to Chinatown’s First Friday art-and-drink block party, Kaimuki businesses have tried to start a Third Friday event in years past, though it’s had difficulty catching on. Bodden said he hopes Techu can help revive the event with live performances.
Artists worked with Kratzke and Bodden to adorn its walls, build its furniture and create an old-school “Indiana Jones” vibe, Kratzke said.
Kratzke and Bodden have been business partners for nearly 10 years and jointly own Conscious Groove Records, which operates a small recording studio inside the Queen and has recorded three albums there. The label’s artists have been performing at Techu.
Techu and the Queen are connected by an alleyway behind the block’s other properties. Kratzke envisions opening the alley for foot traffic.
Asked about fundraising plans for the Queen other than restaurant profits, Kratzke said financial backers have agreed to pitch in for the theater’s renovations, but declined to elaborate.
Within the next two years, Kratzke and Bodden hope to reopen the Queen’s doors to the public. They plan on keeping the recording studio, but want the rest of the building to be multifunctional.
Architects Hawaii is redesigning the space for free, Kratzke said. The company declined to comment through a public relations representative and deferred to Kratzke, who didn’t want to elaborate on its involvement.
Bodden said they want the space to be modular and flexible. Dance performances, live shows and theater, video and yoga classes could be held there. Holding youth classes at the Queen is a goal, Bodden said.
“Make it functionable for everyone, you know? Not just for one purpose, it’s a waste,” Bodden said.
The duo hopes to see both venues become community hubs for churches or groups with a cause, Kratzke said.
Whether it’s with the original neon or newer LED lights, they plan to restore the Queen’s marquee, he said. They’ve repainted the exterior, from white to its original yellow.
“We’re going to keep it that old, art deco charm,” Kratzke said. “We’re not really going to mess around with the front too much.”
“It’s iconic,” Bodden agreed.
Liz Schwartz, who owns the nearby Coffee Talk, has been curious to know what’s going on in the Queen. She’s heard rumors — like that the owner wants the building to stay a theater and that bars and restaurants have made offers.
Local nonprofit Friends of Queen Theater, which wants to reopen the theater as community venue, has held meetings at Coffee Talk, but she said the group has also been out of the loop.
“Since I’ve been here, people have been asking about it,” she said. “And I’ve been here for 20 years.”
Faye Furukawa, shopkeeper of Surf ‘N Hula Hawaii — a Hawaiiana antique store next to the theater — said reopening the Queen could add to Kaimuki’s “new energy” and “hometown feel.”
The neon sign is a community landmark, she said.
Furukawa said she and her husband Ken, who owns the store, grew up in Kaimuki. He has fond memories of children’s events at the Queen, she said.
“I think it would be wonderful,” Furukawa said. “It’s just generating the excitement and the vision of the community, which is to keep Kaimuki Kaimuki.”
Friends of Queen Theater has tried to reopen the theater for eight years, but Yu has refused the offers, said Mahlon Moore, a board member.
While Yu owns the Queen, his company, Yuclan Enterprises, owns the other storefronts on the block, including where Techu is located. Kratzke confirmed they are currently renting Techu’s space, but declined to say whether they’ve actually rented the Queen.
Moore said Kratzke and Bodden have known Yu for years and are closer to reopening the Queen than anyone else has been.
“We would really like to see that happen and … if Michael and his group get the restaurant going, and actually get something going with the theater, we would be tickled to death,” Moore said.
The Queen is Oahu’s last old-school theater that has its original structure and can still be used as a theater, Moore said. Others have been repurposed and turned into stores or commercial complexes.
Another old Honolulu theater, the Kaimuki Theater, once operated a few blocks up from the Queen, but the restaurant 3660 On The Rise now occupies the site.
A few years ago, Yu gave Friends of Queen Theater access to the building for inspectors to estimate renovation costs. The building’s bones were good, but its plumbing and electricity were outdated, Moore said.
A photo on the nonprofit’s website shows a rendering of how the theater could look if reopened as a cinema.
Most community members want the Queen to be a multipurpose public venue, he said. Musicians, hula groups and yoga instructors have reached out to the nonprofit, Moore said. The Hawaii International Film Festival even hoped to use the space for its annual showcasing event.
“The thing is, (Yu) would be a hero in Kaimuki if he would do something with that theater. It’s a landmark in Kaimuki,” Moore said. “Everybody knows (the Queen). It’s been there for years and a lot of people that grew up in this neighborhood have a lot of history with it, too.”
Hawaii theater historian Lowell Angell co-founded Friends of Queen Theater with group director Nancy Wilcox. His interest in theaters began at age 10, when he learned his mother and aunt danced at Honolulu theaters in the 1920s. At 15, he collected theater pictures and fixed up the pipe organ at the now-demolished Waikiki Theater.
The Queen could be “a magnet in the community” and bring customers to Kaimuki’s many restaurants, Angell said. The mid-sized venue could be an affordable option for smaller groups — even poets or soloists, he said.
As former president of the Theatre Historical Society of America, Angell says he has seen thousands of theaters, many of which have shut down and reopened. The survival of those theaters can depend on restoration costs and whether the community values the arts, he said.
Angell said Kaimuki supports the theater, and aside from needing new mechanical systems like air conditioning, Kaimuki’s lack of parking would be the Queen’s biggest problem. There’s a small parking lot behind the theater, but it couldn’t accommodate heavy traffic.
In 1984, Angell helped form the nonprofit Hawaii Theatre Center, which prevented the downtown Honolulu landmark from demolition. Today, the Hawaii Theatre holds concerts and performances.
“We knew that (reopening) it would be partly an impetus to revitalize the downtown area, and although that’s been a challenge, it has happened,” he said. “There’s art galleries and restaurants and all sorts of things where 20 years ago, there really wasn’t a whole lot that you’d want to go downtown for.”
A theater’s marquee “lights up the whole neighborhood,” and the Queen, if reopened, could do the same for Kaimuki, he said.
The Queen saw traveling stage shows and films in its early years, but soon became an art film theater, screening independent, foreign and feature films, according to a Friends of Queen Theater timeline adapted from Angell’s book, “Theatres of Hawaii.”
Yu’s company purchased the Queen in 1976 — 40 years after its opening. In 1985, police raided the theater and confiscated 575 pornographic films worth about $100,000, the timeline shows. Two weeks later, the Queen shut down; it had been “eaten up by multiplexes,” Moore said.
In the 1990s, punk rock shows were held at the Queen and the cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was shown. The Queen was a storage facility in the early 2000s, but hasn’t been used for commercial purposes since.
Owning a parcel of that size on Waialae Avenue isn’t cheap. Property taxes for the Queen have steeply climbed over the years, according to a Honolulu Real Property Assessment Division database. The Queen’s property taxes have tripled since 2001, increasing from $9,818 to $30,020 in 2016.
The land value has more than doubled over the past 15 years from $818,700 to $1,954,500, records show.