HANAPEPE, Kauai — Once the economic hub of Kauai, Hanapepe was where you’d go in the early 1900s if you wanted to buy a car, clothes, jewelry, the latest home appliance or a ticket to see chorus girls in a live stage show.
You could get liquored up here, one of few places on Kauai that was not under strict plantation oversight. There were bowling alleys, an arcade and two roller skating rinks.
At Christmas time, people swarmed this west side town to watch the holiday street parade, a flurry of candy and lights.
But Kauai’s “biggest little town,” as Old Town Hanapepe is still affectionately known today, fell on hard times. For decades, the town of nearly 1,400 residents suffered from economic setbacks and natural disasters.
Then the artists moved in.
Lured by cheap rents, a small colony of creatives has been transforming this place of empty, sagging storefronts into a rugged, no-frills artist collective.
Hanapepe has still not returned to pre-hurricane prosperity, but it has earned a new reputation as a destination for souvenirs, handiwork and Kauai-made products, such as taro chips, ice cream, aloha shirts, salt rubs and koa wood cabinetry.
The renaissance has been slow, the pace of most things in this red-dirt-dusted town.
But more change is afoot. The old Aloha Theatre building — the town’s treasured stucco edifice — has stood vacant for almost 40 years. There have been longstanding efforts to save the tumbledown property, and now one of them seems to have finally taken off.
Under new ownership, the art deco movie palace is being renovated to retain its 1936 aesthetic with a plan to usher it into an economically viable business. The vision calls for a mixed-use space — shops, a restaurant, an auditorium, a small inn — that promises to morph the iconic building from a sign of the town’s collapse to a harbinger of hope for its future.
If successful, the restoration project could gain the town an impressive new anchor. The building’s size, location and strong footing in the public memory would undoubtedly make it one of the town’s main features.
“This is the town that keeps refusing to die,” said Eve Hands, a screenplay writer who lives in Wailua, a riverside town on Kauai’s east side. “There are many times I’ve thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be the end of it.’ Times when it looks terrible and dusty and ramshackle. But then people will come in and clean it up.”
In Old Town Hanapepe, redevelopment is most often born of a desire to put the fallen-down pieces back together again. It’s not gentrification that’s happening so much as a return to what already has been.
But, like in so many places, there is a quiet duel going on between the newcomers with their fresh ideas and the old-timers who insist on doing things the way they’ve always been done.
Some shopkeepers, for instance, want the town’s business owners to keep longer, regular hours to encourage more visitors. Others relish the right to open whenever they choose — even if it’s only for a smattering of hours, two or three days per week.
But there’s some intangible glue — a shared sense of pride in the town’s storied past, perhaps, or a commitment toward ensuring its future — that makes the townspeople more like family than neighbors. There are flash points of contention, but a quiet commonality holds the people together.
“Even if we have personal or political differences, there’s this way of being here that transcends that,” said Ed Justus, owner of Talk Story, Kauai’s only bookstore.
“If you treat somebody with respect, they’re going to treat you with respect,” he explained. “That’s very Hanapepe. And I don’t think I’ve found that anywhere else.”
Boom Town Goes Bust
By the early 20th century, Hanapepe was chock full of stores and amusements — bars, churches, auto repair shops, gas stations, a post office, a doctor’s office and competing saimin shops.
Hanapepe prospered even more during the second World War as an influx of sailors and soldiers arrived at their training posts. The USO club in the center of town had a record player and magazines, hosted galas and showed movies.
Built by Chinese immigrants moving off the sugar plantations, Hanapepe was a place of loose morals and entrepreneurial spirit. Life here was not dictated by the plantation owners, like nearly every place else on this rural island that has just a single main road.
In Hanapepe, you could buy liquor and a taxi dance with a beautiful Honolulu girl. The Filipino and Japanese immigrants could barely communicate, but they could shoot a few games together at the pool hall.
Here you could strike out on your own. There was a woman who taught a sewing class. There was a guy who had a taxi cab, performed as a magician and offered a shoe shine service. The “Peanut Man” sold boiled nuts from a street cart.
The tone began to shift when the county realigned Kaumualii Highway to bypass the town. There was a push to centralize shopping and industry in Lihue, which had stolen Hanapepe’s claim to the island’s main airstrip and its biggest port.
Hanapepe sputtered along, taking the brunt of two colossal storms. The town endured — but just barely.
In 1999, Joanna Carolan was one of the first artists to buy property in Hanapepe. She rehabilitated the old pool hall into a ceramics studio and showroom. Other artists followed suit, buying up properties from absentee landlords eager to give them up.
In an effort to drum up more business, the artists here established what’s known as Hanapepe Art Night. The weekly event on Fridays has evolved over more than 20 years into a vibrant street fair that packs hundreds of residents and vacationers into a maze of music, crafts and street food.
Art Night has built momentum for the town to continue to brush itself off. A half dozen worn-out buildings are now under renovation, a sign that property owners have taken note of the upswing toward recuperation.
“Buildings that used to be vacant are getting readapted, rehabilitated, reused, and it’s nice to see the gaps in Hanapepe’s teeth getting filled in,” said Justus, the bookstore owner.
Art Night helped save the town. But some townspeople wonder if the event’s success is now undercutting local businesses.
Amy-Lauren Lum Won, an artist and gallery owner, said the street fair used to be a boon to her business.
“I don’t sell so much art on Art Night anymore,” she said. “But I do get more people through the door.”
Those people, however, tend to be more focused on what’s happening in the streets — slack key guitar, an ‘awa bar, plates of bubbling hot Thai red curry — than the paintings for sale on her walls.
“Honestly, it kind of turned into a bit of a circus,” she said. “I personally don’t really like the direction it’s gone because it used to be a little bit more of an elegant event and the people would come down for art. Now it’s like the street vendors took over with their tents and now the people just come down for street food. The art is kind of an afterthought.”
Art Night outgrew itself, agrees Mark Jeffers, who runs the nonprofit Storybook Theatre for children out of a rehabilitated 1930s Chinese restaurant.
“We started with a stage and a tent and a sound system and invited all of our friends to play music, and all the galleries just stayed open til 9 p.m.,” he said. “And then over time that grew. And then there’s a rift between the vendors and the stores because the vendors are taking all the stores’ business.
“And then the food comes in. And then the guy who brings his car, opens up his trunk and starts selling hot DVDs comes in. You know, people that don’t have any idea what the hell cultural experiences are.”
Reviving The Pink Palace
In its last incarnation, Aloha Theatre specialized in porn. But that’s not how people tend to remember Hanapepe’s iconic, bubblegum pink movie house.
With a seating capacity of 675, it was the island’s largest theater, offering stage productions and feature films. Inside there was a sweet shop where patrons could scoop crack seed out of giant glass jars.
During the plantation days, the theater was popular among immigrant pineapple and sugar growers who could transport themselves back home, or nearly so, with a ticket to a Filipino motion picture or a Japanese samurai film.
When the seminal surf movie “The Endless Summer” debuted in 1966, the ticket line, stretching far down the highway from the theater door, was a spectacle in itself.
The steel and concrete theatre remained one of the island’s hubs of culture for 50 years. It survived a fire and several floods, but not the advent of home television. The building closed in 1981.
For years the question of the theater’s ownership was tied up in court. By the time Lynn Danaher set eyes on it a few years ago, a man in West Palm Beach, Florida, whom she said inherited the theater from his deceased ex-wife, had finally won the property title.
But he didn’t want anything to do with it, according to Danaher.
At that point, the theater’s walls were collapsing inward. There were papaya trees growing on what was left of the old stage, which had caved in. The place appeared to be just barely held together by the entangled vines crawling up and down the facade.
Squatters, vandals and rats moved in. So the county condemned the 8,000-square-foot building and began imposing fines of $100 per day.
“This building has been both an iconic representation of Hanapepe and something that had everyone really discouraged because we just watched it deteriorate for so long,” said Judith Page, president of the Hanapepe Economic Alliance. “We were really worried it was going to disappear.”
One day Danaher, a relative newcomer to Hanapepe, encountered the theater owner on the property and asked the operative question: So, what are you going to do with it?
“He was up against a lot of pressure because it was costing him $36,000 a year in fines just to own it,” Danaher explained. “So I negotiated with him to buy it and inherit those fines. And then I negotiated with the county to get rid of the fines, which they agreed to as long as I spent that money on the project.”
Danaher purchased the building on Valentine’s Day in 2019. A month later she had a building permit. Construction kicked off in June.
Danaher said she invested $700,000 of her own money to launch the project. She estimates she’ll need another $1.7 million to $2 million to finance the rest of it. Toward that goal, she’s assembling a real estate syndicate called Aloha Theatre Hui.
Once the funding is in order, Danaher said she expects the renovation work will take 18 months to two years to complete.
“Most people, when I bought this thing, thought I was going to tear it down,” said Danaher, the daughter of a builder. “And that would be the last thing I’d do.”
“This is a historic building and there’s a lot of emotional attachment to it, and so we have to save it.”
Plans for the building include a nine-room hotel, a restaurant (possibly a wine bar), boutique shops, a cafe, a small gallery or museum and a parsed down 80-seat theater for lectures, documentary films and guest speakers. A spa owner has already signed a letter of intent to lease part of the first floor.
Danaher envisions a space that celebrates Kauai’s west side culture. The Hanapepe resident wants to build an atrium with sections devoted to indigenous plants and important commercial flora.
She intends to showcase local art and artifacts on the walls, which are themselves historic. The original 1930s salt-cured wood siding is still largely intact. So is the concrete foundation.
The original Aloha Theatre sign, the building’s calling card, has already been rebuilt by the son of the man who constructed it more than 80 years ago.
By Danaher’s calculations, the Aloha Theatre Inn, as she calls it, would provide at least 20 new jobs. She said she’ll require all lessees to pay their workers a minimum hourly wage of $15.
“This will be a real economic driver for this town,” she said.
Danaher is no stranger to historic restorations. Her track record includes seven homes, including two on Kauai, and a 25,000-square-foot warehouse in Friday Harbor, Washington.
But she calls the Aloha Theatre her most ambitious project yet.
Small Town Charm
Throughout all the changes, Old Town Hanapepe has never lost its charm. It’s still a sleepy, little town where you can roam in the middle of the road alongside a rooster or two without much care for traffic. A haircut costs $10. Shirt and shoes are optional at every establishment.
The town is so endearing, in fact, that movie producers cast a fictitious version of it as the backdrop for Disney’s animated adventure flick “Lilo & Stitch.”
Before he retired from the Hanapepe auto repair shop his father founded, Steven Kurokawa said it was typical for his customers to strike a trade deal for car service.
There was a fisherman who’d give him fresh-caught akule as payment for his safety inspection. Sometimes he’d throw in some Hawaiian salt he harvested with his family down the road at the Hanapepe salt beds.
There were farmers who’d bring apple bananas or cabbage in exchange for a discount on car service. Sometimes they’d pay the tab in full and still offer up a bounty of fruit or vegetables, purely out of kindness.
“That’s love, I guess you’d call that,” said Kurokawa, who points to these exchanges as an example of what makes Hanapepe so special.
He paused to find the right word.
“Well, kind of like barter,” he corrected. “That’s what I like — the closeness. Everybody knows each other. I don’t know if you’re going to find that in Honolulu.”
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