Once a grand movie palace, the Queen Theater in Kaimuki fell into disrepair as it limped along screening surf films, late-night horror shows and porno flicks. And then, in the 1980s, it stopped showing any movies at all and went from being a neighborhood hub to a source of complaints about safety, noise and alleged drug dealings.
Now the Honolulu City Council wants to take over the run-down theater and restore it to its former grandeur.
Council Chair Tommy Waters last week introduced Resolution 21-158, requested by the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board, to take steps to acquire the Queen Theater on Waialae Avenue.
“Queen Theater was built in 1936 and is more than a landmark in Kaimukī. The Historic Hawai‘i Foundation has named it an endangered historical building and for decades, volunteers have been wanting to restore it for the community,” Waters said in a statement. “It seems the best course of action the city can take for the community is to buy it, restore it for public use and turn it into a vibrant, revenue-generating operation that all can once again enjoy.”
If the resolution is approved, the city would negotiate the purchase of the building with its reclusive owner Narciso Yu Jr., who bought the theater in 1976.
The 10,396-square-foot parcel has more than doubled in value since 2001 to more than $3 million.
Sharon Schneider, who chairs the Kaimuki Neighborhood Board, said she’s heard that the property owner tried to sell the building for that much in the past, but others have said he’s been reluctant.
Mahlon Moore, president of the Friends of Queen Theater, said the property owner hasn’t been cooperative, declining offers to purchase it.
“We don’t know why,” Moore said. “We can speculate. He’s so secretive about it.”
Yu could not be reached for comment.
The board’s resolution was prompted by a survey this year of Kaimuki residents who said they felt unsafe around the theater and want it restored. They’re even worried that the iconic Queen sign could break loose and tumble onto the sidewalk.
A survivor from the golden age of movie houses, the 850-seat theater has a quirky history from screening Disney cartoons to porno flicks.
Hawaii theater historian Lowell Angell said the police raided the theater in 1985 – nine years after Yu purchased the building – and confiscated 575 pornographic films worth about $100,000.
Queen Theater wasn’t the only venue where Yu showcased adult films.
“There were perhaps several places that he rented and leased that showed adult films,” Angell said. “One of them was the Roosevelt Theatre downtown that was demolished for public housing. There was another in Waikiki … and then the Waipahu Theater, which is now a church.”
Schneider, a long-time Kaimuki resident, remembered attending the theater to watch “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the 1980s.
That’s the last memory she has of the theater being open.
“It was pretty funky at that time,” she said. “But since it’s been abandoned, since that time, they haven’t done anything to it.”
The theater was a storage facility for a plumbing company in the early 2000s, but it hasn’t been used for commercial purposes since.
But Moore said there were noise complaints from neighbors a year or two ago when it was apparently being used as a recording studio.
Department of Planning and Permitting records show four building violations that date back to 2001.
It’s unclear how much renovation the Queen Theater needs. Schneider said she went on a tour a few years ago led by the property manager Michael Kratzke when he was trying to rent the place. Chairs were ripped from the cement floors, stacked on top of each other, along with junk possibly left over from the plumbing company. That’s a far cry from the 1930s, when it boasted carpeted floors and layers of stage curtains.
Though Queen Theater isn’t considered a historic landmark, residents treasure the 85-year-old building. Lowell said there are probably fewer than 10 theaters left on Oahu, some of them used for other purposes than screening films.
Community members and the Friends of Queen Theater have urged the owner to preserve the building, including at a rally in 2011.
Community members have said they would like the theater to become an art gallery or a live entertainment venue for local musicians.
Angell said the Queen Theater is “one of the only theaters standing that has the potential to be restored while others have been demolished or repurposed.”
“We’ve been working toward getting the theater reopened for more than 10 years,” Angell said. “We’ve had people who are willing to help us at no cost. Yet the owner doesn’t seem to be doing anything, and the building keeps decaying and getting worse year by year. I’m all in favor of what the city is proposing to do.”
The resolution has yet to be scheduled for a hearing.
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