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Balmy Nights, Gentle Trades and a History of the Open-Air Movie Theaters That Were Once Found All Over the Hawaiian Islands
Silent Japanese Films Were Accompanied by
a Benshi, an Overly Dramatic Narrator

by Bob Sigall

Editors Note:
Author Bob Sigall writes a historical column in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper. The popularity has generated a bi-weekly newsletter “Rearview Mirror Insider” every Wednesday and Sunday, in which the fascinating history of 20th century Hawai’i is presented by the recollections of the participants. The newsletter is sublime, folksy and heartfelt. A free subscription to the must-read “Rearview Mirror Insider” can be found Here.

Actor Nicholas Hormann asked if “anyone remembers an open-air movie theater somewhere in the Aiea area in the late 1940s? I have a dim recollection of sitting on benches, and watching movies in an enclosed, roofless theater. Am I making this up? I was born and raised in Honolulu.”

Theater historian Lowell Angell said that it was possibly the Halawa Open Air Theater. “It opened in 1949 on the site of the Navy's old World War II Ghormley Open Air Theater.

“It was near the Halawa housing area and approximately where Aloha Stadium is now. It closed around 1971 when the stadium was built.

“There was also another open air theater in Civilian Housing Area 3 (CHA-3), closer to Pearl Harbor.” CHA-3 was about where the inter-island terminal is at the airport during World War II.

Grace Tsubata Fujii, wrote “I remember the Halawa Open-air Theater having hard benches. Dad would light a mosquito punk coil to ward off the hungry biters. I once stood too close to the lighted coil, which burned a hole in my muumuu, greatly upsetting my Mom, as post-war times were difficult financially.

“We lived at J-10 at the Halawa Veterans Housing, where the Al Harrington, Duke Kawasaki and Bette Midler families also lived.

“I recall the rent was $15 a month. We moved to town in 1950, but I’ve always cherished my fond memories of Halawa.”

The Park Theatre in downtown Honolulu was on Fort Street at Chaplain Lane from 1909 to 1911. The open-air theater had a wooden railing separating the more expensive 15-cent center section from the cheaper 10-cent seats on the side. Past the high fence surrounding it can be seen Our Lady of Peace Cathedral.
– Image courtesy of Hawaii theater historian Lowell Angell

Early Days

In the early era of movies, Hawaii had at least 30 open-air theaters. Some were on military bases, which began springing up around 1910. Others were on plantations. Some had chairs while others had benches.

Lowell Angell gave me a list of open-air theaters in the downtown area. They include:

Aloha Park, Hotel Street
Independent, Hotel Street
Novelty, Nuuanu corner Pauahi
Palama, N. King Street
Park, Fort Street, corner Chaplain Lane
Pawaa, So. King Street
San Francisco, Hotel Street near Nuuanu
Savoy/Hawaii, Hotel Street

Three of these theaters later moved to enclosed spaces: The Palama, Pawaa (later called Cinerama), and Savoy (later called the Hawaii Theater).

“These early open air theaters usually had very high outside walls, to discourage free peeking,” Angell continues, “and sometimes had a roof over the projection booth and the screen, with the audience ‘under the stars.’ Patrons often brought umbrellas ‘just in case.’

“During and after World War II, the military also had open air theaters on several of its bases and the remnants of one of them still exists. On Kaneohe Marine Corps Base next to the swimming pool is a small building that is now used by the lifeguards for pool equipment.

“It was originally the projection booth for the open-air theater. The projection ports are still visible on the outside, but are now cemented over.”


Henry Morisada, 93, remembers watching open-air movies on the Oahu Sugar Company plantation in Waipahu. “There would be vendors around selling crack seed, puffed rice and other snacks,” his son Henry Morisada Rietz told me.

“Sometimes accompanying the silent movies was a ‘benshi,’ a performer who did various voices and sound effects.”

Rietz sent me an article from former manager – and surprisingly my wife’s uncle - Tats Yoshiyama. “A unique contribution to the silent Japanese motion picture was the Benshi, a narrator and sound-effects expert who accompanied the film screening live from within the theater,” Yoshiyama wrote.

“In addition to ‘acting’ within the film's story, he was external to it as a general commentator and provider of descriptions and other information relevant to the film.”

Joint Base

Barbara Jurkens remembers two open-air theaters. “One was at Hickam, next to the Officers' Club, and there was also one at Makalapa, right next to Pearl Harbor.

“I used to go every couple of weeks to the Officers' Club outdoor theater and saw many amazing films, including ‘Easy Rider,’ ‘Funny Girl,’ ‘A Fistful Of Dollars,’ and more.

“While the Hickam theater was completely outdoors, so that if it rained you either sat in the rain or went home, at Makalapa it was only partly open, so if you moved you were protected from the rain.

“The thing about going to the Makalapa theater was that it was right in amongst the housing, most specifically across the street from the base commander's home.

“I went to that theater and saw ‘Tora Tora Tora,’ and the scene where the commander comes out onto his front yard and sees the devastation in Pearl Harbor was filmed at the commander's real home.

“So every night after the showing, everyone was drawn to that front yard so they could turn around, look out over Pearl Harbor and imagine the devastation on Dec. 7, 1941. It was pretty dramatic.”

Waianae Coast

Nanakuli, Maili and Waianae had open-air theaters. Glen Nakahara told me. “There was one in Nanakuli along the mauka side of Farrington Highway between Camp Andrews and Nakatani Drive Inn, which called itself ‘the Oasis of Nanakuli.’ It had a wooden fence surrounding it and bleachers within.”

Dr. Stein Rafto said, “I have many fond memories of growing up in Makaha; body surfing; walking to school at Makaha Elementary and Waianae Intermediate; and watching movies in the splintering wooden benches of the open-air theater.

“Among the best movies seen there were Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns, and of course ‘Endless Summer!’”

Other open-air theaters I know of include Waikiki, Moiliili, and Wheeler AFB. Punahou School built one on Rocky Hill in 1924.

Neighbor Islands

Carole Richelieu remembers two open-air theaters in Lahaina. “One was the dilapidated building on the (now) Kaanapali side of town, a block from Pioneer Inn on Front Street. The other one was in the opposite direction towards the prison.”

Hiroshi Kato said Waikapu on Maui, between Wailuku and Maalaea had an open-air theater with benches to sit on.

“The joke was that the viewers clapped no matter what was showing. They were slapping the mosquitoes!”


Ethel Fleming said, “In the summer 1966, while training as a Peace Corps volunteer on east end of Molokai, I and others would start walking to Kaunakakai near dusk on a Saturday night.

“Friendly Molokai residents would often pick us up on the road and drop us off there to see a movie.

“It was in an area that was open to the sky, on hard benches, in a gravel lot, yet enjoyable for us to see a movie after all-day language and cultural training sessions pertinent to our destination in the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. Of course, we bought and ate Molokai bread, too.”

Plantation Camps

Greg Matsumoto said the article prompted him to search for more details of his family’s own open-air theater operation.

“My grandfather, Torao Matsumoto, ran an outdoor theater at the pineapple plantation camps outside of Wahiawa and Waialua.

“I am not sure when the theater operation started or ended, but it was probably between the 1930s to late-1940s.

“My grandfather was an entrepreneur who operated the T. Matsumoto Store, begun in 1923 with my grandmother, Sumie, at a Hawaii Pineapple Company housing area called Kemoo Camp No. 1.

“My grandfather later opened two more stores, one at Kaukonahua Camp in 1941, and another in 1952 after the pineapple plantation camps were consolidated into Whitmore Village in the late 1940s in order to make more agricultural land available for pineapple cultivation.

“In addition, my grandfather operated a trucking business at Kemoo Camp hauling pineapple to the cannery, as well as the outdoor theater operation. Overall, my grandparents were very active in their communities in which they lived—Kemoo Camp and later Whitmore Village.

“My grandparents’ four sons assisted with the theater operations when they were young. A dear family friend, Maurice Ishimoto, was the theater film projectionist. He also later did that at the Victory Theater in Wahiawa. I would tag along with uncle to his work when I was young.

“In addition to showing movies at Kemoo Camp, my grandfather would also show movies at the other nearby plantation camps. The price to attend the movies ranged between 15 to 25 cents. Pineapple crates were used for seating.”

Greg Matsumoto says their family is not related to the Matsumoto Store in Haleiwa.

The current Kemoo Farms store and restaurant, near the entrance to Schofield Barracks, first opened in 1936. It is mentioned in James Jones’ book “From Here To Eternity.”

The original Kemoo Farms was a ranch three miles away that produced poultry, hogs, vegetables, beef and dairy products. It began in 1916. Much of its area is now residential housing in Wahiawa. Kemoo means lizard or dragon.

Ewa Plantation

Floy Kaku remembers seeing Japanese samurai movies at an open-air theater at the Ewa Plantation.

“It was shown weekly on a grassy hill in front of the Japanese Social Club, mainly black and white movies with Toshiro Mifune or Zatoichi, the blind swordsman. We brought our gozas (tatami mats) as there were no benches or seats, and mosquito punk coils. We brought snacks from home.

“One more modern movie in color shown at that open-air theater was called, ‘Sanga-ari.’

“It was filmed partially on Ewa Plantation near our house at the end of Bond Street in 1961.

“The film crew used our house for the Japanese stars to use as a changing room and bathroom for their scenes. My sibling, cousin and I served them refreshments.

“My mother and grandmother, clothed as canefield workers, were extras in scenes that were, unfortunately, cut from the movie.

“It was a wonderful love story in a modern-day setting, and I wondered whatever became of it, as that showing on the grassy hill in front of the Japanese Social Club of Ewa Plantation on a balmy night one summer, was the only time I ever saw it.”

Mountains and Rivers

“Sanga-ari” was about Japanese workers at Hawaii’s sugar and pineapple plantations. The name means “there are mountains and rivers,” referring to the difficult times early immigrants experienced.

The public was invited to Iolani Palace to be extras in one scene that recreated the 442nd Regimental Combat Team going off to war.

The film was shown all over Hawaii, in Japan and California.

Jo Anne Yamamoto remembers her mom and aunties constantly talking about the movie for days on end. “We all went to see it at the old Nippon Theater by Aala Park in Chinatown.

“I also recall some of my female Japanese friends being huge fans of handsome young samurai actors like Hashizo Okawa, Kotaro Satomi and singers Kayama Yuzo and Kazuo Funaki.

“These Japanese stars often came to Hawaii to film movies or do live concerts. My dad was a huge Toshiro Mifune fan. He and my mom had a chance to see him at the Toho Theater on Kapiolani Blvd. when he made a live appearance. Dad said Mifune’s sword was so sharp it sliced through part of the stage curtain.”

Fort Armstrong

The area that is now Pier 1 and 2, across Ala Moana Boulevard from the Federal Building, was an Army fort from 1907 to 1950. It was named for Maui-born Samuel C. Armstrong, who became a Brig. General during the U.S. Civil War.

Willson Moore remembered an open-air movie theater at Fort Armstrong where they sat under the stars. “It was a new experience for me,” he said.

“A neighbor’s father was in the Army and we went there to see a Nelson Eddy movie named ‘Balalaika’ in 1939” about a singer at a café in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Open-Air Theaters

Carol Kamemoto said she remembers the Waipahu open-air theater fondly from the early 1950s.

“It was near the Waipahu Hongwanji up in the plantation camp, by the plantation preschool. We brought goza, newspapers, and cushions to sit on and blankets to cover us on cold nights. The Miyamotos had a snack truck. Families had a favorite place where they always sat.

“There were wonderful movies shown starring Hashizo Okawa, mentioned earlier, Kinnosuke Nakamura and others.”


American films in the “silent era” were often accompanied by a live piano player. Japanese films, like those shown at the Waipahu open-air theater often had a “Benshi,” an on-site narrator of sorts.

Theater historian Tats Yoshiyama said this person “had to master the art of mimicry and to school himself in dramatics. He voiced all of the characters in the film. He over-acted, he underplayed, and from one corner of the auditorium he projected - laughing, crying, cajoling, whispering, whimpering, shouting, placating and assailing.

“The vocal characterizations of the Benshi ranged from the samurai warrior's noble speeches to the bellow of a country brute, the delicate tones of a young maiden, to the cackle of a crone, the measured cadences of a Kabuki performer, to the shrill cry of a child.”

The theater provided the Benshi with a chair and a table covered with a banner calling attention to his stage name. The studio provided a script containing the dialogue and storyline.

“Like their counterparts in Japan, the Benshi of Hawaii were popular,” Yoshiyama says. “They brought voice and sound to an otherwise mute screen long before the worldwide use of sound in film.”


Michael Lilly, who chronicled his grandparents’ Sandy and Una Walker’s friendship with Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz in the book, “Nimitz at Ease,” said they often attended the Makalapa open-air theater near the base entrance of Pearl Harbor.

“Nearly every night that my grandparents had dinner with Adm. Nimitz at Makalapa during the war, they watched a movie at the open-air theater just down the street from Nimitz’s quarters.”

Una Walker kept a detailed Journal, Lilly says. Among the movies they watched: “The Fighting Lady,” following a real aircraft carrier in the Pacific War in January 1945, “Pin Up Girl” with Betty Grable and Martha Rae, “The Heat’s On” with Mae West, and “Destination Tokyo” with Cary Grant.

“During one film, my grandmother wrote in her diary, everyone went ‘moe moe’ (asleep).” 

Most of these theaters are gone, but there is a screen on Waikiki Beach that is sometimes used for open-air movies and TV shows. The Drive-Ins are gone too. Now we're in enclosed theatres or chillin’ at home watching Netflix on our huge TVs.

A free subscription to Bob Sigall's must-read “Rearview Mirror Insider” can be found Here.



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