Diamond Head Theatre group bids farewell to Ruger Theatre, prepares to move next door

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Diamond Head Theatre group cleans out Ruger Theatre
Diamond Head Theatre

The final performance at Oʻahu’s Ruger Theatre is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 2. The Diamond Head Theatre group has called the building home since 1952. Built in the 1930s, it has screened countless movies and presented hundreds of live performances. It’s also been home to thousands of entertainers — both amateur and superstar alike.

Future Diamond Head Theatre productions will move to the larger and more modern theatre just about finished next door. The old building will be torn down next month while the next show, "Cinderella," prepares to perform on the new stage in January.

The Conversation stepped into the time machine on one of the last tours of Ruger Theatre and spoke to artistic director John Rampage.

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On the building history of Fort Ruger Theatre

JOHN RAMPAGE: The original construction of the Fort Ruger Theatre was in 1932 when this whole area was known as Fort Ruger. It was part for instructional purposes and also as a movie theatre. They did make some provisions when they built it, to doing live performances, but it was mostly like small USO shows or talent shows. Not much has really been altered in the interior, obviously, new seats and things like that. Those six light fixtures are original from 1932. They're one of the few items in the theatre that are still original, up there, which is now where our admin offices are, that was originally a balcony. It wasn't so much a functional balcony, they did occasionally put in seats up there when they needed to. But that was where the movie projector was. That is now where our stage manager, who is right up there in back of that light sits, as well as the two spotlight operators.

Diamond Head Theatre's underground dressing room affectionately known as The Cave.
Hawaiʻi Public Radio

On the importance of theatre performances in Hawaiʻi

RAMPAGE: I think one thing that's very important is that for many, many years, we didn't have mainland shows coming into Hawaiʻi. And so theatre here became very important because that was the only outlet that people had. I think theatre is so important here in Honolulu, because of Hawaiian tradition with hula and music. There's a connection there. There's a very strong connection. I think specifically in the kind of theatre that we do, it's important to remember that even up through the '70s, nothing was live. I mean, you only got the evening news from LA if it made the plane. Most news was the day after — television shows were a week or two weeks after. So the chance to participate as an audience member in something that was live was very unique and very, very special. For instance, in the 1950s and '60s, Emma Veary, Ed Kenney, some of the top entertainers in Waikīkī would do a show here. And the curtain was at 5:30 in the afternoon so that they could do the show and then do their gig. And people came because it was live. And of course, you know, things were much slower paced back then. But it was a regular thing, people accepted it that if you wanted to see a live show with any of those stars, you came that early.

On the group's emotions as they prepare to say farewell to Fort Ruger Theatre

RAMPAGE: Especially for those of us who have worked here a long time, this is our home. This is not a 9-5 job. And everybody who has been here for a long period of time, it's because they are so invested in this building. And quite honestly, we did look at the difference between building a new theatre and totally remodeling the inside here. It was actually less expensive to build a new theatre. It's going to be very hard to say goodbye. We're already moving things out. Last week, we had a huge dumpster out here. It's going to be very emotional, especially on Oct. 2, which will be the final, final performance in this building. We're all keeping it together now because we have a job. But I think when it actually hits us on that day, it's going to be very difficult — and for our audience members as well. I, over the years, have heard stories about "my parents went on their first date to your theatre" or "I have the subscription series that my grandparents bought 40 years ago and have handed down to me." In addition to shows, we've had funerals on stage, we've had weddings on stage, we've had proposals on stage. So it hasn't been just a location for entertainment. It really has been part of people's lives and has brought more than just entertainment. So we're sending out the word to those people about this final performance because we want the audience to be people that do have a really close relationship with this theatre and want to say goodbye. And one of the things that we're going to offer at that final performance is that they can write their name on the wall before it comes down. You know, just to be part of the history of this theatre.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Sept. 27, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

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Russell Subiono is the executive producer of The Conversation. Born in Honolulu and raised on Hawaiʻi Island, he’s spent the last decade working in local film, television and radio. Contact him at talkback@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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