by Catharine Lo
photo by Greg Barrett
At night, a brisk wind sweeps down from the Kohala Mountains, usually accompanied by soft showers that lull the sparsely populated town of Waimea to sleep at an early hour. Waimea, situated 2,900 feet above sea level on the northern slope of Mauna Kea, is the home of Parker Ranch, one of the largest ranches in the United States. This is paniolo, or cowboy, country, the residents say, and paniolo go to bed early and wake with the cows. So it was a strange prescience that persuaded Parker Ranch owner Richard Smart to build a magnificent 490-seat performance hall behind his ranch in 1981. The former Broadway song-and-dance-man-turned-cowboy envisioned a venue where his friends and neighbors could enjoy the same live performances that people in big cities get to experience. But the question was, who would come to perform?
The answer, to the great fortune of Big Island residents, is everyone. Nationally and internationally acclaimed musicians, dancers, singers and acrobats all make it a point to stop at the Kahilu Theatre that Smart built and operated until his death in 1992. The first-class facility, which doubles as a community center and cinema, has hosted a diverse set of distinguished acts, including The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones and Momix. This season, the Kahilu Theatre celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary with a roster that includes Matato‘a from Rapa Nui, Ballet Folklorico de Philipinas, the Garth Fagan Dance Company (pictured below) and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, as well as local ‘ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro.
For cosmopolitan performers accustomed to bright lights in big cities, the sleepy, upland community is a place where they’re welcomed with personal enthusiasm and small-town goodwill. “The first time they come for the beaches and palm trees,” Kahilu’s managing director Janet Coburn says of the visiting artists. “The second time they come because we made them feel so good. They’ve gone around town making friends, and they ask us to invite them back every year.”