story by Susan Wackerbarth
photos by Dana Edmunds
Bob Alder stand in the organ chamber
housing the original Palace pipes.
The Waikiki pipes are housed in a seperate
chamber on the opposite side of the theater.
When it opened in 1936, the Waikiki Theater was one of Hawai‘i’s grandest, an atmospheric affair replete with garden court and fountain, frescoed ceiling, rainbow-shaped proscenium and a Hammond electric organ. Unlike downtown Honolulu’s Hawai‘i Theater, which opened in 1922 as a vaudeville and silent movie palace, the Waikiki was one of the first theaters in the Islands built for sound films. Both venues were then owned by Consolidated Amusement, so when music director and organist Edwin Sawtelle decided the Waikiki Theater’s Hammond just wasn’t powerful enough, the decision was made to replace it with the Hawai‘i Theater’s massive Robert-Morton pipe organ. Two new chambers had to be built to house the pipes, artfully hidden behind the large plaster palm trees on either side of the movie screen and, starting in 1937, Sawtelle played the new organ at intermissions and on weekly live radio broadcasts heard throughout the Pacific during World War II. For a time, Sawtelle played two shows a day, seven days a week. He eventually retired in 1955, but a succession of organists carried on the tradition through 1997—a forty-year period during which land values skyrocketed in Waikiki, ultimately dooming the theater.
“Imagine how much half an acre on Kalakaua Avenue is worth,” says Lowell Angell, a former president of the Theatre Historical Society of America. “By then, Consolidated was paying half a million dollars per year in property taxes—you have to sell a lot of popcorn to cover that.” Though the Hawai‘i Theater fell on hard times and was shut down in 1984, Angell and others were ultimately able to save it because Consolidated was only leasing the land it sat on, and owner Bishop Estate was eager to save the historic site. This was not the case for the Waikiki: The grand old Tropical Moderne theater closed its doors for good in 2002 and, in April of 2005, the flagship of the Consolidated Amusement fleet was demolished in favor of a $10 million retail center. This would be the end of the story, if not for Bob Alder and company.
“When we heard the theater was slated for demolition, a group of us came together and said, ‘We’ve got to save the organ!’” says Alder, a Hilo resident since 1990. “We decided on the Palace because it has a real future as a performing arts center.”
That would be downtown Hilo’s historic Palace Theater, which has had its own brushes with fate: First opened in 1925, the Palace was every bit as opulent as its O‘ahu cousins, and had its own pipe organ—which, incidentally, was played for a time by John DeMello before his own twenty-three year run as Edwin Sawtelle’s replacement in Waikiki. The Palace pipes miraculously survived both the 1946 and 1960 tsunamis, the latter of which destroyed the waterfront Hilo Theater where the Palace organ was then housed. The organ console and blower were obliterated. The pipes alone had been installed above the water line; they were salvaged and moved in 1965 to a private Honolulu home, and then returned to the Palace in 1991 as part of the theater’s ongoing restoration.
“We already had the original Palace organ, a Robert-Morton like the Waikiki’s, but smaller,” says Alder. “So we decided to combine the two and make one large, wonderful organ.”