Waimea's Kahilu Theatre

All the World’s a Stage in Quiet Waimea

Jean Charles Cuillandre

We all have a story to tell and a voice that’s worth sharing. For most of us, the stage we choose is our everyday lives and our audience consists of the people we know and love. Others choose a much larger stage, with curtain calls and the bright lights of the theatre. As one of the oldest forms of entertainment, there is no better way to tell a story than through the live action and drama of a theatre performance.  Although big name productions and the best performers are usually drawn to places like New York City or Paris, there’s a large community of local theatres across the nation that are able to showcase these productions in a more personalized and intimate setting. In its 31st year, the Kahilu Theatre in Waimea is focusing the community’s attention on the stories of the artists and the audience that walk through the Kahilu doors. In doing so, they are telling the story of the theatre itself—its rich history with very local roots. 

Waimea, also known as Kamuela, is a sleepy town of approximately 9,000 residents where you are more likely to see cowboys than international dance companies or famous entertainers. But thanks to Kahilu Theatre founder, Richard Smart, Waimea is home to a 490-seat theatre that has staged over 450 performances from big name dance troupes, orchestras, and entertainers to local Hawaiian artists and musicians. Since 1981, performing artists from all corners of the globe have danced, juggled, soliloquized, and sang on the stage of this vibrant venue. Born out of Smart’s love for theatre and deep roots within the community, Kahilu Theatre was built in 1980 to serve as a gateway to the arts, culture, and artistic expressions of the outside world. As the sole heir to the Parker Ranch fortune, Smart was the chief financer and artistic visionary of the theatre until his death in 1992. Smart’s passion for the theater came from a lifelong career as a singer, dancer and actor on Broadway and in various cabarets and clubs around the world.  He starred opposite of well known actresses such as Eve Arden and Carol Channing, and some of his more well known performances include Two for the Show, All for Love, The Merry Widow, and Bloomer Girl. In 1959, he moved back home to Waimea and began overseeing Parker Ranch after the tenures of the father and son team of Alfred Wellington (AW) and Hartwell Carter.

In the years following his return, Smart began to modernize Parker Ranch, which had grown to be the largest privately owned ranch in the state of Hawaii and one of the largest cattle ranches in the country, spanning at its most of half a million acres. Although he still kept a hand in acting, occasionally performing in Honolulu and on the Mainland, Smart’s main focus was on improving Parker Ranch and managing the land in a responsible manner that enhanced the Big Island. He oversaw the building of the Parker Ranch Visitor Center, improved the education and health care of ranch employees, and leased land along the Kona-Kohala Coast—land that was eventually developed into premier resort destinations, such as the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. His artistic vision was also applied to the future of Waimea as outlined in his forward thinking manifesto called the Parker Ranch 2020 Plan. In it, he proposed a long-term strategy to utilize and grow the area of Waimea and Parker Ranch, which encouraged the prosperity of local businesses, promoted employment growth, supported housing development, yet recognized the importance of keeping Waimea a small town with rural appeal. Smart even developed another rustic town on his property—the thriving community of Waikoloa Village.

Having secured the future growth of Parker Ranch and Waimea, Smart then set his sights on ensuring that the cultural prosperity of the town would not suffer. What better way than to construct a world-class theatre that would serve to educate, involve, and inspire the local community and the growing tourist industry on the Big Island.  Using 1.5 million dollars of his own money, he employed a distinguished architectural firm from Honolulu to create a professional and dynamic theatre that would benefit the growing arts in the community.  He chose the name Kahilu Theatre as a testament to his mother’s Hawaiian middle name, Thelma Kahiluonapuaapiilani Parker. It was a way to connect the theatre to his Parker ancestry and to his Hawaiian roots from which his mother’s middle name reflects. On opening night, February 6, 1981, 67-year-old Richard Smart starred in the leading role of Oh, Coward! in his very own theatre! It was a huge success and he would later go on to direct and act in more than two dozen productions. Smart’s final curtain call was a one-man performance entitled, Richard Smart Remembers, shortly before his death in 1992.

Having lost its guiding force, the Kahilu Theatre’s future was left in the hands of the Waimea Community.  In 1994, the theatre became independent from Parker Ranch, although still owned by the Parker Ranch Trust, and in 2001, was leased to the Kahilu Theatre Foundation for the next 30 years. Fortunately, with a committed Board of Directors and Managing Directors, the theatre continues to secure adequate financial backing through ticket sales, community donations, grants, and fundraising events. It is only through the generosity and support of the island community that the theatre continues to grow its programming, most importantly, for the children and future generations of tomorrow. Thus continues the honor and promise of Smart’s vision for a prosperous theatre that connects a small rural town, hidden in the pasturelands of the Big Island, to the vast cultural resources around the state, the nation, and the world.

Today, Kahilu Theatre continues to attract diverse artists from around the globe. It has significantly increased its youth audience with year-round and summer programs focused on inspiring the dancers, actors, musicians and artists of tomorrow. The upcoming season includes an impressive selection of award-winning artists such as: storytellers Sheetal Gandhi and Marc Bamuthi Joseph, the Martha Graham Dance Company, jazz musician and film score master Terence Blanchard, entertainer and legendary performer Ben Vereen, Hawaiian musicians The Brothers Cazimero, and the master musicians celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Ukulele and Slack Key Guitar Institute.

With so many exciting prospects and inspired performances, I can only imagine that Richard Smart is smiling down, knowing that artistic expression and cultural diversity are alive and well in sleepy Waimea.  He may no longer be with us, but his story and vision continues to be acted out, center stage.    

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