Remembering the Wharf Cinema Center
On January 16, after serving Maui for 31 years, the Wharf Cinema Center closed its doors for good. After its initial unveiling as Maui’s first three-screen theater multiplex, the Wharf Cinema Center has become a trusted movie theater for residents of Lahaina.
When it opened in the spring of 1989, there were only two other theaters on the island: the Maui Theater and the Holiday Theaters, both single-screen and located in Kahului. The attraction of a new movie theater housing three screens, additional movie choices, and paired with the option of the once bustling Fun Factory on the ground floor of the Wharf Cinema Center, made the theater a destination. major family.
With Whaler’s Village Cinema shutting down years earlier, the Wharf Cinema Center was the only way Lahaina moviegoers could catch new releases without leaving the zip code. (Remember, this was the pre-Internet era when only cable TV and video stores were the alternative.)
The Wharf Cinema Center, tucked away on the third floor of the shopping complex, has managed to outlast competing four-screen Front Street theaters (1994-2012). Over the years, with additional competition in the form of the Queen Ka’ahumanu Theaters (1994-present), Maui Mall Megaplex (1999-present), and the popular-then-gone-then-back- and-better- than ever Kihei Cinemas (1992-2012, reopened in 2018), the Wharf Cinema Center has lost its wider appeal as a premier cinema option. Yet another big thing happened: Lahaina’s audiences (not just curious tourists) stayed loyal and maintained a mom n ‘pop appeal. Movies that quickly vanished from theaters in central Maui (quick hits like Downton abbey to Owen Wilson’s Forgotten Thriller No leak) became a word of mouth success at the Wharf Cinema Center.
A generally well-balanced selection (a family film, an R-rated drama, and a mainstream blockbuster would play in auditoriums) catered to a loyal following. Although the theater has renovated and upgraded its movie theaters, making them comfortable seats with exceptional sound and picture quality, the original appearance of the venue (including the plush murals in each screening room ) has never changed. In addition, it was the only theater in Maui without reserved seats. For longtime Maui moviegoers, the theater was a secret handshake between worshipers.
My memories of the theater are good and extensive. I was there the opening weekend, when the big unveiling offered twins, Beaches, and A hard worker. I remember the Maui moviegoers who used to ‘chase’ the movies they love, meaning they would attend opening weekend in Lahaina and then catch up with it when the movie moved to a location. central Maui theater (like my neighbor, who “followed” Main rain in Lahaina) or vice versa. Because Lahaina was suddenly a place for premieres that the rest of the island didn’t get, it meant long drives if your zip code wasn’t 96761.
It was clear when a movie was going to open wide, as some titles had audiences in lines that stretched throughout the third floor of the platform. I remember the massive, open night lines for Honey, I cut down on the kids, Back to the future Part II, Boyz N The Hood, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and HE which meandered around the third level.
In the weeks leading up to the big unveiling of Dick tracyDisney’s big summer 1990 comic book movie, the studio promoted the stuff of audiences buying their tickets early … in the form of a t-shirt. It sported a picture of Tracy’s abdomen, the words “I was there first” and the show time for opening night. It was a silly gimmick, but once opening night rolled around, a sea of moviegoers wearing those silly shirts swarmed the theater.
Halfway through a screening of the 1992 Disney musical News, smoke started to come out of the projector cabin. The lights came on and the public was promptly invited to leave the building. After hanging out for 20 minutes, those of us still standing in the lobby were advised that we could come back inside and finish the movie (no firefighter showed up and the incident was contained).
I saw my first R-rated film there (it was Die hard 2), I saw my last movie with high school friends before college (it was Chain reaction), and once endured a teenage girl sitting behind me who spoke throughout a movie because she knew every line beforehand (that was the Buffy the vampire slayer from 1992). The first movie I watched there was Field of dreams (certainly a substitute for the sold-out screening of Without taboo) and the last one was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. I grabbed the latter with my friends, veteran DJ Michael McCartney and longtime educator Marti Wukelic, residents of Lahaina who like me wanted to experience the charm and legacy of historic theater one last time.
Image courtesy Flickr / Jaspero