Back to the Future


Story by Rita Goldman

Lanai Theater 1926

When the Lana‘i Theater opened in January 1926, American industrialist James Dole owned most of the island, which he had transformed into a vast pineapple plantation. Audience members were overwhelmingly plantation workers and their families. And the movies were silent.

Lanai theater historical photo

The exterior was nothing fancy, but inside, in the dark, the island’s small and isolated population could experience comedy, melodrama, romance—a world of adventure depicted on celluloid. And Dole could take pride in bringing state-of-the-art entertainment to the community he had created.

Like the island itself, the theater’s fortunes varied over the decades. In the thirties, a gabled entry and dormers gave the building a dignified facelift. In the nineties, the interior was divided into two performance spaces, and the sign outside read Lana‘i Theater & Playhouse. But there were also years when the theater went dark, not even a ghost light on the stage.

Lanai Theater

Fast-forward to now. Internet entrepreneur Larry Ellison owns most of Lana‘i, and like James Dole before him, has upgraded the town’s entertainment center like nobody’s show business. Restored to its 1930s appearance, the theater’s facade looks right at home in this former plantation town. Inside, duplex theaters each boast ninety-three premium seats that recline a bit for comfort. Reclaimed teak panels in each theater conceal a sound system whose specifications practically take an engineering degree to understand: a 300-inch sound screen with sides that open or close to accommodate different aspect ratios . . . three JBL speakers behind each sound screen, each with a horn-loaded tweeter, midrange speakers and a pair of 15-inch subwoofers; plus four 18-inch JBL subwoofers beneath each screen . . . 20,000 watts of total amplification per theater. Did we mention Christie digital projectors that can accommodate 3-D movies?

Ready for that close-up, Mr. DeMille.

Lanai Theater

In Case You Need Subtitles
  • Sound screen: A movie screen that allows sound to pass through from speakers behind it, without diminishing viewing quality
  • Aspect ratios: A fancy way of saying that films have different proportions, depending on the technology they’ve been shot in
  • Horn-loaded tweeter: A tweeter on steroids; the horn shape adds to the depth of the sound.

Lanai Theater


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