By HUNTER BISHOP
Tribune-Herald staff writer
Cheryl “Quack” Moore was raising the roof over a new roof at the Palace Theater last week. After a 10-year effort, the much-needed project was finally under way at the 87-year-old landmark and it was time for celebration.
At $116,000, the new roof is the largest capital undertaking yet in the restoration of the historic building.
Moore, president of Friends of the Palace Theater, identified the roof as critical as soon as she joined the FPT board in 2002.
“Water was leaking everywhere,” she said. “You lose your roof, you lose your building. We had to move.”
But that kind of urgency with a federally protected historic building for a small nonprofit can be challenging. The building had been put on both the state and federal Registers of Historic Places and the work had to be done to exacting standards, which upped the ante.
That meant fundraising, and a roof doesn’t have the same appeal for donors as perhaps sponsoring a theater production might, Moore said. “Neither do safety issues such as lighting, fire hoses and plumbing.” But the board went to work.
The Edmund C. Olson Trust in Pahala offered a $30,000 matching grant that got the fundraising under way, Moore said, and dozens of fundraisers followed to match it.
“We’re replacing, not building, ancient corrugated metal, gutters and downspouts,” she said. Insulation and vents also are being replaced in the theater’s attic.
Ten years ago, Moore, a seasoned veteran of the New York City entertainment scene, an Emmy Award-winner and retired musical director for TV’s “Saturday Night Live,” was looking to retire in a small town that had a theater so she would have something to do. Hilo and its “Palace” ended up being the place. But she had to laugh, “Whatever you do, don’t retire, it’s too much work.”
The theater was built in 1925 and bought by Consolidated Amusement Co. four years later. By the 1960s, Consolidated converted the theater to a warehouse, and by 1982, it was boarded up and abandoned.
In 1988, a community group formed to explore the possibility of restoring the theater. The state provided $445,000 in 1990 to the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association’s Main Street Project for acquisition of the Haili Street property, which was came a year later under an agreement between the County of Hawaii and the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association.
That spawned the creation of Historic Palace Association, a nonprofit organization to manage the theater’s assets. With additional state and county funds, the building was finally made structurally safe by 1996, but restoration of the interior and the acquisition of needed equipment had to wait for another day.
“There’s nothing normal about the Palace,” Moore said. For example, where do you put the materials on the construction site? Each piece of the work has to be completed immediately, not in stages like most projects. That required storage of materials on site where there was no room. “It was a logistical nightmare.”
But neighbor and “good friend of the theater” Keith Shigehara allowed for the removal of a fence and use of his adjacent property in the back for storage, and allowed a 60-foot crane and 50-foot lift to access the rear of the theater.
Twenty-five percent of the funds came from Palace fundraisers — community musicals held each year. Half came from private grant awards, and the rest from private donations.
Local business owners like Gerald Yamada of GW Construction and Brian Peterson of Yama’s Roofing were instrumental in their donations to the project. HPM Building Supply offered discounts on materials.
“What a flood of memories. The first movie I saw there was ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.’ I got my first kiss up in the balcony, way up,” Peterson said of a recent visit to the theater.
“It’s always been a landmark,” he added. “I told Quack, ‘Whatever needs to be done, we’ll make it work.’”
Yamada was unavailable to comment but his wife, Wendy, said that was because he was at the theater for their daughter’s performance in the Island Dance Academy’s annual holiday performance of “The Nutcracker” ballet. “He wanted to do something good for the theater. He’s donated before and we’d like to see it restored, it’s really a special place in the community,” she said.
The Wilcox and Atherton trusts have also been generous with grants for the project, Moore said.
Still there’s plenty of work left to be done. The theater’s street-side facade is “in desperate need of restoration,” but that requires tedious and expensive work such as a micro-study of the paints that were originally used, and the stage needs work now that it’s getting so much use. Air conditioning and new seating also will be expensive projects.
“We’re saving our pennies now. The facade will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.” But the new roof will open up the possibility of installing solar panels that could reduce energy expenses in the building. “It was the right thing to do,” Moore said.
“Its equally important to have programming. People rent the palace. It’s important to have a venue downtown. It’s a community place, (and) such an interesting community. It would not be unusual to have a tea-tasting, fashion show and ballet all going on at once, she said. “The theater is a microcosm of so many things about Hilo.”
“There’s a lot of talent in this town. It blows me away. It validates everything we do. We tell the casts, when you look at the roof, you built one of those panels,” Moore said.
Moore, who terms out after five two-year terms on the FPT board, said it’s been a long slog but she’s comfortable with where the theater is today. “These old theaters have heart and soul,” she said.
“The Palace has reinvigorated itself. There’s life in the place.”
Email Hunter Bishop at firstname.lastname@example.org.