“You’ve got your Multi-Plex, which is three movie theaters in one. Then you got your Quadra-plex, where you see one movie but hear five.”
-Billy Crystal, The Oscars
In the spring of 1989, news that Lahaina movie buffs could see “Twins,” “Working Girl” and “Beaches” in a movie theater wouldn’t normally appear to be a big deal. Except, the attraction of those three films playing in one theater with three screens proved to be a novelty of a new kind for the island.
The Lahaina Cinema, or the Regal Wharf Cinema Center (its official name), just quietly celebrated its 25th year in operation. The small but durable theater, which still houses three screens and shows popular first-run films, continues to be an attraction and essential location for West Maui film lovers. When it first opened its doors back in the late 80’s, the theater provided Lahaina audiences with a needed alternative to driving to Kahului, as the Whaler’s Village cinema had recently shut its doors. Now, with the four-plex Front Street Cinema closing a few years ago, Lahaina Cinema once again finds itself as Lahaina’s sole movie theater, for locals, tourists and anyone else who doesn’t want to drive thirty- minutes to see “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” in 3-D.
When its doors first opened in 1989, the Lahaina Cinema immediately distinguished itself as a major entertainment option for adults and especially their kids. With its ideal location, selection of the hottest movies and being merely one floor above the popular Fun Factory (which closed long ago), many families and their kids made their way to the theater.
At the time, Maui only had two other movie theaters: the Holiday Theater and the Maui Theater, both one-screen movie houses in Kahului. The Lahaina Cinema provided the island with additional options of movies that typically weren’t playing in Kahului, though the most in-demand titles would sometimes carry over to the Holiday theater.
My first experience at the Lahaina Cinema was when my mother and I made a pilgrimage (the correct word, as we lived upcountry) to see Hulk Hogan’s starring role film debut, “No Holds Barred.” After a long trip and making our way to The Wharf Cinema center’s second floor, we discovered a sign on the window announcing the film’s showings for the day had sold out. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence in the days before buying tickets online and mass audience members (islanders of a certain age will remember waiting in line for hours to see “Home Alone” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” with showings that frequently sold out). However, the novelty of having a multi-plex meant we had a back-up title when seeing my Hulkster opus was out of the question. Our alternative: “Field of Dreams.”
The coming years would find the Lahaina Cinema being a major attraction in premiering big movies that islanders initially couldn’t find playing in Kahului on opening weekend. I was among the opening night audiences for “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids,” “Back to the Future Part II” and “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” with lines that curled around the second floor, past the (now closed) coin and flag store.
I’ve continued to re-visit the theater over the years, even as the three-screen option was surpassed by the (now-gone) 4-screen Front Street theaters and the popular and thriving, 12-screen Maui Mall Megaplex. There’s always been something wonderfully old-fashioned about the experience of the Lahaina Cinema, a quaintness that brings to mind movie theaters with personality and history that are hard to find today. The screening rooms adorn plush wall decorations and are small but sufficient in size. With the concession stand being the first thing you see as you enter its doors and the screening rooms simply cozy, cool and comfortable, it feels like whiff of nostalgia, the way movie theaters used to be.
The Wharf Cinema Center remains a central attraction for tourists and locals alike, though it’s a quieter place than in 1989, when the food court on the bottom floor was busy feeding kids and families attending The Fun Factory. Many fine shops are still present in The Wharf Cinema Center, though a handful of great businesses (like a massive bookstore and the aforementioned coin store) have permanently shut their doors. Nevertheless, the Lahaina Cinema, with its wooden sign still hanging out front, remains a vital film attraction and a piece of Maui’s local history. Whereas larger movie theaters with more screens (like the Front Street theaters and Kihei’s Kukui Mall theater) have come and gone, the Lahaina Cinema, after 25-years, continues to play on and give west Maui movie buffs the escape and enjoyment that only movies can.