If there’s a more beautiful place to haunt than Hawaii, I’m not aware of it. If you were to choose where to spend your afterlife, I’m sure the beautiful town of Wailuku would be a stellar choice. In the early 20th century, the location was one of the most popular tourist destinations, owing especially to the historic landmarks on the island and the history tied to them. One might find the home of the former Queen of Hawaii before colonization from the US. You might also find a ghost or two on your vacation, especially if you make a stop at the Iao Theater.
Opened in 1928, the theater served as a movie and vaudeville house. The building was designed in the spanish colonial style, with balconies and stucco surrounding the theater. It fell into disrepair by the 1980s, like many historic theaters, and was given a new lease on life in the 1990s when it was designated as a national historic landmark. It was revived and revamped and is now the home of Maui On Stage, a local theater troupe and production company.
Named for the small bait fish that is common in the area, the Iao theater has ties deep into the community of Wailuku. Performances were held here during WWI of the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, and Betty Hutton. A screening of the controversial film “Deep Throat,” was considered vulgar enough to get the owner of the theater arrested for indecency. When the theater was purchased by the county, a 1.8 million dollar renovation effort began, bringing the historic theater back to the opulence for which it is known.
However, it’s not just the living patrons that enjoy the theater today– dearly departed guests still wander the building and come in occasionally to catch a show, unseen on the balcony. Professional paranormal investigators have conducted dozens of investigations, including the famous Ghost Hunters and Haunted Collector, both of which were able to capture compelling haunting proof.
One spirit, affectionately known as Emma, seems to catch as many shows as she can. She appears as a shimmery, ghostly apparition and tends to sit all over the theater for dress rehearsals. She’s even been sighted standing on the stage alone, as if bowing to a crowd after a successful performance. Witnesses say Emma is friendly and kind, dressed in a 1920s flapper girl. She made herself known in the theater during productions of Chicago and Cabaret, obviously her favorites of the era. Some employees and performers say that lights will flicker and sound equipment will malfunction until someone acknowledges Emma and asks her to stop– and she listens.
An employee of the theater said: “So, we started saying different names out loud, and when we said “Emma,” all of a sudden there was a cool, breezy feeling in the air. We all went, “Whoa! That’s her name!” And ever since, we’ve called her Emma. She doesn’t really mess with anybody since she was named.”
Another spirit said to haunt the historic theater is a poltergeist-like entity in the dressing rooms, moving and throwing items throughout the rooms– definitely ramping up the nervousness before a live performance. Other ghosts include the basement-dwelling Hawaiian Soldiers who can be seen in formation or wandering the basement. It’s believed they are from a battle in Iao valley, centuries earlier.
The compelling evidence for the haunts in this theater include a film strip from a 90 year old time capsule that many believe shows the face of the specter, Emma. When played on the big screen, her face can be seen with the same kind and playful reverence she has while continuing to haunt the historic Iao theater in Wailuku. Are there ghosts in the theater? The definitive answer seems to be “Yes,” especially from employees and paranormal investigators. It’s also not in question as to whether the theater sits in a beautiful place to call home, even in the afterlife.
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Born in Death Valley and raised on the prairie, Deborah is a Wyoming-based paranormal researcher and a senior at the University of Wyoming, studying Communication. Her interests lie in folklore, history, rhetorical analysis and research. With an obvious love for ghost stories, frequently those interests combine with her work on Ghostlandia.