The 650-seat People's Theatre is one of the largest buildings in Honokaa, and its only operating theater. Built in 1930 by Hatsuzo Tanimoto, its Neo-Classical Revival style architecture is typical of theaters built during the 1920s and `30s in Hawaii. Tanimoto was the owner of Hilo Theaters Ltd., which at one time operated three theaters in Honokaa; the “Old Tanimoto Theater,” the People's Theatre, and the “Honokaa Theater” (known locally as the “Doc Hill Theater”). Their presence was a testament to the rise of alternative entertainment during the Prohibition era, when bars, restaurants and other watering holes were forced to close or go underground. In 1943, William “Doc” Hill bought Hilo Theaters Ltd., with the exception of the People's Theatre. The rest of these theaters have been either torn down, closed, or repurposed, making the People's Theatre the only one left between Waimea and Hilo, and the largest outside Hilo.
In the past 80 years, the Theatre has been a nexus for entertainment reflecting the mixed population of the Hamakua Coast. Beginning with live entertainment, generations of audiences have experienced ethnic dances, Japanese plays such as shibai and kibuki, cultural exhibitions, hula shows, high school graduations, plays by the local theater group, and political rallies and community speeches. Today, stage entertainment includes local musical groups, yoga and tai chi, the annual Hamakua Music Festival, and a fashion show on 1st Fridays (a community street fair held the first Friday of every month). The films shown over the years include American, Japanese and Filipino films, first-run and historic films, local and independent, and even, on occassion, “adult” films. The film adaptation of former resident Reo Yoshida's book “Honokaa Boy” debuted at the theater. Filmed in Honokaa in Japanese, it is the story of a young Japanese who comes to Honokaa and falls in love with an older, mixed race woman. It remains popular on Japanese flights to Hawaii.
The Tanimoto family ran the Theatre until 1990. Today, the Theatre is owned and run by retired doctor Tawn Keeney and his daughter Phaeton. The lobby sports a café serving healthy breakfasts, sandwiches and sweets along with locally grown, artisanal Hamakua coffee, and these days new-releases are shown with a modern digital projection system. Wi-Fi equipped, the lobby and café is still a meeting place for the town's 3,000 residents and visitors to Honokaa.