Long-awaited opening of Storybook Theatre set for August

HANAPEPE — After eight years and mountains of paperwork, the Storybook Theatre of Hawai‘i will open Aug. 9 with a puppet parade, circus performers, jugglers, and stilt-walkers. And children who want to study writing, acting, puppetry, and media arts will finally have a safe, fun place to express themselves.

“The opening of the Children’s Media Center is the culmination of seven years of work by our staff and board members, and it’s gratifying to have the support of our sponsors to take us to this next level,” said Storybook Theatre of Hawai‘i Executive Director Mark Jeffers.

The grand opening will be held as part of a block party in Hanapepe Town, from 3n6 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 9. In addition to the stage that will be set up in front of the theater, there will be a puppet-making tent and an inflatable whale, crab, turtle and maze for the little ones to play on. Everyone who makes a puppet is invited to march in the parade at about 6:30 p.m. Local artists will set up for a craft fair and many have donated items for the silent auction. Also, shops and restaurants will stay open late, including the handful of small businesses that have recently opened in town.

In a recent interview in artsy, revamped Hanapepe Town, Jeffers recalled that as part of a revitalization plan for the town after Hurricane ‘Iniki, the non-profit Storybook Theatre was given access to the building in 1995, complete with deteriorating walls, broken windows and a demolition order posted on its doors. They were given a “right of entry” to start rehabilitating the building, for which they secured a 55-year lease.

“What I believe is children need to be inspired,” Jeffers said while walking around the theatre’s property, pointing out the path children will take from the bus stop near to the center and where he plans to put a garden and fish ponds.

The work has been going since about 1996 with about 35 percent volunteer labor. Jeffers said most of the work in the past five years has been in fundraising and securing educational and business plans. While the building was being “rehabbed,” Jeffers said, the theater continued its educational programs such as the “Russell the Rooster” show.

Another recent project was the world premiere of “Queen Emmalani,” a movie about the queen’s” journey into the mysterious Alaka‘i Wilderness.” The Hawaiian Storytime event, held in March, was hosted by famed Hawai‘i storyteller Nona Beamer and featured local musicians and stars.

In the past two years, volunteers and hired workers have been replacing the roof, reinforcing the structure, repairing the original windows and transforming the entire place into what Jeffers hopes will be a haven for kids interested in all kinds of performing and media arts: “The good stories and good storytelling that children need,” he said. Downstairs they are constructing a television studio, with editing bays and a wall of monitors corresponding to each camera, adjoining a production room for duplicating DVDs, CDs and videos and packaging merchandise. The spacious upstairs section will become a classroom with a lanai and offices.

Even without a high-tech studio like the one planned now, in 1997, Kaua‘i had “Russell the Rooster” TV for the first time. Jeffers had already been bringing the colorful, felt-feathered puppet to tell stories in classrooms and libraries, but for the first time, local kids had their own local show. Since 1997, 180 episodes have been produced, making it Hawai‘i’s longest-running locally produced show for children. It’s broadcast on community access TV stations around Hawai‘i and in Berkeley, Calif., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Rarotonga.

The two-story “Obatake Building” was built in 1933 and first housed the Sun Ke Heong Chinese Restaurant until World War II. The building was owned by the Honjiyo family. In the 1950s, it housed a dry cleaners and jewelry and appliance store. The appliance store remained until the 80s, but after the abuse of two hurricanes, the building fell into disrepair and was eventually condemned.

Agencies under the grantmaking organization Hawai‘i Community Foundation have been major supporters of Storybook Theatre, funding the group’s planning and building renovations and educational and literacy programs.

In June, the Hawaii Pizza Hut Literacy Fund through HCF awarded a $30,000 grant for the center’s debut literacy project, “Let’s Tell A Story.” Students 4n8 from about 10 preschools and elementary schools around Kaua‘i will be part of the year-long story-writing program.

Jeffers said the children will be able to create characters, puppets, costumes and music as they take their stories to the “under the sea” stage. Each class will have a chance to work behind the scenes and create short videos of the performances, which will be brought back to the schools for a viewing session with parents, friends and family.

“…The ‘Let’s Tell a Story’ program will foster a sense of a pride and self-esteem in young children as they participate in the creation of a professional video that they can share with teachers, family and friends,” Jeffers said.

The program will give young children a creative and interactive venue for developing important literacy-based skills in story writing, character development, acting, directing and media-related technology.

Founded in Honolulu in 1979, the Storybook Theatre has been established as a non-profit organization since 1986. At least 25,000 students each year see live school and community performances throughout the state.

The “Russell the Rooster” show is seen on Channel 6 Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6 a.m., and 3 and 6 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 8 a.m. The Storybook Theater may be reached at 335-0712 or look at their Web site, http://www.storybook.org, or email rooster@hawaiilink.net.

Staff Writer Kendyce Manguchei can be reached at kmanguchei@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 252).

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