Michael Pulliam: Keeping Theater Alive at the (Haunted?) `Iao

August 27, 2012, 1:50 PM HST
* Updated August 29, 2:53 PM
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Sarah Ruppenthal teaches journalism at UH Maui College.

By Sarah Ruppenthal

A performance at the Iao Theater. Jack Grace Photography.

When it comes to performing arts on Maui, Michael Pulliam has a leading role.

And not just as a performer: Pulliam is also a writer, director, producer and—quite literally—the man behind the scenes at the Historic ‘Iao Theater in Wailuku.

From Broadway to Hollywood Boulevard, the Columbus, Ohio native says he has lived and worked “all over,” but has called Maui home for more than a decade.

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Pulliam got his first lucky break in show business as an usher at the Tower Theater in Sacramento when he was just 16. “I loved it,” he recalls. “I got to watch movies all day long. It was an art house that started my love of silent films and foreign films.”

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His love of theater only intensified over the years, and it led him to try his hand at various aspects of stagecraft. Pulliam says he landed his most memorable breakout role as the sound technician for Winter, starring the venerable Julie Harris in Chicago. “It won a regional Tony Award,” he explains. “Harris is one of greatest American actresses in history and the experience was easily my most important brush with true greatness.”

Today, with years of experience under his belt, Pulliam describes himself as a bona fide jack-of-all-trades. “I found out a long time ago if you are willing and learn a little bit about everything you will always find work in the theater,” he says. “It’s not always glamorous, some days I unplug toilets and kill rats.”

Glamorous or not, Pulliam is determined to keep community theater in the proverbial spotlight.

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“When I was in school you could get suspended for using a calculator,” he explains. “It’s a dying skill. A real entertainer doesn’t need a microphone or even electricity. If you don’t support live entertainment, it will die.”

Michael Pulliam from Maui Onstage. Jack Grace Photography.

Pulliam says his favorite role was playing the Sheriff in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas at the ‘Iao in 2009. “I always end up playing the dorky naïve sidekick, so I had a blast playing the heroic bad ass for once,” he admits.

He is also having a blast working as the Maui OnStage Production Associate in his office at the ‘Iao Theater, a venue that he has come to cherish. “It is a piece of living history, regardless of whether or not you like plays,” he says. “It’s important as a society to treasure the past. As Americans we always embrace the new, but if you don’t protect history you get Ruby Tuesdays and Target.”

Pulliam may as well add “historian” to his professional resume. He is currently researching the—somewhat clandestine—past of the 84-year-old theater, an endeavor that will be highlighted in an episode of Haunted Collector, which will air on the Sy-Fy Channel on Wednesday, Aug. 29.

The ‘Iao has long been rumored to be haunted, and several spectral sightings have been reported over the years. With Pulliam as their host, a team of paranormal investigators visited the ‘Iao Theater last year to document these supernatural claims and capture footage of “Emma,” a benevolent theater ghost.

What was the most frightening thing about his Haunted Collector experience? “I was nervous that they wouldn’t find anything [since] they were only here for three days,” says Pulliam. “The team was very easygoing and what they captured on film went above and beyond my wildest expectations.”

Michael Pulliam. Jack Grace Photography.

Does Pulliam believe the theater is haunted? “Absolutely, but only because I’ve seen it firsthand,” he says. “It’s like saying, ‘Do you believe in a platypus?’ I’m sure 200 years ago, people thought that was crazy if they had never seen one.”

Pulliam may be keeping an eye on the past, but that doesn’t mean he’s not focusing on the future. “I’m always excited to work on the Maui Fringe Festival and I’d love to see some young UH Maui College writers submit their one-act plays this year,” he says.” I’m also directing a show called Hollywood Arms in May—it’s an autobiographical play about Carol Burnett’s childhood.”

Pulliam describes the play as sweet, powerful and very funny. “I can’t wait to get started on it.”

A special debut screening of Haunted Collector will be presented by the Maui County Film Office and Maui OnStage on Wednesday, Aug. 29, beginning at 4 p.m. at the ‘Iao Theater in Wailuku. Free limited seating will be available for first 350 attendees. If you miss this special screening at ‘Iao Theater, don’t worry: Maui OnStage will host a series of encore screenings of the episode during its Halloween festivities. For more information about the ‘Iao Theater or to view a list of upcoming shows and events, visit www.mauionstage.com.

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