By J.K. YAMAMOTO, Rafu Staff Writer

“Live at the Aratani!” is a series of concerts that will kick off next Tuesday at the former Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo.

Willie K.

The appearance by Willie K. (Kahaiali’i), who can play indigenous acoustic Hawaiian music, jazz, reggae, rock, country, and even opera, is part of a rebranding effort designed to give new life to the venue.

The Japanese American Cultural and Community Center opened the 880-seat theater in April 1983. Because of the contributions of philanthropists George and Sakaye Aratani, it was later renamed the Aratani/Japan America Theatre. The venue for a variety of events, from the Grand Kabuki to Day of Remembance observances, it was closed for repairs during the 2011-2012 season.

Although the theater reopened last year, the March 12 concert will mark a new beginning, according to Gerald Ishibashi of Stonebridge Entertainment, who has produced concerts for such artists as the Beach Boys, Bonnie Raitt, Ray Charles, the Neville Brothers, Michael McDonald and Sugar Ray.

One step was to shorten the name to Aratani Theatre, which “makes it easier to get the brand out,” Ishibashi explained. “Sometimes it gets too wordy. We’re broadening our market, so the more succinct our brand is, the better.”

Kalapana’s “Blue Album”

This decision was made long before the passing of George Aratani last month.

Another step was “to upgrade the sound, having a brand new, state-of-the-art speaker system put in, going over the lighting, the production elements,” Ishibashi said, adding that he and his team sat in different sections of the theater to get a feel for the sound system.

The lineup includes The Association in April, Keiko Matsui with Jeff Kashiwa in May, and Kalapana and Carlos the Experience in August.

Ishibashi chose “first-rate artists … that we feel will resonate well with our Sansei network … Sansei-friendly but at the same time mainstream-friendly.” His goal is to “maintain our strong connection to the Japanese American community, Sanseis and Yonseis,” while “reaching out to a broader audience.”

In many cases, he has found, the public and the artists themselves are not aware of the theater’s existence. “I just came aboard in January. I reached out to a lot of my friends. They say, ‘Where is this place?’ I send them photos. They say, ‘It looks great.’ … It hasn’t been on the circuit, the grid.”

Keiko Matsui

In order to get the best possible attendance, Ishibashi said, “we’re listening to the community. People say, ‘I want to hear this kind of jazz’ or Hawaiian-style … There are people who want to hear doo-wop … We want to respond quickly. Most performing arts centers are booking 2014 now; 2013 they booked a year ago.”

Acts like Kalapana, which released its first album nearly 40 years ago, and The Association, which dates back to the ’60s, have baby-boomer appeal, he noted.

The appearance by Matsui, a popular smooth jazz/jazz fusion/new age keyboardist and composer, will be a celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. “We thought we can create an annual happening,” Ishibashi said.

The initial target is “those most familiar with the neighborhood and the theater being here … From there we branch out, get our footing,” he said. “These four shows are just the igniter, something we’re going to use to launch. From here, what do Yonsei want to see, hear, experience? For example, a lot of them like comedy.”

Ishibashi has three daughters who are in the arts; one of them, Brittany, currently appears in the TV series “Emily Owens, M.D.” He asks them to “tell me about artists they want to see.”

Traditional entertainment such as kabuki will still be seen at the theater because “that’s part of who we are,” he added.

Ishibashi acknowledged that the demographics pose a challenge. “The Japanese American community, we’re not growing. The Filipino, Korean, Chinese communities are growing, but ours isn’t. So we have to be very strategic. We have to reach out so that we can grow. But it’s exciting. I think this venue, its time has come in a very good way.”

He plans to utilize social media to promote the theater. “We create fine content on stage, great productions … We can record audio and video, be (seen) all around the world.”

Having visited venues in Japanese American and Asian American communities in San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and other cities, Ishibashi feels that “Little Tokyo, through the years, is pretty much considered the focal point … When you think about the Japanese American experience, where do you go? … The Aratani Theatre, I look at it as the heartbeat, the beacon. What other city has a theater like this?”

Concert Schedule

Willie K. on Tuesday, March 12, at 7:30 p.m.

The Association on Saturday, April 20, at 7:30 p.m.

Keiko Matsui with special guest Jeff Kashiwa on Saturday, May 25, at 7:30 p.m.

Kalapana and Carlos the Experience on Saturday, Aug. 17, at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets for Willie K. are $25; all other shows are $40 to $50. Group sales and series subscriptions are available. The Aratani Theatre is located at 244 S. San Pedro St. (between Second and Third streets). For more information, call (213) 628-2725 or visit or

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