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Vol.18, no.2
April/May 2015


In the Presence of Greatness 
Story By: Christine Hitt

If you were in Waikiki in the 1960s, you might recall this familiar Friday night scene on Kalakaua Avenue: A man dressed in a red malo (loincloth) stands at the entrance to the International Market Place. He raises a pu, a conch shell, to his mouth and blows. The sound echoes through the streets of Waikiki. The excited crowd gathered outside has been waiting for the sound of the pu because it means the pig is ready and it’s time for the Friday night lu‘au at Duke Kahanamoku’s Polynesian Restaurant and Supper Club. The man turns and walks toward the entrance to a tiki-inspired bamboo hut, and the crowd follows.

Dug into the lawn out front is a working imu (cooking pit) filled with hot lava rocks. People gather three rows deep to watch as the five-hundred-pound pig that’s been slow-cooking in the imu since morning is unearthed, along with the chickens, fish, taro and breadfruit. Watching the proceedings from his peacock chair is Duke Kahanamoku himself, greeting guests and posing for photos.

The doormen, including renowned waterman Henry Ayau, wear crisp white pants and white shirts embroidered with the club’s logo, a crown. Hawaiian food, including the kalua pig, is served on monkeypod trays to guests seated at long tables while the house band, The Ali‘is, plays hapa-haole songs to accompany the hula dancers. Duke and his wife, Nadine, sit at their designated table with a bowl of three-day-old sour poi waiting for them (Duke’s favorite). Paper umbrellas slant from the chi chis, Hawaiian sunsets and mai tais served in the club’s signature “Suck ’em Up” glassware, which guests take home as souvenirs. The band stops playing, and one of the members introduces “the wild and unpredictable Don Ho” as cones of light—made prominent by the cigarette smoke swirling around the room—shine down onto the stage. Ho appears and sits behind his electric organ with a glass of Chivas Regal. When he raises his glass high and calls out, “Suck ’em up!” everybody obliges.

Welcome to the golden age of Waikiki, when the number of tourists matched the number of locals, and celebrities were as common in Waikiki as they were in Hollywood. On any given night at Duke’s, Honolulu’s local glitterati might stop by: Donn Beach (a.k.a. Don the Beachcomber) in trademark Bermuda shorts and pandanus hat, smoking a Cuban cigar. Don Ho’s friends and fellow entertainers like jazz singer Jimmy Borges and Al Harrington might drop in when they aren’t performing in their own showrooms. Manager Kimo Wilder McVay might be checking that visiting celebs like Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Jerry Lee Lewis, Judy Garland, Tom Jones or Connie Francis were getting proper VIP treatment.

 “The Beach Boys, surfing and the jet plane, along with statehood, it all happened at once,” remembers Adrienne Sweeney, Don Ho’s personal secretary for seven years. “Suddenly, anyone who could get money together, young people in particular, were getting on a plane and coming to Hawai‘i.” Locals still lived and played in Waikiki, parking was abundant, tourism was booming and Duke’s club was at the center of it all. 

Most people have heard of Duke Kahanamoku, perhaps the single most famous person to have come from the Islands except Barack Obama. Already a celebrity in Hawai‘i for his athleticism in the water, Duke became an international star in 1912, when he broke swimming records at the Olympics and won Hawai‘i’s first gold medals. He introduced surfing to the world through exhibitions and acted in several Hollywood movies. In 1934 he was named sheriff of Honolulu, and he served in that position for twenty-six years, until January 1961. Despite his celebrated career, Duke faced financial problems late in his life; he saw the restaurant as an opportunity to supplement his income. So at age 71, under McVay’s guidance, Duke started a new career as a restaurateur. Duke Kahanamoku’s club opened September 1, 1961, to a packed house. Rev. Abraham Akaka blessed it, and the building’s former owner, Donn Beach, handed Duke the keys. 

The club’s impressive entertainment lineup was unique for its day. It included Mainland acts while other Polynesian shows in town had mostly Hawaiian entertainment. Hawai‘i-born Broadway star Ed Kenney (father to the present-day Honolulu restaurateur with the same name), boy band The Hawaiian Surfers and Martin Denny, who was then famous for his Exotica album, all appeared on Duke’s stage. But the club’s popularity really took off in 1963 when it secured Don Ho, who had been building a buzz playing at his mom’s bar, Honey’s, in Kane‘ohe.