Issue 6.4: August/September 2003

The Don

interview by Lynn Cook

color photo by Linny Morris Cunningham

Don Ho and I go back nearly forty years together, to the days when he ruled Duke Kahanamoku’s bar in the International Marketplace, and I was one of hundreds of Holly Golightly, Gidget-goes-Hawaiian girls who crowded into Duke’s to “hang with the surfer boys” and promise ourselves to Don forever or at least until Monday, whichever came first. They were swinging, happy times, before Waikiki’s 1970s “wild jungle/ free love” days, before the building boom of the ’80s “Japanese bubble,” or the ’90s “yuppie vacation” mass tourist migrations.
Don held court at his organ, center stage, with his signature bottomless glass of scotch at his fingertips. He was the Pied Piper of Waikiki, always drawing standing-room-only crowds and a waiting line that stretched all the way down Kalakaua Avenue. The front row was filled with “Ho’s Honeys”—co-ed cuties hand-picked by the managers and doormen—their tables lined with blue and pink drinks guaranteed to make them sick in Technicolor the next morning. Don would wander onstage, look at the Honeys and ask, “Can you sing? How about one of you come up here and sit by my organ.”

As one of the few who were fortunate enough to graduate from fan to friend, I sat with the girlfriends of Don’s classic band, The Ali‘is. We drank Mateuse Rosé—it tasted like perfume, but who cared—and paced ourselves, because we knew that after the first and second shows came the late-night “smash” show, when anything went, and then a wee-hours walk over to Joe’s for breakfast, where the thought would eventually cross my mind that it was 4 a.m., and I would soon be needing to get ready for class.

Now it’s 2003; Don’s seventy, and I’m ... well, not a co-ed anymore. In a mellower version of the good ol’ days, we’re sitting at a beachside bar after one of his shows at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel, talking story about the old days and drinking a non-alcoholic beer. (“I don’t drink anymore,” Don asserts. “I’ve had my quota.”)

Even today, Don is still the master of island magic. At his show, he still holds court for nearly two hours of entertainment, singing everyone’s favorite songs, telling jokes, bringing audience members onstage, getting there early to take pictures with fans and staying late afterward to sign autographs and talk with them.

Launching into his trademark tune, Tiny Bubbles, he’ll quip: “I’ve been singing this song for thirty-nine years, and I hate it. But tonight I am going to sing it twice; once at the beginning of the show, for those of you who might not make it through, and once at the end, for those of you who can’t remember if we did it or not. ... And at my age, that’s not even funny anymore.”

Dredging up the old days at Duke’s place, he asks: “Who was there with us in 1965?” I clap. He peers out into the lights: “Is that you, Lynn? Gotta be, most all our other fans are dead by now....”

Afterward, we sit around and shoot the breeze like we’ve been doing for the better part of a lifetime:

"Hawaii's Dean Martin" with
the one and only Milton Berle.
So, Don, what’s it like to be a lounge icon, the “Hawaiian Dean Martin”? Do you know that college kids on the Mainland have Don Ho parties, scouring the thrift shops for old aloha shirts and tiki mugs?

Who, me? If icon means you’ve been around for a long time, then I guess I might qualify. I’m just living from minute to minute; I’ve been that way ever since I was a kid. I never think of myself as “somebody.” I guess the tiki-kitsch kind of thing is in now, but it goes in and out. I just keep singing.

What was your childhood like?

When I wasn’t at Kamehameha Schools, I was home, helping out. I would half-mow the lawn and then sit and just daydream. Back when I was real young, we lived in what you might call a Kaka‘ako ghetto—falling-down places with clay yards and no grass. We played in the dirt and spent time digging out worms, then gave them to people who were going fishing.

We moved a lot and lived in some busted-up shacks, but they were always immaculate. I remember during the war we had a one-bedroom house, with six kids and the folks. My dad had a surplus business, so I slept in the garage with the “collectibles.”

Eventually, your mom was able to buy her own bar in Kaneohe—the legendary Honey’s—where you got your start as an entertainer. What are some of your memories of those days?

I sang a little and learned to play the organ at Honey’s, where there were always lots of great musicians to sit in with. I never wanted to be a really big star; we were just a bunch of beachboys who played music and made people laugh. I was just learning how to play the organ, so I played real soft. I always brought in guys better than me so I could learn, then I would go home and practice a lot.

Eventually, we started playing at a hole in the wall in Waikiki, and soon we had a line around the block. We had the Hawaiian Eye crew, Poncie Ponce and the guys, in there every night, and people were waiting in line just to hang with those guys. Then a friend lined us up to do a weekly TV show, one of the first local music shows on television. We would tape on Sundays after a big Saturday night, and we looked pretty bad—no make-up; pomade on our hair. We were really lolo (stupid) about TV. I was shy, and I didn’t play much.

With Duke Kahanamoku

How did you get the gig at Duke’s place?

(Legendary Waikiki impresario) Kimo McVay was running Duke’s. He had a really fancy gig going there—dress-up kine, with Martin Denny and Ed Kenney. Kimo came by and invited us over to Duke’s for a drink, and I had a hunch he was up to something. I suggested that we could come over and play at his club late, after we finished playing at our club. But he said he didn’t want our kind of clientele, so we said no. Eh, my customers not good ‘nuf for you?

He came back later with the Duke himself, and they were salivating over the crowd that was packed into this little place to see us. The Duke said maybe three words all year, but he gave me a big wet kiss and says to me, “Son, come play for me at my place.” You can’t turn the Duke down, so we agreed. I got a separate door for my customers so they could come in slippahs. The most important thing is that we had no cover charge; it was something we insisted on. We wanted locals and visitors, co-eds and surfers, all the kids that couldn’t afford to go to the places where they had to pay to get in.

I had so many stars come by: Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash in a string tie. Judy came up and sat beside me at the organ and sang songs from The Wizard of Oz. The Ali‘is joined me later, and it was really a party time. We went out late at night to a dozen little clubs, no big hotels—just the old Waikiki that we loved. Back then, there was no separation between the visitor and the local; we just all got to know each other. Now there aren’t enough locals in Waikiki to make the happy kine party. Today, our show is still local-style, and we try to make everybody feel really welcome.

(from left) Keao Low, Don,
Rap Reiplinger, Ed Kaahea,
Tom Moffatt, Tommy Smothers,
Andy Bumatai and Remi Abellira
Do you miss the old days?

In many ways, my showroom today is like the “old days.” My best times in Waikiki have always been when the showroom was more intimate, like now. I sit behind my organ, tell stories, sing some songs. At the Hilton Dome in the ’80s, the place was so big, and they asked me to do a “big production” show. All fancy kine—big dance numbers and a volcano. My dancers were really talented and beautiful, but I didn’t really feel comfortable without my organ. So when they announced that the dome would be torn down to put up a big hotel tower, we just moved on.

We’re very happy now at the Beachcomber, and our audience is happy. I have the longest-running show in Waikiki, over forty years. I think we might have the second-longest-running show in the whole country, after the Grand Ole Opry. And what we do now is what we have always done—share the music and laughter; I believe that’s the great remedy for everything. I guess I feel like a missionary. I’m on a mission to keep people feeling young, doing what’s fun, laughing and feeling good. You could say we run a health club.

At your age, why do you keep up such a tough schedule?

I plan to still be singing when I’m a hundred; that’s my goal. I may look like hell, but I will still be on stage entertaining. I love to take the show on the road. Some of our fans don’t travel as much any more, so we go to them. The casino showrooms are great.

At home, we do four or five shows a week. If the tourists are there, we can go seven nights. What’s most important, I believe, is to be a friend for the visitor who’s new to Hawaii. People come to the show, they talk to me, they have a good feeling, and they tell others to come here, “and go say hi to my friend, Don Ho.”

How do you keep fit?

My theory is, you have to “think forty” forever. When I’m awake, I’m moving. I do my own yard work, fix the roof, even remodel my house. Why go to a gym when you can mow the lawn? I play golf for the challenge and the walk around the course. I can teach you the perfect swing—it’s my “Tiny Bubbles” swing. No kidding. You just hum Tiny Bubbles and swing to the tempo. I guarantee, it works.

Every night at your show, you pay special honor to the military. Is that because you were in the Air Force yourself?

When I was a small kid in the ’40s, working around Honey’s, the military guys would come in. My mom was sort of an adopted mom to them, and they were all my big brothers. Later, at Duke Kahanamoku’s, we honored the Vietnam veterans who came to Waikiki on R&R. Many have returned throughout the years.

We always honor all the military veterans by asking them to stand and be recognized during the show. After 9/11, we started honoring the firefighters and police, too. Our showroom was filled, even on the very first days after it happened, when everyplace else was empty. Someone told me that they came to our show for comfort, for a place to be where the world wasn’t scary. That was really nice to hear.

With sumo star Jesse Kuhaulua
(a.k.a. Takamiyama)

You have, what, ten kids? Including your daughter Hoku, who’s a big pop star now in her own right. How did that come about?

When she was about ten, she saw Les Miz and loved it. One day I was out working in the yard, and she was inside singing the whole show. I was blown away by her vocal range and intonation; it was like a voice from the heavens. I always had all my kids join me on stage, so she just put herself into the act. She walks on stage, singing, and pretty soon I am just “Hoku’s dad.” She has two movie soundtracks—Snow Days and Legally Blonde—CDs, an MTV special. Forty years I’ve been doing this, and I don’t even have a commercial! All of my kids sing, dance, play music. But Hoku is following her name, which is Hawaiian for star.

In your show, you’re known for always taking requests. Doesn’t that get kind of hard?

I remember once, back in the Duke’s days, a woman asked me to sing Blue Hawaii. I said no, I don’t do that song. I blew her off. After the show, she came up and told me how she and her husband were in Hawaii and heard the song, and how he had just passed away. I felt terrible. From that time on, I knew not to ever kiss off anyone’s request. When I don’t know the song, I try a few lines and then ask them for another favorite song. What entertainers need to remember is that if someone asks, they must have a special memory. That’s the business we’re in, the business of memories—making them and bringing them back.

After one more round of the “fake” beer and a seared ahi salad, Don wraps up our “remember when” session—a good deal earlier and tamer than in the old days, but still plenty good fun. And after all, when you’re Don Ho, you’ve got places to be. The next Mainland tour is coming up fast, and he has two or three other local gigs to juggle, where he will emcee, sing a few tunes or just show up to draw a crowd.

And whenever his pal Willie Nelson is in town, as he was recently to play the Waikiki Shell, you can count on Don to wander onstage in shorts, T-shirt and his regulation aviator sunglasses, to croon one of his signature songs, Nightlife, written by Willie. “Yeah,” Don says as we walk off into the lights of Waikiki, “that song about says it all: “The night life—it ain’t no good life, but it’s my life.”