Dr. Billy Bergin



Original air date: Tues., Dec. 8, 2008


Dr. Billy Bergin – Long Time Parker Ranch Veterinarian


Billy Bergin was born in Laupahoehoe, a remote, coastal village on Hawaii Island where his father was the plantation doctor. For a time, he was raised by a Hawaiian cowboy on a nearby ranch. And, when he grew up, Billy chose a profession that was, “right down the middle” between being a doctor and a cowboy. Billy Bergin became a veterinarian, a position for which he served at Parker Ranch for 25 years.


In this episode of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, Dr. Billy Bergin shares stories from his colorful life on the ranch.


Billy Bergin Audio


Mary Bitterman



Original air date: Tues., Nov. 24, 2009


Leading PBS in Hawaii and Beyond


Leslie Wilcox visits with Mary Bitterman, who was the Executive Director of PBS Hawaii (then referred to as KHET) from 1974 to 1979. The youngest Executive Director of a PBS station at the time, she headed KHET at the time of the groundbreaking production of Aldyth Morris’ “Damien”, which won the George Foster Peabody Award and was aired on PBS stations nationwide. She went on to become the President and CEO of KQED – the PBS television station in San Francisco – and was board chair of PBS. Mary is now Chair of the PBS Foundation and head of the Bernard Osher Foundation, which provides scholarship funding to selected colleges and universities.


Mary Bitterman Audio


Download the Transcript




And I think the future of our state, the future of our republic, and the future of our world has got to be people understanding people, people respecting people, people respecting the diversity of people’s backgrounds and interests, and insights. And I think that Public Broadcasting is going to play, increasingly, an important niche in bringing the people of the world to a better understanding and appreciation of one another. The stories must be told.


For four decades, a leader in public broadcasting, Mary Bitterman, has had a meaningful impact on how Hawaii sees the world, and how the world sees Hawaii. Her story on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we’ll catch up with Mary Bitterman, the first woman to lead a PBS television station. Which happened to be this station—PBS Hawaii, called Hawaii Public Television during her tenure in the 1970s. Mary Bitterman would go on to run a larger PBS station, in San Francisco. She would become PBS national board chair, and receive public broadcasting’s most prestigious award for lifetime achievement. She still calls Hawaii home, returning to Honolulu every month from her offices on the west coast. And she takes Hawaii with her everywhere she goes. In Washington D.C. I’ve heard her explain to large national groups the meaning of “ohana” and the Japanese principle she learned here, “okage sama de,” which means, “I am what I am because of you.” Fate brought this fourth-generation Californian and Ivy League scholar to Hawaii. Her husband, psychology professor Jeff Bitterman, was offered a short-term job at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.


And so he was asked to be a guest professor for a year. And so we came to Hawaii for a year. And that was 1971, and we—


You thought it would be one year, I bet.


Yes, we never left. I mean, even though I work off island, and have for several years, Hawaii has always been our home and permanent residence since 1971.


What made you feel at home here? Because, you know, there is a great deal of aloha and hospitality on one level, but on another level, it’s sometimes hard to get into the culture when people are busy, and they have things to do, and they think you’re gonna be leaving in a—




—year, anyway.


Exactly. And I just can’t tell you how many instant opportunities were made available to me. I mean, I know exactly what you mean. And when people say to me, Oh, I’m going to move to Hawaii, I really want to make sure that they understand how important it is to exercise curiosity, and not just to come fully shaped and imprint themselves somehow on Hawaii. When I first came, I taught several courses at the University of Hawaii. One of the students in class was an older woman who was returning to finish her degree. And she said to me after class, My husband is doing a special project with the Ford Foundation, and I would like him to meet you. So I said, I’d be very happy to meet your husband, and how nice that he works for the Ford Foundation. All right; but here’s what he wanted. He said, What we want is someone to do a history of Hawaiian landownership and land use, so we have a baseline for the development work that we’re undertaking.


Now, that’s a—


And I said—


—fascinating issue.


I said, Here’s the problem. The problem is, I think the whole idea of doing historical research on Hawaiian landownership and land use is fascinating; but I’m not competent. I’m not competent, because I don’t know the Hawaiian language, and because I have not studied Hawaiian history in any really significant, deep fashion. And he said, Well, we really would like you to take on this enterprise, and so on and so forth. At any rate, I was hired to do some basic historical research dealing with a great number of texts. What I did was, I published a series of papers that began with the ancient Hawaiian land use forms, going on to the Mahele, going on to the various uses of the land, especially when we had the development of sugar and pine, then moving on to the period of military installations on the aina, and then really ending up with the visitor industry after the second war and the development of resort properties and the rest of it.


That’s a great way to get to know Hawaii, isn’t it?


Now, this, when you said, How did you, coming with this modern European background, and so and so forth, come into Hawaii and have a chance to sort of be involved right away? And it’s because I worked on land. It just gave me a chance, I would say, to leapfrog and to arrive, say, by year five, at a place that might have taken some other malihini … twenty, thirty years.


Well, you could have blown it big time while you were doing this. But you didn’t.


I had so many teachers. I had so many people who opened themselves to me. It was just extraordinary.


But you were a teacher who was willing to be taught. I think that’s one—


Insatiable curiosity; that’s the only way to learn and I think even when one reaches a point where people say, Oh, you know a great deal, one must never be led to believe that one doesn’t have still so much more to learn than one knows.


What did you do when the study was complete, or when your role was done?


Well I’m very committed to the Buddhist principle of impermanence, with all things changing all the time. It’s become my way to explain everything that happens in life. After I served as the historian for this regional environmental management project, which was called HESAL, and the simulation part of it was really that the Fujitsu Corporation provided us with all of these wonderful computers and computer specialists, so we could take the data that our development colleagues were aggregating, and run different scenarios of development. And the focus of our study was the Kaneohe Bay watershed. And we did a number of public hearings in which Oceanic Cable helped us to record some of the public hearings, and really get the public involved in, how do you want the Windward side of Oahu to develop, how precious are the taro fields, what will be the cost of capital facilities to support a much larger population, what will the erosion from development, soil erosion, what kind of damage might that cause to the Kaneohe Bay. And the final thing I did for Ford was to write a history of the Hawaii environmental simulation laboratory, which is on file at Windward Community College Library. So there.


Okay; so now you’re pau with that, and—


So now I’m—


—what are you gonna do?


—pau with that.


So far, by the way, I notice you’ve gotten two jobs, not because you went after them, but because people went after you.


Well, the opportunities, it just absolutely was incredible. The man from the Ford Foundation, Bill Felling, with whom I got on very well, he became very interested in Hawaiian history as I shared with him some of what I had read, and introduced different books to him that he began reading. Everything from John Papa Ii to Kuykendall, to “On Being Hawaiian” by John Dominis Holt. Just a whole wonderful range of things—David Malo—and serving as the Ford monitor brought me in touch with more people from the Ford Foundation, which curiously, was the major foundation underwriter for Public Television across the United States. The laboratory also had an advisory committed of extraordinary people, including Phil Gianella, who was the publisher of the Star Bulletin then, Kenneth Brown, wonderful Kenny Brown, people like Minoru Hirabara who headed Del Monte operations, Bud Smyser, also from the Star Bulletin. And this advisory group, several of them said, when the position here at PBS Hawaii became open, You should do this. I don’t know the difference between a transmitter and a translator; I think that jobs like that should really go to people well schooled in technology, engineering, production, and the rest of it.


Just like you’d said before, I think the job should go to somebody—


Exactly; to somebody who is competent.


—Hawaiian history.


Yes, to somebody who is competent. And so the argument of Minoru Hirabara, who became one of my dearest friends in the world, and Kenny Brown and others was … Here’s what you do have. You’ve told us what you don’t have; what you do have is a real love for Hawaii and the people. You do have an understanding and a growing knowledge of Hawaiian culture, and the cultures of the people of Hawaii. You have been connected to a very big foundation, which supports Public Television; and who knows, maybe you could get them to send some money to Hawaii for Hawaii Public Television. You have testified before the State Legislature, which in those days, PBS Hawaii was part of State government, and we received our appropriation from State government. So being able to go before the leaders of the Legislature and being able to testify was considered very important, to do it effectively and to do it respectfully, and all. And so that’s how I became the youngest general manager in PBS’ history, and the only woman to head such a station.


Two historic distinctions … Mary Bitterman says Hawaii’s multi-ethnic culture was quick to accept a young woman in this leadership role.


I think that everyone who has come to Hawaii, whether ancestors came from Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Madeira Islands, Scandinavia, Ireland, Mexico, Puerto Rico, wherever, that the indigenous people, our host culture, has had a very special effect, a softening effect, and I would argue also having women be seen as potentially very competent. I mean, if we read Hawaiian history, we know the place of enormously powerful, gifted women who played such important roles.


Queen Kaahumanu.


Kaahumanu … Liliuokalani. I was on St. Andrews Priory school board, and we know all the incredible things that Queen Emma did. Princess Ruth Likelike. I mean, just an assortment of people—Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. So I think that, coupled with the fact that a governor like George Ariyoshi, gave opportunity to women. Boy, once we came to Governor Ariyoshi, more and more women were appointed to cabinet positions, and doors of opportunity opened in very, very important ways. So I had this really great opportunity which has made all the difference in my life. This is really where everything started.


For example?


Well it’s when I really came to Public Television, that in addition to continuing my study of Hawaiian history, that I really became increasingly, increasingly imprinted on Asian history, Asian culture, becoming a host family for East West Center. It was through working with people here at the station, and being really taken into so many ohanas. Our dearest friends were people that I met here; the Kono family, Melvin Kim Farinas, Akio Sakata, who was our chief engineer. So it’s just the world became very, very special for me here. I had never had friends, as I had here.


Why do you think that is? I mean you had a—


I think—


—family in California, you had—


But a small family.


—college experiences.


A small family. So many of my friends here had much larger families. I had two older brothers, and my oldest brother passed away. But it’s really when I came here that I was able to meet so many people with deep roots and many generations in Hawaii, that just opened up so many new doors of opportunity. I mean, just through my dear, dear friend Melvin Kim Farinas. Mel was the art director here at Hawaii Public Television for many, many years, and I think, gave the station its great reputation for artistry. He was half Korean, half Filipino. His father, Francisco Farinas, was the first Filipino radio broadcaster in Hawaii. Melvin’s wife, Ronnie Mae, was half Chinese, half Japanese. Her maiden name was Fujii, her mother’s maiden name, Goo. Just within Melvin, I became involved in all of these cultural outreaches. It just began that everything seemed to connect me to more and more pieces of a mosaic. So if this whole table were these incredible facets, each one of them just sparkling, I began to have connections to so many of them, and every day my life became more interesting, more challenging, because the more I would learn about things that needed to be done or people that we could bring together, and make things happen, it was just terrific; absolutely terrific.


Using all of her skills as a team builder, Mary Bitterman took over a troubled TV station and launched an era when Hawaii Public Television became nationally recognized for its programs.


So your personal life was developing, and your knowledge of Hawaii was growing. What were you doing professionally here? What did you see needed to be done, and what did you get done?


Well, it was a very exciting time. And I think sometimes when entities are in a distress situation, which we were—


You were invited to lead a distressed organization?


Yes. But I have to tell you, the only distressing thing was that we didn’t have … we had a modest amount of financing, and we were a little overdrawn on our State account, so we had to go bare for a while. What we did have was an extraordinary group of people. We had forty-eight student helpers from the University. Everybody, as we both know, trained in television in Hawaii was trained here in the good old days. And we just had a staff of people, thirty-six people, who were just absolutely incredible. But we had to find out how we were going to do things on almost nothing. That’s why we wanted to find a way, even without resources, that we could just kind of take what we had, and do it. So we started, actually, a program called Hawaii Now, which was a stripped program, five days a week, in which we could put different segments. And so International Kitchen was one day a week. So how did we start out? This is just an example. We took our fabulous administrative officer, Shareen Nakasone, and said, Shareen, you really make great Okinawan donuts—you know, andagi. Why don’t you come and cook them in the studio? Shareen said, I’ve never been on television, I don’t know if I’d want to do this. But she was just such a great girl; she said, Okay, for the cause, I’ll do it. So she came in, and she was our first cook. And then we began. We weren’t online, but we would send people copies of the recipes from International Kitchen. So people would write in, and then we developed a membership group so they could become members. And it was terrific. So we started off with Hawaii Now. But then we did—everybody wants sports, and you have your wonderful Leahey & Leahey program now, but we did something called Sports Page 11, with Marv Vedetto.


With Jim Hackleman.


Well, Jim Hackleman afterwards.


He came later.


But it started off with Marv Vedetto from the University, and then went on to Jim Hackleman. But it was really fun, because we did everything from

women’s sports, which weren’t being covered then, to kids’ T-Ball. I remember we did one program doing a T-Ball game over in Waimanalo, and we had more reaction from the community. People were just—






Totally support that.


Absolutely, absolutely wonderful. And then we began an arts program, Spectrum, we had Dialog which was our Friday night public affairs discussion. And we did a lot of interesting people.


This was when Hawaii had only a handful of viewing choices, before the proliferation of cable channels. Mary Bitterman found the funding and gave the green light to a production that would, arguably, become the most nationally acclaimed of Hawaii’s locally-produced TV programs.


Obviously, the jewel in the crown was Damien, which I am so delighted … I can’t begin to tell you. It just is so personally meaningful to me that this extraordinary story, this exquisite play, written by a most wonderful woman—I just wish everyone could have known Aldyth Morris. Brilliant, sensitive, compassionate. Everything about her was very special. You would just know that if you read the script; you know that somebody very special wrote it. And then to have that combined with a brilliant actor, who just became Damien in Terence Knapp, and a gifted producer/director, Nino Martin, and a gifted art director, Melvin Kim Farinas. It was a combination of things—the videographer, Wade Cuvian—that was magical. It’s just extraordinary. But we did some other programs. We did a three-part series with Joe Nathan, an independent producer, called The Japanese. And those were films that he filmed in Japan, and then we did local follow up. So for example, his film called Farm Song on a Japanese family living in an agricultural area, we went off to Maui and did the Orodomo family in Kula. And when he went off and did Full Moon Lunch, a bento operation, we went down to Liliha Street and did Nishi Catering. So it was a combination of trying to take the wonderful things of our own community and setting them into the context of a larger world. And then, of course, China Visit, which we had a group of Hawaii residents going in 1977, the year after Mao’s death, to do that film, was a terrific thing.


You were one of the first groups of Westerners in China.


Exactly. But I think it really stands the test of time that you’re able to look at that film, that is PBS Hawaii’s film, and you’re able to go back and see what China, now the tenth largest economy, was like thirty-two years ago. It’s very exciting.


You hosted that documentary in pigtails.


Well, I have to tell you. It’s very interesting. When we were in China in 1977 people will not believe it; they just won’t believe it, because China has just moved so quickly forward. In 1977, there was not one woman to be seen wearing anything different from a navy blue or a gray Mao suit with Mao trousers, and whose hair was not cut like this, or who had pigtails. And because I have long hair, it was decided that the best thing for me to do was to put them in pigtails, right?


Later, Mary Bitterman was asked to take the directorship of “The Voice of America” which she saw, in part, as an opportunity to bring Hawaii’s spirit to the rest of the world.


And so a door of opportunity opened to become the youngest and the only woman ever to serve as director of The Voice of America, and all because the people of Hawaii gave me the opportunity. And I worked very hard at The Voice, and really tried to introduce the aloha spirit to a larger audience. We really opened up our relationship with China, we arranged for the first exchange of broadcasters between The Voice of America and China. We had some wonderful, wonderful days and, as you can imagine, it was my work at Hawaii Public Television, Koji Ariyoshi, the trip to China, that I already had contacts with Chinese broadcasters, and with the Minister of Propaganda in China. So that when I went to The Voice of America, I was able to build on some of that, and arrange for these exchanges.


And by the way, was that the actual title, the Minister of Propaganda?


Yeah; yeah. Dung Lee Chun.


If we could skip ahead just a little bit. I think you were recruited for another job at a Public Television station.



It was another distressed station, but much more distressed, much larger jurisdiction.


Yeah. And that was an opportunity which arose in 1993, and it was in distress, it was in a near bankrupt situation.


And the viewers were extremely upset that local programming had been yanked from them.


Local programming was gone.


Which is something you had brought back to Public Television in Hawaii.


It also had a recent labor strike, and there were very antagonistic feelings between union members and the management of the station. There were a huge number of problems.

Your good relations with unions must have helped you in—


It helped me a lot.


—San Fancisco.


Because before I went there, people on the KQED staff had called people in Hawaii at HGEA, Charlotte Simmons, other people, saying, What is this person like, and so on and so forth. So that was enormously helpful. But at KQED, what I tried to do was two things. One, to put the stations back on sound financial footing, and we would be responsible stewards with the community’s investment in us, and we would deliver the greatest possible content.


Years after reviving the San Francisco PBS station, KQED, Mary Bitterman became the president of a funding organization that helped her rescue that station. the Bernard Osher Foundation is one of the nation’s largest supporters of higher education and the arts. It’s given millions of dollars to the University of Hawaii. At this time in 2009, the Osher Foundation is Mary Bitterman’s paying job. But she has never stopped contributing to PBS, serving in many unpaid leadership positions, including National Board Chair and head of the PBS Foundation. I’d like to thank Mary Bitterman for joining us on Long Story Short, and for upholding traditions of teambuilding and excellence here at PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


History was biographies of admirals, generals, and kings and queens. But the real richness of history are all of these other people, and the way in which they shaped our lives. And I think Public Broadcasting’s niche is in bringing more people on the stage, and letting them all be heard.


Christine Camp



Original air date: Tues., Jan. 11, 2011


Living the American Dream


Korean Immigrant Christine Camp rose from poverty to create her own development company, the Avalon Group, of which she is President and CEO. Leslie Wilcox talks with Christine about the struggles of adjusting to America and growing up with “tough love” from her mother, which led to her running away from home at age 15. Christine also discusses working for several well-known companies where she gained the experience to launch her own business.


Christine Camp Audio


Download the Transcript




I love this country. I love this country only in a way an immigrant can say it. I’m a first generation American, I came to America, I’ve seen what it’s like on the other side. And America is a beautiful country, and I love it for all that it stands.


Patriotism for the United States is sometimes intensified when your country of origin is a foreign land. Our next Long Story Short guest began life in South Korea, immigrated to Hawaii as a young girl, and grew up to become a successful real estate developer. The contrast between her life before, and after her move to Hawaii, is enough to make anyone believe in the American dream. Meet Christine Camp, next.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. At the age of thirty-two, Christine Camp launched Avalon, a real estate development company in Honolulu. Now, that may sound young, but by then, Christine Camp had experienced a lifetime’s worth of lessons. Her school of hard knocks education began at birth.


Tell me a little bit about your very early life in South Korea.


We had very little. We came from the poorer side of, I guess everybody was poor in those days in Korea, because we were a nascent nation in the sense that we’d just come out of the war. I was born in 1966, so it was a few years after the war, but still, there was very little resources.


How big was your family?


I have four siblings. There were five of us, and my mother and my father. And they were searching for a better opportunity for us. And they left the five children in Korea, and came to Hawaii for two years when I was I was only eight years old. From between the time, eight to right before I turned ten, my sisters raised us, and we lived with various relatives while they were setting up a home for us here.


Did you feel adrift at that point, with your parents away?


Well, it was very confusing, because I was fairly young, and no one really explained. My sisters are eight and six years older than I am; so older. And they were in their teens, and they really took care of us. Both of them dropped out of school to take care of the younger kids and studied from home. So we were home schooled, while we were waiting for my mother and father to bring us to Hawaii.


Now, when you say you were poor, what does poor mean?


Very little resources. I think my mom sent some money to help take care of us. But we didn’t have much meat. We ate mostly vegetables. We didn’t have running water. [CHUCKLE] And we lived in one room and the five kids stayed in one room in apartment house. It was part of a section of a house of our relatives. And there winters when we had to go to the pump house to pump water, because our well wouldn’t work. And we’d walk five blocks and down the hill on the mountainside to get water from the common pump well. That’s how poor we were.


Did you worry that your parents wouldn’t be seen again? Or were you looking forward to joining them?


No, we just didn’t think that it would take that long to get the immigration done. I think everyone thought that it would be just a matter of a few months, and it ended up being a couple of years. When I think back, I think of how resilient all of us were. Because I think for us, were hoping for a better life, and so we didn’t know what we didn’t have. Because the people around us kind of had the same means. And so we enjoyed our times, but without parents were a little difficult.


I can see a big culture shock coming, because your—




—parents did send the money for you to—did you all come over together?


We did. Five of us came here. And boy, was I sick on the airplane the whole time. [CHUCKLE] But we came here, and I remember smelling the air.


And you’re nine years old.


I’m nine years old, and smelling the air, thinking, my goodness, this is what Hawaii—I didn’t differentiate Hawaii as an island. I thought this was America, this is the big country. And I thought, wow, where are the buildings? I mean, this is not America. Korea is much more developed with high rises and everything, which I saw very little. But all the lush tropical jungle-like places. Because we came from concrete, not a lot of landscaping. And for me to see all these trees and flowers; oh, my gosh. It was amazing.


Could you speak English?


My name is. [CHUCKLE] My name is Hyun Hee Camp. Hyun Hee was my Korean name. And, I am hungry. I am hungry. [CHUCKLE] I am hungry. [CHUCKLE] And those were the only things that I could say. And I could say the ABCs.


When Christine Camp started classes at a public grade school in Kaimuki, she recalls that students threw rocks at her, and called her an FOB, or fresh off the boat. Picking up more of the language, and moving to a different public school in the same district gave her a chance for a fresh start.


And we moved to Wilson Elementary right before we ended the fifth grade year. And so I had an opportunity to recreate who I am, not be so foreign, and meet friends. And I made some really good friends, and I was able to blossom in there, and did very well in school. I had some really amazing teachers. In that school, I remember Mr. Kosasa, who basically spent extra time with me, letting me know what my assignments were. And that was my fifth grade homeroom teacher. My sixth grade homeroom teacher was Mrs. Hasegawa. And everyone didn’t like her, because she was really tough. And I was afraid of her; she had a reputation. But she was the one that made me feel so accepted, that I was smart. We had to write some poems for an English class. And I wrote about maile lei, and it was about maile lei, it’s long, it’s beautiful, and you can see the leaves, green leaf after green leaf. I don’t remember just precisely what I wrote. I think I must have had a lot of spelling errors. But she picked it out, and she said, This is one of the best poems I’ve read, and I’m going to read it out to the class. And she read it out. And it made me feel so special. It made me want to do more.


What were your parents telling you about how to behave in this new world?


Well, by then, my father was very ill, and wasn’t really cognizant of what’s going—he was dying of cancer. And my mom was busy working. So it was really up to us to kind of find our own way.


How were finances in the new land, after finances had been so rough in Korea?


When we first came here, we lived in what I thought was a mansion. It was a beautiful spot. It was a two-bedroom walkup. When I look back and I still see the building on Waialae Avenue, I think, Wow, we all squeezed in, five of us in a little room. And then my mom saved up enough. She felt that she had four girls, so she wanted us to live in a community where there would be no other Koreans, where we would be speaking English, and that we would have the best public education possible. So she found this house on Ainakoa. I mean, talk about every house was white. This one was brown from no paint. [CHUCKLE] On the hillside, dilapidated, with termites, but it was the only one she could afford; leasehold house. And we went there, we fixed it up, we spent all of our free days and nights working on this house.


That’s quite an accomplishment.




She was a—


It was.


—waitress, and worked different waitressing and minimum wage jobs with tips.


Koreans, they kinda help each other out. And I think Vietnamese, they’re the same. And Japanese, when they’re here, it’s the same. Koreans call it kei; I think Japanese, they call it tanomoshi. They put into a pool, they bid for the money, and they can have access to a pool of money. Ten, twenty thousand dollars, and there are twenty, forty people putting into this pool. And my mom was in one of those. And she was able to secure the down payment needed to buy the house, and she bought it on an agreement of sale. I’m not even sure if they have agreements of sale anymore.


And had to make the payments every month.


Right. And so, we were expected to help out. I worked from the time I was twelve years old. I worked as a babysitter. God, in those days you could babysit four kids, and people thought nothing of it. I was babysitting six, seven-year-olds when I was twelve years old. Can you believe that? [CHUCKLE]


I remember that. There were even certificates for twelve-year-old—






Yeah. I remember my first new clothes was for my father’s funeral. We didn’t have anything black, and someone said that we had to wear black. And someone gave us twenty dollars each and said, You guys go to JC Penney’s and buy clothes. And we didn’t even know how to shop at JC Penney’s, what to do, because we’ve never been in these stores for us. And so it was exciting, and sad at the same time.


Terribly sad.


It was so unfortunate that it was that time in which we had a chance to actually go to Kahala Mall. ‘Cause we’d been to Kahala Mall, and we went to McDonald’s, once every three months or something and had a hamburger. But to go into JC Penney’s to buy something; that never happened.


Christine Camp later excelled at intermediate and high school, held down several jobs, and became a cheerleader. But Christine’s mother, ever the disciplinarian, prohibited her daughter from taking part in extracurricular activities that would take her away from household chores. So, at age fifteen, Christine decided to run away from home.


And I thought, as long as I had all straight A’s, she should have nothing to complain about. But she did. And she was so tough, and my sisters were so tough on me. I was getting spankings all the time. And I felt that I could do better, I was making my own money. So I packed up my bags in a little pillowcase.




Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I said, I’m done with you. I ran away from home.


How could you make your own way at age fifteen?


Isn’t that amazing? I did. And I can’t … my rent was hundred and seventy dollars a month.

Where did you live?


On Harding Avenue, in one of these old Chinese schools that became an apartment house. Little sections of classrooms were apartment house, and I had a little apartment house next to the sewer line where the cockroaches gathered at night. [CHUCKLE]


And what about your neighbors; what were they like?


Six families. I have to say, I saw what I felt was to not have hope, to feel a loss in what our life would be. There was a welfare mom who dropped out of high school, had several children, and still within high school age. There was a woman who had two kids, and she was a prostitute. There were—it was just kind of like that. An alcoholic woman, another woman who couldn’t afford to eat regular food, and she was sharing her cat food, what I found out, and I would try to give her what I could. And the only bright light in that whole place were two college students who were a couple, and they were happy people. They were clean, and they were smart, and they had a hope of future. I mean, they had hope for their future. But I internalized this when a traumatic accident happened with me. I couldn’t afford electricity, so I didn’t have power, but I had a little gas oven. And these kids were running around without adult supervision, and I felt like I was the den mother. Whenever I had free time, I would have them come over to my place. And it was a child’s three-year-old birthday, and her mom was out. So I decided, I’m going to bake her a cake. And I’d never used the oven. Turned the oven on; nothing. It was a gas oven. And I realized, Oh, it’s a gas oven, I have to turn the match on. Turned on the match, and the whole thing blew up on my face. I had no hair on my face. Anyway, the emergency medics came, and they called the emergency and everything. And at that moment, while I was cooling off, they had ice on me, I’m sitting there, and I had an Aha Moment. All these images came to me of the people that were living around me, and the little kids. And the only bright spot that I saw were these students who had a future. And I felt that education was my future, I didn’t want to be there, and that I wanted to have hope. I didn’t want to lose hope like these people. And they’re wonderful people, but they lost hope for their future, and they weren’t taking responsibility for themselves. So I packed up my ego, packed up my things; I went home that day, the next day.


What was that reception like for you?


What was amazing is, my mom never asked me a question. I had called my sister and said, I’m coming home. And she didn’t go to work. She went to work seven days a week; she didn’t go to work. She was there folding laundry, she acted like nothing happened.


Through all of this, Christine Camp managed to graduate early from Kalani High School, and enrolled at Kapiolani Community College.


You’re going to community college, and working your way through school. Where did the idea of developer emerge?


The developer image; it comes from my first job, my first real job, my first fulltime job. All right. I think people say that, you have to have luck. And I’ve been very lucky so many times. And my luck comes in having my first job with a gentleman named Rex Kuwasaki. He has a development company, Arcade Development. And I went to work for him as his Girl Friday. And when he realized I can take on more, he gave me increasingly more and more opportunities to do different things, and he taught me so much. And that’s where I realized what an impact I could have in the community, and how meaningful it would be to be a developer, to create communities, from an idea on a piece of paper, to see buildings, to put people in homes. I just loved that idea. So I wanted to have my own company, and I wanted to be that, what he was doing.


So you worked for RK—










Rex Kuwasaki Development; yeah.


And picked up some very good basic—




—skills. And then, what?


Well, five years there. And Castle and Cooke was hiring, they had just gotten their zoning for Mililani Mauka. And they were hiring a brand new team, so I went to work for them. I started as a project coordinator in their planning engineering department. And did a lot of permit processing and planning with engineers and architects for homes. And I became such a budget cruncher, and I had such a love for affordable housing that I did a lot of affordable housing there, and had a lot of fun. So I did that for five years, and ended up being a senior project coordinator for the project department, and—


Okay; I’m noticing two five-year stints. Was that on purpose?


Yeah. I like five-year goals. I always believe that people need to see short-term goals, but you need to look out five years ahead. So that it gives you kind of a guiding light as to where one should go. So I had a five-year goal. I worked five years, and I thought okay, five years is enough. Went to work for Castle and Cooke, worked five years, and so it was to the month of five years, I went to work for A and B, Alexander and Baldwin as their project manager, and then ended up as VP of their development. And almost five years, but I found some opportunities where it made me want to leave a little earlier. So I think it was four years and ten months, or something like that.


What were the opportunities?


I found a couple of projects that I wanted to work on, that I thought I could do. Ended up becoming not a project, but it did give me the courage to move on to being my own developer, my own company, having my own company.


And how did you decide to focus your company?


I wanted to be my own developer, but I realized it was a lot harder in raising money than just doing projects. I had to not only do the planning and engineering, and design of the projects, the marketing of the projects, but I actually had to raise the money. And the capital was what was my obstacle in being my own developer. So I decided that I would have an advisory services company in leveraging my expertise. And that was a very profitable business. And then moved onto doing the projects. And I realized it was such a successful advisory services and doing brokerage, I wasn’t spending any time looking for my own projects. So I had to make sure I had a five-year goal to guide me again to say, okay, five years, I’m going to have my own projects. Right now, the mix was eighty/twenty; twenty percent of my projects, eighty percent other projects, other people’s projects. And I’m going to change that ratio in five years. And in five years, I was able to do that. I had my own development projects. And so I said, Okay, well, that’s good. Now what, for the next five years? And so I put some monetary goals. Like, if I could only make a million a year. If I could only do ten million, if I could only raise twenty million dollars. So those were kind of the goals that I put into place for five-year goals. And we finished our five-year goals. It’s been eleven years, and so we’re now looking at what we’re going to do. We, because our company has grown beyond just myself, and we are looking at our next five years.


Now, it’s very hard to do a five-year goal when a recession comes along, and just knocks the bottom out of budget.




Do you add two years there, three years?


Of course. I mean, the goals are just that; they’re goals. They’re not set in stone, and you don’t get depressed over it. You just adjust to the changing times. But there’s a guiding principle that carries you from one end to the other. As long as you have a goal in mind, I think it makes it easier for one to make a decision. ‘Cause isn’t it what it is; it’s always a series of decisions, how do you decide.


Do you have trouble deciding the decisions?


Never. I sleep well at nights. [CHUCKLE] Of course.


Because they provide the security of knowing, okay, here’s where I’m headed


Knowing where I’m headed, it makes it easier. But the last few years have been difficult decisions. I mean, to walk away from millions of dollars invested in a piece of property … difficult. To lay off half your staff … difficult. ‘Cause I felt that, the way I justified it to myself is, I had to cut off one arm to keep the rest of the body alive. And a lot of people say that. But cutting that arm off was so painful. Walking away from the millions of dollars was easier than laying people off. It was that difficult. Because I knew it was their livelihood. I knew they had a mortgage to pay, and family to support. And so it was really, really hard.


So you chose to name your company Avalon.






My love of books. I love reading books, and I love two genres. I have a hard time with nonfiction, but mystery novels and mystical fairytales. And fairytales, King Arthur stories fascinates me.


Now, Avalon was where King Arthur pulled Excalibur out of the stone, isn’t it?


Well, no; it was the Isle of Avalon where all the power came. And remember when he died, he went back.


Oh, and he recovered there.


And Isle of Avalon, they took his power back, they took the sword back. So the way I saw Avalon, aside from the fact that it starts with an A, so it will be the top of the alphabet [CHUCKLE]—


That’s a good one.


But we live on an island, as Avalon. But really, what it was, it was about king makers and the source of power; source within. And I liked that. And the recent books, the recent renditions of this fairytale, there’s a mist of Avalon where all power comes from the priestesses, which is the women. So even more so, I thought, very apropos. And that’s why I named the company Avalon.


During election years, some developers try to cover their bets. They give equally to all political candidates in order to be in the good graces of the eventual winners, whoever they may be. Christine Camp has other ideas. For example, she openly and enthusiastically supported Mufi Hannemann, when he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2010.


You’ve had some leadership positions in government. You were—




You were heading the Police Commission, you—


I was.


You’ve been active in different political campaigns. Must be a little tricky, when you’re looking for approvals as a developer.




And you are also wishing to participate in government. I mean—




—those are tricky currents you have to navigate.


Absolutely. A lot of people said, Are you nuts? You’re a developer, and you’re supporting a certain candidate. And I always believed an election is just that. You have to make a choice. You vote. And if you really believe in something or someone, then you need to stand behind it. And people who are elected need to understand that it was just an election. Now that they’re there, we as the constituents will stand behind them because they are our elected leaders. But during the election period, I don’t believe in kind of walking the middle line all the time. That’s not America. America is about making choices, to protect your freedom, and protecting your views.


Any issue coming up that you’re scratching your head about how to solve?


One thing that really affects me is the homelessness. I’m a developer, and yet, it’s so difficult to develop homeless housing first; I believe in that. I was homeless for a few days. I actually slept in a park when I ran away from home. And I’ve been poor, and I was that close to being homeless. And when I opened my own business, and when I didn’t have enough cash flow to pay the payroll, I thought about being homeless. We’re that close to being homeless, a lot of us. And there are so many people in such vulnerable positions, we’ve gotta do something. We’ve gotta do something.


But why doesn’t it ever get beyond, we’ve gotta do something? I mean, it just never seems to materialize into something that sticks.


‘Cause people don’t—can I just say. I cannot understand why people say this is a state problem, but yet, they want the funding to come from the people who are buying homes, or the funding to come from the developers. They don’t believe that this is a state problem. If this was a state problem, it should come from our tax base, not from people who are buying homes to stay away from being homeless. It’s adding to the cost of buying homes, to sheltering these people. By taking it from the developers when they’re doing affordable housing, or just adding more housing stock so that it becomes affordable, it just adds to that burden. It ultimately has to be paid for by everyone else. Why do we think it’s so expensive? So people are scratching their head thinking, we’ve gotta do something, and yet, there’s no funding from the general fund. Of course we’re not going to solve that problem.


What’s your current five-year plan?


My current five-year plan is actually looking at—I created a company, a holding company, Avalon Group. And we’re expanding in our development services business, but we’re also buying other companies, and really believing in Hawaii, and growing other businesses. So the next five years is really diversifying, and creating the next layer of managers. That it’s not about me, but it’s about having managers manage the projects and companies.


What does your mom say? I mean, I know your mom hasn’t been a big talker. She’s a doer.


She’s a doer.


But now, she’s seen you make this wonderful transition to American life, and be extraordinarily successful as a professional, and a mom. And what does she say?


She still treats me like I’m thirteen years old. [CHUCKLE] She wants to comb my hair, and [CHUCKLE] make sure that I’m wearing the right color. No, she’s extremely proud of me. She’s very thankful. She took care of me, so now I take care of her. And she helps me raise my son. And it’s come full circle.


What happened to that leasehold, termite-ridden house in Ainakoa?


She sold it. But I remember the Aha Moment of when I thought, I’ve finally made it, is she was buying the leasehold into fee, and she didn’t have enough income to qualify for a mortgage. And I remember co-signing her mortgage, and thinking, Wow, I really made it, I’m co-signing a mortgage for my mom. And so that was …


That’s worth more than money.


Yeah. I remember how proud she … I’m choked up now, ‘cause I remember seeing her, and I’m feeling, wow, I did it. I really did it. And she was so proud of me.


Christine Camp’s mother has reason to be very proud. Her daughter is active in community organizations, and has received awards for achievements in her adopted country. At the time of this conversation in 2010, Christine is busy with a new accomplishment. The business owner says she’s keeping a work-family balance as the single parent of a two-year-old son. No more marathon weekdays, and no more long weekends at the office, she says. Family life does not keep her from continuing to set those business goals, though, five years at a time. Mahalo, Christine Camp, for sharing your story. And thank you for listening, on Long Story Short. For PBS Hawaii I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


I live in the present. A very insightful friend told me, Christine, if I look at a life’s matrix for you and how you look at the world, your past like this, your future like this, and the present is like this. And I think I live in the moment, and it makes me happy, and doing what I believe is the right thing to do, making decisions that allows me to go to the future. As long as I have a peg, and I can see it, that’s my five-year goals, I know where to go.


Lee Cataluna


Original air date: Tues., Nov. 29, 2011


In “A Writer’s Journey” Leslie Wilcox talks story with Lee Cataluna, best known for her witty stage plays and newspaper columns about island life. In this episode, Lee recalls her self-proclaimed “dorky” childhood on the neighbor islands, mainly on Maui. Once an aspiring dancer, Lee reveals how she entered the worlds of journalism and playwriting.


Lee Cataluna, A Writer’s Journey Audio


Download: Lee Cataluna, A Writer’s Journey Transcript



Original air date: Tues., Dec. 13, 2011


In “Creation and Change” Leslie Wilcox continues her conversation with Lee Cataluna, columnist and writer of local plays like Da Mayah and Folks You Meet in Longs. In this episode, she talks about her recently published first novel, Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa, written from a troubled Maui man’s point of view. And for the first time publicly, Lee opens up about her brush with death.


Lee Cataluna, Creation and Change Audio


Download: Lee Cataluna, Creation and Change Transcript




Part 1: A Writer’s Journey


I always feel like a distance from what I write. I mean, what I write is not necessarily who I am. I own it, I wrote it, yes, I said that. But do I, like, live with it every second of the day? No. There’s a little bit of detachment. I mean, I think that’s part of the professionalism, right? I can’t live or die, ‘cause I got something else to write tomorrow.


Newspaper columnist, award winning playwright, and novelist, Lee Cataluna, next, on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Lee Cataluna has earned a reputation for a keen understanding of local people and local culture, and yet, she’ll tell you she’s always been an outsider. And indeed, her newspaper columns have made her a lightning rod, attracting a lot of attention, and prompting heated debates at water coolers around the state. She has many fans who believe she’s able to go to the heart of a matter and say what no one else dares to say. Her work is hailed for its character studies and the humorous insights into the idiosyncrasies of our island community. Lee Cataluna’s career has taken her from television reporter and anchor to playwright, newspaper columnist, and novelist. She’s been awarded the Elliot Cades Award for Literature and the Pookela Award for Playwriting. Her roots are in the neighbor islands, and in the bygone days of Hawaii’s sugar industry. Her father, Donald Cataluna, was a third generation plantation worker and a manager with C. Brewer. About every three years, he relocated the family and they lived on various plantations on Maui, Kauai, and Hawaii Island. That means Lee was changing friends and changing schools along the way.


I think I lost count. It was something like nine. My Facebook is all messed up, because you get connected by people you went to school with, right? And so, like, I went to so many different elementary schools. [CHUCKLE] But only one high school; only Baldwin High School. Yeah, so after Kauai, we moved back to Wailuku, and my dad was then manager at Wailuku Sugar, and we lived in the manager’s house, which was just amazing.


And when you’re the manager of the plantation, you’re the mayor, right?


Kind of.


I mean, you control what happens in a very large area of town.


Kind of. I mean, there was that responsibility. But sugar was already struggling, right? I mean, that brings us up into the 80s. So it wasn’t quite as huge as generations past. But, yeah, my dad had two company cars, and [CHUCKLE], the big house that is now—


Did you feel rich?


Did I feel rich? Well, no, because, the reality was that my mom was sewing my clothes. [CHUCKLE] I didn’t get to go to Liberty House and buy whatever I wanted, kinda thing.


What were your parents like as parents?


They never spoke Pidgin at home. I don’t know if that was a choice, that was just they never did.


Did you speak Pidgin? Were you allowed to speak Pidgin at home?


Yeah, I was allowed to, but I didn’t. I mean, I’m sure there’s the inflection, right? But in terms of like, the heavy duty Pidgin, that was saved for school.


So when the boyfriends did arrive, what was your dad like?


The boyfriends did not arrive.


Oh, they met you outside. [CHUCKLE]


They did not arrive. No, I’d meet them at the wherever. [CHUCKLE]


‘Cause you didn’t want them to go through the gauntlet of your dad?


Yeah; my dad was the full-on, like, shotgun father. I think I was out of high school already when I brought a boy home. And my dad actually, like, showed him his collection of bullwhips. So, yeah.


In a meaningful way.


Yeah. Cracked ‘em, and everything. Pack! I mean, not the guy, although maybe I’m just remember it wrong. But yeah, it was a protected childhood.


And what about your mom; she was also strict?


No, my mom is the Kool Aid mom that, \ all the kids show up at her house. She just loves to feed kids, and she still does that. Like, she’ll buy Popsicles, like those big Costco Popsicle. Not for anybody that actually lives with her, but anybody who might drive by on a motorcycle, or a bicycle. So, yeah, my mom’s kinda nuts in a sweet way. She’s the kind of person who would make stew for the cat, ‘cause he likes it. [CHUCKLE]


What parts of your parents’ personalities did you find yourself picking up?


The bad parts. [CHUCKLE] Yeah, my dad’s sort of obsessive nature. He doesn’t forget a slight. Oh, but the good side of that is, he tends to be focused. And my dad is a good storyteller, so I hope I’m like that. And my mom is very fanciful. I mean, she kinda sees the silly in life. Like my parents joined the Koloa um, Visayan Club, and they’re not Filipino. But, my mom’s like, It’s okay, that’s all my friends. And I’m like, But it’s like you’re trying to pass. She goes, Nobody cares. [CHUCKLE].


So she didn’t care what anybody thought. She just wanted to do what she wanted to do.


Because the parties were fun, and there was all her friends, so she was gonna join the Visayan Club. And there I am, worried about, procedure and that kinda stuff. She’s like, Nah, it’s totally … it’s cool. [CHUCKLE]


Did you know you were gonna be a writer, a storyteller, from early on?


No. But I had the experience recently of going to Zippy’s with a bunch of people I went to high school with, and we were all talking about what we’re doing now.


Which Zippy’s did you go to?






There on Maui. So we’re all there, and we’re talking about, like, one of my friends is a high school teacher. She was like, Could you ever picture me as a high school teacher? And one is a mail carrier; Could you ever picture me working for the post office? And it came to me, and I’m like, Could you ever picture me doing this? And they were like, Yes.






Why did they say that?


I don’t know. I guess ‘cause I was getting in trouble for writing stuff when I should have been doing Math. Those kinda things.


It’s interesting; I’ve heard you describe yourself as bookish, earnest, kind of a dork.


Oh, yeah.


But I mean, I think the perception was, here’s this very pretty social girl, and—










No. And dork, not in a, like, hyper-intelligent way, but dork in a, like, clumsy oddball way. Like that.


Were you perceived that way, too?


I think so. No, I was never on the homecoming court. And Baldwin had this great rule, where once you served as a princess, like, homecoming, basketball rally week, May Day court, even if you were like Miss Princess Kahoolawe, that was it, that was like your one shot for all of high school. So by the time you get to senior year, like, most of the girls had had their time with the tiara. Nothing.


Did you have to run for it? Was it an election, or did you have to be picked for it? How did you get to be that?


Election; popular vote.


Did you run?


I think I self-nominated, yes. [CHUCKLE] Sad, yeah?


But that helps writers, for them to consider themselves outsiders, because you become a better observer, right?


Yes. I think writers tend to be that outsider-ish kinda … character.


And do you feel like an outsider?




Even though you’re clearly plugged into local culture.


No, I’m always the outsider. Yeah. [CHUCKLE] I’m much more comfortable sort of being in the back of the room, watching everybody, than being the one on stage.


And your mom gave you advice about that too, once, didn’t she? About listening.


Oh, yeah. Her thing was always—and she told me from when I was a little, little girl; Keep your eyes and ears wide open, and your mouth shut. [CHUCKLE]


Lee Cataluna chose psychology and dance as her major fields of study at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, California, graduating with honors in 1988. She was planning to go on to graduate school, until she was bitten by the broadcasting bug, hosting a talk show at a Kauai public access station. In 1991, she became a news director for a radio station, and two years later started a ten-year chapter in local television as a news reporter and anchor. While still in broadcasting, Lee Cataluna’s writing took on a new form when she wrote her first play, Da Mayah, which broke box office records for Kumu Kahua Theatre. She went on to write other productions for Kumu Kahua as well as Diamond Head Theatre and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth. Audience favorites included Folks You Meet in Longs, Musubi Man, You Somebody, and Ulua the Musical. She started this turn in her life while on a trip for the local NBC TV affiliate station.


The How I Got Into Playwriting story was, I was working at KHNL, and they sent me to New York to do the promos, like sitting next to Matt Lauer and Katie Couric, and Hi, watch me, Hi, watch me, kinda thing. And it was my first trip to New York City, and it was my first time traveling alone, other than going back and forth to college. And I was scared, and felt lonely, and sad. And the promos at NBC lasted like twenty minutes, like it took twenty minutes. They had me in, Howzit, we did our thing. Out. And then I had two more days in New York City by myself. So after I stopped crying in the hotel lobby [CHUCKLE], I got my act together and said, Okay, I’m here, I might as well see stuff. And I had to really force myself to see a Broadway play, because I thought, you know, as a frustrated dancer … I’m gonna be sitting there going, I hate them, I hate them all. They’re fabulous, I’m not fabulous. They’re tall, I’m not tall. They’re skinny. I mean, all that stuff. They’re great, I suck. And I was kinda bracing for that, internal monologue. [CHUCKLE] And instead, much to my shock, the voice in my head was saying, You could write that.




Which was weird.


I’m sure most people don’t go to plays and say that.


I don’t know. I mean it was fun. I went to see How to Succeed in Business Not Really Trying.


So this was when you were a television anchor. Were you doing the morning, or evening news then?




And so this was a totally new experience, and the first time you really came up with the idea?


Yeah. I had been in like, two plays in my life, and I had certainly seen, you know, like community theater kind of plays. I’d never been to Kumu Kahua.


And you hadn’t thought of writing a play?


No. I had done sketches for radio. But like minute thirty, three-minute. And then, when I came home from that trip, in my mailbox was a flyer from Kumu Kahua announcing their summer playwriting classes. And I’d never been to that theater before, and I thought, Oh, this is the sign.




So, I had to talk myself into going to class, ‘cause I’m thinking, Well, everybody’s gonna be like these smart UH grad students who can quote Shakespeare, and then there’s me. And I was right. That was the class, and they could all quote Shakespeare, and then there was me. But I loved that class. It was Vicki Kneubuhl’s class. And I took it like four summers in a row, something like that, five summers. Yeah.


It wasn’t the same class, right?


Oh, yeah.


It was?


Totally; yeah. I could not get enough of her class, and I just kept taking it over, and over. I just loved it, just loved being near her.


At what point did you have a play that was actually performed?


Actually, after the first summer.




I wrote my first play that summer, and I wrote it from the assignment. The whole, like, germ of the play was from the assignment from Vicki. And I wrote the first scene, and I liked it. And then the next week, I wrote another scene, and that went over pretty good, and just kept going. So at the end of six or eight weeks, I had a first draft. And I was fortunate that one of my classmates, John Wythe White, was on the board at Kumu Kahua. And so, he took my play …


And what was it? Which play was it?


Da Mayah. Which, I regret naming it that, ‘cause it’s a weird spelling. It’s, The Mayor, so …




Yeah. That was it. I was hooked. Totally hooked.


And how had you been perceiving your journalism career? Was that gonna be your career, or was that an interim? What was that to you?


I think I was kind of in the moment. I was working morning news, which I loved, but I found the hours just brutal.




I got frustrated. And I regret the way I left. But as it turned out, I probably needed to do something different pretty soon.


When you say the way you left, I don’t know the way you left.


Abruptly. [CHUCKLE]


Oh, you just said, I’m done?


Yeah. Yeah. Sort of.


And did you know what you were gonna do?


No. No. Yeah, that was—


Well, that’s a step of faith, or frustration, or something.


Stupidity. Yeah.


You were unemployed for a while?


I went to LA, I was taking some classes, I was working on an indie movie that fell apart. Then I came home, and I applied at the Advertiser. They were advertising for a reporter, a Maui-based reporter. And I’m like, I could totally live on Maui, I could totally be a reporter there. And I sent in my application letter, and almost immediately got back, Sorry, but we’re looking for a real journalist, not like a TV … I mean, between the lines I read, a TV Twinkie, right? And I’m like, r-r-r. So, I employed a technique that a dear friend of mine once told me about, and it was a brilliant move. I said, Let me prove myself to you. Give me a try out. I will work for two weeks.


For free.


For free, and let me show you what I can do. Well, because it was a union shop, they couldn’t let me work for free, but I did get a two-week tryout. And I just [CHUCKLE] I did cartwheels. I turned in every assignment they gave me, plus something else, every single day of those two weeks.


And you were a straight reporter?


Straight reporter.


Covering daily news.


On Maui; yeah. Just, the County Council on Maui. And after those two weeks, I met with the managing editor, and he said, Well, you’re, eh, as a reporter, but you can kinda write. Have you ever thought of being a columnist? And here I am, like, I need me a job. So I said, Columnist? I’ve totally always wanted to be a columnist.


Why would he suggest that?


You know what it was? There was a story I wrote about the Paia Sugar Mill. And I went and I talked to some people, and there was, just some writerly things that happened there, because that was a story I could totally relate to. Like standing there in the shower of ash coming out of the mill, and just the way that felt. Like, this is today, and it’s not going to be tomorrow, and that kinda thing. Yeah. So, he said, Have you ever thought of being a columnist? And I’m like, Oh, I would totally love to be a columnist. So then, I had a tryout period with that. And first thing was to go home and figure out, What’s a columnist? So I’m rarely slick in my life, but I had a moment of slickness. I’m like, Oh, a columnist. Well, who are your favorites? So I’m like, try remember their name, try remember their names [CHUCKLE] so that I could go home and do some homework before I gave it a try.


And you started off being a columnist for the Maui Beat only?


No. Metro.


Metro, oh.


So, yeah, I came back to Honolulu. And that was that.


So, in the beginning, there was no thought that you would sort of be a translator and a voice for local culture?


Actually, my job offer from Jim Gatti, who was the editor at the time, is really like boldly written, worded. He says, We want you to be provocative. And he describes, We want you to provoke reaction, we want you to have people spit out their coffee at the breakfast table.


Now, did that appeal to you?


No. [CHUCKLE] I needed the job. We want people to take the paper, and throw it on the ground, we want people to cut out what you wrote and keep it in their wallets. And I thought … Wow. Like, how many times is a Portuguese-Hawaiian woman asked to do something like that, you know? And it doesn’t suit my nature. I’m just sort of not like that. I really do want to be the one in the back of the class, watching everything, taking copious notes, but not saying anything, and certainly not provoking.


Yeah, but making comments to yourself, right?


To myself, maybe, or to the person sitting next to me, or just kinda rolling my eyes so nobody can see, like in the back. But that was a challenge, and I thought, Wow, this is an opportunity, and I’m super lucky that it came to me. And I’ll give it a shot.


After the Honolulu Advertiser folded, Lee Cataluna’s husband, Jim Kelly, lost his editorial post at the newspaper, and the family relocated to California so that her husband could accept a newspaper position in Palm Springs. At the time of this conversation in 2011, Lee’s column for the Honolulu Star Advertiser is written an ocean away. It continues to spark public debate and discussion.


I try to make sure that the person I take on is bigger than I am. Like that’s the rule, right? You don’t pick on anybody littler than you. So I would never take on an individual. I would never take on anybody who doesn’t have the same, or more access to the media. That’s only fair. And, I try not to make it personal. I mean, I don’t know that I always do a good job of that, but I really try.


In fact, there are some people you like, but you’ve criticized them.


Oh, yeah. Yeah. And turnabout is fair play. Yeah?


So you get criticized back?


Yeah. It’s the job. [CHUCKLE]


I would guess—I mean, you’ve written a lot of controversial columns that have provoked lots of blog commentary. I would just hazard a guess that the most controversial ones or the most reaction you had was the one where you wrote, when June Jones after having taken his team to the Sugar Bowl, quit the UH. And you said, June, don’t let the door hit you on the pocketbook on the way out.






Yeah. I always feel like a distance from what I write. I mean, what I write is not necessarily who I am. I own it, I wrote it, yes, I said that. But do I, like, live with it every second of the day? No. There’s a little bit of detachment. I mean, I think that’s part of the professionalism, right? I can’t live or die, ‘cause I got something else to write tomorrow. Do I feel that way about the man personally? No. But I think in the moment, like, it was a good thing to write. It was a good column for that particular point in time.


It made people think.


Yeah; and it made people react. I think a columnist has to be like the wall that people react off of, they bounce off of. And there were things to be said about, this very highly paid, high profile, almost like idol in community who was making this—


The UH football coach.


Yeah. So let’s talk about it. And if I can play a role in the discussion, saying that she’s right, she’s wrong, this, that, whatever, then I’ve done my job.


Well, just recently, as we speak in 2011, the Governor and his wife, Nancie, decided to take their thirtieth year anniversary in Paris, something they had dreamed of. And here comes Lee, saying, Hey, come on, look at the economy, you should be having your anniversary at … where did you say, Maui Seaside Hotel?


Yeah. Or Uncle Billy’s, or something. I don’t know. Do I feel like so emotionally tied to this, that I would, I don’t know, go hold a sign outside of their hale? No. It’s a function of here’s an opinion, maybe people will talk about it. Maybe people will react to it. Maybe it’ll provoke a discussion.


Have you been surprised sometimes? ‘Cause I’m sure you can predict the way most columns will be received. Was there any really counterintuitive response that you’ve experienced?


Larry Mehau called me up once, and told me, Right on, sistah, you get balls. [CHUCKLES] This came years after, and I tell this story kind of as a source of pride. Sort of the only person who has ever come up to me, finger in my face, said, I don’t like what you wrote, was Larry Mehau.


And he’s a big guy.


He’s a big guy. And, he carries …



—the weight of his name. And he, full-on, finger and everything, I didn’t like that.


What didn’t he like?


What did he like?


What didn’t he like?


What didn’t he like? Something I wrote about Frank DeLima, his friend. And the one he did like was the one I wrote about June Jones.


Oh, really? Now, you wrote about Frank. Was it the ethnic humor Frank DeLima column? You went after Frank for doing ethnic humor.


In the schools.


In the schools; I see.


Yeah. And he and I have kinda been in the same place. We’ve been in schools together since then, and he’s cool, I love his work. But I know what it’s like to be … I don’t want to be causing him any more grief from me, but I know what it’s like to be a Portuguese-Hawaiian girl growing up in Hawaii, and having to deal with all the things that I am purported to be, as a Portuguese girl.


What is the stereotype? When you were growing up.


[CHUCKLE] Talk too much. Yeah. Talk too much, but say nothing.


And you got that?


Constantly. Yeah. Yeah; and I had to fight to be in the college prep classes.


So we’ve talked about the columns that got you the most heated responses. What were your favorites? Were those the ones that were your favorites?


I know it sounds weird, but I love writing story obituaries. Where you can spend time with a family and try to get the tone right, of someone’s life. And what that meant to the family, to the community, that kinda stuff.


For example?


One story I wrote, it was a while after the woman’s death. But a man called me up, and his daughter’s killer was being sentenced, and for the first time in this whole long process after the murder, he was asked to give a victim’s statement. And he wanted to kinda talk with me about it. And I said, Well, I can help you write it, but, I’d love to hear your story. And we spent hours at his picnic table outside his house in Kalihi, and his wife kept bringing out food. And journalist not supposed to eat, right? But in Hawaii, you have to.


If you turn it down—


Yeah, kinda the interview stops. And I think I had about three lunches, and it was moving on into dinner, and I was still there talking to him. He spoke in metaphor, in a like, uniquely Hawaiian way. And I had to try to understand what he was saying. Like, his daughter played the harp. And I thought, Wow, that’s an unusual instrument for a girl who grew up in Kalihi, what’s that about? And he goes, Well, I was a diver, and sounded like when I’m diving. So those kinda things. And like, I had to kind of understand him, and then I wrote his story about what it was like, what her life meant to him, what it was like for him to try to give a victim impact statement in court. And that was the first time I remember writing a story about someone’s life, and kind of feeling like I could almost hear them. Like as I was writing it, and I don’t want to sound too, like woo, kinda thing. But I was thinking, gosh, I hope I’m helping, I hope I’m doing the right thing, I hope I’m getting this right. And I kind of felt a presence.


Did they enter the column in the court record?


I think he might have read it, yeah. I don’t know for sure, but I think he might have read parts of it and, had his own things to say.


So that actually has given you the most satisfaction, that kind of column?


Yeah. I like when I write about somebody, somebody alive too, and they say, Yeah, you got it, you got it right.


You captured it.


In 2011, the year of this taping, Lee Cataluna published her first novel, Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa, the story of a character named Bobby and his misguided attempts to go straight after serving prison time. Lee also is completing her studies in the Master of Fine Arts Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Riverside. Mahalo piha, Lee Cataluna, for sharing your long story short, and thank you for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


If I’m not mistaken, some of your earliest storytelling had to do with comedy. You were doing audio, right? Audiotapes.


I did that for a while.


To me, comedy is harder than anything, and it makes you so vulnerable.


That’s why I’m not doing it anymore. [CHUCKLE] Michael W. Perry told me to my face, Lee, you’re not funny. [CHUCKLE] And I think he was right. I’m not; I’m not funny in person. Sometimes I can write funny. But that was more like I did it when I was younger. It wasn’t what I wanted to be. It was just sort of an experiment. You know, grew up huge, huge fan of Booga Booga, and Rap, and Andy Bumatai, and Frank De Lima, and so much of my writing is influenced especially by Rap, I would say. I mean, most people, my generation say that, right?


Part 2: Creation and Change


The only thing that drew me to the story was, Bobby’s voice was so insistent. But again, I don’t want to sound like I’m nuts. But, he was a very clear voice for me. I could hear the way this guy spoke. He had a lot of stories to tell. And it was that experience that some writers describe as almost taking dictation.


Award-winning playwright and newspaper columnist, Lee Cataluna, reveals the creative process behind her first novel, next, on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Lee Cataluna is a popular columnist for the Honolulu Star Advertiser, and creator of the local box office hit, Da Mayah. She went on to write other productions for Kumu Kahua Theater, Diamond Head Theatre, and the Honolulu Theatre for Youth that include Folks You Meet in Longs, Musubi Man, You Somebody, and Ulua, the Musical. Lee Cataluna’s body of work as a television anchor and reporter, newspaper columnist, and playwright has earned her the Elliot Cades Award for Literature and the Pookela Award for Playwriting. Her latest foray into long form fiction began as a writing sample to gain entry into a master’s degree program. She recently launched the completed work as her first novel titled, Three Years On Doreen’s Sofa. It’s the story of a character named Bobby, a hapless ex-con, trying to make a life for himself from his new home on his sister’s sofa.


I’ve written for an all-male cast in a theatrical production before, and I was so proud of myself that I captured these male voices. And I’ve gone through the experience of writing for men, having men cast in the parts, having a male director, showing up at rehearsal, and having them say, Yeah, this is so like a middle-aged woman’s version of a man. So [CHUCKLE] I don’t have any illusions that I can, like, channel or any of those kind of things. I mean, I know it’s through my perspective.


Do you think you got this character?


I hope I got this character.


Tell me about the book. What made you write it, and why pick this subject? I mean, you explain that you’re not like the main character in the book, but you are kinda like Doreen—




—in Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa.


I think I’m kinda like Doreen.


Who is a hard case.


She’s a hard case. But, I fight my inner Bobby. Bobby is the protagonist narrator, who just can’t get off the sofa; he just can’t get his life in gear. And I kind of think a lot of people have their inner Bobby. But those of us who have jobs and families, and function in the real world, we have also our inner Doreen that kicks us to do something. Kind of that fear, slash, anger, slash, survival that makes you do stuff you don’t want to do.


And this brother and sister are the first in their—well, Doreen is the first in the family ever to get off government assistance.


Yeah; she’s pretty proud.


While Bobby is an alumnus of prison.




So, what made you pick this milieu?


The only thing that drew me to the story was, Bobby’s voice was so insistent. He was a very clear voice for me. I could hear the way this guy spoke. He had a lot of stories to tell. And it was that experience that some writers describe as almost taking dictation.


So, was he an amalgam of people you knew, or did you know a Bobby?


[CHUCKLE] Everybody knows a Bobby.


But this is a distinctive Bobby. I mean, he pilfers all over the place, he justifies—


But he has a good heart.


He rationalizes.


He’s never really malicious, right? He just kind of like bumbles along, and he’s just kinda having a good time, and oh, kinda bragging about all the bad things that happened to him. I’ve known many Bobbys. He’s not any particular Bobby. When there’s some sort of program that touts itself as, we change lives, and then they sort of give you their spokesperson, like, Oh, yeah, my life is completely different now, and halfway through the interview, right, you have the warning bells going on, like, this guy is doing all the stuff he says he hasn’t done in six months or whatever, and he’s going to do it right after I leave, and he probably did it this morning. Yet, he’s like, a fantastic storyteller, and even though I know he’s lying, like, I want to hear the stories.


And he has no self-awareness.


None whatsoever. None. I mean, Bobby in the story is so stuck in a very, very early stage of child development. He really wasn’t nurtured, and he doesn’t understand some basic things about human relationships, about sexuality.


Well, even the background, I mean, the story you give him, of how he came into the world is pretty incredible. What’s the genetics?


Well, he and Doreen are brother and sister, but they’re also cousins. Because they have the same father, different mothers, but their mothers are sisters. And they were conceived the same day, in the same car, in the same parking lot.


And there’s another sister.


And there’s another sister.


With a different …


Different mother, unrelated, but same father. So it was a busy night for their dad.


And now, where did that come from?


[CHUCKLE] You’d be surprised. Stuff happens in families. But where it came from in terms of the functionality of the novel for me was, I wanted to have these two characters who had the same sort of genetic background, but not the contrivance of twins. But I wanted them to have the same genetic background, the same early childhood experiences, yet they’re so different as grownups, and why. ‘Cause I didn’t want it just to be blamed on, oh, he was born that way, or that’s how he was raised. I wanted it to be something else.


Doreen has kids, and she’s struggling to get a better life for them, and she’s telling Bobby, Don’t you drag us down.


That’s right.


I’ll help you out, but don’t you drag us down.


That’s right. She has concerns external to herself. And she pulled herself out of that path. And I wrote her to be a pretty tough lady. She really doesn’t stand for anything, yet, she lets Bobby come into their house. And I don’t think we see too much—Doreen doesn’t let her soft side, but just letting him in, she was giving him a chance. Bobby doesn’t take chances.


No. I don’t want to give away the end of the novel, but I mean, there is no redemption for Bobby, right?


How could there be? He says, when there’s two choices, It’s my job to take the bad one. He just sees himself that way.


Another thing he said, and I really flash on this because I too have interviewed people where this is exactly what I thought. I think Bobby is quoted by you as saying that, I feel good when I’m numb.


Yeah. I feel best when I don’t feel anything. Yeah. Yeah; I mean, my big test for myself in this book tour was, I went to read at the Women’s Correctional Center in Olomana, and to the writing group that is there that Pat Clough has, that she teaches. And so, I knew if I was gonna get anything about, like this wasn’t true, this doesn’t ring true, you don’t know what the heck you’re talking about, I was gonna get it there, and that I was gonna get the truth. And it was a really cool experience. And as I left, kind of my gift came from the warden, who said, I know Bobby. And he named Bobby, and I won’t name his Bobby, but he told me who Bobby was, who is not currently there at the facility. And then, I did a reading at Kumu Kahua, and Judge Steve Alm came up to me afterward. He says, I got Bobby on my docket this week. That’s been cool. I mean, it’s farce, Bobby is an unreliable narrator. He’s lying. I think his big addiction is to drama, and to stories, so he’s making stuff up. But I wanted him to ring true. And I hope he does.


And he knows his stock and trade is stories.




That’s who he is.


Yeah. I mean, he’s got these other addictions, but mostly, he’s most comfortable when he’s lying on the sofa, little bit loopy, with his slush float. That’s kind of his mother’s milk that he never got as a kid. And dreaming up crazy things, bragging about his misadventures.


Writer Lee Cataluna’s first novel, Three Years on Doreen’s Sofa, incorporates Pidgin dialect, and has successfully taken what is essentially a spoken language and translated it for the written word. Here’s an excerpt from novel that gives Bobby’s narrative account of his relationship with his sister, Doreen.


Me and Doreen get kinda that same love-hate going on, like our mothers. I love Doreen, she hate me. Well, no, she don’t really hate me, she love me, deep down. I am her closest blood relative in the world, next to her mom and her kids and our dad. Even closer, because she related to all of them only side, but with me, we have double blood. She would do anything for family. And me, family. She would do anything for me. Which is why it’s cool that I live couple blocks from her wallet every so often, and sometimes Kennison’s wallet, and Liko’s piggybank, which is really a turtle or some kine dinosaur animal, but he still call it piggybank. He not so good with his animals yet. But not Doreen’s wallet. Oh, no, that girl is smart like the mother, and she not tired like the mother. She still young, that’s why. Get more chance she count her money at the end of the day, and she going notice when stuff is missing. Plus, Doreen don’t have the love for her Uncle Bobby yet. She still see me like one parasite and one loser. I gotta prove to her how I am, really, inside. Which is why I gotta take her mother’s money, just for now, just while I still yet getting on my feet, to help me get on my feet. Takes money to make money, right?


And that is funny, but it’s so insightful.


Justifying bad behavior, most of us. I know I do that, sometimes. My behavior is not quite as bad. It’s not that bad. But still, that self-justification, and delusional. He’s wrong; he’s wrong about stuff. He’s wrong about a lot of things, especially about relations.


But he sees Doreen as really loving him when she gets on him.


She’s barely tolerating him. I mean, she has a feeling of obligation.


I’m wondering if you’re looking to make a transition to more than a regional writer, or when you use Pidgin, do you become more than a regional writer? Is that translatable?


I think I’m trying to answer that question for myself. Since this book—this is the last piece that I’ve written in Pidgin. I’ve been trying to write, and I can write in standard English. I do. But I’ve sort of stepped away from it, like I kinda got that itch really scratched in a full length novel. Graduate school is certainly expanding … my understanding of writing. The kinds of books that I would read, you know, the stuff that gets assigned to you is like, whoa, I would never pick this out unless somebody told me I had to read it. So that’s been good. Kinda painful, kinda good. But the first three chapters of Doreen’s Sofa, that was my writing sample that I submitted for application for graduate school. So … it got me in. [CHUCKLE]


In the year 2000, following a decade-long stint in television news as a reporter and anchor, Lee Cataluna made the career transition to print media as a columnist for the Honolulu Advertiser. And in this year of our taping in 2011, she writes for the Honolulu Star Advertiser. Already celebrated as a dramatist, Lee is probably better known at this time for her provocative newspaper commentaries. In 2005, while making a living writing about other people, Lee Cataluna’s own private life was thrust into the public spotlight while she was pregnant with her first child.


You know, there was a time when you almost died.


Yeah. I did die.


You did die?


M-hm. I don’t have the light story, so don’t ask that. But, yeah, yeah. I was coded. So …


And how has that changed you? It can’t have just been a ripple in the pond. Did it change you?


[SIGH] I don’t know. I mean, that happened six years ago. And I still feel like I’m in it. I don’t have that distance from that. I haven’t processed it, I haven’t written about it, I rarely talk about it.


Do you have a sense of it happened for a reason?


No. And if there’s any big change in my life, it’s that the loss of that, the loss of that everything happens for the reason. I can’t really believe that. I mean, I don’t know if anyone who goes—anyone who loses a child, that’s a tough one.


Because that was part of your almost losing your life, you lost a child.


Yeah. Yeah; we died together. And the doctors only brought me back. So, I have hard time seeing that as a miracle. I mean, I had an amniotic fluid embolism, and those are almost always fatal, to both mother and child.


And that just is something you can’t control, you don’t know. When you get pregnant, you just don’t know if that’s gonna happen to you?


It’s a plumbing accident that happens during labor. A little clot of something, maybe the baby’s hair or something, and the amniotic fluid gets into the mother’s bloodstream, ‘cause there’s a lot of stuff going on during labor. There’s a lot of blood vessels that are ruptured, and it gets into your bloodstream. So it could happen to anybody. But it’s so rare, and it’s almost always fatal. And when it’s not fatal, the mom is usually so—there’s been so much damage. And they told me that I should feel lucky that I can walk and talk, and breathe on my own. ‘Cause I was coded for forty minutes, while my child was still inside me.




Yeah. So …


Do you feel changed? Not emotionally, but I mean, have you had any physical effect?




That lingers?


No. The folks at Queen’s, Dr. Ikeda, and Dr. Lau, they ran my code beautifully. And there’s times I still search for words. But I can breathe. [CHUCKLE] I can think, I can walk, I can plan, I can remember.


And you had the guts to get pregnant again.


How could I not? How could I not? How could I say, Oh, okay, well, that was my one shot. I mean, that was one of the decisions that my doctor had to make on my behalf, because I was hemorrhaging out. So many things happen with this amniotic fluid embolism. First of all, your heart stops. [CHUCKLE] I mean, that’s the first symptom, is that your heart stops. And then, things get worse. And part of it is, you bleed out. So I had like, six units of blood. And I’m hemorrhaging, and they have to … the protocol is that they save the mother’s life, and then they get the baby out. [SIGH] So they left in my uterus when it would have been … ooh, that’s gross, yeah, to talk about it. [CHUCKLE] When it probably—you know, there was a decision to be made.


You’re a young woman, and they wanted you to have that option.


But I’m hemorrhaging. So, probably safer to just cut all your losses. But, they worked hard, and they left me with that. So I thought, damn it, I’m gonna use it. [CHUCKLE] They left me with that, I’m gonna try. And my doctor, particularly Dr. Lau, who I will love forever, she’d been with me through everything, she went with my husband through everything, ‘cause he remembers it and I don’t. ‘Cause I was down. But she said, No guarantees it’s not gonna happen again. We don’t know anything about this thing.


Did she try to say—




—better not?


Yeah; everybody said, better not. And I said, I’m going to. She said, Okay, well then, let’s work on this together.


And so, you said that—I mean, I don’t know what the odds are of it happening again, but—


Nobody knows, because nobody lives past the first incident.


What was that like, every day of the pregnancy which resulted in your son?


I wasn’t afraid of dying. I was afraid of living the way I had been living with that loss, and not having the guts to try again. To me, that would be worse. You know? What is my life without that trying, who am I without that trying.


How long did you wait?


The doctors told me to wait six months. And I waited six months. [CHUCKLE]


And then, you were pregnant again?


I think it was the next month. So yeah, seven months later. So, yeah, everything happened May of 2005, and my son was born July 2006. Yup. And my husband had to sit on the same bench where he sat outside. ‘Cause with my son, part of the precaution was a scheduled C-section. Like, we’re not gonna let you go into labor [CHUCKLE], ‘cause you can’t be trusted. But who know what would have happened if everything had been … so he had to be really brave for me, too. And that’s been a lesson for me. I mean, I guess maybe in the way that I’ve changed, I’ve had more compassion. And at first it was, I didn’t want to talk to anybody, ‘cause people couldn’t help but saying stupid things, in the name of being kind. Like, it was meant to be.


It’s like they didn’t quite think it through, or they’d never had anything like that happen.


Or they never had anything like that happen. And then, you start to realize—I mean, for me it’s happened to so many people, and they don’t talk about it. And then, when it happens, and then they bond, they have this little clan, secret. Because only those people understand. And I had one woman, Nancy Moss, and I will be grateful to her forever. She sought me out. She said, You know what, the same thing happened to me. And she took me to lunch, and she let me say everything, every stupid thing that I needed to say to somebody who understood.   And she understood. And it happened to her, thirty years prior, but it was still fresh for her too.


Why do you think you haven’t written about it yet?


This is the first time I’m talking about it to anybody other than … I don’t know. [CHUCKLE] I haven’t made sense of it. I don’t know … I don’t know if you can make sense of it. You just kinda pick up and keep going. Yeah, you can’t … [SNIFF] some things—you just come to the conclusion that some things, you’re just never gonna understand, or it might take a long time to accept. I don’t know. It’s the closest thing that I think I might have to a war experience, and a lot of those soldiers don’t talk about it when they come back. It’s just things you can’t put into words.


Of course, in your case, it was publicized that you were in the hospital, you were seriously ill.


Not my doing. [CHUCKLE]




Not my choice.


By your own newspaper.


Well, because one of the TV stations had already gone for it, and pulled out, archive video of me when I was like twenty-four years old and had a bad perm.




Yeah. And I have to say, and maybe that was a lesson too. Not The Lesson, but A Lesson about what it’s like to suffer through something publicly, and how to manage that. And I think people grieve differently. That was a big lesson too. Some people really love having [SNIFF] support. I wanted to be left the hell alone.


‘Cause you must have had a stranger or two ask you about it, and that must have been pretty …


Yeah, I still do.




And then people misunderstand, because my son was born so soon afterwards. They think that everything turned out okay. So that I’m comfortable to talk about it, that it’s a story of victory. And in some ways, it is. But my son has his own life, and he has his own purpose. He’s not the replacement.


And do you correct them, when they think it all turned out great?


No. Because it burdens them. It makes them feel like, Oh, crap. [CHUCKLE]


There’s all this intricacy that you’ve got to work your way through, even though it’s covered with pain.


Yeah. And I don’t want to put—at first, I would just tell people, I would just bluntly tell people, that things did not turn out the way I wanted them to. And then I could see that it was hurting them, and I thought, they were trying to be nice. So, I’d just kinda get through the moment, and then I’d go in the bathroom and cry. [CHUCKLE] And then I’d stop.


Do you wonder what happened, to your spirit while you were forty minutes coded?


Yeah. You know, I got ripped off. I didn’t get— [CHUCKLE]—


You didn’t get the light?


I didn’t get the light. I didn’t get the light.


Well, that’s because you weren’t ready to go.


I don’t know. I don’t know; who knows. Who knows. Someday, maybe I will understand, but I’m not there yet. Maybe some people go through—I know people who’ve gone through similar or way worse experiences, and they understand things differently after. And I hope I get to that point. But for now …


But you don’t have a sense of, the light went out inside me for a while? No recollection?


No. They gave me Versed, so that I would not remember. And so, I came out of all this. I was not awake for … I don’t know, five, six days, and I woke up in ICU, and I’m like, I don’t remember anything. And they were like, Good, you’re not supposed to, we kinda took that away from you to kinda ease the burden.


And then you must have said, What happened to my child?


Oh, yeah.


Who told you?


Well, she lived for two weeks. So, she lived long enough for me to meet her, and hold her.


And that’s good.


Yeah. It is. Yeah, I got to see her. I got to kiss her; got bathe her.


Your colleague in writing, Juliet Lee—


Oh, love her.


She’s a Buddhist priest who says, you know, some things in life are just random, they don’t make sense.


I tend to think that. But I would never argue with someone who gets through this tough, tough life in this tough, tough world by saying everything has a reason. If they believe that, then it’s absolutely true.


Let’s talk about … you’re living in California. Tell me about your life now.


I’m in school fulltime. My little boy is in kindergarten. My husband works at the Desert Sun, he’s the managing editor there. I’m homesick every single day. It was a really tough decision to make, but we’re kind of economic refugees. When the Honolulu Advertiser shut down, my husband had come back there, and he was not offered a job with the surviving paper. He was rehired at the Advertiser three weeks before the sale was announced. So all of us at the Advertiser, were shocked, and many of us are still dealing with, what happened. And I think that’s true for Aloha Airlines, and many other big companies here that we’ve seen go. So what do you do? You evaluate, you hold onto what you can, you try something new, you try to make the best of the situation.


Is it harder to write about Hawaii from California?


Sure. Because so much of good writing is the walking around, right? My dad used to say, A farmer has to have his boot prints in the field. You can’t farm from the office. And I don’t think you can write from the office too, right? Like the best stories are the ones where you walked around, and you like, smelled the smoke, or you know, whatever.


But on the other hand, it gives you some distance, so sometimes that perspective works.


Sometimes; sometimes. I try to report a lot. Actually talk to people. Get them on the phone, or email back and forth or whatever, so that I’m not just doing observational things. I try to rely more on reporting. Where I’m at in the desert, for a while, I was driving around—for too long, I was driving around with my Hawaii license plates, and people were like, Hooey! So, definitely a lot of transplanted Hawaiians, local people in California, in the desert. That’s not the kind of stories that people here want to read. They want to read about here. So I freelance for the paper, and I write one story a week. And I try my best. Try my best to stay in touch. Can you completely stay in touch from another state? No, ‘cause I don’t get to walk around. But, I spent my summer here, and I’ve been here the last week, and, try my best.


At the time of our conversation in 2011, writer Lee Cataluna is fast approaching the completion of her course studies to earn her master’s degree in fine arts from the University of California at Riverside. Next, a children’s book about a Maui bird that wants to fly to the summit of Haleakala. Mahalo nui, Lee Cataluna, for sharing your long story short. And thank you, for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episode of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


One of the rewrites for me was to try to make the Pidgin more accessible. And that’s where graduate school has helped me, has taught me a lot. Because I’d been reading a lot of pieces written in dialect, different dialect, dialect that I’m not familiar with. A lot of people have read Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which is a fabulous book. And so he throws in a lot of different, like, street slang and Spanish words, and just lot of stuff going on. And I had to analyze, okay, why am I digging this, ‘cause this is not a speech pattern that I’ve heard or familiar with, and how is this working, and try to learn from that kinda stuff.


Ben Cayetano



Original air date: Tues., Nov. 21, 2011


In the first of a two-part Long Story Short, Ben Cayetano talks with Leslie Wilcox about growing up in Kalihi and a past only recently revealed in his self-titled memoir. He talks openly about being raised by his father and how he discovered, yet never discussed, the truth of his birth. Looking back, Ben shares with Leslie how personal encounters with ethnic discrimination and other early experiences informed the important decisions of his life, and led eventually to a career driven by his desire to advocate for social justice.


In the second part of the interview, Ben Cayetano explains how his desire to serve a greater public led to nearly thirty years in public office. With his trademark candor, he reveals how his priority, which put the people before personal gain, was often at odds with how the game of politics is played. He speaks frankly about his disdain for political quid pro quo, and how and why he believes it plays an even larger part of the landscape today


Ben Cayetano Part 1 Audio


Ben Cayetano Part 2 Audio


Ben Cayetano Part 1 Transcript


Ben Cayetano Part 2 Transcript




Ben Cayetano: Part 1


Eventually, it dawned on me that, Listen Cayetano, you better go get an education. Because I’d worked as an apprentice… electrician apprentice, I drove a truck, I worked in junkyard. Each time I worked, I said, I can’t do this forever. So I ended up going to school.


Born poor in Kalihi during a time in our aloha state when there was an ethnic pecking order, he rose to become the first Filipino-American governor in the history of Hawaii—and the nation.


Benjamin Jerome Cayetano, next on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to “Long Story Short.” Gruff, tough Ben Cayetano left political office in 2002, and you might think he mellowed in retirement. Not much! In his 560-page biography, Ben: A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor, published in 2009, he doesn’t shy away from personally or politically sensitive subjects. And he writes with unflinching candor. One reviewer, Joseph Napolitan, called the book a must-read for all who want to understand how Hawaii really works.


Author Ben Cayetano starts at the beginning, as we do on Long Story Short— in Kalihi, with a father raising two sons. And he shares a childhood shock, something he rarely spoke of as an adult—that the father who raised him was not his birth father. As for Cayetano’s mother, she had left the household.


Well, tell me a little bit about your childhood. You lived on the second floor on Silva Street.




With whom?


My father. My father raised my brother and I.


Where was your mom?


Well, they were divorced. My mom was living someplace else. So I grew in a household of males. My father worked at the Outrigger Canoe Club. And often, he’d go to work early in the morning. And because he worked a split shift, and he didn’t know how to drive, he didn’t have a car, he would come back maybe nine-thirty, ten o’clock in the evening. And so in between, my brother and I had to kind of fend for ourselves. So at a very early age, we learned how to take care of ourselves.


How old were you when you started spending so much time alone? Or with your brother.


Probably maybe nine, ten years old. Before then, my father used to actually come home during his, you know, break; in between uh, uh, shifts. And then when we got older, it was always a strain on him to come home.


On the bus.


On the bus, yeah.


In between shifts.




How long did it take him on the bus?


Back then, it probably took him over an hour. ‘Cause he had to make at least two transfers, I think.








So—[CHUCKLES]—but it wasn’t that hard, because like I said, we felt safe. And the neighbors, our neighbors, kinda helped out. Our neighbors knew us. So they would kinda keep an eye on us. But interestingly, on that street, there were other guys who were raised by their fathers as well. So I didn’t think I was anything really unusual.


You didn’t find yourself saying, you know, How come I don’t have a mother living with me? Or did you feel cheated somehow?


I don’t know if…I don’t think I felt cheated. But I wondered why my mother wasn’t home.


And you said that there had been a decision that your dad would take care of you.




Why not your mom?


Well … I’m not sure, frankly. But, I think my mom found somebody else.




And that person didn’t quite want us there.






And then there came the day when you found out the dad you had was not your, quote, real dad, your biological dad.


Right. And I found that out one day, the ice cream man was coming, up the road. So I went to my father’s dresser, pulled out a drawer, and um, looking for some loose change. He wasn’t home. I found his life insurance policy. And even though I was only maybe nine or ten, maybe eleven, I knew what a insurance policy was for. I noticed that my name was under the beneficiary. And then I began wondering; but I never asked my father. But I asked my aunt. I was close to her, and she said, Well, you’re old enough to know that your father, Ansen [PHONETIC], is not your real father, even though his name is on my birth certificate. What had happened was, my mother was married to a guy named Jerry. He divorced her while she was carrying me; you know, expecting. And back then, there’s a stigma if you give birth and you’re not married. And so she married my father, and his name got on the birth certificate. So finally one day, my aunt said, I’ll show you who he is uh, because he comes here for the cockfights all the time.


And you’d never seen him before?


Never seen him. I didn’t know what he looked like or anything. And then one day, I was staying with her, and ‘cause I used to stay with them often. And she said, Boy—that’s my nickname—come, come. Her bedroom was on the second floor. She said, I want to show you who your father is. And then she pointed him out. And I took one look at him … I said, Yeah, that’s my father. I can somehow sense it, you know.


He looked like you?


Yeah, unfortunately. [chuckle] He was short. I’m five-six; he must have been about five-five or five-four, fair-skinned and um … I just sensed that this guy is my father. And so I used to walk around during the cockfights, and I’d watch out and—watch him. And he never paid attention to me. It’s like I thought maybe he doesn’t know. And then one day … somebody tapped me on my—on the back. And I must have been about twelve or thirteen at the time. And I turned around, and it was him. And he looked at me and he says, You know me? Just like that, you know; kinda cold. And I was a Kalihi boy; nobody talks to me like that. And I said, Yeah, I know you. And that was it. [chuckle] Never spoke to each other again, but I didn’t feel any emotion, because my … father, my stepfather, Ansen, he had raised me as if I was his son. And so … I loved him. And that’s why when people say blood is thicker than water, I’m not so sure, because … I think interpersonal relationships have a lot to do with who you love. And even though this guy tapped me on the back, he was my father, I didn’t feel anything. Now had he been warm or something like that, I think our relationship would have probably grown. But he wasn’t.


Did you tell your stepfather?




Did you ever talk to your stepfather about knowing that he wasn’t your birth father?






Never; never. I didn’t think that there was a need to.


What about your mother; did you ever tell her that you knew?


No. It’s interesting, ‘cause my middle name is Jerome. And one day all these years, I’ve been—uh, after I found out, I was trying to get my mother to tell me, you know. And finally one day, I asked her; I said, Mom, why is my name—my middle name Jerome? And she said, Oh, there’s a famous lawyer that I really admired, and I gave you that name.


So you knew she didn’t want to talk about it?



No; I’m named Jerome because my real father is Jerry. You know, his name is Jerry. And so she didn’t want to talk about it, and we never talked about it. We never discussed it.


And what about the Ben Cayetano we know, the blunt—




—uh, you know, go for it guy? You didn’t want to talk about that with either of your parents?


No, because I was developing as a person. And our family never talked about anything like that, never discussed the reasons why my mother and father got divorced. And later on, when there were issues with my brother, we never talked about that. We just never discussed those kinda things. And as far as I was concerned, it was okay.


I would think it’d be hard to live with. I mean, just not seeing your name on the life insurance policy. Nobody really bellying up to the bar and telling you, Here’s the way it is, and here’s why.


Well, my father, when I say my father, I’m talking about my stepfather. I understood. It hurt at the beginning, but my brother is younger than me; he’s very fragile. You know, he’s smaller. And I always felt that I can take care of myself.



But later in, my father changed it; he put my name too.


He told you, or you found out?


No, I found out.


Once again, he didn’t tell you.


[chuckle] My father didn’t tell me anything. The only time we talked about anything was, usually we went to a boxing match or something like that.


Where did you live?


I lived on Silva Street; Silva and Mokauea Street. The corner, almost. And as a kid, I was more afraid of ghosts than strangers. [chuckle] And the—the neighborhood was basically working class, but there were some people there who were like teachers who lived in the area. The neighborhood was different, mostly homes. Not many businesses like it is today. It was a good place to grow up, actually, because … everyone knew each other. We didn’t lock our doors. You felt safe.


Everybody likes to say, Oh, Kalihi is a tough place. Was it tough?


It was yes and no. I mean, compared to other places, Kalihi could be real tough. But I think Kalihi, in my book, I write that Kalihi is like … Brooklyn, New York. It’s kind of a special place, but it produced four of our six governors after statehood. Now we have a mayor who’s from Kalihi. So it produced people who accomplished things, Rhodes Scholars, great entertainers.


Why do you think it produced people who excelled in their field?


I think when you grow up in a place like Kalihi, at least, when I was growing up there, just the circumstances under which you grow up, I think help you develop character. When you live a life where you don’t have everything handed to you—although I have to say that … I never really thought I was poor. [chuckle] I think most kids who grew up in a place like that don’t know. But when you grow up under the circumstances, you see some people struggle, maybe your own family struggle; I think it develops you. And so if you write or you create, like music, or you write a novel, or whatever, I think that kinda experience really is helpful. Because it helps you understand the dynamics of what makes people tick.


When Ben Cayetano served as lieutenant governor, he established the popular A-Plus program, a statewide government-sponsored after-school program that accommodated children of working parents. This tremendous help for families…from a former latchkey kid.


What did you do for fun as a latchkey kid? I don’t know if the word latchkey existed then.




But what did you do?


We’d go down to Sand Island, and we’d catch crabs, and fish, swim. It’s amazing when I think about it. The way I learned how to swim. I didn’t know how to swim, and so I’d just dive in the water and stroke like crazy until I hit the next boat. [chuckle]


That could be risky.


Yeah. Then I developed into a really good swimmer. We’d do things, like we’d make canoes out of corrugated iron and wood, and tar. Okay. We’d put it all together, and we’d try to paddle from the shore to Mokauea Island. You know where Mokauea Island is?






It’s not too far offshore. What is it; about—


Maybe about three hundred yards.




Yeah. And uh usually, the boat would sink at about the middle, because you know, the tar would give way and all that. And then we’d go back, and we’d do it again.


[chuckle] And did you really want to get to Mokauea?




Was there something to see on Mokauea?


The only thing on Mokauea Island back then—and you know today, these revisionists, historians say that, the island is sacred and all of that. Well, back when I was a kid, the only thing on Mokauea Island were three or four elderly Filipino men living on huts on sticks. I mean, on stilts. And these guys were really, really poor. There was nothing Hawaiian going on on that island. [chuckle]


What else did you do?


I learned to pump hole. You go to Sand Island, and they have mudflats there. And used to have a lot of crabs, and the crabs would live in a tunnel. So what we’d do is, one guy would get the scoop net; he would go to one end of the tunnel and would spread the net like that. And then the other guy, with his foot, would … push—


Pump hole.


Pump hole.




And the pressure would shoot the crab out.


Oh, and they were edible crabs, or it was—


Oh, yeah.


—just for fun?


Oh, yeah. No, no, these—


You would eat them?


Yeah, yeah, white crab, red crab. They’re all gone now, because of the pollution and all of that. But those were the kind of things that I did. And then when I got my bike, we would go to, Kalihi Valley, and we’d go to a place called Tin Roof. Still there today, Tin Roof.


Where’s Tin Roof?


Way up in Kalihi Valley. There’s a reservoir up there. And there’s a water tower, and the roof is tin. That’s why they call it—made of tin, corrugated, right? And that’s why we used to call it Tin Roof. We’d go over there, we’d catch crayfish and catfish. And then uh, using our bikes, we’d go to Waikiki, all the way from Kalihi, bodysurf at uh, at the Wall, which still stands today. And then a couple times, we went out to Kahala side to go and spearfish. And then that’s where we had some memorable experiences.


Okay; what happened?


We’d go down the public right of way, uh, park our bikes.


And you found all these places on your own?


Well, we’d hear about it. I was maybe like about … twelve or thirteen at the time. So there were about four of us. And so we go into the water, we got our spear guns, and we got, a net and a inner tube. So we were in the water; we’re about fifty yards or so from the shore. And this guy comes up, and he starts yelling us—like yelling at us, and telling us to get out of the water. He said, Get out of here.


Where’d he come out of; the right of way or a house?


No, we were in front of his house, obviously. And back then, if you were Asian, you couldn’t live in Kahala.




That’s the way it was. So this guy come out, and he starts yelling at us. Get out of here. ust like that. So I’m looking back, and our guys are saying … Well, what’s the matter with this guy? So we go deeper into the water, further out.




And he starts yelling; he says, I said get out of here. And he starts to swear; goddamn it. So pretty soon, we start to leave. So we leave, and then we say a few choice words to him ourselves. And we had packed lunch, Spam and rice and some, Vienna sausage; —that kinda thing. And so we’re sitting at the public right of way, leaning against a chain link fence; and a cop comes down. We see this cop coming down.




Parks his car, gets out. He walks up to us, and he says, You guys gotta leave. So we’re looking at each other; Why do we have to leave? You’re making too much noise. Oh, we’ll be quiet. No, you guys leave right now. Don’t give me a bad time. Why do we have to leave? Because the lady wants you to leave. And he’s nodding toward the fence. And on the other side of the fence, there’s a lady, and she’s standing like this. You know, elderly lady, all white hair, and her lips are pursed. That’s why you—you gotta leave, because she says you gotta leave.




And that made an impression on me. So we left.


I noticed in your book, you always describe people by their race.




And you continue to do that as an adult.




Why is that?


Ethnicity and race were big issues when I was growing up. When I was in college, I graduated from UCLA in 1986. It was, almost the height of the Civil Rights Movement. And so I had a chance to write about this in my book. I had a chance to see how polarized the races were. And so I grew up in that kinda atmosphere. Here in Hawaii, when I was growing up your race and ethnicity made a difference where you were in the social order.


How did it stack up?


Well in the 1950s and the 1960s, when I got out of high school, you would pick up a newspaper, and it’d say classified ads for jobs. And it would say, Caucasian only, Japanese only, or Chinese only. You never saw any ads saying Filipinos only, because we didn’t own anything.




So when you grow up in that kind of atmosphere, I think that it becomes part of your psyche. So when I write about people, I write about Donna Kim, for example. So one of the—the Advertiser columnists, David Shapiro, he told me, Well, I could have figured out that Donna Kim was Korean, just by looking at her name. I said, Yeah, but could you figure out what else she was? ‘Cause Donna Kim is Filipino-Korean. So even though that’s part of the way I look at things, it’s not in a negative way.


It’s just being aware, not …


It’s being aware.


And not biased?


No, I don’t think I’m biased.


You were born and raised in Kalihi, had never been to the mainland. But at some point, you packed up your wife and your kids, and off you went to LA.


Yeah. I’d never been off the island. Never been to any of the neighbor islands. And I was working for the State, Transportation Department, and I was a draftsman, and I wanted to get this job, a promotion, in this one certain department, which we used to call it structural. The drafting was much more sophisticated, and technical, and I wanted to get into that department. So when they gave the test, there must have been a hundred guys taking the test with me. I studied really hard. And when the results came in, I was number one on the list. Ninety-nine-point-something was my score; almost perfect. The test counts for seventy percent. Thirty percent is the personal interview. So I really prepare, make sure that I have my work samples, try to anticipate what kinda questions I’m gonna be asked. And I go for the interview. And this guy, you know, he’s interviewing me, and after about two minutes, I know I’m not gonna get the job. His body language and everything; he’s just going through the motions. And so he tells me in the end, he says, You know, Ben, I want a guy who’s fulfilled his military obligation. And I always felt bad that I hadn’t been in the service, because a lot of my friends went, to serve in Vietnam and all that. So I said, Okay, I can accept that. Gave me back my samples; he said, You know, you got a terrific score, and somebody will pick you up. And somebody did. About a year later, I’m in the Department of Transportation building; we’re in the copy room. Back then, the copy machines were so big, they put them all in one room. So I’m making copies, and this young kid is in there, and we start talking. I found out he got the job.




And I found out that he had never been in the service; he was 1A, which meant if there was a war, he would be the first to go. I was 3A; so my conclusion was, the guy lied to me.


And why would he lie to you? Was it a racial thing?


Well, I don’t know. I mean, it just so happens that the guy who lied to me was the same ethnicity as the kid who got the job. But, it could have been that, it could have been because I didn’t have any connections, in State government. So I was very upset. And when I got home I told my wife then; I told her what happened. And after a few days, I told her, You know what … I want to get out of here. I’m talking about leaving Hawaii. Never gonna come back, I said, unless I don’t have to work for anyone. That’s the way I felt. I never experienced any discrimination on the mainland, you know. But here, I did. Because on the mainland, I was like…I mean, Hawaiians are no threat to anyone, because there are not enough of us. So I was like a locker attendant and listening to people talking.


That means they dismissed you. Doesn’t it?




Doesn’t that mean they dismissed you, like you weren’t there?


Y—yeah. I was kind of invisible. I’d hear the White guys talk about the Blacks, and the Chicanos, the Mexicans. Then I’d hear the Blacks and the Chicanos talk about each other and the White guys. And all of this stuff going back and forth. And that’s when I said … Hawaii is very different. Because even though we’re not perfect, we—we get along better than this place, anyway.


So you know you didn’t want Hawaii, because you knew it wasn’t being good to you, or fair in the concept of hiring; but why did you think it would be better in LA?


I had no experience. I didn’t know what the mainland was like.


You were just willing to try something different.


Yeah; I was so disgusted and I said, Let’s—let’s go. And we did. So when I went to Los Angeles in 1963 … I’m standing outside of my apartment, and I’m waiting for a carpool ride. And I see this garbage truck coming down the street. Just like the garbage trucks we have in Hawaii. And you know, we call those guys rubbish man, right? I looked; the rubbish men all White. They’re all White guys. It’s a shock; I never saw that before. You never imagine that in Hawaii, you see a White guy, a Haole, picking up rubbish. So the—the truck comes by, and this guy sees me smiling, and he waves at me. Good morning; and I wave at him. That was the beginning of a cultural experience for me. Because I had never seen a lot of Black people in one place in as I did on—on the mainland. Farrington High School, student body was almost three thousand; one Black guy that I knew. [chuckle] And his skin was lighter than mine. Burl Malone was his name; he became, a football star and a track star for, for Farrington. So I go to the mainland, and all of a sudden, I go to Boyce Market …Crenshaw. And we’re the only non-Black people in the market. That’s an experience for a kid from Hawaii. Then when I go to East Los Angeles, I never met a Mexican before. [chuckle] All of a sudden, I find myself among all these, you know, Mexican people. So Los Angeles was a real cultural experience for me. I didn’t know whether I could get into a law school. Because uh … I gotta say that, I hadn’t been prepared as well as, others. I wasn’t sure my grades were good enough. But when I got out of UCLA, my grades were plenty good. And I did okay on the law school admissions test. And from then on, I thought, Okay, I can do this.


Did you know what you wanted to do, what kind of law you wanted to do early on?


Back then, there were a lot of television programs about lawyers. The Public Defender; you remember that TV program? Street House Lawyer, or something like that, and the mood of the country then was that lawyers would help the poor, they would defend people who were accused of crimes, and that kinda thing. And so when I went to law school, I never wanted to be a corporate lawyer; I wanted to be a criminal defense lawyer.


So you didn’t have um, visions of dollars in your head. It was—




It was about service, not money?


Well, I wanted to make a good living so I could buy a home. But I never thought that I would go into it just for the money. And when I practiced law and opened my own practice, money was never the issue. I’d help people. Once I represented a guy who was charged with a crime and he didn’t have money pay me, so he built a gate at my house. [chuckle] I needed a gate for my back yard, so he came and he built it.


The call of home brought the Cayetano family back to Hawaii. And after all of his hard-won education, Ben Cayetano found he wasn’t entirely satisfied with what he could do for people in the courts of law. He wanted to bring about social justice too. Next time on “Long Story Short,” Ben Cayetano goes into politics. I hope you’ve enjoyed this half-hour of frank talk from the former governor of Hawaii. He retired in 2002 to east Honolulu.


For PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox.   A hui hou kakou.


I told my father, retire, and then come and live with us. Because when I left in 1963, the next year, he followed us up to the mainland. But he couldn’t find a job in Los Angeles, so he went to live with his brother in Las Vegas. And then I told him, Dad, when you retire, you come home and live with me. And so in 1973, he came back and he lived with us. And he lived with me until he died in 1994.


Ben Cayetano: Part 2


I told Lorraine, let’s leave Hawaii. We started to save money. And one day, football season, I won two; so thousand dollars apiece. And that was like … somebody up there likes me. And that accelerated, our ability to move to the mainland.


That’s right, gambling money helped to fund the future Hawaii governor’s pursuit of higher education on the west coast. It was a twist of fate in the lives of Ben Cayetano and his wife at the time, Lorraine. More on the life of former governor Ben Cayetano, in his own words, next on Long Story Short.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of Long Story Short, we continue our conversation with former Hawaii Governor Benjamin Cayetano. He’s retired from politics, but maintains the same tough mindset he had while running our state for two terms. In his book, Ben: A Memoir, from Street Kid to Governor his candor is fascinating, and he is no less so here on Long Story Short.


He complains about Hawaii politicians who have little life experience, narrow horizons, and no appetite for making the tough calls.


You say something in your book that really surprised me.




I wonder; is this true where you say … I think it was time for your second term as Lieutenant Governor. I mean, everybody knows that lieutenant governor is often, not always, a stepping off point or spring pad for governor.




But you never thought about it before that, seriously?


When I was in the Senate, I was part of the dissidents. Neil Abercrombie and I were close, and 1986, I told Neil; Neil, I’m leaving the Senate. And he said he was gonna leave the Senate also. And so he told me, Ben, I’m gonna run for Congress. And I told him, I think you’d be a good Congressman. And he said, What you’re gonna do? I said, I’m gonna quit, I’m gonna go out and make money, buy a nice home for my family and all of that. And he told me, You know, Ben, after all we’ve been through as—as dissidents, because we both got into the Legislature in 1974, and here it is twelve years later. He said, We can’t leave this place to them. And he’s talking about the guys—




—you know, the establishment. And I thought about it. But politics is funny, because once you get a taste of it, if you really believe in public service, you sometimes say, I can’t leave this. Because I gotta do the job this way, and there are not enough people in the Legislature who believe as I do. And so Abercrombie, me, Toguchi—part of the dissidents, we all decided to stay in public service. So I ran for lieutenant governor, only office that was open at that time. Because I didn’t want to go to Washington, DC. And what’s interesting is that when I was a Senator, I introduced a bill to abolish the office. [chuckle] So I didn’t think much of the office. And all of a sudden, here I am, running for lieutenant governor. These things happen. You never figure out why, but it happened.


And the lieutenant governor’s office, as you pointed out in your book, is sort of what you make it.


Yeah. It’s what you make of it, and it’s what the Governor allows you to do. John Waihee was very good to me. So when you mention lieutenant governors running for governor, I’ll never run against him.




Because for all of the people had issues with him, uh, but I never did.


Did he actively encourage you to be the next governor?


No. We were both elected in 1986, he came to my office and he said, Ben, I was lieutenant governor for four years, I know how frustrating this office can be. So I want to work with you to get some things done. And I did the A-Plus Program for him.


You know, coming from a former latchkey—




I always thought that was your idea. But in your book, you say, no, wasn’t your idea.


Well, what happened was one day Waihee called me. Ben, can you come over to my office; Charley Toguchi is here. And Charley was the superintendent of education at the time. So I go into the office, and we meet, three of us. And Charley says, Frank Fasi is thinking about developing an after school program in the city parks. Now, Waihee was thinking about the election. [chuckle] Because Fasi was a perennial candidate for governor. So then John asked Toguchi, Is this a big problem, latchkey children? And Charley said, Yeah. About half of the kids, about thirty thousand estimated, after school, they’re wandering the streets, they go to the libraries, they go the shopping malls, or they go home, and nobody’s caring for them. So how come we didn’t do anything about it? That was Waihee’s next question. Because we decided to leave it to the private sector. So then, Ben, can you put, a program together? Well, I know how important it is, because I was a latchkey kid myself. So I said, Okay, we’ll do something. And Charley and I, because we’re close, I knew that we could do something.


And you came up with a name for it right away.


Yeah. Well in the end, he said, What will we call it? I said, How about A-Plus? And then we called it the A-Plus Program. It was not easy to set it up, because I found out how rigid and inflexible the DOE bureaucracy is. They were all opposed to it.




Because they didn’t want us to use the classrooms. See, the teachers are very territorial about their classrooms. The thought of it being open for an after school program didn’t sit well with many of the teachers. And so we had to get over that. And if Toguchi was not the superintendent, we would never have done it. Now, where I think that Waihee and I had a different approach was, he said, Let’s start a pilot program. And I told him, No, I don’t want to do a pilot program, because I know what’s going to happen. You do a pilot program, even if it’s successful, the rest of the schools will oppose it. So I said, Let’s do the entire system. And he looked at Toguchi, and he asked Toguchi, How many elementary schools are there? Hundred and forty, or something like that. Charley, do you think we can do it? I think we can do it. If not all, I think we can do most of it. And we did it; six month, we did it.


It was a little messy.


A little messy. [chuckle] A little messy. Some of the legislators and the Board of Education got a little bent out of shape, because here was the lieutenant governor and the superintendent doing this by themselves. So Francis McMillan, who was a member of the Board of Education, publicly criticized Charley. He said, Since when does the Lieutenant Governor run education in this State? You know. We had some challenges from the Legislature. But as soon as the idea got out this is what I find. You gotta communicate to the people that you’re doing something.   Because if we didn’t, this program would never have gotten off the board. Because it didn’t have any support. I mean, the parents didn’t know about it. It had only opposition. So once we said we’re gonna do this after school program, we’re gonna charge, I think was a dollar a day or something like that, some crazy amount, uh, then the parents started taking notice, you know. And pretty soon support for the program developed, because we were able to show people how great the need was. And myself, once I found out how many kids were at risk, it motivated me and Toguchi to put the program together. And we did.


That’s a perennial problem of politics, isn’t it?


Oh, yeah.


You try to do something that you think is really good, and instantly, so many people have a problem with it.


Well, what had happened is that the teachers and principals who were opposed to have their classrooms being used would complain to their legislators. And then the legislators would re—would react. The edge that we had was, the superintendent, Toguchi, was on board. And because we knew each other, we worked well together. The Governor asked us to put a committee together, and we did; and even the people on the committee were reluctant. So finally, it was a two-man committee; me and Charley Toguchi. [chuckle] And it was one of the most rewarding things that I was ever involved in politics. Because the first year, twenty thousand kids; the next year, the program grew to twenty-eight thousand. And the reviews by the parents were ninety-eight percent approval rating. Can’t do better than that, man.


Ben Cayetano grew up in a working-class family on the hard edges of old Kalihi. His mother left the family when he was a young boy, and his step-father worked tirelessly to support Ben and his brother Ken. Living in the shadows of Ben Cayetano’s life was his biological father, a man who never made an effort to spend time with or get to know his son. All of this toughened the Kalihi kid and helped shaped his no-nonsense style as Hawaii’s governor from 1994 to 2002.


How do you get used to any position of leadership, being able to stand your ground? I mean, were you always like that, willing to defy or deal with opposition, or did you have to learn it?


I think my nature and personality kinda made it easier.


What about in political decisions, where people who are opposing you may have a point? I mean, you’re not always right, or you’re not completely right.




How did you handle that?


Well, if they had a point, and if they persuaded me that I was wrong, or you know, it wasn’t feasible, I’d back off. I’ve done that at times. I don’t mind when you talk about the merits, you debate the merits back and forth. What really used to get me frustrated was, even though we’d make an argument for this or that proposition, the other guys, it’s when they say, Well, we can’t support it because the union is against it, or We can’t support it because this one group is against it. Tell us what the other side of the coin is; it’s all political. That’s very frustrating.


And yet, that’s the job you had for decades.


Well, I had, especially for eight years.


As they say, it’s lonely at the top.


But it’s a great honor to be at the top. You got selected out of a population of 1.2 million people to be Governor for eight years. There’s honor in that, and you feel obligated and duty bound to do what you think is right. Now like when I was a criminal defense lawyer, my own client this one guy charged with a crime. When I was Governor, my client was the public. And so I remember when the teachers wanted two hundred and forty million contract. We couldn’t give it to them, because I tried to explain, if we agree to this, I’m gonna have to cut all these programs for poor people. And they basically said, Well, we’re gonna strike. Well, you’re gonna strike, you strike. So they struck. And we finally settled the contract for like half of what they wanted. And I think you cannot be effective if you covet the job. You know what I mean? If you say, I want this job, and I want to be here forever, because this is the biggest thing that happened to me; if you feel that way, you’re not gonna be effective.


You always have to be willing to leave it.


Right. You gotta be willing to leave it. Like, I’m gonna make a decision, and that’s it. It’s like, playing professional football. That one day your day your playing time is gonna be up. Well, while you’re in there, you just do the very best you can. And that was my philosophy.


Well … you’re a guy who has clear ideas and likes to execute; but politics is all about accommodation and—




—group. How did you get through that? How did you get good at that?


Well most of the guys that I served with, they were reasonable people. Some of these guys had tremendous life experience. Guys like Jack Sua; they had gone to war, so they lived through some hard times, and they had all of this experience. They were also people who you could sit down and really talk about the merits and demerits. Today, it’s different. These kids in the Legislature—and I call them kids because many of them have never worked at any job what they’re doing today.




They were former staff members of a Senator or a Representative, decided to make politics a career, and they’re in it. What frustrates me about government, and which is why I wouldn’t want to be in it today; you can’t talk to these people, you cannot reason with them. That’s why there’s very little debate in the Legislature. Senator Les Ihara made a comment a couple days ago on the Civil Unions Bill. He said, You know, it’s such an important bill, but there’s so little debate; people just voted. They vote, they vote on alliances, they vote on anything but merit. Whatever works for them politically, they’ll vote that way. Now, I can’t put up with that. We’ve always had that, but it’s more pronounced today than ever.


Why do you think that is?


Well, one reason you don’t have a lot of debate is, these kids don’t have any experience. They can’t get up or they worry about their pet projects. I had one guy, a former newsman, come in one day and talk to me, and he said he didn’t like what was going on with the leadership. So I said, Why don’t you say something? He said, Well, otherwise they’re gonna kill my pork. Meaning the projects for his district. Well, if you feel that way, you shouldn’t be in the business.   You gotta do what’s best for everyone. I tried to tell him that. He still doesn’t say anything. Just sits there and, Do I get my swimming pool for my school? If I get that, that’s all I want. That’s how limited the horizons of these young legislators are today. Very limited.


H-m; h-m. So you think it’s a function of simple experience and having a broad outlook?


Well, I think events shape people. And if you were, like Dan Inouye, and you were in a war, those kind of things shape you in terms of what’s important. The guys who went to war, like Dan Inouye, Tom Brokaw called them the greatest generation. They came back from the war, and they built this country into the most powerful and richest nation in the world. They had a goal. These kids today, they never had to struggle for anything. Because my generation gave them everything that they wanted. There’s a book called Generation Me, written by a couple professors, and it talked about how this generation is different. If you don’t run into adversity, if you don’t struggle, if you’re not forced to postpone instant gratification so that you can accomplish something later, when you come up and face adversity or face failure, it’s harder to deal with it.


Some of Ben Cayetano‘s other political stories in his book—Ben: A Memoir, from Street Kid to Govenor—are real grabbers. He names names of politicians who he feels let down voters. And Ben Cayetano isn’t the only one in this political town with a long memory. He doesn’t make it on all of the A-list social invitations.


What’s been the reaction to your book? I know a lot of people—




—at the Legislature thumbed immediately to the index to see if you wrote about them, and what you said. But you did skewer a few people in the book.


Oh, yeah. But you know, one thing that I tried to do was, I said to myself, I’m gonna be honest and candid in this book, and critical of people, but I’m gonna really make sure that my facts are correct, that what I say is not out of pure spite, but is borne by the facts. And not one of those guys have complained publicly about what I wrote; the ones that I criticized. Because they can’t complain. That’s the way I look at it. What they said in the newspapers, what they said on the Senate floor or the House floor, whatever they said publicly, you know, to make my point.


I’ve heard a couple of people say about your book; Just when is Ben gonna mellow out? Why does he always have to carry this chip on his shoulder? He’s been the governor; why does he carry this stuff around with him?


[chuckle] You know, someone asked me if I miss holding office. I said, No; the only thing I miss about it is not stopping some of the foolishness that these guys do. Because too many things that I see today are being done for political reasons, because people want to get from here to there. And if you’re so ambitious that you’re always thinking about politics, then you’re always gonna be conducting yourself as if you’re walking on eggshells. As far as my family is concerned, I’m a mellow guy. But when it comes to public service, people need to hold other people accountable, because there are big stakes involved. So when people say that, I want to ask them, Well, what did you do for the people? You want everybody to shut up and not say anything? And that’s why you don’t have debate today, ‘cause they don’t want to say anything about each other. They complain privately, but that’s about it. When I wrote this book, one reason I did write it was that I wanted to give people in the future, especially, a glimpse of what life was like at least during my time. And there’s some big issues in the book, like the ceded lands and the Bishop Estate. I’m not comfortable with the amount of scholarship that goes on in this state anymore, and if someone were to write about it, ceded land issue, I want to make sure that they knew another side of the story. Because I was right on that issue when I was chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in 1980. And Dennis O’Connor and I. And I didn’t like the way it was set up. And sure enough, the concerns that I had are shown today.


In fact, you say in the book that you think the time for Hawaiian sovereignty has passed, because of a previous court ruling.


Well, when the Supreme Court ruled in the Rice Case, the OHA elections had to be open to everyone, everyone could vote, because the OHA law violated the 15th Amendment, which prohibits ace-based voting. I thought that there’s no way that the Hawaiians are gonna get the kind of sovereignty that they want, because they want a nation that’s only for Hawaiians. And how do you choose? How do you choose such a nation? Congress would have to go pass a law that gives them the power to do it. Supreme Court says Congress cannot do it. You cannot have elections under United States law which are race-based. And so I think that the whole sovereignty movement has developed a life of its own, and it’s very difficult for the leaders to kinda say, Let’s forget about the idea. Unfortunately, young Hawaiians are gonna have to figure it out for themselves. So I wrote about those things because I want people to understand I’m not comfortable with the economic inquiry that goes on in this town, whether at the Legislature or the newspapers. The newspapers are terrible today. Maybe it’s the business. I don’t know.


And they weren’t always terrible?


They were better in the past. I mean, they would investigate, follow up on leads, and things like that. Today, basically, regurgitate the news. That’s basically it.


So what’s ahead for you?


[chuckle] Yeah; I told my wife, Vicky, that unless we were, in the poorhouse, I didn’t want to go back to work as a lawyer. I’ve been out for a long, long time, and the only kinda law that I did was trial work. And that’s very stressful. I don’t want to be a consultant of any kind.


What about boards and commissions?


I’m gonna be serving on a board. It’s unpaid. I forgot the name of the organization, but basically, it’s an organization that sets up programs in the schools for intermediate school children; after school program like A-Plus.




So I’m sitting on that board with quite a few people that are well known. So I’m I’m catching up on my reading. I’m learning a lot about different things that I—that I didn’t have the time to pursue when I was in office. I have a ton of books at my house that I haven’t read fully, and I’m doing that.


Ben Cayetano didn’t pull his punches growing up in Kalihi and he doesn’t pull his political punches even well into retirement. I hope you’ve enjoyed this conversation with Hawaii’s gruff, tough fifth governor and author of a candid 560-page memoir. At this time in 2009, he’s comfortably retired and living in east Honolulu. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Lesie Wilcox.   A hui hou kakou.


Neil Abercrombie—




—your friend and ally, wrote a foreword for your book—




—in which he quoted Shakespeare, saying, Every man has his fault, and honesty is his. And he said, your virtue is your vice.




Ben played the game straight, he said. Is there any other way you could have played it?


I don’t think that holding office would be worthwhile if I had to make all these accommodations, just to keep the office.


Momi Cazimero



Original air date: Tues., Sept. 14, 2010


Momi Cazimero, one of Hawaii’s most accomplished and respected graphic artists, talks story with Leslie Wilcox about how she turned adversity into success when she opened Graphic House – the first woman-owned design firm in Hawaii.


Momi Cazimero Audio


Momi Cazimero Transcript




I think there was enough of a—what I call a competitive spirit about me that sometimes I wanted to do it, just because somebody said I couldn’t. To some extent, I think I thrived on competition. And so if somebody said I couldn’t, that was a reason to do it.


Meet Momi Cazimero, creative spirit, pioneering business leader, and living proof that you can turn great adversity into great success. Next, on Long Story Short.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou; I’m Leslie Wilcox. May Momi Waihee Cazimero is of Hawaiian, Okinawan, and English ancestry. She spent her earliest years with her grandparents in Pepeekeo on the Big Island in a warm and loving household that included aunties, uncles, and cousins. After her dear grandfather died, life changed drastically. Momi was sent to live in her parents’ home, ruled by her father, Matsutaru Jitchaku, a mechanic. Her mother Lucy was a seamstress, and there were four other children. Momi would spend this chapter of her childhood hearing she was worthless, and being harshly punished. Instead of letting this defeat her, she developed a competitive fire that propelled her to success in the corporate world.


Being raised by grandparents … I’m not just talking about being spoiled, but somehow, you grow up with more of the relaxed part of their life, because they’ve already raised their children. But there are reinforcements in terms of values and support, and love, that is just so special about being a grandchild. The primary lessons I learned from my grandparents were all by example, which is why I think I remember those experiences more. For instance, if I would be struggling with something, and feeling like maybe I couldn’t, he would say, If you like, you can. And that’s the Pidgin version of, If you really want to, if you’re committed to this, you can.


So, at nine, you went to live with your mother and father in Hilo?


Right. And that was when I had the experience of living fulltime with a family that already had a pattern to their life. And my father, being pure Okinawan, my mother Hawaiian and English, it wasn’t a very common—let me say, it wasn’t a common union at that time. But my sister was raised in what I call a Japanese family tradition. By the time I moved there, I was nine; she was seven and a half. At seven and a half, she could cook. And I was not able to do any of the things that she could do.


And that’s your father’s side, saying—




—You’re a girl, you should cook.


Right. And not only that, because my mother had children so close, by the time she had my youngest brother, my sister, who was, what, probably about five, she was already helping my mother with my youngest brother. So she was a little mommy by the time I moved in with them. I was raised as a grandchild who was waited on. I didn’t have to do things. And it was awfully difficult for me to grow up in this—start life in a home with my family, where I was the one who was incompetent.


What about discipline in the house? Your grandparents were easygoing?


The incident I remember was when somebody cut the ulu tree. Now, cutting the ulu tree means cutting off a source of food. So I don’t remember being punished or scolded for things. But that, he lined up everybody. And he went down the line, and he asked every single person who cut the ulu tree. And nobody would admit. So then, he took out the guava. Stripped it … Who’s gonna tell me who cut that? And we each got it at—on our legs, you know, until somebody told the truth.


Who did it?


It was a cousin, my … a young man who did it. And but that was the only time I remember. There was another incident, where because I was a spoiled child and getting into mischief, I used to get a lot of whacks from my aunts. And he said, Nobody punishes this child. I feed her, I punish her. And so he really gave me a good spanking, and everybody watched it. And I was just stunned that he was punishing me that way. But that was his clear rules. You don’t feed this child; I feed her, I punish her. So in other words, they could not use me as a means of venting their own feelings.


And he was fair in when he—




—chose to discipline you.


Yes, yes. And in my father’s home, I was the one who was punished, because I was the one who was oldest, and I should know better, and I should be responsible for the other children.


So even if somebody else did something wrong, it was your fault?




Did they do a lot wrong?


I think, I wouldn’t say it was wrong, because they were children. But in my father’s eyes, anything that was out of place … was a problem. All the discipline was at my father’s hand. My mother talked to us. She was not one to discipline any other way, than to talk.


Momi Cazimero left home at age eleven to get away from physical and verbal abuse. On a work scholarship, she attended Kamehameha School in Honolulu. There, her beloved auntie and Kamehameha schoolteacher, Esther Waihee McClellan, was an inspiration to her, and Momi decided she too would become a teacher. Momi lived in the school dorms during the academic year, and spent summers in her auntie’s home. For the remainder of her years as a minor, Momi avoided returning to her father’s household. Even before that, a teacher’s encouragement had gone a long way with Momi.


I was in the fourth grade at Kapiolani Elementary. And the assignment was that we should select something that we thought was very unique and unusual. There was this upside-down hibiscus I used to see—by the way, we had to go to Japanese school too. So on the way to Japanese school, I walked past this home that had this beautiful hibiscus hedge. So I decided I would select that. So I drew it, and then I did some write-up on it, and I put a cover to it. I mean, this turned into a real elaborate project for me. I was only asked to describe this particular thing. And so when I took it to class, the teacher complimented two things. She said, You’re a very good artist. That’s the first time I heard I was a very good anything. She said, What I liked about what you did was that you didn’t give me the minimum, you gave me something more than I asked. I never forgot that. She set something in place for me that became part of the way I worked. And I think it got me ahead through life. That you just don’t do the minimum. It pointed me to a direction I thought at least I had an opportunity to be good at. And it’s interesting, because then when I went to Kamehameha, I got selected to do art projects. So if something comes easy to you, chances are you’re—you have the inclination to develop that. And the other thing is that, if your—others are recognizing, they help shape the direction you take. So from an external and internal perspective, you’re going to find a better solution to your goal, meaning, something that you’re going to be more capable of satisfying.


Did you set higher and higher goals for yourself?


Yes. This attachment I had to my grandfather; so when I was away from my family, and especially in boarding school, when things were just—I felt I couldn’t cope with it, I would just sit on the edge of my bed, and just say, Okay, Grandpa, I’m waiting for you. Thinking, well, he doesn’t want me to suffer. The next morning, I’d get up in bed, right, and he hadn’t rescued me. And I’d rationalize; he didn’t come, because it wasn’t that bad. Okay? Follow that story. After it happens enough times … so I got to the point when I said to myself, Okay, no more of this fairytale. What you have to remember is that you overcame all of these things. And once I could do that, it was like weaning myself away from being rescued by my grandfather. And I think that’s when the first step comes in. You’re capable of overcoming things on your own.


Did you fail at anything?


Oh, sure, I did. But then, I also rationalized that too.




It wasn’t worth fighting for, right?


While attending the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Momi Cazimero changed her career objective from teaching to graphic design. She earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree. Next, she aspired to start her own business, eventually founding Graphic House, the first woman-owned Hawaii design company.


My first job was with Stanley Stubenberg. He was referred to as a commercial artist, because there still was not graphic design. And the difference between commercial art and graphic design is that the commercial artist creates the piece of art that goes into an ad, as an example. So you either photograph something, or you illustrate something that depicts the subject matter. With graphic design, you’re developing the entire piece. You’re setting up the type, you’re setting up how it’s laid out, and you’re selecting the artist, or the photographer. So you have complete supervision over the piece that you’re working on. And because at the time, I was working with a small company, a single owner, I had to learn everything. My commitment was to go work for others, so that I could learn the business part of it, in order to one day have my own business. And I think, basically, I think I just wanted to be my own boss. When you’re working for someone else, you don’t control your own destiny, or how you’re going to accomplish what it is you want to accomplish. And because I was determined to have my own business, I was gonna be a woman boss, which was not considered popular those days, I really wanted to create an environment that people wanted to work in. So I was focused on … certainly, wanting to be a graphic designer, a businessperson, and a good boss.


And what about being native Hawaiian in a business that didn’t see very many native Hawaiians at that time?


It was not something—I was more focused on what it was I wanted to do. There were enough people telling me about why I couldn’t do something, all throughout my life. But, for everything that somebody said I couldn’t do, that I overcame, after a while, you don’t listen to all of those in a serious way.


You were in the workforce at a time when there were a lot more stereotypes of women going on, and women weren’t expected to say no. They were expected to go along. But that didn’t fit you, did it?


No. No, it didn’t. During the period that I was at the University, I was given an assignment. And that was to work on the yearbook. And that was really considered something special, if the professor selected you to do it. And I remember going to the particular print shop who was going to work on it at the time … and just being told some really awful things. Which I can’t repeat. This man called all the people who were there around this table … to tell them this, in my presence. And I just felt this is what I have to face in this profession. I’m not sure I’m that eager, because it was just so … it was humiliating, it was nasty, it was cheap, it was mean; it was everything. I left the print shop, and went back to the University and was talking with my professor. And he says to me, You get in my car right now. Now, this man was a very meek kind of person.


What’s his name?


Kenneth Kingrey. He had a very gentle manner about him. And he drove me to that print shop, and he marched me into that print shop, and he told all of them, starting with the boss, about how disappointed he was in them. He told them that they were working with someone who was a student, who was focused on a particular career, and instead of putting themselves in an encouraging position, they were doing everything they could to discourage and demean the profession. And in fact, they didn’t demean me, they demeaned themselves. And he finished his statement with saying to them, She will one day amount to more than you will ever be. I’ll never forget that, because you do not judge a person for courage based on who you think they are, but by their actions. And that courageous stand—and in my behalf to be made to feel that I was worthy of his support and his praise, both. But he taught me something about character that day, I forever kept. And I never once ever afterwards took an insult from anyone. I was decisive; and by the way, I even, in my posture and the way I walked … made certain it described who I was. And what I wanted to be was a decisive person. ‘Cause there’s nothing worse than to work with somebody who doesn’t know what they want.


Did working in a man’s world affect the way you presented yourself as a woman?


Yes. I decided that I would make myself look the most unfeminine I could. So the hair got pulled back and I wore things that were simple and tailored. And so, believe it or not, pulling my hair back had to do with the fact that this is before techie days. So you literally leaned over the drawing table. So that was the outward appearance. But beyond that, it was always to stay right on topic, stay right on subject. I’m not gonna tell you there weren’t instances when there was sexual harassment and all of that. But I just made sure they stayed on point, and on topic, and just avoided any way that they may interpret something otherwise. So there was this constant balancing. You don’t want to overdo it, you don’t want to under-do it. I appreciated the fact, too, though, that I had male mentors who were willing to give advice. They were all these individuals who were in business, who could help, you know, direct me to the appropriate parties to engage in my business. And that really makes a difference.


How would you describe your style as a graphic designer?


I did the logo design for the Kapiolani Medical Center. When you look at a logo, it should be implicitly implied what it represents. This was when they first combined the Children’s Hospital with the Women’s Hospital; so the children and the women had to be represented. So I chose to use a Hawaiian woman, but then the children were what I call hapa looking, so that you had this Asian influence and the haole influence working, and so that you were more like we are, cosmopolitan. And I put a lei on her, so that it would depict that she was from Hawaii. When you asked me the kind of designer I wanted to be, I wanted to create designs that were simple, that were timeless, that were elegant, and that were appropriate to the subject. And so, when they looked at that logo, as an example, they would immediately identify it with a hospital. And even if they didn’t know it was a hospital, there was something in its communication. The woman has her hand holding the child. You always … show caring and nurturing with hands. There’s an open end where her hand is, and what that does is, it brings you in. So you’re not a circle that excludes, you’re a circle that includes. So all of these things, Kenneth Kingrey taught us how to think very deeply, to get into the very essence of something. I felt that he taught us the basic concepts and principles of design, that we could create in Hawaii, the kinds of designs that will stand up to any other part of the world, but that would be truly who we were. Integrity and honesty, and true to the culture, is what I wanted to portray.


Momi took the name Cazimero in her first marriage. In addition to growing her business, she raised four children. At a surprisingly early age in early adulthood, Momi Cazimero knew she had to release her anger and bitterness against her father, for her own sake.


The man controlled his home, and quote, the woman was to do his bidding. And I think that might have also come as a result that my father, too, was abused by his father. And so eventually, he learned that that’s the way you discipline, and so when he had children, that’s what he also did. The difference was that I was his target. And actually, so was my mother. And that was the reason she wanted me out of the home.


And when you think of your dad today—he’s passed on, what do you take from what he gave you?


Well, in a negative way, what he gave me was the drive to prove him wrong. And my—


Because he said, you’re worthless, you’re wrong?


Yes; yes. He—well, first of all, he said I was stupid, I would never amount to anything, and that’s why he was not going to pay for my tuition to Kamehameha. So my mother took in laundry, she took in sewing, she took care of foster children. And that’s why I worked. She had no way of supporting the children. I was the oldest; she had all these other children to care for. Many women are caught in a bind like that.


So she was a realist and said—


That’s right.


—That’s where I am.


Yes. But—


So she helped you to get away.


She helped me to get away. And both—I say both of us put me through school. I’ve learned along the way that the most important thing that I did was to forgive him. When I completed my senior year at Kamehameha—that’s a funny story I—well, it’s funny now. But the story about sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for my grandfather to come and get me … I learned from that, that I was the one who was able to overcome those obstacles. So then I decided, okay, what do I do with this situation about my father? Because I was aware that in the time that I was at Kamehameha, I had a very difficult time in relationships.


With boys?


With girls. I was in a boarding situation, and I didn’t even know how to interpret the clue, you can catch more flies with sugar than you can—with honey than you can with vinegar. Well, I think that was their way of saying that I had a chip on my shoulder.awaiiHawaHawaHH I was trying to prove that I was worthy, and that I was competent, I wasn’t stupid, all those things. I knew if I was going to survive, I had to do it alone. I could never go home again. And I wrote my father a letter, and I said, I’ve spent six years resenting—I didn’t say that, I said, hating you. But I’m going—I’m not going to continue doing that, because in a way, because I was trying to prove you wrong, I have now graduated, and I’m going to the University.


Did he respond to this letter?


He never did. But it didn’t matter, because what it did was, it got me to the point where I was going to simply do what I needed to do, without doing it out of resentment for some other person. But when I started my business, my father and I mended our relationship. If you can believe this, this is a man who never picked up a broom in his life. And when I started my business, I found this office, and he, on his hands and knees, scrubbed my entire floor. I recognized in everything that he was doing to help me do this, it was his way of saying he was sorry. He’s not—he’s not a man who ever says he’s sorry, but in his actions, he was showing that he was.


Did your father’s abuse affect your relationships with men?


I think it did because it … oh, what’s that word? You set up walls, you set up barriers. But I think I had enough of this loving relationship in my family. I talk about my grandfather, John Waihee—the next John Waihee was my uncle—and he was so unconditional in his love. I never had this black and white portrait of men, because they were men I loved and absolutely adored in my life, who were so good and so loving to me, I didn’t have just one picture, based on my father’s experience.


The important man now sharing Momi Cazimero’s life is her husband, Lester Nakasone. In addition to Momi’s trailblazing business accomplishments, she has volunteered countless hours of public service, having served on the State Judicial Selection Commission, the University Community Partnership, and as vice chair of the University of Hawaii Board of Regents. Mahalo piha, Momi Cazimero, for sharing your Long Story Short. And thank you, for watching and supporting PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


And if there’s anything that annoys me, it is something that is shallow and superficial, and doesn’t even portray what it is it’s supposed to represent. When I was in the University, what I was aware of was that so much of what we were seeing in advertisements depicted the mainland. It was not about Hawaii. Things about Hawaii were supposed to look like the mainland. And I wanted to be sure that I preserved our identity. And I don’t mean just Hawaiian, Hawaiians. I mean who we are as local people. I respected Hawaii. I love where I’m from. And I wanted what I did to reflect that. And I felt that Kenneth Kingrey gave us the proper foundation to create design, and I wanted to be, by the way, competitive to the mainland. I didn’t want to be the mainland, but I wanted to be competitive with the mainland.


Robert Cazimero



Original air date: Tues., Apr. 29, 2008


Award-Winning Singer, Songwriter and Kumu Hula


Robert Cazimero, award-winning singer, songwriter and kumu hula, joins Leslie Wilcox for a good-fun, talk story session in which the two share laughter, tears and touching stories of living and loving – including stories about The Brothers Cazimero (Robert and his brother Roland) who’ve led a resurgence of Hawaiian music, language, dance and culture since the 1970s.


In part two of a two-part, good-fun, talk story session. Robert shares stories about his hula halau, the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.


Robert Cazimero Audio


Robert Cazimero Transcript




Aloha no and mahalo for joining me for another conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox of PBS Hawaii. Robert Cazimero is familiar to us in Hawaii as half of the Brothers Cazimero, the award-winning and highly successful musical duo. He’s well-known. But how well do you know him? When he speaks publicly, it’s almost always about an upcoming May Day concert, new recording, new DVD, a planned performance. Or he’s having a fundraiser for his all- male hula halau, Na Kamalei. Coming up next – we ask Robert to talk about the person, not public events. Part One of a delightful, two-part conversation with Robert Cazimero.


The Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, were leaders in the 1970s resurgence of Hawaiian music and culture. More than 30 years later, they continue to record and they perform locally, on the Mainland, abroad. Robert is also kumu hula of the all-male Halau Na Kamalei.


I know you as a singer, a performer and a kumu hula; but where did all this start?


Well, I don’t know how far back you want to go, but I’ll start with being born.




Now, our parents, Roland and my parents were music people; they were entertainers. So we fell into that immediately because we were surrounded by it.


Did they perform in Waikiki?


Actually, not so much in Waikiki, although they did do that. Mostly for the military clubs and for private parties. And they played standards; the old mainland standards. So we learned to play that kind of music as well as Hawaiian music.


Whats an example of a mainland standard?


Well you know like, Our Love Is Here To Stay, for example, and Please Release Me, and stuff like that. So we do that, besides Kane‘ohe and Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And so it started there. And we thought everybody else did the same thing in all the houses that surrounded us there in Kalihi, until you know, we found out different. And then we went to high school, and we got more involved with that. In high school I met my kumu hula, Maiki Aiu Lake. And as she left the class that she had come to speak with, which was the class we were in, she told me; she says, You know, someday you’re gonna want to teach hula, and you know, You’ll want to take hula, she said; and I’m going to be that teacher. And I was like –


Did she know anything about you?


Well, I had just played the piano for her to sing the song that she had come to talk about. And so she – but no, she just told me that. And at the time, it didn’t really register, the depth of what she had said. So I said, Okay; and then went to lunch. You know, sort of like today, actually.




And then years later, I found myself at her door, of her school. So I went to the university, I took voice lessons when I was there. I would fight with my teacher every day. His name was Jerry Gordon, a really nice guy. I kept saying to him, There are a lot of people who sing your style, but not enough people who sing my style. So I’ll do what you want in class, and then I won’t do what you want –


Whats your style?


I think it’s more – at the time, I thought it was more laid back, island, floaty. You know, and what he wanted was something that was a bit more pronounced, more exact, full of history of a far-away land. I mean, Italy; when you’re from Kalihi, you don’t think so much about Italy. You know, so …


So it wasn’t just how you sang, but what he wanted you to sing about.


Yes. What he wanted me to sing about, and how it was presented. You know, because when I sang Hawaiian music, it was much more laid back and I would not say apologetic. But I mean, it was a step back. When I was taking voice lessons from him, it was definitely, you were out there. You know. So I was there with him for a few years, and then I left school because well, our careers started to take off with the Sunday Manoa, first, and then –


Well, now, what happened to the 60s and rock and roll? Were you part of that?


Of course. Yeah; yeah. Loved the rock and roll years. Yeah; I was definitely there. We thought that The Platters were cool. And Roland was a real big fan of Jimmy Hendrix; real big. And we got all into that. You know, I didn’t – we didn’t get so much into the drugs of it, as much as we did the music.




We really liked the music. And the fact that, you know, we’re the original Flower People, so we were like out there.


[chuckle] People talk freely about how you were instrumental in that Hawaiian renaissance; the music and language, and everything that came with it.


M-hm. You know, people do speak freely about the fact that we were there at the start of the renaissance, and leading the way. We had no idea. We had no idea we were leading the way for anybody, or to anything. We were just there, having a good time. We were just so happy to have people standing in line out there at Chuck’s Cellar in Waikiki, not to come for steaks, but to listen to us play music. You know, so we really had no time to think about this whole idea of the renaissance, until maybe like two or three years after we had already been in it, and someone brought it up and said, What was it like? And we were like, Oh well. You know, it was very interesting, and it was fun, and –


Well, when you would go out for gigs, did you and Roland think about, you know, your marketing plan, and who your audience was and how to tailor your music? Anything like that?


No. We were just as wild on stage as we were, you know, at home. We were doing what we were doing. Roland and I used to go to work in caftans and get on stage and change, and then on the breaks, we’d wear these caftans, walking around the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.




You know.


They’d never seen anything like that before.


Well, no. I would wake up in the morning, and cut my bedspread, and throw it on, and go to school at the university. ‘Cause it was the ‘60s, and you were supposed to wear your bedspread to school, or something like that. So yeah. It was never really planned out or strategically, or any kind of game plan, or –


But it was just who you were. You were doing what you were.


Yeah. And we were still kinda deciding what we were, and what we were doing. You know. And lots of experimentation in so many different facets. Lots of experimentation. So –


Did you do all kinds of music, or did you do just Hawaiian?


Well, at the time, with the Sunday Manoa, we kinda like felt like we should stay in this niche of Hawaiian music, you know. But the influences of like big things that were happening on the mainland became a part of what was entwined with the Hawaiian music. Yeah. So …


So Chuck’s Cellar was your Sunday Manoa time.


Was – yeah – was the very beginning, when we became known. Yeah. And I was 19 years old at the time.


Did you get all big-headed?


No, because we were change – you know, if you thought – there we go again. Just to make sure you knew you weren’t that important, we would change in the parking lot. There was no dressing room, you know, and you still got $15 for the whole gig. You know, so yeah. There was no way you could get big head. As the career got to be better and better, some people would say, You know, you folks are getting to be so Waikiki, so mainland. You know, you’re forgetting where you’re coming from. Well, let me just say, there is no way you can ever, ever forget that you’re from Kalihi, I don’t care what you try to do in your life, you know. And after a while, it gets to the point where it’s a time that is so beautiful, and so worth being a part of, that you never, ever want to forget. You know, I’m proud that I’m a Kalihi guy.


What part of Kalihi were you raised in?


We would say Waena. So it’d be like Kam IV Road, where you know, we were there before they built that monstrosity, the Kuhio Park Terrace. So in the old days, from the roof of our house, or the back porch actually, you could see the fireworks at the Ala Moana Shopping Center. You can’t anymore.


Wow; amazing.


Yeah; yeah.


And you always lived in the same place as you were growing up?


M-hm. And I finally moved out, gee many, many years later. ‘Cause our mom had Alzheimer’s for something like 15 years. And I had come home one day, and she had washed all my silk clothes in Clorox. And I knew that it was time to go.




So I left, and I never looked back. [chuckle] Roland still has the house.


Both of the Brothers Cazimero, Robert and Roland, are masters of their craft and consummate performers. But you’d never mistake one for the other. Different lifestyles, different approaches; but as artists and businessmen, the same respect for each other.


I really learned how to talk, to be comfortable in front of a crowd through Loyal Garner – watching her perform. Really too, the Society of Seven, as far as flow is concerned, in a show. And our friend Gramps, who was very influential, and my kumu, Maiki; watching them. Of course, now, there are the other influences, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, and Kenny Rankin, who I would listen to for hours. I’d play his records, and I would listen to his style, and try to mimic it. And if he was gonna hold it for these many measures, I was gonna hold it for that many measures, and one more. You know.


And you always thought you would go into music professionally?


No; because getting back to this brother and sister thing. The brother above me, Rodney, was the one who we considered the voice in the family. So it was very difficult, after he went into the service, for me to start singing, and then to have to sing in front of him. So that was something we all had to learn about; how to handle things like that.


Because …


Just the whole respect thing; that he was the older one. And still is. And I still think that of all of us, he has the most beautiful voice.


And how much does he sing now?


Well, he’s working on a new CD, my brother Rodney is. So I’m very excited for it.


Well, Roland seems like chaos.


[chuckle] He’s uh –


He’s out there.


That’s a good way of putting it. You know, he’s really reeled himself in, within the last maybe ten years. But you’re right; he was out there to the max, and over the top, being Roland Cazimero. I mean, he was wild and wooly and the women were everywhere and the liquor and the drugs and the food; and that’s making me sound like I was a prude.


[chuckle] And he would probably be late, and you would be on time? Is that how it worked?


Oh, yeah. Oh, big fights about that; I tell you. And it was really some difficult times there. But he – yeah; he had a tendency to come to work when he was ready to come to work. Yeah.


How about musically; I sense there wasn’t –




There was not any kind of schism about that?


You know, the thing about Roland was that he would come with stuff, because of his life, where it was. It would be so far off of what I thought was Hawaiian but I liked it. You know. And so he would do stuff, and I was like, Okay, let’s put that in and tape. Mind you, another thing about that too is, we had been with the Sunday Manoa, and Peter Moon was the leader at the time. And Peter and Roland got along really well. Because as much as I was grounded in the Hawaiian thing, those two boys were out in the world, and they liked other music and would bring it to the table. After we left Peter, then I had to listen a little bit more to Roland, because he would be the orchestra. I was just gonna be the voice; he was gonna be the orchestra. And it worked out quite nicely, actually.


Sure has; and still going strong.


Still going strong. And you know what? I can say now that it’s much more fun than it’s ever been. I’ve learned to relax a lot ‘cause you know, I was the one on pins and needles, thinking that I had to like choke his neck to shut up so that I could do a show. And now it’s just to the point where like it really – it sounds like such a cliché, but it’s all really good when it’s me and Roland. ‘Cause we’re just having a really good time, and it’s terrific.


Lets talk about Roland and you for a while.




I mean, you’ve had this long career with him.


Yes; very long. It’s a marriage, you know.


Long, and spectacular. And he’s your brother. I mean, did you folks grow up fighting with each other? Like –


All the time.



Like most siblings do?


Yeah; yeah. We fought all the time. But we got to a point – and I think – you know, we really started playing music professionally with our parents in the – well, I started in the latter part of the 60s, or middle 60s. Roland was already playing when he was eight years old. So when we went on our own, and by the time we got to like 1973 or 74, we had pretty much made up our minds that as much as this was show business, we were gonna concentrate more on the business part of it, than the show. I mean, the show would come along, so we knew that pretty much no matter what happened – believe me, dear, a lot has happened that we would stick it out. I mean, it’s not like we haven’t had full-out fights on stage, at the Waikiki Shell on May Day. I mean, not throwing blows, ‘cause people could see that; but I mean throwing words back and forth, and yeah. So it’s been a challenge, but it’s been great all the way.


Well, you two seem like such different personalities. I’m actually surprised that you are such an enduring and endearing duo.


I think because we embrace two different worlds that we bring everybody in from those different worlds and meld them into the Brothers Cazimero.


Well, how do the dynamics of the two of you work?


Well, okay; here it goes. We come from a family of twelve kids; eight boys and four girls. And it was understood thing as we were growing up that if our parents were there, the oldest child always was the one who we would listen to. I’m older than Roland by just one year. So …


Were you the oldest? No, right?


No, no, no; I’m number ten of the twelve, so there are nine above me. And so I would just tell them and they’d have to listen.


But you could only boss two other kids.


Yeah. Because if I said something, and my older brother or older sister said something over me I would say nothing after that –


But you could boss Roland.


I could boss Roland, and I could boss my sister, ‘cause she’s the twin to Roland. So although, I wouldn’t call it – Roland would call it bossing. [chuckle] But I wouldn’t.


Youre there in your nice aloha shirt and long pants, and he’s in green tights and a sweatshirt sometimes, crossing his legs on the stage.


Yes; yes.


Its just – it’s so funny, and so beautiful.


He does wear some of those clothes. And I have to take credit for some of it, ‘cause I did buy him a few of those things to get him into it at first. And as I grew out of them he just more and more into them. And it causes a lot of trouble for me in other places, I’ll tell you.


But he knows who he is, and you know who he is, and you understand each other.


Yeah. So there’s no problem there. You know. And we’ll make fun of it, too. He’ll make fun of it; and it’s fine. I like him so much more now, and that’s why we get along so much better.


One year difference.


Yes; only one year. But I always felt like I was tons years different than he was. Difference, as far as age.


Did you always feel like you had to keep the duo together, because he was not disciplined?


You know, I don’t know that I felt that way, ‘cause I knew – we had already decided on the business part, so I knew that late or not or whatever indecision, we were still going to be together. But it didn’t mean it didn’t give me heartburn or heartbreak or whatever. Because I was on pins and needles.


How much does he surprise you on stage with his comments?


Oh, I never really know what my brother’s gonna say; I never do. And sometimes I will say something that will trigger, and I know that it’s triggering something in my mind, and I think to myself, You stupid, stupid –


Dont make eye contact, right?




Dont laugh.


I shouldn’t have said that; and sure enough, he picks it up, and he goes, and I tell you, I can’t say anything, because the people are laughing so much, and it’s really so good, and I’m so pissed off.




But it’s so funny.


It works.


Yeah. One time, we were on stage at the Shell; it was Roland, myself, and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole. I was between the two of them. And they started on this thing together, and I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about. All I know is that the audience was dying outside, and I just said one thing, Leslie; I said just one thing, and I don’t remember what it was. Well I was smashed down like a bug, and I was like, Okay, I’m so staying out of this one.




Because Roland and Israel together they were amazing. They had a lot of fun, and a lot of history. So –


And that’s part of the fun of entertaining; the interactions, and you feed off each other, right?




And you become better than –


Especially when they’re –


– the sum of the parts.


– really good, talented people. You know. When you don’t have to say anything or explain anything. So it’s like you and I talking right now. You know, I’ll just say, Okay, you take it, and then you say, You take it, then we’ll both talk together, or finish each other’s sentences. Happens all the time. That’s why I said Roland and I have a relationship that is like, you know, we’ve been married longer than our parents were I think. You know how in Hawaii we tend to call people “Uncle” or “Auntie” as a sign of respect? Here’s a tip, Don’t do that to Robert. You’re about to find out why. And Robert also explains the feeling he’s had for some time, the one that drives him to sing every song like it’s the last time.


You know, in terms of experience and achievement, although I don’t know about in terms of age, you’re a kupuna. Are you treated as such?


Um some people try.


But you don’t let them? [chuckle]


No; I don’t.


What do you –


Another thing I –


– tell them? [chuckle]


I just – actually, you know what? I I’m very lucky that way. No one sees me as really being a kupuna. But –



And thats a good thing for you.


And that’s a –


Thats a –


– really good thing.


You know, that is a mark of respect, too.


Yeah; yeah. I just I do have a rule, though, and it’s, Don’t call me Uncle. Which is my email address, don’t call me uncle.




Unless we’re actually related; and if we are related, you gotta mention some names in the family line that I have to recognize. Otherwise, just call me Robert. You know. And I’ve gone through the gamut of people calling me Bobby from when I was a kid; Bobby and Bob, and god, I hate that.


Neva Rego calls you Roberto.


Oh, well; yeah.


You dont correct her. The voice coach you go to.


Oh, no; she can call me Roberto for the rest of my life. That’s fine. But the Bobby one makes me a little queasy. But then you know which part of my life they’re from. You know. And –


Do you tell people, Call me Robert? I mean, just –


Yes; I do.


– straight out?


Yeah. Hi, Uncle. No; just call me Robert. And you know, you know for Hawaiians, that’s a hard thing, because part of the respect is that you call each other Uncle and Auntie. But I just tell them, like, Don’t –


Thats because –


Don’t put any kind –


– you don’t see yourself as Uncle?


It’s because, you know, when you’re in the entertainment business, there is no such thing as age. Once you get out of high school, we’re all the same age. That’s what I say. So, don’t call me Uncle. And don’t call me Auntie, either.


[chuckle] Whats your middle name?


My middle name is Uluwehionapuaikawekiuokalani.


Which means?


Which means the verdant – the abundance of flowers at the summit of the sky. And my mother was pregnant, and she didn’t know she was, and my aunt, my Auntie Mary Sing who lives in Kalaupapa – that’s a whole ‘nother story – she called my mom and said, You know you’re gonna, you’re pregnant. And my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, You’re pregnant; and my mother said, No, I’m not. And she said, Just listen to me; you’re pregnant, here’s the name of the child. So she gave my mother my name.


And shes calling from the Hansen’s Disease settlement at Kalaupapa.


Yes; she is. So my mother said, Okay. But because of the flowers in the name, o napua, she thought that I was gonna be a girl. Well, anyway; so but I got the name, anyway. And so yeah; sure enough, she was pregnant. She didn’t know it, but she found out from my aunt. And I’ve had that name ever since.


Do you think you live up to the name?


Oh, I hope so; I hope so. Because the funny thing is, as I graduated kids from my school to their own schools, they’ve taken parts of the name.




And they have it in their school. My niece is my namesake, and she has the same name. And then one of my dancers asked if he could name his son after me. And I said, Yeah; except take out the o napua, take the flowers part out. So this boy, Uluwehiikawekiokalani, is one of the newest members in halau now. He’s dancing in the school. That’s the kinda stuff just blows my mind. I’m just so glad I’m seeing it all happen. You know. It’s really cool.


Sometimes you look back at your life, and you go, Wow, if only this hadn’t happened, where would I be.




Was there any one of those moments for you?


Yeah. Would have been my seventh grade; if I didn’t go to Kamehameha, that would have been very different. I think that – because if not, I would have gone to Farrington. And for all I know, I could have ended up being a drag queen.




Just scary, you know. For me. Another thing is that you know, I constantly worry about my voice, and in December I have a tendency to catch colds, in December. So I try and be really careful about that. And one year, it got really bad, and I lost my voice. And we were doing three concerts with the Honolulu Symphony. And I did a concert every night, without a voice. I talked my way through the whole thing. And thank God that the people were receptive. Because it was one of the best concerts, ever. So, and then I have to tell you about one other time. Roland and I were performing at the Holiday Inn in San Francisco, near the business district. And we were doing the show; it was Christmastime, and the whole electricity, within like about eight, ten blocks, went out. And the management said, You know, we need to cancel the show. And the people said, No, don’t cancel the show. So they brought out this flashlight, a real big one, like this. And they stood at the back of the room, and they put the flashlight on, and we played the show. And we did like –what would you call that? Like well, unplugged concert. It was one of the most beautiful shows in my life; it was just great. So you know, glad we did something that at first we weren’t gonna do.


What do you see as the future of your singing career?


You know, it’s kind of difficult for me to think of a future, as far as I’m concerned. Because I just made – well, I’m telling everybody I’m 62, but I’m not. It’s just that they say to me, Wow, you look really good for 62.




So that by the time I get there they can say, Well. But I don’t see me being here that long, on this Earth, for this life. So what I really want to project is the fact that we just keep playing and doing the best in what we do. And if we can produce an album or a CD every year until the time of my demise, then I’ll be totally happy.


Okay; now, youve just shaken me up. You see yourself as having an untimely or early death?


Well, I thought – from when I was a kid, I always thought that I’d be dead by 21. I think it’s in a past life thing of mine. And the other thing was that if I stayed away from home longer than two months, that I would never return home. So that’s why my trips have always been short, and coming back in time. And then the longest one was maybe a little over two months, when Roland and I went with Maiki to Europe. But I always felt that after 21, all these years are real gifts for me. You know.


Do you think you, you live more fully every day, because have this –




– thought that you might not have a lot of time?


Absolutely. You know, when Roland and I were – I don’t know that I’ve ever said this on, you know, for television or anything. But when Roland and I were playing with Peter Moon – this was before 1975; we were working at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and we would get bomb threats in the room. And we would just be playing, and all of a sudden, all the lights would come on. And they would – we’d have to have everybody taken out, and we’d go out, and the cops would come in, or the bomb squad or whatever they were, and they would check the whole room, and then they would say, Okay, it’s okay. Now, this would happen sometimes three times a week. So but I’ll tell you; if you were in the audience after that bomb scare had been nilled, you found yourself at one of the most amazing, amazing shows. Because we sang like it was the last time. So ever since then, I try – I do that now. That whenever I do sing or perform, I do it like it’s my last time. Just in case; just in case.




You know, I really enjoy getting to know people on this program – especially people I did already know, like Robert. He’s got much more to share, including what it takes to get into his respected Halau Na Kamalei, why he expelled his much-loved brother Roland from the halau, and his favorite music lyrics. Please join me and Robert Cazimero for Part Two of a two-part LSS next week on PBS Hawaii. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


I gotta ask you one more thing.




The local thing with the [clucks tongue].




Can you tell me about that?


[chuckle] We were at the Ala Moana Hotel; in those days, we were upstairs at the Summit, which is now called Aaron’s, I think. And I was singing a song, and there was a man in the audience who was looking at me weird, and then he would say he was just looking at me, and so I said I said, What? He says, You’re singing the wrong words. And I was like, Okay. Then he said, If you want, I’ll teach it to you here by the elevator. So we just sat there, and he taught me the words. The next time I sing it, I’m downstairs at the – we called it the Cave at the time.




The Kama‘aina Room. And there was a woman in the audience, but this time she added that. She’s going, like [clucks tongue]. And I was pissed off. So I said, What? And was like, You’re singing the wrong words. I said, No, I’m not. I learned this from a guy who lives in Keaukaha. And she said, My mother wrote the song.


So I sat with her, and I learned it.


Again. [chuckle]




Robert Cazimero: Part 2


Aloha no. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Mahalo for joining me for another LS S – another island program produced and broadcast by locally-owned, non-profit PBS Hawaii. When singer Robert Cazimero stopped by to talk with me, one on one, he wasn’t alone. He mentioned that his ancestors, all those who went before, were right behind him. And part of the reason he is driven to meet high standards is the heavy obligation he feels to make them proud. Coming up next – Part Two of a two-part conversation with musical artist Robert Cazimero.


Robert Cazimero is more than a successful singer and recording artist. He’s also a most-respected kumu hula – teacher of Hawaiian dance. His all-male hula school is called Halau Na Kamalei. The halau is the subject of a documentary being shown on PBS channels nationwide that explores expectations and stereotypes, following the halau as it prepares for competition. Produced and directed by Lisette Marie Flanary, N           : M     H   shows us Robert Cazimero’s exacting and sometimes harsh teaching style and it reflects his deep devotion to his kumu, the late Maiki Aiu Lake.


I had a hard time with that, ‘cause they wanted me to tell stories about my kumu. And you know, outside of the family, we don’t tell stories, because it’s just so personal. You know. I didn’t want to tell stories. And then I said to Lisette, If this will help to show my respect for my teacher, then I’ll do it. Not realizing that it was really gonna show a lot more, and that it was okay. And that what I found out about my students is that they love me like how I love my teacher. [Whispers] Sorry.


How easy was it for you to control people’s lives? I mean, you know, kumu hula – That’s a really – – by definition is a –


– good question.


– control freak, right?




You know, it




Im not saying it very graciously, but –


No, no, no; it’s true, though. Yeah. And you have – there is such a power in being a kumu hula, you know, that is willingly given to you when the students come in. Because it’s what I did with mine. You know. If she told me to jump off a building, I would have asked, Which one, and how much higher do you want me to go? ‘Cause you just love them, you know. But I didn’t really know how to become a kumu. It’s like being a parent. You really don’t know how to be a mother or father until you have kids, and they teach you how to be that way. It was the same thing with being a teacher. When I started, my kids were like 15, 16 years old, and I was like 23, 24. And the only way I knew how to do it was to scare the well, to scare the –


And you used those –


– out of them.


– words too, right?




You would swear?




Youd call them names?


Yeah; I did. And they would say to me, You know, I don’t even let my parents talk to me this way. I was like, I’m not your parent; I’m your kumu. So you just better get over it, or there’s the door. And luckily, they stayed. Or luckily, they didn’t beat me up. And by definition, you have to keep order and discipline.


How did you decide how hard core you were gonna be as a disciplinarian, as somebody who punishes, or has control over –


I just played by –


– second chances, third chances?


Yeah. I played that by ear. I set really – you know, some really heavy duty rules on them. And if they broke it, then you know, there was no second chance.


Whats an example of a heavy duty rule?


Well, you know, I did not like drugs. I was never a drug person. I, well, sans liquor. Sometimes.




But yeah. So it’s like, you know, if I knew that you were coming to a performance, and if you were stoned then you’re out, from the performance and the halau, too. You had to be a certain look, you know. No one could – I still say it, although I’m much more lenient now. No student could dance if they were bigger than me. And back then I was almost 300 pounds when I first started. You know. So they all had to make sure that I the clothes, they looked good. Otherwise – ‘cause you know, people don’t really want to see guys dance in clothes; you gotta wear those malo things, and the lawalawas. And I never could wear

them, because well, ‘cause you know. But they had to. You know, ‘cause it was the look, and I wanted to make sure that people knew who we were.


Well, at that time, you had the only male halau.




Is it still the only male halau?


You know, I think it is. Because most people have both women and men dancing for them. But it was really Maiki’s dream that I teach only men. And I’ll tell you; like I said, I would have done anything she asked. So I had no problem saying, Okay; I’ll do it. The thing that you need to know about, if you’re gonna – Leslie, you’re ever gonna teach men? You want to –




– be a kumu hula. You’ll be not making any money. And –


As opposed to teaching women; you would make money?


Women, you can make money. People buy houses by teaching women. Teaching men, you will not make money.




They’re not gonna pay you to teach them how to dance hula. They’re – and there go – it goes back my kumu again, who said, If a man dances for you, then it is a privilege that you should have them. So I you know, when I was in halau, I was constantly on scholarship. And so that’s the way I’ve run my halau ever since; that it’s all scholarship.


You teach for free?


Yeah; yeah. And then when we need money, then we have a fundraiser. Or, if it needs supplementation, I have my career. And I swear, my kumu knew that too. ‘Cause I’m like her. She needs six of these things done, her daughter says, You can’t have the money; she’ll grab her money and do it herself. And I do the same thing. You know, it’s like, Well, no one tells me no when it comes to the halau. But if I want something, and they’re like, You know, we don’t have that much money we’re getting it. Yeah; we’re gonna just do it.


As successful as the halau has been, I’ve heard you say in the past that it’s not easy to get men to dance.


Yes; yeah. It gets harder and harder as the years go along. Although, a new revelation has come along for us; and that is that now, the sons of my students are dancing for me. And you know, I’ve graduated students as teachers. Four of them are teaching, even as we speak.


And thats a legacy.


That –




– really is. But as far as, for me, a real legacy and a continuation, so that I can actually see it myself; having the kids of my dancers with me. It makes me want to live longer. It really does. And it makes me want to be a better teacher, too.


How does someone get into your halau? Can any guy get into your halau?


Well, no. [chuckle] No, you can’t. You have to be invited.


And all of your dancers are part-Hawaiian?




They’re not?


No. No; and I don’t think that’s really important, either. And that comes from my kumu. You know. Because it’s more about the heart, I think, and the fact that once you become a member of my halau, then you are Hawaiian to me, because now you’re not just a member of the halau, but a member of the family.


Family; mm.


Yeah. And so all my family, all my brothers and sisters, and my nieces and nephews; they all know these guys. And they all know my family. So several years ago, we had a, a family reunion in Kohala, and they said, You know, we’re all going. And I was like, No, you’re not. They was like, Oh, yeah; we are. ‘Cause sister Jean and sister Gerry told us, and cousin Momi, that we’re family. So they all came. We all went to Kohala together and –


Whats more important; heart or dancing ability?


Oh, right now, today, at this very moment with you and me; heart.


But tomorrow, dancing ability?


Tomorrow, if we have a show to do and it’s time to get on the stage; dancing ability. But for right now, heart. But it doesn’t mean I’ll get rid of you. You know. Where before, I would get rid of people much faster. Today, I’m much more lenient.


Among your students in your halau, you’ve admitted your brother.


Yes. Roland came to halau for a while; I think it was a little over a year. And I kicked him out of halau because he was given an assignment and he didn’t finish it.


What was the assignment?


He had to learn two chants. And we laugh about it today, because had he learned, especially one of them, we’d be – we do it all the time in our lives, you know; all the time now. But I give my brother a lot of credit. You know, we’re born as brothers in this lifetime, and then he goes and puts himself, again, in my life by being a student. That’s a difficult thing to do.


Well, you could give him a second chance.


Well, the second chance is that he’s no longer a student, but he is a kokua. So my brother is there all the time. And I think in being the kokua now, it’s better than being a student. ‘Cause you still get the lessons, but you don’t get too much of the same pressure that happened. And what’s happened is, I’ve learned from that lesson too, and because of him, I’ve learned to be able to give chances to others. Where before, I would have [SNAPS FINGERS] got rid of ‘em, like how I did him. You know.




And the other thing is, you can’t talk back to me.




You can’t talk back to me.


He would have to stop talking back to you.


You can’t talk back – no. And Roland would like – you know, you can’t talk to me. Not in front of my students; you can’t talk back to me. That’s just the way it is.


But he can as a kokua?


Yeah. Yeah.


So he worked it out.


Yeah; he did. And I’m really glad he’s the kokua. And yeah. I love him; he’s a good guy. I’ve never said that before on camera, either. That took a bit.


[chuckle] Hes gonna want copies.


I think so too. He’ll be sending out to the family.


In birth order, Robert and Roland are number 10 and number 11 in a family of 12 children from Kalihi. The two men are family for life and highly successful musical partners for more than 30 years now. Appreciating family and health became more important than ever to Robert in 1990. That’s when he found out he has diabetes.


You were 300 pounds at one point?


Oh, yeah. Yeah. It was a long time ago, but still, it was a part of my life. I look at those pictures, and I go, Who is this monstrous person?


Had you always been heavy as a kid?


Yeah; yeah, I always was. And then in 1990, my doctor said to me; he says, You know, you gotta watch out, ‘cause you’re a diabetic now. And I was like, Oh; okay. So he said, You have to really think about this, and you know, you have to cut down, and you have to do this, and you have to exercise, and stuff. And I was like, Oh, jeez; what a bummer. And I started walking in 1990, and it’s been my companion for that long now, and it’s kept me down so that I’m now – I fluctuate between 197 to 204 pounds. And it helps with everything; you know, the heart, the blood, the breathing; stuff like that.


Thats right; breathing. I mean, you have to have good breath control, or you’ll lose your occupation.


And that’s why, you know, I never liked cigarettes. My father was real adamant about us smoking. You know. So I never liked that, ‘cause I thought, Okay; I’m gonna tell you another story.




When Peter, Roland and I were recording our second album called Guava Jam, no; sorry, Guava Jam was first, Crack Seed was second. I had just finished singing a song called The Queen’s Jubilee, from a family songbook of the Iaukea’s. And I was sitting in the studio, and Peter and Roland and the engineer were in that small room that they are over there, and Peter said, Okay, we’re gonna play this back to you. I was like, All right. So there were two big speakers here, and they started playing the song, and I’m singing along with it. Well, there was a mirror on the floor on the side over here, and I just happened to glance over it. And I was looking at myself in the mirror, and I thought, I found it very difficult to believe that the person I was looking at in the mirror was the owner of this voice that was coming through. Because I didn’t feel that person matched the beauty of the voice.




And that, for me, was – what’s that word; epiphany.




It was an epiphany for me, and I kind of realized that this voice was something special; and that’s when I decided that I’d better take care of it. So all these years, you know, losing the weight and keeping it down and exercising and watching what you eat …


And continuing to take voice lessons.


And continuing to take voice lessons with my dear kumu leo, Neva Rego, who I love to pieces. Both Roland and I went to Neva at a time where our voices were beginning to fade a bit. We weren’t aware of it. Well, maybe we were, and that’s why we went. But she added so much to what we needed to remember and do. And still does, you know. I don’t go as often as I used to, but she has spies. And they’ll come, and they’ll see us, and they’ll call her. And then she’ll call me and she’ll go, Roberto …




Can you come see Auntie Neva?


And its all about getting the best of your voice at any time in your life.


Yeah, and to keep it going. You know. My doctor, Kalani Brady, who is also a student of Neva’s – you know, we’re all kinda like intertwined. So there’s Neva and me, and there’s Kalani, and there’s Roland, and all of us, and stuff like this, and they always say to me, you know, This is something special; you have to take care of it; we’re gonna help you the best we can. So it’s an obligation too, you know.


You mentioned the beauty of your voice, which is so true. How do you look at that? Do you see that as a gift you take care of, or do you think uh, of something you created, or …


No; I think it was a gift. I really do. And I find that as I get older now, and as much as I love to sing, I think singing makes me beautiful. I also think that it’s one of the most honest and scariest things that I do in my life. Because when I’m on stage, or I’m at home, or at a cousin’s party, and if I’m singing, it is the most honest I could possibly be. I am as wide open as a book; and you can read all the chapters, ‘cause nothing [chuckle] nothing’s been blocked, or censored. It’s just honestly, blatantly there.


Well, funny you should say that. Because I was reviewing what’s been written about you over the years, but, you know, I didn’t really see a lot about who you are. Just what you do. Is that because you keep it close?


Yeah. You know, it’s not that I do that conscientiously; it’s just, I’ve always felt when we were talking to anybody, being interviewed, you know, that has a game plan. We’re talking about the CD, we’re talking about this May Day concert, we’re talking about entering Merrie Monarch and why we’re doing it. And so I did that. You know. Someday, someone will. And maybe it’ll happen; I’m not real sure.


I mean, well, you could do it now.


Okay; go.


[chuckle] I would just like to know what drives you, what moves you, what …


I think, first of all, my family. And my kupuna, the ancestors, and the fact that I feel that the – my heaviest obligation is to make them proud. To not make them embarrassed. Because – and I’ve said this before, and I love this image. That even as I’m here speaking to you, there are thousands of people behind me right now. Some I know, and some I don’t.


From generations back? From generations before, from countries that I don’t even know about; they’re just here. And you don’t want them rolling your eyes.




Their eyes. [chuckle]


Yeah; uh-huh. Or this thing; [clucks tongue]. You know how local people do that [clucks tongue] thing. And that would just kill me. But they’re all here, and I feel an obligation towards them, and you, and our people and this land. And then I think if I’m gonna do that, then I have to have an obligation to my health. Even as last night, I’m at a restaurant eating stuff that maybe I shouldn’t have, you know. I didn’t have the dessert, but okay, I had the pasta. And then when it comes to the hula, I have an obligation to my teacher and to my students. And I just want to be good for them. I want to really be good for them. And if it means that my personal life – my personal life does not suffer from anything; it suffers from me, if I want it to suffer. Okay. But my personal is really the family. And it’s a real broad use of the word family, because it encompasses the ones that I’m related to by blood, and those that I’m related to by heart. And it just keeps getting bigger. Sometimes I feel like I have no control over this; and at the same time, maybe I’m not supposed to. So I live my life now in a – I love to say this; a perpetual state of gratitude. I wake up every morning, and I just say thank you to everybody, and everything. You know, we’re from Kohala, on the Big Island.


North Kohala?


North Kohala. My mom is from Hawi, and my dad’s from Niulii. And my mother used to say, When you go to Hawaii Island, she says, you must say hello to everyone – the people, the rocks, the ocean, the trees; because they’re related to all of us. You know. It’s how I feel with uh, with everybody that we meet now, you know. That there is a purpose, and nothing is by accident; that I’m there to learn the lessons that are happening. And that I’m really, really grateful.


Its been such a long haul for Hawaiians, who still populate our prisons and are represented on the poverty lists and many haven’t had access to Hawaiian homelands. I mean, how do you see the Hawaiian condition today?


Oh, I think it’s appalling. At the same time, though, I’m one of the lucky ones, you know, who Hawaiians will look at me and say well, sometimes they’ll say, you know, You sold out.   I don’t – I’m not so sure how I did that; I was just working. But the other they say is, you know, I want to be like you. And I’m thinking, Oh, I don’t know whether you want to do that eit You know. But if I can help in any way I can and I think of Don Ho. ‘Cause he said to me one night when we were at you know, he used to go to McCully Chop Suey all the time.


M-hm; at 3:00 a.m. [chuckle]


Yeah, yeah; there you are. Okay; order all that food.




And Don said to me; he says, You know, when people ask for money, I give them money, our people. He said, Are you gonna do the same thing? I said, I don’t know that I can give them money, but I’m gonna give them what I can. You know. And if it’s the voice, or if it’s just being there then I’ll do it.


Do you what you can with what you have.


Yeah. Yeah. God, I can’t believe I said some of that stuff.


I forgot Don Ho used to go to McCully Chop Suey in the middle of the night. No, but it’s true; you’ve got to decide you know, how far you’re willing to go, and how much you’re willing to give.



Yeah. And you cannot just talk it; if you said something already, you know, people remember. They can go back now – especially with the internet; they can go back and see what I said 20 years ago. [chuckle]


Yeah. Well, that’s interesting. He was trying to get you to do the same thing he was doing.


Yeah. Yeah. And you know, Don was one of our greatest supporters.


Wow. He didnt feel a competitive deal?


No. He just liked what we did. And his mother liked us. So you know, it’s a Hawaiian thing. You know.


Yeah; yeah.


You’re a local girl; you understand that.




You know, I used to always say I don’t know that I would go to war for the United States of America. I don’t know that I would kill someone for the United States of America. But if they’re threatening Hawaii I would stand out front. And years ago, we had this – there was a kue. there was a march of all Hawaiians. It started at the Aloha Tower, and it came up to the Palace. Several – Ala, myself. Mapuana, maybe Vicky; we were there at the front, and our job – Manu. We were to chant all these people as we came in, continuously; it was to be hours and hours of our chanting these people in. And just before they were gonna open the gate, someone had told us that there might be something happening. That would include, you know, guns and stuff like this. And Roland had told Ala; If anything happens, you grab my brother, and you folks go in here. And you can talk the talk but if you can’t walk the walk, then what’s the purpose of it? I said, You know, if anything is gonna happen, then it’s meant to happen, and I’m putting it out there right now. So if anything happens, I ain’t going; I’m staying right here. I think it’s how you – when you believe in something, whether it’s our world, or peace or just another person, we have to do what is best for ourselves, and hope that it’s best for everyone too.


You know, you mentioned that lyrics really speak to you in song. What are the most beautiful lyrics that you sing, and in what language are they?


Well, there’s – if I had to pick an English song it would be two. One would be David Gates from Bread – he wrote a song called If. And my favorite line in that song is, And when my life and when my love for life is running dry, you come and pour yourself on me. When I sing that line, it’s like, to me, the heavens open up, and I am just drenched with all this love from the people who know me. The other one is from Carousel, I think. If I loved you, da-da longing to tell you, but afraid and shy I let my golden chances pass me by. And I’ve let many a golden chance pass me by. But there’s no regret. You can’t have regrets; I refuse to have regrets.


What about in Hawaiian?


In Hawaiian, too many; too many. You know, for me, the most simplest things have the deepest meanings. So oh, gee; god, what’s the – there are so many. I can’t even think of – okay, there’s a song what was written by Lei Collins, and it’s called – they call it Kealoha. And it goes, [sings]. In the third verse, it says [sings]. That I become very relaxed and I am comfortable when the scent of my lover is present. I love that line. Because no one knows that scent, except you, you know. And whether they’re there with you or not, physically, that scent that you remember can put them right in front of you. And I think that’s powerful; that’s – you know. And then another one is from Pua Ahihi, written by Kawena, and it says [sings] No, no, no, no. There’s this one verse, and it talks about there’s a flower, okay, so it’s you know Lanihuli? Lanihuli is that mountain there at the Pali; when you’re standing at the Pali lookout, it’s the one on the left hand side. And what it says is that you’re – this person that you love is like a lehua flower up there, but it is pretty much unreachable. And the reason that person is unreachable is because you put that person there. That that’s how much your love is extended to the fact that you would take this person that you love, and put them so high out of reach that it’s worth the love. That’s what it means to me.


Beautiful lyrics, lovely sentiments. Speaking of sentiments, I’d like to thank our viewers who’ve sent kind thoughts and encouraging words as PBS Hawaii works to deliver quality, local programming that inspires, informs and entertains. Mahalo to you and to Robert Cazimero for sharing your time and joining me for this L S S . I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


You know, we’ve lost some just treasures of Hawaiian music, and just recently too.




And of course, you know that you’ve earned a place in that vaulted place; I mean, you’re already there, where you’re a treasure. Do you ever think about how people will receive news sometime long from now, I hope, when you pass away? I think that’s why I work so hard when we do an album to make sure that it’s the best that it can be. Because really, it’s that music that’s immortal. It’s not this; it’s that music. So I try hard, and I wonder how they’ll receive it. You know, I wonder.


Jack Cione


Original air date: Tues., Apr. 1, 2014


He was an entrepreneurial showman, best known in the 1960s through the ’80s for staging risque spectacles in Honolulu nightclubs. On this episode of Long Story Short, Jack Cione, now retired, reflects on his colorful business life in Honolulu, which included highly publicized arrests. He freely and gleefully admits that it was he who called the news outlets when police arrived. Women would become some of his best customers – at luncheons featuring nude waiters.


Jack Cione Audio


Download the Transcript




So, when you were born, you had a different name than the one you have now.


Yes. [CHUCKLE] Jackie Cioni. Real Italian. C-I-O-N-I.


Traditional Italian home, Catholic?


Oh, yes; Catholic, a little town right out of Chicago, where everyone was Catholic. I remember one time, I dated a Jewish girl. My family had a fit, because, they were very, very [CHUCKLE] strict. You were Italian, you went to the Italian church. You only associated with Italians. And in that little community, there was the Polish church, the Irish church, the Italian church, the Lithuanian church. [CHUCKLE]


And you stuck to your people at your —

— own church.






The families in those days kept to tradition.


And … I’m fast-forwarding to what you did in later life. How did that go over with the traditional —


Well, I —


— Catholics —


I left. [CHUCKLE]





I left my Italian community at a very young age. I had an uncle that belonged to the Al Capone gang in Chicago, and … I loved his way of life. Expensive cars, and fancy clothes, and eating in fancy restaurants.


What did your family think about his lifestyle?


Oh, they didn’t. That’s when they disowned me. And I didn’t speak to my father for years. At — when I graduated high school, I left the Cioni family. [CHUCKLE]


How old were you when you gravitated to your uncle?


Fourteen. I was a piano player. Boogie – woogie was real popular then. And so, he got me a job in a nightclub in Chicago, which —


Which was many miles away.


Eighty miles. It’s right — we were — lived in the suburb, a small farm town.


So, you commuted?


And stayed with my uncle, and played the piano there. And of course, met all the Mafia gangs. At that time, one of the big ones they owned was Joe Louis. Which is very funny. Because I had that whole story in my book. I met Joe Louis when I was very young. And then he became world champion. In 1960, he was broke, ‘cause all his wives took his money and all his friends. And he was working for Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas as a host. And so, a choreographer there wrote a show for him, starring Joe Louis and His Lovelies. And he called me and he said, I want to rehearse the show; can we use your nightclub, the Forbidden City? I said, Sure, bring ‘em over. And it was Joe Louis and his chorus girls, and Freda Payne singer. And so, they rehearsed, and they opened the show at the Forbidden City.


This is the one in Honolulu that you started?




Not the Las Vegas one.


No; my nightclub. They were breaking it in and gonna take it to Caesar’s Palace. So, when I saw Joe, we brought back old times, how I knew him and my uncle. I said, Joe, you can’t do this show in Las Vegas, you’re too big of a man to let these girls with red sequined boxing gloves punching him, and all that kinda stuff. I said, you’re too big for that. The public will laugh at you. Well, he did the show here, and he got bad reviews. Some of the press liked him. I don’t know whether you’d seen him then.


No, I didn’t see it.


No. [CHUCKLE] Anyway, he didn’t do the show in Vegas. He took my word, and he stopped it. And then, of course, he passed on. But that was the last time I had seen him.


What else appealed to you about your uncle from the Al Capone gang? Was it just the money? Just the access to —


— His way of life. He had the big Packard with those white – wall tires on each side. [CHUCKLE]


And you were fourteen years old. I mean, you were just a kid.




Playing at nightclubs —


I did, yeah.


— ‘til — what time did you go to sleep?


Well, I changed my age. I was … I was twenty then. Everybody thought … ‘cause I had a mustache at fourteen. I didn’t look like a high school student. And I was making seventy – five dollars a week. That was good money in —


A lot of —


— 19 — [CHUCKLE] —


And how did you keep up with school when you were actually working in the city?


Yeah. Well, I didn’t keep up with school. That was the sad part. I remember one day, a teacher said to me, Jackie Cioni, you’re gonna be a bum. You’re gonna be a bum if you don’t learn Algebra and English. And I said, Get out of my face, honey. I make seventy – five bucks a week; what are you making? Schoolteachers [INDISTINCT] made thirty – five dollars a week.




And so, I got expelled. They kicked me out of school. But the principal was building bleachers for the football team, and he needed a show to raise money for the bleachers. And so, I was working at this nightclub across the street from the Oriental Theater, and there was Les Brown and his orchestra, and they had a girl singer by the name of Doris Day. She had not made Sentimental Journey yet. They were recording it, but it had not been released. And so, I said, Doris, you’ve gotta come to my high school. She said —


High school?


I remember her saying, Your high school; are you in – I said, Yes, I’m in high school, and we’re raising money; would you come and sing a song or two? And she did. She brought her trio with her, and we did the show, and we raised money. See, when they worked at the Oriental Theater, they used to do four and five shows a day. In those days, they showed the movie, and then they have a stage show.


Oh …


And the movie and a stage show. So, in between shows, she would hang out at the bar where I was playing. So, she knew I played the piano.


So, at fourteen, you were very worldly wise.


Yes; I was making money and living a good life at fourteen. School was not part of my life, that’s for sure.


So, you were just trying to get out —




— and continue to make money.


And that’s when my father disowned me; yeah.


Did he actually disown you?


Oh, yeah. He wanted nothing to do with my Uncle Mike and the way of life that I was living. So, I carried on and made my money, and did my thing.


How about your mom saying, What happened to my little boy?


Well, they moved to Arizona, because of health reasons. And I did help drive them to Arizona. They had a trailer, and they went to Tucson, Arizona. And we were all living in the trailer; my sister and I, and the two of them. Can you imagine, four people in a trailer with – oh, in the desert of Arizona in 1946? [CHUCKLE] It was horrible. So, I changed my name to Cione; C-I-O-N-E. I followed the Dione Quintriplets; they were popular then. They were in the paper all the time. First time somebody gave birth to five babies.




And they were so cute, and everybody would say, Dionne. So, I thought, Why not Cione? So, I carried it on; Jack Cione.


And you stayed in Arizona?


No; I went to Hollywood. I had saved a lot of money playing the piano.


How much did you save?


Oh, I think I went to Hollywood with about a thousand dollars. And all my clothes, and I was gonna become a movie star. That’s my second repotting. And so, when I got there, I stood in line for auditions. And I thought, This is a ridiculous way to make a living. I did one movie, Good News, with June Allyson and Peter Lawford.


What’d you do in the movie?


I was a dancer.




Yeah; I was a dancer. I didn’t want to play the piano anymore. The piano, by the way, kept me out of the service, too. I was with the USO and – at the time my draft came up. Bob Hope picked our – I had a band called The Jolly Jacks, and he picked the band to go on tour with him. And I said, I’m being drafted, so he got me out of the draft. And I toured with the USO then.


That’s how you spent the war?


That’s how I spent the war; yeah.


Oh, amazing.

First time they came out here, by the way, was with Bob Hope’s show. We played Pearl Harbor and … Kaneohe and Schofield.


And after doing the USO tour, you stayed in Hollywood?


Straight back to Hollywood, trying to become a movie star. But it didn’t work. But I met … I met lots of movie stars there.


You sound like you were a real streetwise —




— young man.


Yeah; I met Eleanor Powell and Dorothy Lamour. Oh, that was funny with Dorothy Lamour. They were filming the Road Show with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, and, of course, I knew Bob Hope from working with him. And I said, Dorothy, I wrote to you when I was in high school, and you sent me a photograph, To Jackie Cioni, with all my love, Dottie Lamour. She said, You still have it? I said, Yes, I still have it. That was the end of that. But —




— Dorothy used to come here every winter, and stay at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. And I had the nightclub in Waikiki called Le Boom Boom. And she used to come into the club. And so, one night, I said – she said, Do you still have that picture? I said, Yes, I do. So, I brought it, and she autographed it again, and we took a new picture. And I have that. Which I think is a wonderful story, because she used to come to the club every year and spend lots of time there, until she passed away.


Mm. All these relationships that stretch over —


A relationship —


— [INDISTINCT] areas.


— that I met when I was young —




— and came back when I was… old. [CHUCKLE]



So, when you – so, you’re in Hollywood and you’re deciding, I don’t want to be auditioning, what was the life plan then?


Oh, one more story which I think is very funny. In Hollywood, I used to get dressed up every night and go to Ciro’s, Mocambo —




— and Earl Carroll’s – those were the big nightclubs, and sit at the bar thinking I was gonna be discovered. But one night, I sat at the bar, and Van Johnson and Peter Lawford were at the bar. And so, I start talking with the. We met, and his friend Keenan Wynn came in, and the maitre d’ came over and said, Your table is ready. And I thought, Oh, wouldn’t it be nice if they invited me. But the three of them just got up and left me sitting there. And I was very disappointed. But when I opened my Dunes Club here in Honolulu, I was buying acts, and I bought Van Johnson. [CHUCKLE] So, I brought him over here, and he worked at The Dunes. And I had brought that story up; I said, You know, you … blew my mind when you didn’t ask me to have dinner with you and … the other two. And he remembered the story. [CHUCKLE]


Oh, he really did? Ah …


But I thought —


So, you made an impression.


I thought it was funny that he’d end up working for me at The Dunes.

How many nights did you spend sitting there, waiting to be discovered?


Used to go every night.


For how long?


Oh … mm, thirty, forty minutes in each bar.


For years?


Oh, no; for how long? No, I gave that up … and the year was 19 … 1948. And I moved back; I had no place to go. I spent all my money. I moved back to Phoenix with my mother and father. Which was not too happy. But I got a job then at Arthur Murray Dance Studio.


Because you could dance.


Yeah; ‘cause I could dance. And I met my first wife.


Who was a dancer? Student?


Who was a dancer; yeah, she —


Teacher or student?


No, she was a teacher. And we both worked there at Arthur Murray’s.


Doing ballroom dancing, and what other kind of dancing?


Oh, that was ballroom dancing. That’s another story. [CHUCKLE] We went to New York and worked … thought we were gonna work for Arthur Murray. But the studio in Phoenix blackballed us, and the studio in New York said, We don’t have an opening right now, but we’ll have something later.


Why did they blackball you?


Because we left the Phoenix studio.


Oh, I see.


And we were their best dance team they had. And so, they thought by blackballing us, we’d come back to Phoenix. So, instead, we got a job with the Fred Astaire Studio, and I worked for Fred Astaire. And I became—in the daytime, I’d go to audition for Broadway shows. And I auditioned for the Arthur Murray Show. [CHUCKLE] And I became Kathryn Murray’s dance partner.




We’d rehearse in the daytime, and I’d teach dancing at Fred Astaire’s at night. But that was so funny. [CHUCKLE]


And she knew that?


And – no, she —


Oh, she didn’t.


— didn’t know that. [CHUCKLE] But the show …




We left New York because my wife became pregnant, and went to Phoenix, and I opened a dance studio. And they sued me. Because —


Non – compete.


I had a contract. Right. But I was underage when I signed the contract. [CHUCKLE] And my first wife said, I married a child. I said, Yes, you can be

picked up for rape. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] So, you got in trouble with your wife, but you got out of the lawsuit.


She didn’t know I was so young. But, we got out of the lawsuit. And then, my studio just bloomed; we were big, big, big. I ended up with, fourteen studios all over the State of Arizona.


So, from an early age, you were good at earning money. But now, you’re good at making money. How did that happen? What was that transition?


Oh, I had a good business sense. And …


Where’d you get it?


It just came natural, I guess. I opened the one studio, and I was doing all the teaching. And pretty soon, we had too many students, and my wife was pregnant, having the baby. I had to hire teachers and more teachers, and more students, more teachers. And then, my sister got involved, and she was just sixteen at that time. And —


How old were you? Twenty-six? She’s ten years —


Oh, I was —


— younger?


Let’s see; that was 1948 … I must have been nineteen.






So, already, you’re married and you’ve got all these —




— dance studios?


Uh-huh. Well, the studios took ten years, but … I stayed in Phoenix ten years. And we made all these studios, I got a divorce, she got the Tucson studio. I kept the Phoenix, Scottsdale, and all the rest of ‘em. And then, I start selling them off to teachers who would run the studio and pay me a percentage of their gross. And so, I had all these studios.


Did you figure out that business model? ‘Cause that’s smart. That’s ongoing revenue; right?


Yeah, it’s ongoing revenue.




[CHUCKLE] And so, I did the same thing here in Honolulu with nightclubs.


So, how do you think you had the wherewithal to be so adult in your sophistication when you were a teenager? I mean, when you were doing an adult’s job on the piano.




And then, you …


I just —


— [INDISTINCT] businesses.


I just liked to make money.


And you’re marrying an adult.


I’m marrying an adult. Yes. It all fit together pretty good.


You didn’t have to really think about it at all?

No; I wouldn’t want to change a day of it. It was a wonderful life. I must say, the Lord was very good to me. I worked with the rough element. Nightclub business is not an easy business. But I stayed the straight line, and did it as a business. I don’t drink; I never did drink. [CHUCKLE] And so, I always said people want to buy me a drink. I said, I’m in the business to sell this; I don’t drink it.


So, throughout the time you operated nightclubs, and made a good living off alcohol, you never drank?


Never drank.


Not ever tempted? ‘Cause a lot of people get in trouble; they don’t think they’re interested —


Oh, I’d have —


— and then they’re exposed —


— a social drink —


— to it.


— you know, like a martini once in a while. But I was never a drinker.


What was your passion about running nightclubs?


Doing shows.




And, directing shows, and producing shows. And so, that opened a whole new

field for me.


Okay; let’s back up. Because right now, we’re still in Tucson, and you’re …


We’re in Phoenix.


I’m sorry; Phoenix, and you’re … getting passive revenue from the individual sale of you —





— studios. And then, what happens?


Well, I did a first television show. Had a weekly live TV show, which got me into producing dance numbers. In fact, Wayne Newton was on my first show. He was … twelve years old.


Could you tell he was gonna be a star?


Oh, yes. He had lots of talent. And he also worked for me at The Dunes here.




[CHUCKLE] Later … I started producing shows, and then I produced them in nightclubs. So, I had a show at the Guys and Dolls, which was on the south side of Phoenix, and I had a show on the north side of town called The Sundown. And then, I personally appeared at the Westward Ho Hotel in the fancy Contra Room. Was the equivalent to our Monarch Room here. And my sister and I became a dance team there … so, I was into producing shows. And sent a show to Las Vegas at the El Rancho, and then I was into tap dancing and dan – and doing all of these shows.


And your talents as far as dancing and piano; they’re all self – taught? Who taught you how to dance?


Yeah. No, I studied some tap.




When I was in Los Angeles, I took tap.


Because you were a budding —




— actor; right?


I was in a class with Vera-Ellen and Donald O’Connor. And Peggy Ryan.




Do you remember Peggy?


Yes; she was married to Eddie Sherman.


Eddie Sherman; right. We were in the same dance class. And … Vera-Ellen; we thought we were gonna team up as a team.


Wow. So, lots of people flowing through your life, lots of different ways to make a living.


Right. Can we stop a minute?




Well, can we go back to your first wife? So, you—how old were you when you proposed to her?


I think I was about eighteen.


Eighteen; and how old was she?




And she didn’t know you were a teenager.


No; ‘cause I was twenty – I was twenty-four. ‘Cause I changed my age.


Oh, I see.


So, Arthur Murray’s thought I was twenty – four.


Was that ever a point of friction between you, that you hadn’t told her how old you really were?


Not; not until we won the court case. [CHUCKLE]




‘Cause I was only eighteen when I signed the contract.


Yeah. So, that turned out to be your saving grace —




— actually.


M – hm.


Okay. So, here we – so now, you are – where are we now? You were selling your dance studios.


Yes; I told my dance studios. Well, while I was dancing in the Contra Room, that’s where I met my second wife. She came in one night for dinner with … a party of eight people. She had just moved to Phoenix; she was from Dallas, Texas. And … I met them – after the show, we’d always go around and talk to the customers. So, I said, Hello, I hope I’ll see you again.


Did you say that to everyone?


Well, to her. I shook her hand and said – I said, I hope you’ll come back again. And … three nights later, she came back again. This time, she brought her friend. He’s the baseball player, Dizzy Dean and his wife, Pat Dean, which they were close friends from Texas. And so, after the show, they asked me to join them, and that’s how we became friends. And in talking, I found out that she had a daughter that was eight years old, and my son was with me at that time and he was seven years old. And I said … How about going to the State Fair, Sunday? Take our kids; wouldn’t that be fun? She thought that was our first date. So, we took our kids to the fair, and from then on, it … turned into a romance, and we got married.


What made her a keeper?


What made her, what?


What made her a keeper?


A keeper?


Fifty years; that’s … that’s a keeper. [CHUCKLE]


I’ve been ma – yes, we’re celebrating our fifty – eighth wedding anniversary.








[CHUCKLE] I’m an old man now. [CHUCKLE]


What made her the one?


Well, she was such a lady. My first wife was a dancer. And it was an entirely different type of personality. My first wife was in show business, and I was in show business, and … my other wife was not in show biz. She used to manage Elizabeth Arden’s main [INDISTINCT] in Scottsdale, Arizona. And I used to teach dancing there, too. That’s where we had all the celebrities from Hollywood used to come there and try to rejuvenate. Like, Greer Garson, Rosalind Russell, Bette Davis. We even had Mamie Eisenhower. And they would all take down – the dance lessons from me. I personally there. So, it was —


And you liked the idea of being married to somebody who wasn’t in the showbiz




— realm.


Right. And then … we just hit it off beautifully. And so, we got married, and we were on our honeymoon. We … was gonna do the Orient. We did Japan and Hong Kong, and Australia. And we were at Fiji and the plane was going to Tahiti, and I said, I’m so hungry for a hamburger. In those days, the restaurants were not good, even in Tokyo and Hong Kong. And the plane was announced, All aboard for Honolulu. I said, Why don’t we change our tickets and go to Honolulu?


For a hamburger?


[CHUCKLE] Well, to finish our honeymoon.


[CHUCKLE] I see.


And so – because we – we were – told everyone we were gonna be gone two months. And so … we got on the plane to Honolulu, and we stayed in the Hawaiian Village Hotel for a while. And then we said, Why don’t we … get an apartment. So, we got an apartment, paid a month’s rent. And while we were there, we said, Why don’t we get a job. We liked it here so much. So, we both started looking for a job. Well, I couldn’t find anything, but she found a job at the Biltmore Hotel. She was secretary to the manager; worked right in. And one night, we went to the Forbidden City, ‘cause we had dinner across the street at the Fisherman’s Wharf.


On Ala Moana Boulevard —


Oh, yeah.


And Forbidden City was —


Across the street.


Right – yeah, where Ward Warehouse is now.


Right. And we were in there, and there were six customers. And all these Japanese girls in the show. And so, the manager came over and talked to us; Chinese man. And I said, How can you pay the rent with six people in here? And the show was a god awful show.


What kind of show was it?


Kabuki dancing.




Japa – in that period, there was the Oasis, the Ginbashi [PHONETIC], the Forbidden City, the Ginza. It was all Japanese hostesses. There were no Korean hostesses then. [CHUCKLE] And they would dance. And so … I just told him how bad his show was, and he said … Do you want to do a show for me? I said, Yeah, I’ll do a show for you, I have nothing to do. He said, How much is it gonna cost? I said, I’ll do a show for you for nothing. I just need something to do. Well, that gets into a very involved story because … the lady who was his partner was the mistress of John Wayne, who had his boat parked across the street by the Fisherman’s Wharf. [CHUCKLE]


So, how did that get involved?


Well, that got very involved because it’s so funny. And meeting John Wayne, I told him, I don’t know what we’re gonna do with our son. And he said, I have the same problem. I said, I have a ranch in Arizona, five hundred acres, and I wanted my son to take it over. Pat said – or John said, Where is it? I said, It’s right outside of Phoenix. He said, I’ll take a look at it when I’m back in Hollywood. So, he had to get out of town. I did him a favor here. And … he bought the ranch for his son, Pat.


He bought your ranch for his –




–son, Pat.


[CHUCKLE] And the story; when I took the check to the bank, it was so funny. The cashier said, Is this John Wayne, the actor? I said, Yeah. And you’re gonna cash it?




I said, Yes, I think so. [CHUCKLE]




That was, I thought, very interesting. That’s how I got in —


So, even in Honolulu, you’re running into celebs.


Yes; yes. So … I did a show at the Forbidden City. And I did two shows that made a lot of money. One was Black Bottoms, the first time —


Black Bottoms; could you explain?


Black Bottoms, an all Negro show.


Ah … and what happened to the Japanese dancers? Uh-oh. Bye —


They were—




— his waitresses; yeah.




And then, I did an ice show. First time we had an ice show at the Forbidden City. I called it Nudes on Ice.


So, you put in an ice skating rink?


Yeah; it was about twice the size of this table.




Portable. And two skater friends of mine from the mainland. I brought them over and said … Come and skate; a paid vacation, two weeks. Airfare, hotel, meals. Oh, yeah, we’ll do that. So, they came over. And I had the Japanese girls and … and I used them as showgirls, and the girl skater would come out and skate. And then, they’d – the boy would come out and skate, and those Japanese girls. And I talked three of the Japanese girls into going topless.


Now, this is – you’ve just punched through an envelope, because you weren’t doing this before; right?


No; no. [CHUCKLE]


You were doing regular —




— choreography and dancing —




— and show tunes. All of a sudden, you’re doing naked stuff?


I just had them open their kimonos to add a little more to the show.


And what were the skaters wearing?


Oh, they wore regular —


Regular —


— ice skate – yeah, they were … professional —


So —


— skaters.


— now, by opening the kimono, you’ve just —

But it was —


— taken a step into a different —


Nudes on Ice; and it was such a sensation.


Wait. Nudes on Ice; so they weren’t wearing regular skating clothes?


No. The skaters wore clothes, but the three girls that stood there [CHUCKLE] on the ice —


Oh; I see.


They were the nudes on ice. [CHUCKLE] That was my hook. Every show needs a hook, you know.


Yeah; because you’re a marketer, too.




So, now you’re really kinda dealing in a different kind of venue.


Right. And there were no nightclubs having any nudity. It was against the law.


And when did you – now, you already lied about your age, but now you’re talking about breaking the law.


Well, there were no laws. Hawaiian dancers were topless … in King Kalakaua —


Throughout history. [CHUCKLE]


Right. And so, what was the law? What was the – what was the big deal? So, the next show I did was complete nude show. I brought burlesque in. It wasn’t nude; it was just topless. The girls then had to wear pasties and …




— silk bras. But it eventually evolved. And every time we would do that, they would come and arrest me. And —


You’re saying this like this is, you know, just part of doing business. But I mean, you – and what was the charge? Was it lewdness, open lewdness?


Lewd and lascivious conduct.


How did you feel about that?



Well, they’d arrest me, and I’d say, Excuse me, can I go to the restroom? And I’d run in my office and I’d call the TV and the newspaper, and I’d stay there until they got to the club.


So, you’re actually enjoying this.


Oh, loving it. And the next morning, it was in the papers and it was on TV.


Was that part of being a showman?


Yes. And business increased. People would see that. Oh, look, arrested, nude. We gotta go see that [CHUCKLE] at Forbidden City.


And how did your new wife think about this?


Well, [CHUCKLE] she didn’t particularly like it. But it was making lots of money. And so, we opened that club, then we opened another one. I ended up with twelve bars here. And —


And how many arrests?


Oh, gosh; I was arrested so many times, but not once conviction.


Because as you said, the laws hadn’t caught up with this business activity.


Right. We went topless, then we went bottomless, and then we went totally nude. And then, of course, my biggest hit of all was the naked waiters out at The Dunes. And that just happened by accident.


And not only – I mean, I think people who weren’t aware of this era would be surprised to learn that not only were there naked waiters, but … your customers were touching these guys.




And I mean, there was a lot of touching going on.


Yes; on the waiters. The females went wild. All these years, I was doing the shows for men. We used to have a businessman’s lunch at The Dunes.


Back when three martinis were tax deductible; right?


Right. And it was all businessmen.




And the show was a striptease show. And these secretaries said, We’re so tired of coming with our boss; why don’t you put a naked man on stage for us? And I just happened to say, Well, why don’t you get me a reservation for fifty ladies, and I’ll have a naked man for you. That’s how it started.


And how many – did you get a reservation for fifty?


Oh, gosh; they called about two weeks later. They said, We have your fifty; you’re gonna have a naked man? And I said, Yes. Well, by the time the two weeks came, they had two hundred reservations. That filled up my room. [CHUCKLE] They kept out my men customers. The ladies took all the seats.


And did you have your naked waiter in line?






I didn’t have any.


How do you hire a naked waiter?


In those days, this was now 1973 … and there were no such a thing as Chippendales and men strippers. But I had a beach house in Haleiwa that I was renting to five surfers. And they were behind on their rent. So, I called them and said, You guys gotta pay the rent, or you’ve gotta come in and do me a favor. They said, What is it? I said, Well, you gotta come to The Dunes, Friday, and you’ve got to drop your pants on stage. Oh, hell, yeah; we’ll do that.




And so —


And nothing said about, I need you to be good serving people.


No, no.


‘Cause you will be a waiter now.


I had waitresses.


Oh; and were they topless?


All topless. Don’t you remember? That was the —


I didn’t know you combined them. Okay.


Well, this was new. I felt —


So, topless women, bottomless men.


Well, at that time, the topless waitresses were the draw for the male customers. And I thought this woman secretary was doing this for one night, one day, Friday afternoon. So, I got her the naked men. I didn’t know it was gonna become so famous. Those women stayed all day. We had the biggest bar business I ever did that afternoon. They all drank, drank, and the surfers were enter —




Paraded, without their pants. And [CHUCKLE] the waitresses were mad, because the ladies at the table would say, Get away, I want a naked waiter, I don’t want you. And they weren’t making any tips, and the surfers were making all the money. So, when I saw that, I thought, Oh, this is a goldmine. So, in a week’s time, I told the gals; I said, We’re gonna have waiters every day.


Instead of waitresses?


Instead of waitresses.


Because the women were the ones who were paying more money.


Yes. And so —


As clients.


That’s how it happened. And then, the publicity went … outstanding.


Along with the publicity of, Wow, look what happened, you gotta go see this, I’m sure there was also this drumbeat from citizens saying, What is this guy doing, it’s so vulgar, it’s so lewd, it’s just …


All —


— horrendous on society.


— the churches … all the churches. And there was a gal here, I’m sure you interviewed her. Her name was Jerri Mann [PHONETIC].


Oh, I don’t remember. I’m sorry.


University of Hawaii. She wrote editorials to the paper every – every week. And she was down on it.


And fact is, you’d come from somewhere else, and brought this vulgar stuff to Hawaii; right?




How did you … justify that?


Well, we just continued it. I had the naked waiters in the daytime, and the strippers at nighttime. And … soon opened another spot in Waikiki.


So, it didn’t bother you, all the —




— criticism.


And we’d get arrested, and they had no charges. The Liquor Commission was then in charge. And they had vice squad in those days. The vice squad would come in and see it, and they’d say, Oh, what’s this? Nothing. But the Liquor Commission would do all the complaining. But they lost every case.


Did you spend a fortune on legal bills?


No, I had a wonderful attorney. He —


Who was your attorney?


Myer Symonds. He’s —


I recall his name.


— dead now. But he loved this type of work, and he took every case and won it. And then the Liquor Commission start making the rules. They forbid the waiters to walk around on the floor, which the rule said, Hey, you have to be on a platform, eighteen inches off the floor to work nude. Meaning, you have to be on a stage. But I built a platform behind the salad bar.




Eighteen inches off the floor. [CHUCKLE] I put the nude waiters behind the salad bar.


You must have had law enforcement just ready to —






So, they couldn’t do anything with that. It was eighteen inches off the floor. But they couldn’t walk around on the floor.


So, among all of this – I just sense that your guiding force is money and showbiz. But you weren’t really into the flesh stuff of it all?




Or the –




Or the drinking, clearly.


No. And of course, with all the national publicity, we opened a waiter show in Waikiki, we opened a waiter show in Los Angeles, and one in San Francisco. And again, I sold them as a franchise. I let them use the name, and I helped them put the show together. So, we had four shows going at one time. And we made every national magazine. The London papers, the German papers; they sent reporters with their photographers to take their own pictures.


I would have thought, say, the women’s lunch, that would have been kind of a … you know, one-occasion affair for a lot of women.


That’s what we thought.


But was it repeat business?


Five years.


And people keep coming back?


Oh … unreal. Four hundred lunches, Monday through Friday.


And where was that lunch place located?


At The Dunes.


Which was, where?


Nimitz Highway.


Nimitz Highway.


Out by the airport, right next to The Plaza Hotel. It’s torn down now; it’s a car lot. But that was the biggest attraction we ever had. And I give all the credit to Sophie Tucker. You remember her?


I do remember Sophie Tucker.


Because when —


I’m sure everyone in Honolulu does.


When we bought The Dunes, we made it a fancy supper club, and we played Pearl Bailey, Van Johnson, Kay Starr …


When you say you played them, you mean you played them —


They —


— their audio?


They worked there.


Oh, they came in and performed there.


Yeah; that was the – the place to go for dinner and see.


So, that’s a classy joint.


Very classy. But … it was Sophie Tucker who told me when she worked there; Young man, there aren’t fifty-two stars on the books to fill this room fifty-two weeks a year. You’ve gotta come up with a gimmick if you want to make money in the nightclub business. ‘Cause all that time, I was playing these stars and paying them ten thousand dollars a week. Unheard of —


So, your gimmick was nudity.


Gimmick was nudity. And from then on, it just went. Girls in the cages, the first Twist Bar here in town, doing The Twist. First sex change, local boy from McKinley High School. Sandra and her Donkey. Oh!


Sandra and her Donkey? I think I missed that one.


[CHUCKLE] You missed that one. You never heard the story about Sandra?


No …




Do I want to hear it?


[CHUCKLE] We’ll put it in, but you might want to cut it out.




That was a story. When people would to go to Cuba or Mexico to see Senorita and her Donkey.


No; tell me about. What —


Oh, it was —


Why did they go see her?


Because she would perform a sexual act with the donkey. It was —




— quite famous in the 50s. Everybody; it was cocktail conversation. And so, I took a local stripper, Sandra, and I rented a donkey from Waimanalo. And we did the stage with the bales of hay and a barn. And Sandra danced Donkey Serenade, hung her clothes on the donkey, kissed the donkey, laid on the bale of hay. But nothing ever happened. When people would see that, they’d come out and say, Jack Cione, that’s the dumbest show I ever saw. And I’d say, You should have been here last night; the donkey really went wild. They’d come back the next night to see. [CHUCKLE]


So, marketing was very much a part of what you did.


Marketing was my business; yeah. My partner counted the money and stayed in the office. I did the marketing and the frontend of all those clubs.


And you went to the police cell block.


I did the —


On behalf of the business.


Yeah. He said, When they arrest you, you’re going, not me.


But you know, it’s – you – sounds like you grew up fast. At fourteen, you’re playing in nightclubs. And now, it sounds like you’re a kid in an adult business.


Well, I’m in the business that I learned when I was playing the piano in the bar business.


It’s what people really want.




So, you got to know some of their baser desires.




And you mentioned there were unsavory people, kind of on the fringes who were involved.


And instead of paying … Kay Starr or Redd Foxx ten thousand dollars a week —


You hired a donkey.


A hundred dollars a week for the donkey, and two hundred for the stripper, and packed the place every night. [CHUCKLE]


What are some of the things that happened as a business owner on the edges there that surprised you? Any surprises about running the business with authorities … with businesspeople, with people you hired?


No. It was – it was – I had great employees.


What kind of competition did you start to face? Were there copycats?


No. I had twelve bars; there were no copycats.




I had The French Quarters on Maunakea Street, The Show Bar on Hotel Street, The Dunes out by the airport, Casbah Lounge, the Forbidden City, Soul City —


Le Boom Boom.


Le Boom Boom at the International Marketplace. The Clouds Hotel, Little Dipper, the Money Room. I had all these strip shows going on. And I only had one club, and the manager of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel … said, Can you come and do something with my show in the Monarch Room?


To pep it up?


Yeah. So, I went and redid their show. That played two years. And in that show, I did a Hawaiian show. Real Polynesian, which never knew anything about, but learned. It starred Ed Kenney, Beverly Noa, Marlene Sai.


Oh, that was big time.


Mottie Ing [PHONETIC].




Al Harrington was my … knife da — with a knife —


Fire dancer?


Fire dancer. And Jack Tahiti Thompson, who owns – they still own the business, was my Samoan slap dancer. Kimo Kahoano —




He was …


Your emcee?


No; one of the boy dancers. He was just a young kid.




And so, that show played there to great reviews. It was called Her Little Island. And so, after that, I always wanted to do another Polynesian show, which I did at Le Boom Boom. When we bought Duke’s, and Duke’s was, a club that … had Don Ho and … Martin Denny and all those stars, and I bought it and put a review in there featuring Prince Hanalei.




The shock —


Not – not —


— of Waikiki.


Yes. Now, he was famous. I remember he was known for being able to make tassels —




— twirl in opposite directions.


Standing on his head, on fire. And when I put him in to headline that show, the tourists …


And where were the tassels attached?


On his back side.




And the tour company said, Oh, Jack, we’re not gonna support that show. I said, Bring your customers. So, the first night, they loved it. It was such a hit that the so – show sold out every night. And in those days, we were doing two shows a night; a dinner show and a second show. Today, everybody does one show a night.


But you could sell out two.




What happened to Prince Hanalei? He was the talk of the town.


He died. He passed on.




Yeah; very young. But he was a great act. And then, I made copies of – Follies Polynesia, it was called, at the Le Boom Boom. It stayed there. But I sent a second company to Las Vegas, and to Lake Tahoe, and to Hong Kong.


Were you working all the time? Sounds like —


All the time.


This is – you were working at night, you were doing business deals —




— during the day.


And so, all of those shows, you see … somebody else was running them, but they were all bringing income.


And what did this do to the powers that be in town, the ones who were supposed to make sure that, you know, citizens, you know, aren’t bothered by an unsavory element? Did you run into trouble with – obviously, the police were on your case, but what about politicians?


No; no, the politicians agreed that this was something the town needed. Honolulu was ready for this.


Who said that?


Oh, I’m not gonna name their names, but the politicians were no problem. They could see that there was a need for this. We had military here, a large population of military. So, this is a tourist town. If you saw it in Las Vegas, why wouldn’t you see it in Honolulu?


And what about as a nexus for organized crime? We had local organized crime in those days. This was the 60s, 70s, and by the 80s I think things were changing. But local organized crime who were getting kickbacks at other places. Did they get them from you?


Never bothered us; no. Never bothered us. I thought we were approached once, but when they found out that the … money would be too hard to get, because it was run as a business. They preyed on mom and pop bars.


Under the table payments.


Yeah; where the owner of the bar would put the money from the cash register in his pocket, you see. But my businesses all had managers and we had to show the tally every night. And if you took money out of the register … no, I never had any trouble with them.


They didn’t say, You know, we’ll provide —


You know —


— security —


— who I had trouble —


We’ll provide security for you, Jack; just send a check over to me —




— every week.


I had my own Samoan security.


But it doesn’t matter; they could have still billed you for security.


No; didn’t do that … the biggest shakedown I thought I had was at the Le Boom Boom Club. The bus drivers that would bring the tour groups into your club … and they would bring fifty, a hundred, two hundred a night in those days. And so, I had … one bus driver said … You like the numbers I’m bringing you? I said, Yeah, it’s fine. He says, You know, I can take them to the Al Harrington Show. I said, I know that. He said, But for a dollar a head, I’ll keep bringing them here. I said, Where am I gonna get the dollar? He said, Out of your register. I said, I can’t, it all goes to the books, I can’t just go in there and take a hundred dollars out because you brought me a hundred customers. They were – then another one tried the same thing. They were the ones shaking me down.


And that didn’t work?


And besides, the tour companies were charging twenty-five percent of the ticket for them.




Now, they’re up to forty percent, I hear.


Oh …


That’s why there are no shows in Waikiki.


Because of all the feeders off the shows?


All feeding off the shows. Right.


Why did you stop doing shows?


Because of that.


What was the biggest cost factor that made you stop?


When they were asking thirty percent.


For delivery of —


Of —


— customers?


Yeah; for a dinner and a show ticket. That mean I would have to raise my price. And it – and it’s ridiculous.


M-hm. Can I ask you in general terms, how much money did you make from all of this? It sounds like —




— you had this burgeoning empire.


Well, I’m living at Arcadia now, which is very expensive.


After having lived at Diamond Head in a house you owned.


Yes. [CHUCKLE] Well, we were in the house business. My wife and I used to buy old houses and decorate them, and sell them. That was her hobby. And I sort of participated in it, too. Arcadia is very expensive. Wonderful place to live, but very expensive.


I know there were eyebrows raised when you applied to live in Arcadia, because it’s a very distinguished place with retired judges —



Retired attorneys, and … did you – what was that like? What was that application process like for you?


When I first moved in, it was a shock, yes. I wasn’t sure that it would last, but it did. And I started the Follies, and we did a little show there using the … residents. It was called School Days, and we dressed them all up in their little kindergarten clothes and did silly jokes, kiddie jokes. And sang Sesame Street songs. [CHUCKLE] And so they all loved it, and the show grew. I’m doing one this year; this is the ninth year. We’ve lived there now ten years. And this is the ninth year of the Follies. We’re calling it Mardi Gras Follies. I used to do Mardi Gras Follies at Pearl Harbor.


That’s right; twenty years. It was a great show.


Twenty – twenty years, we did it out there as their fundraiser. And they made a lot of money on that show. And now, we’re doing it here as a fundraiser, ‘cause we don’t sell tickets.


No skin showing?


No skin showing.




And we have a cast of thirty-five this year.


All from the Arcadia?


All senior ladies. We’ve got one in there is ninety-five years old.


Is she dancing?


She – she … has trouble walking, but she wears the costume, and …




And we added some from Craigside. You know, Arcadia has another place called Craigside. So … the casts are from both places.


Are you still enjoying the shows?

Oh, love – I love doing it. Yeah. It’s a lot of work, though. You – they don’t realize how much work it really is. But I have a good assistant, and I have good costume people, good light person. And so, I’ve got a crew now.


And so —


So, just to clarify, going back. Because the law are different now, and people are used to different rules in place. What … when you had naked waiters, when you had strippers, are you talking about people wearing skin-tone tights, that kinda thing, or G-strings? What kind of nude waiters are you talking about?


No; my waiters took their clothes off. They worked in the nude. I had them wear butcher aprons; that was fun. So, they looked like a waiter. Tied the apron in the back, you know, the butcher apron. And when they come to the table, the ladies would lift up the apron, and the waiter would say, Uh-uh, that’s gonna cost you money.


And how do you tip a naked waiter?


And then they’d teach them how to tip a naked waiter.


And how is that? How do you do that?


They’d take the five-dollar bill off the table, and roll it up … hook it around, and lift up the apron and …


And that was part of their entertainment.


That was part of the entertainment. That’s why they’d stay all afternoon.



But it went – and so, that’s a form of touching, but it went to full – on touching too; right?


No, that’s about all they did to the waiters. They’d be … strict about that.


The waiters would have to control —




— the lady’s action?


See, we did a show on stage, so that was basically what you came to see, is what you say, a naked waiter became a stage show. And when you came in, we charged you a cover charge, and we tied a yellow ribbon around your finger to show that you paid. And when our star would come out, he would dance to Tie a Yellow Ribbon Around That Old Oak Tree. And so, when he was totally nude, he would say, Okay, ladies, this is your chance; would you like to come up and tie your yellow ribbon around my oak tree? And they would line up, and it would take thirty, forty minutes for everybody to tie. That was the show. [CHUCKLE]


Wow. And you were taking it all the way to the bank.


All the way to the bank. Yes. [CHUCKLE]


What was happening in other cities around the world, or around America? Was the same kind of —


Yes; it was —


— nudity going on?


It was all – right. It was a phase that … I think the general public was ready for nudity. It no longer sells. Who’s interested? You can see it on television, you have videos. We didn’t have those in the 60s and 70s.


So, all of the laws that have to do with stage shows and … contact with nudes, and nudity; those all developed right after you came on the scene and —


That’s right.


— probably because you came on the scene.


Right here in Honolulu; yes. If you looked at the Liquor Commission laws, if you were to open a bar and wanted to do nudity, they would give you these rules and regulations. The other thing, if you think about … I remember in nineteen-thirty … mm, six or seven, there was a movie called Gone With the Wind. And Scarlett O’Hara said, Rhett, what am I gonna do, what am I gonna do? And he said, Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn. Ah! That shocking. Do you remember that?


I do remember that.


Oh, my; that’s all we talked about. He said, damn, in the movie.


So, very different context. But still, nudity, I mean, that was – you were a pariah.


Yeah. Well, so then it – it progresses, you know. There were several movies. Remember Deep Throat?




Big money. Blue Moon, and all these movies start coming out. Now, who cares? [CHUCKLE]


How did you know people would go for exactly the kind of entertainment that you were offering?


I didn’t. It just happened by accident. When I put those surfers on the stage and they dropped their pants, I didn’t know that that was gonna last five years. I thought it’s a – a gimmick today, it’ll be over tomorrow. But the ladies said, We want more, more, more.


And then, you were very good at packaging that and franchising —


Then I start —


— it.


— hiring waiters.




You know, I remember … you had to find beautiful bodies. And the secret was, the man had to like women. Because the women sense that. And so, I went to Los Angeles to Gold’s Gym. And guess who was running Gold’s Gym? Arnold Schwarzenegger.


Oh, I think he likes women.


Yes. And so, I talked to Arnold about holding an audition at the gym. And when I opened the show in Waikiki, I brought five … musclemen from Arnold Schwarzenegger’s gym. Arnold was gonna come over at the time, ‘cause he was managing the gym. But he had an audition for a movie, and he didn’t want to – and that’s how he became famous. But he – he supplied me with my five waiters at the Merrie Monarch.


Did you personally inspect all the auditioning people? The topless women, the —


Y —


— nude guys.


Well, in the Los Angeles show when we did it, we hired there, ‘cause we didn’t want to bring a cast from here. So, we ran an ad in the paper. Men wanted for a new musical, have to work nude, must be well endowed. And must be able to wait on tables. And so, I did the audition at the theater and we had three hundred men show up. And so, I explained to them what we were looking for. And I said, If you’re not well endowed and if you don’t enjoy the company of women, please don’t come up on the stage and waste our time, ‘cause that’s what we’re looking for. Well, these men would line up, twenty-five at a time, and drop their pants. And I thought, My gosh, they never been in a gym before, had never been in a shower with other men; they all thought they were super studs.




And so, [CHUCKLE] out of the three hundred, we hired eight.


That’s a tough rejection —


A tough —


— on a job interview.


— rejection. Right. [CHUCKLE]



So, as you look back on that career – I mean, you were materially very successful, you resulted in change of law. But it’s – and you’re a very good showman. Everyone talks about how you’re very good at choreographing and pacing. But it’s kind of a weird thing to be known for, isn’t it?


Yes; because if they don’t know me, they think I’m just another nightclub freak that features nudity. But I did it strictly as a business. I raised my children, and I have five great – grandchildren, by the way. And I’ve always been a member of the church, even though they fought me tooth and nail. But I said, Can’t make donations to the church if you don’t let me make money. And … I never drank. And sort – sort of lived just – it was a business to me. I was in it as a business.


You were asked once, you know, who’s been influential in your life, and you – the first person you named is your uncle, who was a member of the Al Capone gang. And another you mention is a bishop, a pastor, a priest. It’s a wide range there.


Yes. He was the pastor of the Waialae Baptist Church.




And I opened a show at the Monarch – Merrie Monarch Restaurant on

Beachwalk and Kalakaua. That was Spencecliff restaurant. And that night, when I went to the club at six o’clock … there were about fifty women in robes with a candle, and a man with a cross hanging on his back, standing at my front door, telling the customers not to go in, that this is a sinful show. And it was his church group. I couldn’t believe that they would have the nerve to do that. But it was the most wonderful thing that ever happened.




It was opening night. The press covered it. We got worldwide press on it. This is a tourist town. It made papers in – Des Moines, Iowa [CHUCKLE] read about it.


So this is the pastor who was influential in your life?


Well, no.



He did that, and … later on, I saw him at a charity event, and I thanked him for doing that. I says it was that opening that I never thought of staging anything like that.


And he’s … he’s thinking.


And he said … Well, good. Anyway, we became friends. We’d have dinner together every now and then. And he started out with the idea to convert me. I said, You don’t have to convert me. I am a religious man. I was born and raised Catholic, but I’m not Catholic now because I don’t believe in what their beliefs are. But I believe in Christ, and I follow Christ. And so, we became friends. [CHUCKLE]


So, that was true all the way along? While you were doing nude shows, you were —




You were following —




— Christ?


Yeah; but then he left. I think he moved to Texas.


M-hm. So – and you remain religious and —


I —


— and a —


I still —


— Christian?


I go to church now; yes. My wife hated to go to – we used to go to St. Andrews Cathedral. And she did volunteer work there. But I said, when we go to church on Sunday and we’re sitting there, the people behind me, since I’ve had my picture in the paper so much, would say, There’s Jack Cione, look at him. Wouldn’t you know, he has lots of nerve to go to church. So, I st – felt guilty about it. So, I didn’t go for a long time, until the last ten years now.




Since I’m out of the nightclub business. It’s twenty years since I’ve been out it. And – but people still talk about it.




It was like [CHUCKLE] a volcano eruption.


[CHUCKLE] It was kind of like that —




— [INDISTINCT] time in those days. In more recent years, you’ve continued to do shows, and you’ve had beneficiaries, charitable …


Yes, I —


— groups have received your —


Twenty – five years with Pearl Harbor. We did the Mardi Gras Follies, which was a charity fundraiser. I taught tap dancing at the Waikiki Community Center for ten years. And now, I’m at Arcadia, and our show raises money by selling ads in the program, and we have a boutique. And we give that money to Arcadia for the people who need help in staying there. They outlive – we have people that are a hundred and five years old.


Who’ve outlived their money.


Outlived their money; yes.




Takes a lot of money to live at Arcadia. [CHUCKLE]


How do you feel – I mean, you’re in your mid-eighties now? You’re eighty – six.






Coming up in March. [CHUCKLE]



What does it feel like? I mean, do you feel like the same guy?


No; I’m getting older.


How does it feel different?


[CHUCKLE] It feels different; believe me.


Physically, or are you’re talking about in another way?


I have allergies I never had before. My voice is different; never had before. My knees are giving out; can’t dance anymore. I can still direct a show, but … yeah. You notice … I still have my teeth. [CHUCKLE]


You mention that you father disowned you and was just – thought you would be a bum. Did you ever get close to him again?


Oh, yes. We became very good friends. He worked with me in my dance studios. And then, when I had all the nightclubs here, I moved he and my – him – my mother and him over here. And he changed his name to Andy Cione, which made me very proud that he did that. And yeah, we became very close and very good friends.


But it took … decades.


Years; yeah. But yeah; in the nightclubs, he’d stay up ‘til four o’clock in the morning and work the cashiers and … have breakfast with me.


So now that you don’t do the breadth of activities you used to do, how do you spend your time?


Right now, the next five months, we’ll be working on the Follies.


Is that pretty much your fulltime volunteer —


I’m having —


— gig?


— another chill.



You talk – well, let’s go back a little bit to … when you were getting criticized in the press, you were getting arrested … you has this … this, Hey, I’m making money on, this attitude. Did any part of you care that you were being criticized? People thought what you were doing was terrible for society.




And there should be laws about it, that you were escaping.


[CHUCKLE] I always remembered, Clark Gable saying that in Gone With the Wind, when he’s told Scarlett, Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.


You truly didn’t give a damn?


I didn’t give a damn what the press was saying, as long as the public was showing up and supporting it. If the public didn’t support my clubs, I would have closed them. But all of the clubs were very successful, and we sold them, and new owners took over, but they all folded up one at a time. So, it was a period that the public was supporting this. I don’t think it would happen now. If I would open a nudity now, I would be very skeptic. The young generation … they’re not obsessed with the nudity. It’s people my age that were raised – and your age, that were raised that it’s naughty, don’t do that, musn’t do this. And that’s what you believed in.


And that’s why Forbidden City was so attractive —


It —


— to your customers.


Right. An – and it was a free stall for them to learn something new about life. Life is – for us, it’s a banquet and most fools are not enjoying it.


So, you didn’t ever go home and say, Oh, this really got – this guy I respect out there is criticizing me for what I do. No?


No; never did.


No hesitation, no —


I —


— second thoughts?


I always had … the public on my side. And I thought, as long as I have support from the public, then I must be doing something right.


But is it an accident that you weren’t doing this near your hometown? Would you have done this in Chicago …


Oh, Chicago; yes.


Even though your family was right around the corner over there?


Well … part of my family would not have … been in favor of it. My little down, Spring Valley, I would have never done it. Because the public there would not have accepted it.


But anywhere the public would accept it, you’d feel —




— fine about it.


Right. And I – I felt like it’s – it’s needed. And that’s why today, I don’t think it would go over. The young public is not interested. Who cares about … Sally standing, or Sally Rand dropping her fan? Who cares?


Mm. You used the word repotting. What does that mean?


Repotting, sort of, I’ve taken that on as that’s what I’ve done in my life. When I was a youngster, I played the piano, and then I went from that into dancing. So, that was my first repot. And then, on to Hollywood for another repot, and then to Arthur Murray’s ballroom dancing, another repot. And then, family man, and then dance studios, and then divorce, and new wife, and a new business. All those years, I’ve repotted.


Always reinventing yourself.


Reinventing myself; right. And that’s the name of my new book that I’m writing, and should be out this year. It’s called Repotting Can Be Such a Bitch. It won’t be on the Times Bestseller List, but my first book did sell fifty thousand copies, right here in Honolulu.


Well, it did have the word naked in the title. [CHUCKLE]


That’s right. But you know, for a book to sell fifty thousand copies, that’s a lot of copies.


That’s true. When you say it can be a —


Why was repotting so hard? It seemed pretty easy, the way your life flowed.


Well, as you live it, you know, there were some ups and downs in it. It wasn’t all gravy. I made money, I was broke, I made money, I was broke.


Because of when you sold or tried to sell businesses —




— or when they didn’t work out? So, you did know what it was like to …




— just go through a rough time.


And I know what it was like to be poor. Living in Spring Valley, I didn’t have indoor plumbing in our house until I was in the eighth grade.


Wow; that must have been a stark contrast when you – then you were – then you were —


I know.


— at your uncle’s house with all the —


A contrast.


— doo – dads.


And have you ever been in the Chicago area in January and February, and using an outhouse? [CHUCKLE]


How broke did you get?


That’s broke. [CHUCKLE]


But what about when you were an adult? I mean, when you were —


Well —


What was the —


— when I went —


— brokest time?


When I went to Hollywood.




‘Cause I – all the money I made playing the piano … I spent it all there.


Did you lose faith in yourself at any time?


No, but I didn’t know what I was gonna do. You know —


So, it wasn’t – repotting wasn’t a no – brainer?


No; right. And at that time, I looked for a job, and … got the job with Arthur Murray’s. I would have taken any job.


So, isn’t it interesting to see how that job led to this, led to that?




And if any link in the chain didn’t happen, what would you have done?


Well, I don’t know. Well, the Lord looked after me. [CHUCKLE] So, here I am.




And he’s given me the chance now to do another show. And this will be the ninth one. I hope I can do the tenth anniversary show at Arcadia. [CHUCKLE] This is my ninth one coming up.


And it’s a lot of work, I know. It’s – your mind – you have to really be able to multitask over a long period.


And it’s more work, because I’m working with amateurs, people that have never been on the stage before. So, it’s not only writing the show; it’s teaching them.


I’ve heard you’re patient, which kinda surprises me.


Yes; I’m very patient. You have to be, when you’re working with seniors. [CHUCKLE]


Mm. Thank you so much. This has been just a joy. Really appreciate your time.


You’re welcome.


Yes; we sold fifty thousand of those.


That’s terrific.


Can you imagine? That’s the way it is.



John Clark



Original air date: Tues., Aug. 31, 2010


Keeping Hawaiian Stories Alive


In this edition of Long Story Short, Leslie Wilcox talks story with a true Renaissance man. John Clark relates how learning to surf at a young age led him to become a waterman, lifeguard, fire fighter, historian, and writer. The author of a series of books on Hawaii’s beaches, John Clark took the innate curiosity that we all have and hunted down the source and mo’olelo, or stories, behind the names of Hawaii’s surf spots and shoreline landmarks. Find out how this descendent of a sea captain is doing his part to keep Hawaiian stories and characters alive.


John Clark Audio


Download the Transcript




One of the guys that I interviewed was a man named Kerr. He was born back in the 1890s, so he was a surfer as a young child. By the time he was already ten years old, he was already surfing in Waikiki. And Queen was still alive at that time, and she had a home called Hamohamo, which is right where the Pacific Beach Hotel is. And she had a pier that ran out from her home, that went out into the water. And she would sit out on her pier, and she would watch the surfers, which were right out in front of her. Anyway, this guy and another friend of his, she would ask for them; she would ask them to go out and surf, just so she could watch surfers while she was sitting on her pier. He and his friend named the spot Queen’s. And that’s Queen’s—


That’s Queen’s Beach?


That’s Queen’s Surf.


Oh, Queen’s Surf.


[CHUCKLE] Queen’s Beach is a little further down the road. So anyway, that’s Queen’s Surf that’s almost now—it’s almost straight out from the Duke’s statue.


We’re surrounded by water, so it’s only natural that many of us play and work in the ocean. But as we’re enjoying our beaches and reefs, how many of us are curious enough, and persistent enough, to learn the background of our favorite fishing or surfing spot, what its name means, who’s responsible for naming it, and what role does it play in Hawaii’s history? Next, on Long Story Short, we’ll meet a man who’s combined a love of the ocean with an insatiable curiosity.


Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox is Hawaii’s first weekly television program produced and broadcast in high definition.


Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to Long Story Short. When you think of a name, do you ever wonder what’s behind that name? For instance, why is a place called Toes, or Snipes, or Gums? How about the name John Clark; a relatively simple name, only two syllables, but the simplicity of the name hides the complexity of the man. He served in the Army. He was a lifeguard at Sandy Beach, waterman, and firefighter who worked his way up to Deputy Chief of the Honolulu Fire Department, author of a series of nonfiction book about Hawaiian waters. Somehow, it seems only natural that this complex man, with a simple name, is a descendant of a sea captain.


His name was William Carey Lane, and he came here in the 1850s. And in 1853, there was a smallpox epidemic that was going on in Honolulu. So he was here. He had decided to make his home in the islands. And he was asked to take some medicine to a Hawaiian couple down where the Royal Hawaiian Hotel is. So he did; he met their daughter, he married her, and ended up making Hawaii his home.


But he planned to do so, even before he met—


Met her


—and fell in love.




Was he at the end of his career, or did he just decide, Heck with my career, I’m staying?


He—exactly that. He decided that he didn’t want to go to sea anymore. And he really loved Hawaii, he decided to make it his home. So he married her, they ended up having twelve children, six boys and six girls. And the first Clark that came to Hawaii married one of the six girls. So anyway, going back to that marriage between the sea captain and Kahooilimoku—that was her name, I’m fifth generation from that marriage.


You seem to concentrate your fascination and your—




—passion where the sea intersects with the shoreline.




The coastal areas, not the deep sea that your—




—your ancestor loved, or once loved. You love that, where water and land connect.


Yes; exactly right. My mother likes to say that she and my dad had me swimming even before I walked. They took me and put me in the ocean before I was even a year old. So that connection for me and the ocean and the beach has always been there from the very beginning. And that was really reinforced when I learned how to surf. I started surfing when I was eight years old. And—


Who taught you? Or did you learn yourself?


Oh, no, not at all. My dad was in construction here in Hawaii, and one of the guys he worked with was a man named Clarence Maki. And Clarence was an avid surfer—actually, an avid surf photographer as well. So anyway, he and my dad were talking one day, and Clarence just told my dad that he’d be willing to teach me how to surf. He did, and I’ve been a lifelong surfer since.


What was your upbringing like? Where’d you grow up, and what was it like?


I grew up at a place called Kaalawai, which is over between Black Point and Diamond Head. It’s a little community there.


Were you right on the water?


Oh, no, no. We were back up towards Diamond Head Road. But anyway, that’s where, really, that I learned to surf in Waikiki, but that whole Diamond Head-Kaalawai area was my backyard.


What was it like? I don’t know that area, except to walk along it. What—




—was it known for?


Actually, Kaalawai was known for several things. As far as traditional Hawaiian resources go, it was an area known for limu, for seaweed. There’s a lot of limu there—or there used to be. There used to be wawaeiole, which is a thick, green limu, and then a finer one that

everybody calls ogo now. But we used to call it manawea, limu manawea.


Did you gather that for salads?


Yes, we did. So those two, I find them every once in a while when I go back there to surf. But not too much. But there were also octopus there. People would come spearing for octopus. And there’s a seasonal fish that used to run through there, the mullet. And they would start off in Pearl Harbor in schools of thousands, and they would just start flowing around the island, and they’d run all the way down the coast, all the way around Makapuu Point, and then head up towards the windward side.


Does that still happen?


No, not like before. We don’t see those mullet runs before. But the throw net fishermen, when they would run, and it would be in the fall, when the anae, the mullet used to run through there, the throw new fishermen would come from all over the island to throw net on the schools.


Did you go down to the beach every day?


Almost. [CHUCKLE]


What was your routine? Before school and after school, or after school?


No, only after school. [CHUCKLE]


[CHUCKLE] ‘Cause lot of folks came to school with their hair dripping wet.


Yes; no, that wasn’t me. [CHUCKLE] But I did surf a lot after school. And like I said, that was my backyard, all those spots. I surfed a lot.


What kind of boards did you surf on, as you went along?


I started off on balsa. So I started surfing in 1954, and that’s just when the foam boards are starting to make their appearance, mostly in California, and they’re just starting to make their way to Hawaii. We don’t actually get a foam surfboard factory here, which was the Velzy Factory, until 1960. So those first six years of my life, or my surfing life, anyway, from ’54 to ’60, I was riding a balsa board. So it was what we used to called a Malibu. It had a kick in the front, and it was just a single fin. And of course, no leashes.


And there are two of your surfboards behind you. Tell—




—me about those boards. They look like they’ve seen a lot of action, and—




—and they’ve been cared for.


Yes, they are. Those are called alaia’s, and the alaia’s are traditional Hawaiian surfboards. Anyway, one of them, the one with the round nose, is made out of redwood and pine. And the other one is made out of all traditional Hawaiian wood; it’s wiliwili with koa strips, stringers. So anyway, the alaia’s are boards that I still ride ‘til this day, as opposed to a regular surfboard. And—


No fins?


No fins at all. So they like to side slip; they don’t a line quite like a regular surfboard does.


And they’re not that long.


No; they’re only five-feet-two, both of them. And they’re very thin too; they’re only three-eighths of an inch.


What size waves are they best on?


They’ll ride anything up to like double overhead waves. Just gotta get out there and fly. [CHUCKLE]


And what’s the story of how the boards were made?


Besides board surfing, besides learning how to surf on a surfboard, I’ve also been a paipo rider all my life. And one of the guys that I ride paipo with builds paipo boards. So when I started researching my book on traditional Hawaiian surfing, I wanted to know what it was like to ride a traditional board. So I just asked my friend—his name’s Bud Shelsa; I asked Bud if he would build me an alaia board, and he did. So we started off with the one with the round nose, and then I got to know that board. And then I decided to try something a little different, shape wise, and we went with the second one, the one with the wiliwili and koa.



In the Hawaiian culture, moolelo, storytelling was crucial in passing down the history of the Hawaiian Islands from generation to generation. In today’s world, the moolelo behind many of Hawaii’s beaches and landmarks would be forgotten and lost without people like John Clark.


So you were an early swimmer, an early surfer?




But those skills are different from collecting and writing about swimming and surfing, and coastlines. How did that all come together?


It actually started with surfing. When I got into my teens and I started surfing around the island, when I got a driver’s license and my friends did too, we started surfing all the different spots around the Island of Oahu. And I actually got interested in the names of all these different spots; where the names came from, what the story was, the moolelo behind the names. And I just started just collecting these as I went along over the years. So anyway, in 1970, when I got out of the Army, I became a lifeguard at Sandy Beach. And as I sat there on my tower, I decided that I was gonna do something proactive to try and reach people and before they got in the water, and got in trouble. So I started writing about Sandy Beach, I started writing about water safety. But when I read this material over, I thought it was really boring. I thought no one would be interested in it. So all this stuff that I’d gathered about surf spots and names, and where the names came from, I decided to combine that information with the water safety stuff. So I just rolled it all into one, and I ended up with a book.


Speaking of names, Sandy Beach—




How more basic can that be?




Does that have a Hawaiian name, or a history that’s more interesting than the words, Sandy Beach?


So the area where Sandy Beach is, is called Wawamalu. And if you go out and look at the old highway bridge out near the entrance to the Hawaii Kai Golf Course, you can see the name Wawamalu; it’s still on the bridge out there. But anyway, the name Sandy Beach actually came from the ulua fishermen that fished at Bamboo Ridge, which is over by the Blow Hole. And they would fish at Bamboo Ridge, and they would just call the beach next door … the sand beach. They’d call it Blow Hole Sand Beach; that was one of their names. Anyway, Blow Hole Sand Beach got edited down to “sand be”—Sandy Beach, and nowadays, the kids just call it Sandy’s. Simple.


There are so names that make you wonder. And there are also more than one name for a place.




So you had to figure out which is the more appropriate. And then, there are probably different versions of how things came to be named the way they are.


Yes, there are. So that’s something that I’ve done all my life, just collect all of these stories, and then just kind of balance the stories one against the other, and try to come up with what I think is the original version, the original moolelo for that place name.


How do you go about finding the moolelo? I mean, how do you do it? You show up at a beach, you’re curious about it, and then what?


Well, because I’m a water person, I guess I can talk surf speak, or I can speak the language. And I just talk to guys or girls in the water, and I say, What do you call this spot? And, I mean, where did the name come from? So I just pick up stories as I go. And I also go through literature. People besides me have written about surf spots and about beaches, and just different places. So I gather all this material, and I just kinda sift through it, and come up with what I think is the legitimate story behind the name.


Do you try to find people who are living there, or associated with the beach a long time ago?


Oh, yes.


You go away from the beach to find the story?


Yes, I do. In fact, that’s one of the things that I’ve done religiously over the years, is going to the communities and talk to the kupuna; the people that were born and raised there, that know the area, that know the names. And the Fire Department was wonderful for that. Because everybody has a fireman in their family, or everybody knows a fireman. So I would ask the guys at work. I’d say, Oh, you’re from Kaaawa. Do you still have family out there? Can I go talk to your grandma or your auntie, or whatever? And then you get the ripple effect. So I talk to the grandma in Kaaawa, and she says, Oh, now,you gotta go talk to my sister in Punaluu. Or, You need to go talk to my dad, who’s out in Laie.

And did you know you were gonna put the information into books? Did you have that idea to begin with?

No; I never did, you know. Just going back to Sandy Beach in 1972; I never thought that I would ever put all of this information into books, into what turned out to be an entire series of books. They were just things that I was interested in, you know, I gathered the information.


And you were methodical about it. You thought, back in 1972, to take down names, and commit—




—it to paper.


Yes. I really valued the information that people gave me, and I thought it was important to recognize them, to honor them for, confiding in me and helping me with what I was after. So I did. That’s something that I’ve done all these years, is acknowledge everyone who’s contributed to my work.


Can we take some surfing sites that lots of people know—




—but they may not know the origin of the name.




For example, along Ala Moana and Waikiki, there are all kinds of surf breaks.




And people know the names, but they might have forgotten the reason. Some—




Some, you can tell, some not.


Sure. Well, if you want to start at Ala Moana, first of all, you have Magic Island. And there’s a spot out there that’s called Bombora’s. And Bombora is actually an aboriginal word; it came from the Australian surfers who came here to Hawaii. And somebody just tagged that name for the surf spot out there. You move—the next spot down, going west now, is Baby Haleiwa’s. That’s named, because that spot breaks just like the surf spot Haleiwa on the North Shore. It’s got the same right with a pocket on a shallow reef on the inside. So that’s for a geographical comparison. And then you hit Courts, which is named for the tennis courts—


Which are right across.


Exactly right. Straight in; that’s your landmark. You go a little further down, you hit Concessions, right out in front of the food concession. So anyway, all of the spots, they all have a story, they all have some reason that they were named. A lot of the names come from just geographical location.


There was one near where I grew up, Niu Valley, called Snipes. Do you know the origin of that?


Yeah; Jerry Lopez told me that story. Snipes are birds.




And the snipes were the little seabirds that were running back and forth on the beach at low tide, just foraging for food.


There’s another surf spot called Gums. What’s the story there?


[CHUCKLE] Okay; Gums is out on the North Shore, and Gums is at Ehukai Beach Park, right next to the Pipeline. Anyway, Randy Rarick told me this story.


Who grew up in Niu Valley, by the way.


Who grew up in Niu Valley, and who surfed at Snipes, and he named Toes too, by the way. Randy is the one that came up with that name. But anyway, getting back to Gums. Randy said that there was a surfer out there who had false teeth. And one day, he got hit in the mouth by his board, and he lost his false teeth.




So everyone was teasing him about coming in toothless. So the spot just got tagged Gums.




Which it’s been ever since.


There’s also Yokohama Bay, which folks on the Waianae Coast have now taken to calling by its original Hawaiian name.






Keawaula; exactly right. So anyway, back when it was called Yokohama, the train, the OR&L train used to run from Honolulu around Kaena Point to Haleiwa, and actually beyond. The train actually ran up ‘til 1947. But anyway, there was a camp out there, um, of repairmen who were mostly Japanese workers. And their job was to repair the tracks. So Yokohama was one of the ports where a lot of the Japanese came from, when they came to Hawaii. So that name just kinda got tagged with them, to that particular bay, Keawaula Bay.


And why was it called Keawaula? There must be a reason for that.


There is.


That Hawaiian name.


[CHUCKLE] Well, the name Keawaula is actually three words in Hawaiian. It’s ke, which is, the; awa is harbor; and then ula is red. So it means, the red harbor. And there are squid in the Hawaiian Islands, besides octopus, now—these are the true squid, and they school. And when they come into a harbor and they’re schooling, and they’re mating, they turn red. And so it looks like the water turns red, because the schools are so massive. So anyway, that’s the moolelo behind Keawaula, is because of the squid schools that used to come in there seasonally.


You know, we were talking a lot about …




—things you can see, you know, surf sites.




But … I live on the North Shore, and—




—I’ve always lived around or among surfers.




And … it appears to me that there’s a whole world out there that a lot of us don’t see, but it’s as real as anything to those who are in the waters a lot. So many people know the underwater landscapes just as well as they do the streets of—




—the town.


Yes. Well, you’re actually making a very good point. Surf spots are ocean parks. And that’s how surfers see them. So if you think of your favorite park, or your favorite golf course, or the tennis courts where you play tennis; to a surfer, a surf spot’s the same thing. That’s his park, that’s his area where he does his recreation, his activities. So you’re right. The surfers know the ocean bottom, they know all the quirks, and the currents, and what happens if it’s high tide and low tide, whether it’s summer or winter. All of that stuff plays in, and they know their spots just as well as golfers know their golf courses.


No matter how random life is, sometimes people become who they were destined to be. In the case of John Clark, he channeled his love of surfing, his career as a firefighter, and his passion for historical research into leadership of the Hawaiian Historical Society.


I’ve always liked English. I’ve always been a very good reader. A voracious reader, actually. So I thought I would be an English major, and that’s what I started off doing up at UH Manoa. But as I got into it, I realized that I really didn’t want to be a teacher, which is pretty much where you have to go if you’re an English major. So I switched; I switched my major to Hawaiian Studies, which was what I was personally interested in. And at that time, I was already in the Fire Department, so I didn’t have to worry about my degree being my profession.


I see.


I already had my profession. So I got a degree in Hawaiian Studies.


How did you go, all of a sudden, from water to fire?


[CHUCKLE] I was a lifeguard for two years; that was from 1970 to 1972. And my roommate at that time was a guy named Aaron Young, and Aaron was working for Hawaiian Tel. So anyway, Aaron decided that he wanted to be a fireman, and after he got in, he said it was a really good job, it was a good lifestyle, and he encouraged me to take the test, which I did. And one of the reasons I did is because at that time, there wasn’t any upward mobility in the lifeguard service. If you were a lifeguard, you were a lifeguard pretty much for life. So there wasn’t too much chance of me moving up in the ranks, getting higher pay; you know, that kinda thing.




And in the Fire Department, it’s just the opposite. They’re a big organization, lots of mobility, lots of room to get promoted.


And lots of different aspects of the work.


Yes; including ocean rescues. The Fire Department here does ocean rescues. So that’s something that I did as the years went along, too.


And when you ended your career after thirty-three years—


Oh, yes.


—Deputy Fire—


Fire chief.






Far away from the water.




And even fires, right? You were in an—




—executive role.


Yes. So the last seven and a half years of my career were as the Deputy Fire Chief of HFD. But even that was good, too. During that time, I went and got a master’s in public administration. And I really took that job seriously, of being a public administrator of a first responder agency.


You’ve spent a lot of time gathering information, writing, and taking—




—care of the publication of books. Why do you do it? Do you make a lot of money from it?


Oh, no. It’s all for love. [CHUCKLE] Just real quick; the royalties are very minimal from the sales of all of my books. And the royalties that I do get, I just channel them back into the research, and all of the field trips that I do for the current projects that I’m working on. So there’s no money in it. But I really enjoy doing it. I think that I’m capturing pieces of Hawaiian history that other people haven’t. And the feedback that I get from people that read my stuff tells me that I think I’m touching some bases out there. Maybe not making a homerun with everybody, but I’m touching some bases, and people seem to appreciate what I do.


Sometimes on a mainland trip, I go to one of these, say, LA subdivisions, you know, malls. And you don’t—




You don’t see any distinguishing characteristics, or landmarks.




It’s just paved.




I think it would be really hard to live in a place like that.


That you can’t relate to somehow; yes.


What’s the history? I don’t know. [CHUCKLE]


Right. So that’s something that I’ve tried to do for Hawaii. So if you live in Lanikai, you know where the name came from, what it means, you know the history of the area. If you live on the North Shore, why Sunset Point is Sunset Point, and you know why Rock Piles is Rock Piles, and all the rest of it.


I notice that you’ve been the president of the Hawaiian Historical Society—




—for years.


Yes; for six years. [CHUCKLE]


Why? What do you enjoy about that?


The Hawaiian Historical Society … does what I do. They preserve Hawaiian history. And that’s something that I’ve been doing all of these years, is telling history, telling Hawaiian history through the beaches. So to me, it’s a perfect fit. The Hawaiian Historical Society has a library, they have an archive. They’re one of the key resource research centers here in the Hawaiian Islands. And I’m a part of that. I’m a part of the journal that we’ve put out. In fact, I’m one of the editors of the Journal of Hawaiian History. So it all plays in, it all ties in, and it all works out really well for me.


Even if it’s land history?


Yes; even if it’s land history. [CHUCKLE]


So the next time someone asks you where the name Snipes came from, or why Queen’s Surf is called Queen’s Surf, pass on the moolelo. Then, tell them that you heard if from the guy slipping down the face of a double overhead on the alaia surfboard. For Long Story Short, and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


For audio and written transcripts of this program, and all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit pbshawaii.org.


Is there a favorite surf site name that you’ve come across? I know they’re probably all like your children, but is there a favorite one?


Actually, I enjoy all of them. I like all of the names and all of the stories. But I’ll tell you this real quick. The spot that I get asked the most often about, over any spot in the Hawaiian Islands, is a spot out in Makua that’s called Pray For Sex. And Pray For Sex actually comes from another surf slogan from the 60s, which was Pray For Surf. Somebody just change one word in the slogan there, and they actually wrote it on a rock out there. So you can go out there right now, and see Pray For Sex; it’s still written on that rock.


And what is another name for that surf spot? Is there—




Is there another name for it?


It’s actually more of a little bodysurfing spot out there. The rock that it’s written on has a Hawaiian name; it’s called Pohaku Kulalai. And there’s actually a little marker out there that explains that. But people still know that ‘til this day. And every time I talk to people about surf spots, they always ask me about that one.


Layla Dedrick



Original air date: Tues., Mar. 3, 2010


Leslie Wilcox talks story with Layla Dedrick, Pacific Business News’ 2009 Young Business Leader of the Year. Layla is C.E.O. of Bella Pietra, a natural stone company, and she runs her business on values that are part of her Hawaiian heritage: Kuleana (responsibility), Malama (caring for), and Kupono (doing the right thing in the right place). She talks with Leslie about her journey from her childhood in Waianae, to attending Kamehameha Schools, to teaching special needs children, to running a highly successful business with her husband.


Layla Dedrick Audio


Download the Transcript




My parents’ business; they owned a gas station in Maili, right on Farrington. So we were either at home, in the service station, grease monkeys running around, and right across the street was the beach. And that was our playground. So my memories of Maili are very much about the ocean, and that is still a really strong connection for me.


Born and raised on Oahu’s ruggedly beautiful Waianae coast, Layla Dedrick grew up in a family business. Before she turned 40, she would establish her own business and win recognition as a business leader. It’s her second career. First she was a special education teacher. She says that special-ed background has helped her tremendously in business…because she knows how to set clear expectations and give positive feedback. Layla Dedrick’s “Long Story Short” is next.


Aloha mai kakou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. In this edition of “Long Story Short”, we’ll meet Layla Dedrick, C-E-O and owner of a natural stone company, Bella Pietra…and the 2009 recipient of the “Young Business Leader of the Year” award, from Pacific Business News. Layla Dedrick is a graduate of the Kamehameha Schools and the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and she’s a former public-school teacher. With her husband Andrew, she founded Bella Pietra in 2001. The first year out, their business brought in revenues of 600,000 dollars. By 2008, the revenues were up to 11 million dollars. At that point, the economic crisis slowed things down. Through it all, Layla Dedrick looks to her Hawaiian upbringing and she remains committed to doing business in a culturally correct way.


I think one of the other things that I think about Maili is a kind of…not just natural, but a ruggedness in the natural environment, as well as the people. It’s a hot, dry place by climate, economically has been and still is depressed. So a very kind—I think resoluteness about that affects how you grow up there. Our family business being very public—I mean, it was a service station and repair, so everybody in Waianae at that time literally drove through my family business. It made us very aware of the role that you play in the community. It’s real easy to look at Waianae and see the negative, but I learned from early on that you need to be a positive influence in the community in however you choose to do that.


You mentioned the community was depressed economically, and your parents owned a business.




That must have been tough for them to operate the business and they must have been asked for credit a lot, is my guess.


I still remember to this day an old cash register, the kind you punch the buttons and, cha-king, and it opens the drawer. And in one of the drawers that didn’t have dollar bills in it was an old beat-up Casio watch and a little, very small, tiny diamond ring back sitting the drawer. And those were collateral that they had taken from people who say, Well, you know, if I don’t fix my car, I can’t drive to town and go to work, but I can give you this, can you fix my car. And my parents would do that, and they’d put it in the drawer, and they were supposed to, you know, come back and pay cash. Those are the kinds of things they did, because they knew that’s something little they could contribute.


Did you always hang out at the service station? Did you work there?


I did. I’m the last of six children. We stood out a little bit in the community, because there were all these hapa Haole girls working in this dirty, grimy service station and pumping gas, and fixing tires.


Can you fix a car these days?


Not anymore. It’s more computer than car nowadays. But I did pump gas and help my mom fix tires, and that kinda thing. It was great life experience.


Back in the days when—


For sure.


—gas was pumped for the customer.


That’s right. Yeah, no automated anything.


After attending Maili elementary, Layla Dedrick enrolled at the Kamehameha schools, like her older sisters before her. Just getting to the Honolulu campus in Kapalama was a daily challenge.


Was it a bus ride for you?


It was a bus ride.


That’s a long—






Up at four-thirty, five, at the bus stop before six behind Tamura’s Supermarket with Clancy the bus driver, who was the bus driver for my sisters. And that was—it was a long ride in the dark in early morning. And then getting home at four-thirty, five-thirty in the afternoon. That was a big change, having pretty much grown up all of my days, my social activities and schooling in Waianae. Soon, I think maybe about my tenth grade year, started to get an inkling of, I better not waste this. You know—began to see the opportunities that Kamehameha offered. And then just fell in love with the whole experience, academically, involved in sports.


You did sports even though you had to take this bus ride home?


Well, from tenth grade, I started driving.


I see.


So my mom’s rule was, if you want a car, give me a reason that you need a car. If you’re just gonna go to school and come home, ride the bus. But I was starting to be interested in sports, swimming and water polo and with sports, again, leaving home at four or five in the morning to get in the pool at six. Practice after school, getting home at seven o’clock at night, just enough time to sit down and wolf down a dinner with Mom and Dad, and then hit the books. So high school is a blur, but very fond memories.


Did you become less of a tita?


[chuckle] I hope so. [chuckle] I hope I can—


At Kamehameha.


I hope I can—there’s a lot of great qualities about the tita-ness…self reliance, not being afraid to speak up for yourself, that helps me, I think, on a daily basis, try to cut through kind of all of…when you’re running a business and have lots of employees, and work with the public like we do.


Any drawbacks to the tita background?


Yes. [chuckle] How candid do you want to be?




Let’s see. I would say, delivery, how you say something has a huge impact on how it’s received. And so that same quality of wanting to cut to the chase to help solve a problem doesn’t mean that you get to be rude…


What about—you were one of six kids, and—




—sometimes you’ve gotta fight for position. I know sometimes people say the youngest has it easiest.




But on the other hand, it’s a group, and sometimes you get put aside. How did you—




—handle that?


I would say that but truly, I was really, really blessed, because I think I had the best of both worlds. I was the youngest, but there’s a big span between me and the other five.


So there was not a lot of sibling rivalry.


Not sibling rivalry. I had more than one mom. I had my mom and my sisters, who all helped take care of me. My mom had me when she was almost forty-three, which is late.




And so I have the perspective of kind of the older generation, her values. But then I also have the values of…most of my siblings are Baby Boomers. I was actually spoiled, would be a good word. But in a good way, in that I was showered with love in a healthy way.


You did a newspaper article I read, and you introduced yourself in the article in Hawaiian style. You—




—began with your genealogy.


M-m. Yes, and that’s important to me, and something that’s become really clear as a business owner. ‘Cause I’ve been challenged more than I ever dreamed as a business owner. And introducing myself through my genealogy, when I think of myself in those terms as a kanaka maoli, it helps me remember that I am not just me, that I am part of a long line of strong, intelligent people, through all of my ethnicities, whether Hawaiian or Chinese, or Caucasian, and that part of Hawaiian cultural beliefs are—is that literally, your ancestors, your kupuna are literally standing ready to assist you. And so how can I be anything but ready to go forward when I think of who is standing behind me saying, Go, imua, go forward.


Who’s standing behind you right now?


Oh wow. I can’t talk about that without crying. Sorry. [SNIFF]

Besides my most immediate ancestors, my father who’s passed on my mom is—still blessed that she’s with us, um, their parents. That’s who I know… but when I think about my Hawaiian background, I see these images of um, kind of these outline of people linked hand-in-hand. And for me personally, that’s their energy, their mana, their soul.


I am linked through to them through my genealogy and they are there for me as a point of nurturing for me, to give me the strength to go forward. Modern day Hawaiians are plagued by so many ills, physically, spiritually, mentally, the land and our food, and all of that. And I wish there was a way for us as a people to come together and harness that energy that I feel. Because there’s lots of reasons for Hawaiians to complain, be divisive.


Because of all the losses of—


Because of all the—


—of history.


Because of all the losses and the current state of our people, and to want to point fingers, and blame, and et cetera. And you can spend a lot of energy doing that, and maybe that’s part of the process of healing, people feel that they need to go through that. But I feel it’s time to move on past that, as a people, not just Hawaiian people, but until we move past what dis-unifies us into what unifies us, we will never have the resolution of our ills that we are looking for. And whether your chosen cause is land rights, or sovereignty, or control over kalo. As long as those issues are divisive, our move forward will be stunted.


And you feel that your reliance on ancestors helps you—


I think so. Because—


—go forward?


How could this people, quote, unquote, technologically illiterate people get on a boat, and sail thousands of miles to a place they’d never been before, right? This little speck in the ocean, and then sail back, and come back again. How could they build a civilization here in these islands.


The most isolated islands in the world.


Exactly; the most isolated islands in the world, by some estimates in the millions, healthy, strong…




Totally sustainable; there’s one. That’s a strength that to me, we have yet to duplicate now. We’re not sustainable. We rely on imported foods, and our quality of life and all those things, that how could you not look back at your ancestors and say, they offer something to me today to make a positive difference in our life. It would be dishonorable for me to not use that as a strength, because they came a heck of a long way, metaphorically and physically. So they, must have had something right.


Let’s talk a little bit about your college years.




Had you decided what you were gonna do with your life?


Oh, no. I wish I was one of those people who…I meet people who knew, they had this passion from when they were little that they were gonna be a teacher, or be a nurse, or write, or they knew how they were gonna contribute to the world. I was clueless, made lots of kind of fits and starts. But, when I was in college, I had been in college for a year, my freshman year on the mainland, because that’s what you were supposed to do after high school, right? You’re supposed to go to a good college. But it was not really where I wanted to be. So I took a year off, and did a volunteer year at an international school in Vancouver, Canada. Met some incredible people from all over the world, one of the best life experiences I’ve had. Came home, I’d said I would take two classes that I would never want to take. So I took an accounting class.


Why would you do that?


Because I wanted to challenge myself. So I took an accounting class, which I was totally right about, was not gonna be an accountant. That one, I had right on. Didn’t want to be an accountant. And then I took a political philosophy class. And I fell in love with philosophy. Ended up getting my undergraduate degree in political science. Had a wonderful time.


Could you tell how you were gonna use that? Did you see a profession—






Not at all. And that was another thing, to the consternation of my mother. What are you gonna do with that? You know, my mom, get a good job, make sure her daughter’s secure. But fell in love with the whole idea. And what I learned about political science and again, breaking down a preconceived notion, is that it’s not about going into politics. Political science at its heart is about how do we govern each other with justice and fairness, and how do we create a framework and a structure called society that helps humanity move forward and become a better race of people. And that was fascinating to me, because I thought, that’s why we’re here.


After pursuing her passion for political science, and receiving a bachelor’s degree from the U.H. Manoa, Layla Dedrick earned a teaching certificate to work with special-needs children. She continually calls upon her teaching experience as a business owner and operator.


Was that your answer to your mom, who said, How are you gonna make a living with this?




And you got a special ed certificate? Or were you—


That again, was why did I do that. I needed a job, really. I mean, you graduate with a political science degree, I knew I wasn’t gonna go into politics, I wasn’t gonna get a law degree, which is kind of the next common thing to do. I wasn’t gonna run for office, that’s not me. I had previously done education classes, ‘cause for a while, I thought maybe that’s what I was gonna do. Which actually ended up being an excellent place, because then going back and getting my special ed certification kinda helped me tie together a lot of the different things I had learned in my exploration. The things that I learned in that special ed program, it’s a lot about classroom management. Besides the particulars of learning about disabilities and ADA law, and all of that, it’s about classroom management and how do you manage such disparate abilities and needs. I use those management skills every day at work, because some of the things I learned as a classroom teacher are not just what special ed students needs, is what people need. People want clear expectations, they want to know what you want. You’re the boss, what does my boss expect of me. They want clear guidelines on how to get there.


As Layla Dedrick and her husband, Andrew, established and grew their natural stone business, she met company challenges with a distinctively Hawaiian view of the world. She instilled the native values and responsibilities of kuleana, malama, and kupono in the workplace.


You said that you wanted to do more than sell your—




—product. But why did you choose, one, to start a business, and two, to sell stone?


Yeah. M-m. To start a business; that’s interesting.  My parents were small business owners; maybe just that experience. My husband and I have been together since I was eighteen years old; that’s when we met. And this year, I will have been married eighteen years. And from when we were very young, always kind of knew that we wanted to be entrepreneurial someday. And so why stone? I wish I had some really deep answer that was very meaningful. [chuckle]


Or family background in masonry?


No. I wish, but I don’t. When we were both in college, we both needed jobs to support ourselves, and my husband went to work as a sales guy, just took a sales job in a company that did lots of different products from plumbing products to Jacuzzis, to metal strapping. And one little, tiny division that was just kind of a—they were dabbling in stone. Some little twelve-by-twelve marble polished tiles, like five colors or something. And he took that product and that became a major part of that company, grew that division. And so he had the particular knowledge of that product, and then with my management background, organizational background, decided that that is what we would do. That was in 2001.


Was that before 9/11?


One month before 9/11, we opened our doors. And so that was a scary time.


How did you do it? You just hunkered down and held on?




How did you handle it?


Very interesting, and I have no statistics, but 9/11, other than the initial kind of constriction, nobody doing anything for the first few weeks, I think within three months after that for Hawaii in particular, I think turned out to be a great opportunity.


People were cocooning weren’t they?


People were cocooning, and at that time in the economy, a major part of our business was high end luxury. When we first started out, that was a big part of our market. And because after 9/11 the foreign investment was now very scary, people with disposable income were now wanting their luxury home, their vacation getaway in Hawaii, instead of a villa in France or a villa in a bungalow in Bali or—


Right; the safety [INDISTINCT].

Safe. It was still the United States, but it was exotic, and it was beautiful and the weather was fantastic.   So 9/11 for us, the bleeding was short. It was fast, but short. And now, I mean, us like everyone else, long term difficulty, and I think, knock on wood, slow but steady recovery.


How do you strike a balance? I mean, because there’s always something more you could be doing in—




—any one phase of your life. When do you decide to push yourself away from the table, or whatever else you’re doing?


Yeah. Continual struggle.


Always balancing?


Always. And what today’s balance looks like may not look like what tomorrow’s balance is. So today’s balance maybe requires that I’m physically at the office for eight, ten, twelve hours sometimes. Tomorrow’s balance might be I’m on a field trip with my kids, and I’m not at the office. Very fortunate that my husband and I are able to trade off duties, et cetera, with the business and with kids and made a conscious effort when we had kids that we would try to err on the side of them and family. Not just them, but us as a family unit, and he and I as a unit.


Even though when you own your own business, that may be tougher than ever.


It is.


Especially now, in this, as we speak, there’s a deep economic downturn.


Yes; the decisions I make and how attentive I am to the health of my business direct impact on the people that come to work for me every day. And that’s a huge responsibility, and that more than anything else is, what’ll keep me up at night. If I have, twenty-five plus employees that choose to come here every day, and that is humbling to me. I’m like, wow, they choose to come and spend most of their waking hours with me? Well, my husband has to do that. [chuckle] But nobody else has to do that. My kids have to do that, nobody else has to do that. ‘Cause it has to be more than about stone. I have to have a reason for coming to work every day beyond the particular widget. And that’s something that I kind of shared and bounced ideas off with other people in the business community is beyond what particular service you provide, what are you doing?


It’s not just what, it’s how.


Exactly. It’s how, and then you have such a wider impact in the community when you think of it that way. Our product, it’s not gonna change the world, it’s not like I’m an ER doctor saving lives. I’m not a kindergarten teacher that is setting a stage for a child’s development through their educational experience. I sell a product that you could take it or leave it. I mean, to be really honest.


And it’s high end, so it’s not necessary.


It’s not a necessary. It’s not a discretionary product, right? So then for me, my business, besides wanting to provide a quality product with good customer service, there has to be a purpose to Bella Pietra and why it exists, beyond are you gonna use this stone in your kitchen or this one. It’s really about the guiding principles focus on how Bella Pietra fits in the community, and some of the wording from those guiding principles is about a standard of excellence in our interaction with all of our stakeholders at Bella Pietra. And our stakeholders include the obvious ones, our customers, our employees, our vendors, what business is next door to us down the street, because how we conduct ourselves in our business, affects our neighborhood. So that’s our hood over there at Pier 21. So a standard of excellence…our values are three Hawaiian words kupono, malama, and kuleana. So malama, how we take care of each other, how we take care of our clients, and how each individual in the company takes care of the company. Kuleana, doing your job every day to the best of your ability, and realizing how your kuleana and whether you do it or not affects somebody else’s kuleana. And then kupono, doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time for the right reason.


Layla Dedrick is a part Hawaiian Maili girl who grew up to become a business owner and operator. She uses Hawaiian cultural values and her background as a special-education teacher, setting clear expectations, to run her natural stone company, Bella Pietra. In 2009, she was named outstanding “Young Business Leader of the Year” in Hawaii. Thank you, Layla Dedrick, for sharing with us here at PBS Hawaii. And thank “you” for joining us on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.


In high school, I wasn’t in the popular group. I wasn’t a cheerleader. I wasn’t exceptionally outspoken. I wasn’t in student government, wasn’t a song leader at Kamehameha, all of the kinda high profile places. I was kind of a little bit of the sports, little bit geeky, little bit kinda fringe person. So I don’t think that they were expecting anything this high profile.


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