adventure

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
The Storytellers

 

This special edition of LONG STORY SHORT is a compilation of Leslie’s past conversations with several of Hawai‘i’s storytellers. We feature the playwright and author Victoria Kneubuhl, whose rich stories aim to amplify Hawai‘i voices and perspectives; Florence “Johnny” Frisbie, who, at 15 years old, documented her childhood adventures on the remote Cook Islands in her autobiography Miss Ulysses from Puka-Puka; and Phil Arnone, who built a long career on telling Hawai‘i’s stories as a television director and producer.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 16, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

The Storytellers Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

I want to make things honest, and develop that aspect of my soul, my nature. And I’m very, very much into writing about my philosophy about anything and everything that comes to mind.

 

Most of my writing life is concerned with how the past collides with the present. But I’m also saying, you know, that there’s a lot of things, even in my personal life, that … they were like seeds that somebody put there.

 

I’ve learned so much about Hawaiʻi and about these people, and about the culture. Things like that are special, I think for everybody, and not just for me.

 

Memoir writer Johnny Frisbie, playwright Victoria Kneubuhl, and television director Phil Arnone are all storytellers. They strive to capture and share the human experience, whether it’s about their own lives, or the lives and times of those who came before. Storytellers, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Former Hawaiʻi Public Radio general manager Michael Titterton likes to call storytelling the quintessential social act, one of the oldest human behaviors that’s not only a vehicle for healing, illumination, and understanding, but for being civilized. In this edition of Long Story Short, we revisit three storytellers who were previous guests on this program and hear what drives them to tell stories. Johnny Frisbie and Victoria Kneubuhl are writers; Phil Arnone tells stories through the visuals and the sounds of television.

 

We begin with Florence Frisbie, known all of her life as Johnny. Her American father, who also was a writer, left the United States in the 1920s looking for a simpler life. He found his paradise on the small atoll of Pukapuka in the Cook Islands. Johnny Frisbie was the second of five children born to Robert Frisbie and a native Pukapukan. Johnny was only a teenager when she published her autobiography, Miss Ulysses From Pukapuka, and in her book she recounts the story of her life being raised primarily on the small atoll, but moving from island to island in the South Pacific.

 

We were very busy kids. You know, the kids were busy. We played a lot; climbed trees, and hide-and-seek, and swim in the lagoon, swim out to the corals way out. But we had duties, too. You know, we had to help the women in the taro patch. Yeah.

 

Oh, that’s hard work.

 

Yeah, well, we played most of the time.  And that was introducing us to work, and teaching us maybe basically how to take care of taro patch. And there wasn’t much to do for kids, but we didn’t miss anything. We were also comfortable doing nothing, just sitting. You know, just sitting and looking at each other, or maybe singing a song. And you know, ask a few questions or two. It was really basically a lot of thinking. You know, Pukapukan people think a lot; they just sit and, you know, they look up, and they look up at the coconut tree, maybe thinking, Mm, that’s almost ripe, ooh, I must pick that one. Yeah. There’s a lot of communicating to the outer.

 

So, you wrote this book between the ages of twelve and fourteen.

 

I started a diary at twelve. Yeah. And no, I finished the book at fifteen. Yeah; came out when I was sixteen, just before my father died.

 

So, it was a diary.

 

Yes.

 

In which language did you keep your diary?

 

Oh, I kept it in Pukapukan mainly, and then English. As I went along, I write in Pukapukan, and I would ask my father what that word is in English. And he would explain it to me, and then I would use the word. By the time I was fourteen, I was able to write in English. Might be not the be, you know, but I was able to use adjectives because my father said, You can’t just write like that, you have to put a colorful word there to make the next word happy.

 

And Miss Ulysses; where did Miss Ulysses come from?

 

Well, because there were not children’s books in that part of the world growing up, my father at nighttime, rather than read, and there’s no children’s stories, he would tell us the story of Ulysses in the Iliad, and the Odyssey of Homer, you know. Every night, we would go through the whole series of adventures of Ulysses. And that was all I knew, you know. And so, when the book was finished, then my father said, Well, we gotta find a name for this book. Hm, hm; we thought about it, thought about it for days, and days. And then, I said, Oh, you know, how about Miss Ulysses? Because I’m Ulysses, aren’t I, Daddy, or Papa? You know.

You identified with Ulysses. And it was an adventure kind of life. I mean, you were facing the elements.

 

Yeah, that’s right.  And we traveled a lot. You know, we did. Even if it’s just from one island to other, you know, to us, it was big time.

 

You’ve received accolades as the first woman writer out of the Pacific.

 

M-hm.

 

At age fifteen, is when the book came out.

 

M-hm.

 

How’s that make you feel?

 

Good; I feel good. But the thing is, I think being so young has given a challenge to the women who are educated, you know. I mean, like the New Zealand women, Maori women who, you know, have degrees, university. You know, it made it easy for them, made it easy for a lot of Polynesian women to say, Hey, she did it at fourteen, and she had a book published at sixteen. Oh, you know, why can’t I do it? You know, to me, that makes me happy, you know, if I was of some use in that area.

 

You continue to write. And I think when you write, it makes you think maybe better. I mean, just because you’re involved in the exercise of putting thing down that have to be true and authentic.

 

M-hm.

 

What insights have you come to over your life as you look back?

 

I’ve been very lucky. Yeah, been very lucky. Oh, I don’t know how to say it. Because I’ve delved a lot in philosophy, and so, I want to make things … honest. And develop that aspect of my soul, my nature. And I’m very, very much into writing about my philosophy about anything and everything that comes to mind, and I’m discovering that I haven’t really committed fully to what the majority of people think about some things, and how they do it. And I’m very careful that I don’t make a fool of the life, the people, with my family.

 

Is that because of your upbringing, and how …

 

It’s so different. Yeah; it’s so different. It’s not a struggle, but it’s been a constant awareness of, you know, where I come from. You know, my feelings, my thinking.

 

Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl has spent a lifetime as a playwright and as an author of mystery books, for which she has received literary awards from the Hawaiʻi State Foundation On Culture and The Arts, and the Hawaiʻi Literary Arts Council. Victoria’s Polynesian heritage is at the heart of her passion for writing stories, whether they are about historical figures from Hawaiʻi’s past, fictional sleuths, or events that changed the course of history in our islands.

 

Most of my writing life is concerned with how the past collides with the present. But I’m also seeing, you know, that there’s a lot of things, even in my personal life, that … they were like seeds that somebody put there from the past. And that you know, someone planted a seed when I was a little girl, and you know, something else grew when I grew up. And so, I think that the past, and the present, and the future can get extremely blurry. And I think we have a lot to, you know, especially when we look back at how our kūpuna took care of their physical environment, we have a lot to learn from them.

 

I think your plays give a sense of that, that the past is a constant. It’s sort of timeless.

 

I think there are certain things that transcend time. And I think that some of us, you know, we feel that the responsibility of our kūpuna is our responsibility too. You know, and when I look at what my great-grandmother was doing during the 19th century, how she was close to the queen, and how she supported the monarchy in a really tough time, I kind of feel like, you know, I should be doing some of that kind of work too.

 

What does that mean today, to be doing the kind of work of supporting the monarchy, which no longer exists?

 

Well, for me, you know, my work in writing living history programs and presenting public programs about that time period in history, that has been my work, you know, that I’ve wanted to do and that I’ve had the opportunity to do. So, I feel like telling that story over, and over, and over again.

 

And to accomplish what?

 

Well, for one thing, you know, that history was not told to me when I was in school. And I think that when we understand what happened in the past to our country and our people, that we will be able to make better decisions about what we create in the future. Because I feel like if you don’t understand your personal past, your collective past, you can get into a lot of trouble.

 

At some point, did you leave playwriting behind, or did you decide to take a break and write novels, mystery novels?

 

Well, I could never leave playwriting behind, because that’s where I started writing. But at some point, I realized, gosh, my plays are pretty serious, you know, and I really need to have some fun with my writing, so I think I’ll write a mystery. Because when I want to relax, my escape literature is, you know, old-fashioned cozy mysteries. And so, I decided to try and write a mystery.

 

You put many places, places that you know well into their settings. You actually have the curator of Bishop Museum killed in the museum.

 

Well, you know, because I worked in the museum field for so long, I knew that field pretty well, so I made use of it. You know. And I really feel that novel writing, you know, even when it’s fiction that’s kind of a genre fiction, mysteries, those kinds of stories preserve history in their own way. You know, they tell us a little bit about the past in a really different way.

 

You put the Haleiwa Hotel in your in your novel.

 

Yeah.

 

Which really existed.

 

Yeah. Yes, and just the way people related to each other. You know, I mean, I feel so fortunate to have known the kind of kūpuna that aren’t with us anymore. So, I think fiction is a wonderful place for preservation, too. One of the things that I really want people to know, who would like to be writers, and who would like to write, and who are from the islands or the Pacific, is that our stories are so worth telling. And that we have such a rich history and a rich presence, that we have more than enough material to supply the world with wonderful stories. And that, you know, it doesn’t matter if you don’t make the best-seller list in New York. If you write something that is heartfelt and genuine, you are leaving a gift for your community. And so, I encourage people to look at where they came from, and tell those stories.

 

Phil Arnone made his mark in Hawaii as a television director and producer. He not only directed the top-rated Channel 9 News during the 1970s and 80s, but he produced and directed live coverage of many local events and other regular programs. He returned to his roots in the San Francisco area to continue his career in television production. When he decided it was time to retire in 2002, he and his wife moved back to Hawaii. But as it turns out, he did not retire. Instead, he put his knowledge of the Hawaii community and his production skills to work in creating television specials about Hawai‘i’s iconic people and places. His documentaries about such people as Duke Kahanamoku, Rap Reiplinger, Eddie Aikau, Don Ho, Israel Kamakawiwoole, Dave Shoji, and Jimmy Borges are only a few of the programs he has produced. What makes Phil Arnone’s programs so special is his persistence to dig deep. He presses for more, more, more in telling the story of a person’s life, whether it’s finding people who know the subject of the story, or rummaging in garages for old film footage and photographs stashed in boxes that had long been forgotten.

 

[SINGING] A long time ago …

 

God bless you guys. I miss all of you so much. Aloha.

 

Do you go under people’s beds to find this video and film? You find stuff that nobody else has found to illustrate your films.

 

Well, you just have to not give up. You know, because it’s not all immediately available, and lots of times, people have it in cardboard boxes in the back of the house, somewhere in the garage. And you gotta encourage them and make them want to …

 

Go look.

 

‘Cause we’re usually talking about a friend or a family member in this case, and I say, I need your help. You know, we need to see. Like when we did the Rap Reiplinger show, I mean, part of it was old footage from the action stuff, the fun stuff he did. But we found footage of him as like a three-year-old on eight millimeter in a cardboard box, in the back of the house. But his sister, one of his sisters found that for me, and it was great. I mean, it’s so much more fun to see somebody grow old into where you remember them, and tell the story that way.

 

[SINGING] How can you love me? You really haven’t seen all of me. You know, you haven’t seen the side that frightens even me. It’s so hard for me to see why you love me.

 

It harkens back to those days where nothing less than perfection was okay for your newscast. Because I’ve seen you; you have enough material to do a very good film, but you will go get more and more information, and you’re okay with a lot of it not being used, just so you have all the great choices.

 

Yes; that’s important. I mean, we do; we need to have all of that. But obviously, we can’t use every photograph or every piece of footage.

 

But you’ll go out of your way to get that photograph.

 

Yeah.

 

And you don’t feel bad if you don’t use it later.

 

No, I don’t. But I want to have it. I want Robert, when he writes, to feel like we’ll have something to show. It’s not gonna be a radio show. We need to have visuals, and I need to make sure that I’m giving him enough to write to. So, yeah. I mean, I think most producers will try and do that.

 

Who are some of the celebrities you’ve gotten to know well through following their lives and coming up with a sixty-minute show?

 

Ooh. Well, you’re right. For a while, we were doing only shows about people that had passed on. And then if I call somebody and I say I want to do a show, they get very nervous.

 

They think I’ve been talking to their doctor or something, and know something they don’t. But you know, we started with, I think, Eddie Aikau and Duke Kahanamoku, and Iz. Those were the first three that we did. And obviously, those gentlemen have passed on. But the truth is that I’ve learned so much about Hawai‘i and about these people, and about the culture, that I never learned when I was here working at KGMB. I mean, we never did shows like this, and I never left that station. I was always in the station doing things. And the treat is that it’s as much from for me as I hope as it is for the viewers, because I’m looking at these great old photos, at this fun footage, and learning about, You did that? Like the Jimmy Borges show; I was totally unaware of his Forbidden City activities in San Francisco as a young singer. I thought he just was born at Trapper’s. But things like that are special, I think for everybody, and not just for me.

 

And there isn’t much in the way of long form filmmaking for commercial use.

 

No; and I think, you know, Mr. Blangiardi has been kind enough to continually support this kind of programming. And without that, you know, it wouldn’t be done, because they become expensive, and you gotta give him something he can sell.

 

There must have been moments in making your shows where you thought, I got it, that’s the moment, that’s the shot.

 

The Jimmy Borges documentary, the best shot that people will remember and maybe cry at, and laugh at, and enjoy, and applaud at, would be when he stood up and sang a duet with uh, Melveen Leed at the Moana celebration of Love of Jimmy evening. And it’s an incredible experience just to be there, and we have it on video. And it’s a very emotional time.

 

[SINGING] We left our hearts in San Francisco …

 

I dearly love what I’m doing now. And that’s why I keep doing it, I guess. I mean, I never get tired of it, and it keeps me, I think, from being boring and bored, and hopefully, these stories are worthwhile doing, so I continue to do them.

 

Thanks to the drive and determination of those whose passion it is to tell stories, Hawaii history and culture are kept alive, and our community is richer for it. Mahalo to Florence “Johnny” Frisbie, Victoria Nalani Kneubuhl, and Phil Arnone, all of Honolulu, for telling your stories and for sharing your experiences with us. And mahalo to you, for joining us. For PBS Hawaii and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

[SINGING] Above the blue …

 

[END]

 

 

JOSEPH ROSENDO’S TRAVELSCOPE
Taiwan, Naturally

 

From its serpentine coastline and towering mountains to its verdant forests and remote offshore islands, Taiwan’s natural beauty is surprising. Yet, while it may be far from what the casual visitors expects, Taiwan’s nine national parks and thirteen national scenic areas have much to attract and mesmerize the nature lover. In this Taiwan adventure Joseph climbs into the mountains to explore the country’s forested sanctuaries replete with soothing hot springs, he harvests the riches of the seas with a local chef and joins Taiwanese and foreigners alike at a great bird watching contest. While traversing a country that is working to strike a balance between the preservation of natural and cultural resources and the needs of tourism, Joseph discovers still one more story to tell in a country rich with tales.

 

 

10 Homes that Changed America

 

Visit homes that transformed residential living, from grand estates like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater to the pueblos of Taos, New Mexico, and the tenements of 19th-century New York.

 

 

JOSEPH ROSENDO’S TRAVELSCOPE
Portugal – from Porto to Salamanca

 

Joseph’s Portugal adventures reach into the country and cross over the border on an Iberian Peninsula exploration that reveals some of the unknown aspects of Portuguese life and its complementary relationship with its Spanish neighbor.

 

 

JOSEPH ROSENDO’S TRAVELSCOPE
Peru – The Amazon and Beyond

 

Joseph ships out on a Peruvian Amazon journey from the jungle town of Iquitos, and makes his way down one of the world’s wonders. One-fifth of the world’s water and oxygen are produced in the Amazon Rainforest and thousands of species of birds, fish, reptiles, mammals and plants as well as hundreds of thousands of people thrive there.

 

 

GLOBE TREKKER
Tough Boats: The Amazon

GLOBE TREKKER - Tough Boat Journeys: The Amazon

 

On a remarkable 250 mile, three day journey through a remote rainforest, Holly Morris travels by cargo boat down one stretch of the Amazon in Peru. Sleeping in a hammock at night, she shares deck space with over 200 local Peruvians and countless boxes of vegetables and fruit, heading to the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, Iquitos. Here, she explores the history of this unique and remarkable city before moving on to her second destination, the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

 

 

GLOBE TREKKER
Tough Boats: The Arctic

GLOBE TREKKER - Tough Boats: The Arctic

 

Trekker Ian Wright travels to the high Arctic from the coast of northern Norway. His Arctic journey starts in fishing port of Tromso, more than 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle. From here, aboard the fishing trawler Hermes, he travels another 300 miles north to rich fishing ground near remote Bear Island. Later, he transfers to a small Arctic cruise ship that takes just a dozen or so passengers around the islands in search of polar bears and other wildlife.

 

SAMANTHA BROWN’S PLACES TO LOVE
Bern Region, Switzerland

 

Many people dream of visiting Switzerland. The sheer beauty of the alps, the legendary cheeses and chocolates—does it get any better than that? On this season of Places to Love, I visited the Bern area. From an alpine garden on an idyllic mountaintop and going deep underground experiencing the cheese grotto in Gstaad, to biking through the waterfall covered valley of Lauterbrunnen and finally floating down the icy cold Aare River in Bern, adventure awaits in Switzerland.

 

 

GLOBE TREKKER
Top 10 South American Adventures

 

Trekkers Ian Wright, Holly Morris, Elis Nevitt, Matt Young, Megan McCormick and Zay Harding travel all across South America – to Guyana, Venezuela, Columbia, Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil – in search of the continent’s Top 10 adventures, which include white water rafting in untamed waters, searching for giant anaconda snakes, trekking to the world’s highest waterfalls, and climbing to the snow-capped summit of the Lanin Volcano in the Andes Mountains.

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: Islander at Heart

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie’s sense of curiosity and adventure took her far beyond her Pacific island home in Pukapuka, in the Cook Islands. She traveled to Hawai‘i, Japan and eventually New Zealand, where she raised her family. She eventually followed her desire to return home to Pukapuka, an island now gravely threatened by climate change and the rapid loss of its ancient culture and language.

 

To view the first part of guest Florence “Johnny” Frisbie’s show, click here.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Wednesday, Feb. 28, at 11:00 pm and Sunday, Mar. 4, at 4:00 pm.

 

Florence “Johnny” Frisbie: : Islander at Heart Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Did you often feel a tug, a struggle between your Polynesian side and your European Western side?

 

Even though my brain, my thinking brain has been developed to be able to absorb the European, the Western world, but I go by my heart. My heart speaks, yeah, not my brain. My heart tells me.

 

Johnny Frisbie has lived a storied life as a writer, television personality, and nurturer across cultures throughout the South Pacific, New Zealand, Hawai‘i, and Japan. She grew up in a tiny place called Pukapuka. Florence “Johnny” Frisbie, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu was born to a native Pukapukan mother and an American father in Tahiti. Her family moved from island to island frequently in the South Pacific. As a teenager, Johnny wrote and published Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka, an autobiography of her journeys across the South Pacific. Pukapuka is an atoll in the Cook Islands. After the death of her father, Johnny, aged sixteen, and three siblings were orphaned, separated, and raised in different families in New Zealand and Hawai‘i. Johnny was taken in by the Engle family of Kailua, Windward Oahu, and enrolled in high school. She hadn’t had much formal education.

 

Your life took you to … you went to Roosevelt High School.

 

M-hm.

 

Where you did so well that you—

 

M-hm.

 

Did you get a scholarship to Punahou?

 

Yes, uh-huh. Yeah, I got a scholarship to Punahou. Yes; yeah.

 

Which is amazing to do so well academically.

 

I know; it surprised me. Yeah. But then, I was thinking about it. I was very, very serious about each subject, say biology, English. I was serious, I was keen, and after each class, I would go to the teacher to please explain what I didn’t understand. You know, because it’s transforming a thinking in Polynesian to English understanding of the subject.

 

And different tools, everything was different.

 

Yeah. So, I would always go, and the teachers were always so good, so good, and they would explain to me. And so, go home, and then I was able to do my homework.

 

Your outdoor childhood, and all the curiosity and exploration, and resilience; how did that translate when you then started living more suburban lifestyle, you know, in more crowded places?

 

M-hm. Well, I don’t know that I have actually been in that kind of a lifestyle very much. But in order for me to survive and not totally give up who I am, my nature, you know, I found ways. I found ways to go maybe in a bush or to have plants that I can talk to or nurture, and never to be in concrete blocks like that. But I find it’s a survival instinct, and I’ve been very careful not to lose me, who I am.

 

Johnny Frisbie adapted quickly to life in Hawai‘i and the Western style of education. After graduating from Punahou School, Johnny set her sights on a career in nursing. However, an old family friend set her on a new journey.

 

I was accepted to Queen’s. I applied and I was going to start, and then James Michener, who was kinda looking after me at the time said, No, you’re going to go overseas, you need to expand your vision of the world. He said, You’re going to go either to the Far East, he said, or Europe. And he said, I’ll get you a job. So, immediately, I received a letter from the Army that I had a job in Tokyo. So, get ready, two weeks later, was off to Japan.

 

What did you do in Tokyo?

 

I worked for the Army, secretary to one of the … yeah. But … why did we go there?

 

Well, actually, I’m picturing you in Tokyo after a lifetime living on Pacific islands, and it doesn’t compute. Did you enjoy that?

 

Loved it. And there weren’t many Polynesians, and the Japanese were fascinated. You know, they just used to stare. You know, stare. And those who could speak to me said, Where you from? You know. And I would explain, but they didn’t know. You know, a lot of them didn’t know. Made lots of good friends. They’re wonderful people.

 

But only stayed two years?

 

Two years; yeah, m-hm. That was the contract; yeah.

 

And what was next?

 

Oh, and then, I came back to Hawaii, and my sister introduced me to Carl, who was in the Navy, was getting ready to go to Japan to film the club, the military nightclubs for his television program. And so, my sister said, Oh, my sister just come back from Japan, I’ll have you meet her and find out things. Well, there you go. So, that’s how it happened.

 

The man to whom Johnny Frisbie was introduced turned out to be Carl Hebenstreit, also known as Kini Popo, a popular Honolulu radio DJ, and the first on-air personality for KGMB-TV’s inaugural 1952 broadcast.

 

You married a man who was very well-known in Hawai‘i.

 

M-hm.

 

Kini Popo is what everyone called him. Carl Hebenstreit, a radio and TV personality.

 

M-hm.

 

And I think you mentioned that you could talk to him about writing the way you could your dad.

 

Oh, yes; absolutely. Yeah. I mean, he had an amazing command of the English language. And so, he was very helpful with my second book. M-hm, my second book, when I was still learning the English language, still reading and studying, you know, grammar and all that. But he also was a beautiful person.

 

And with him, you had four children.

 

Yes.

 

In New Zealand.

 

Uh-huh.

 

Yet another part of—

 

They grew up in New Zealand. Yeah; two were born here. Ropati and Carla were born here, and Haumea was born in the Cook Islands, and Stirling was born in New Zealand. Yes.

 

And then, you stayed for a bit.

 

I stayed on.

 

Years.

 

When Carl returned to Hawaii, I stayed on. Three years, I was there. When the last of my kids left, then I decided, Oh, well, time to move on.

 

And you were still close to him, even though you were no longer married.

 

Oh, we’re very close now. Yes, he and Haumea meet at least once a week, and I’m invited. If I’m not invited, I invite myself. No problem. And I love his wife, Christine. Yeah; beautiful, beautiful friend.

 

In 1948, Johnny Frisbie became the first Polynesian female published author with her autobiographical book, Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka. And while living in Hawai‘i during the 1950s, she was one of the first to turn heads and raise a few eyebrows with her choice of swimwear.

 

There was a time on Waikiki Beach when no one wore bikinis. And then, you came along. You’re credited with being the first.

 

Yeah. Yeah, there was a Tahitian girl, too, who wore the bikini, and gave me courage. Yeah, gave me courage. But the thing that I can claim fame for was that I wore a bathing suit when I was six months pregnant and onwards. Okay; that was in 1957, and it was unheard of. You know, it was unheard of. I was very proud of that.

 

And how did you come to be, I guess, one of the first two women to wear a bikini? How did that happen?

 

Well, I didn’t think it was an issue. You know, it was just natural. You know, we grew up half-naked and naked; you’d go swimming naked, the girls and the boys over there. The girls there, we quickly take off our dress. We didn’t have panties or bra. Take off and put it on the bush, and run down, you know, into lagoon. And I mean, it’s no big deal. So, I just grew up not thinking about shame or rules, or restrictions. To this day, I have to be very careful I don’t upset people because of my quickness to do what’s natural.

 

After the birth of her second child, Johnny Frisbie planted roots in New Zealand. She says there were a number of Pukapukans living there, and she wanted her children to experience their cultural heritage. In 1976, Johnny made her debut as a television personality and had a chance to share her perspectives on life with New Zealand viewers.

 

Television began in the city where we lived, Dunedin, which is south, on the south island of New Zealand. An Australian producer was there, and he’d come from Australia, and he had worked on a program called Beauty and the Beast in Australia. And he wanted to start one for New Zealand viewers. And so, he asked me; he wanted someone other than all European. There were four panelists. So, he asked me if I would, and I said, yes, sure. You know. So, the program was about a male presenter and two women on the side. And he would a letter from viewers from all over, from solo mothers, grandmothers, you know, teenagers needing answer, needing help. And so, he would read the letter, and would turn and say, Johnny, what do you think of that? You know, we were not to give our advice, to give advice, but to give our opinion. But my viewpoint was very different to the other three, so it always very different to every letter. There was never one that just.

 

For example; can you give an example?

 

A solo mother who is alone with her baby, and wanted to know what to do with the baby. She can’t cope, they had very little money, and the father is just ignoring her. What do you do? And so, my reply was, Do you have family? You know, can you go to your mother or father, or auntie, or distant relative? You know, this is kind of the village clan type reply. I said, you know, have courage; even though they might not be happy with you for having this baby without the father, you know, just seek their help, find out, you know, and make amends. Yeah.

 

What did the others say?

 

They said, Oh, well, you did what you did, you’re paying for it. Kind of that kind of thing.

 

Thanks for the advice or the opinion. That went on for quite—you did that …

 

Ten years; ten years.

 

Ten years.

 

Five days a week. Yeah.

 

And did you have fans writing you about how they really liked your advice?

 

Yeah; the Polynesian Pacific island community were very, very grateful. They were very proud of the fact that they had someone on television, you know, and speaking on all our behalf. Yeah.

 

Were you controversial, too?

 

A little bit, yeah.

 

And you don’t mind. Not at all, right?

 

Well, it’s the truth as I understand it. And also fairness, you know. You know, I mean, we all think differently. You know, different cultures, the thoughts and feelings are all different. And I’m not about to cow down to what is supposed to be the correct way to think and feel, and all that, you know

 

And then, there was Pacifica. What’s that?

 

Pacifica is an organization that uh, Patty Walker, a very dear friend, and four other women and I started. Patty and I were on the New Zealand Maori and South Pacific Arts Council, and while at one of the meetings, we thought, Why don’t we create a Pacific Island women’s organization to help the women who are lost, and those who would like to be a nurse but don’t know where to go and how to get it moving, and get Pacific Island children, kids, students who are doing well at school to further their education, get a scholarship for them, or guide them. But, yeah, it helped. It was such a successful program for Pacific Island, especially the women, you know, stand tall, you know, have confidence, you know, go back to school. You know, I mean, they come from the small islands, eighth grade, and then that’s it. And so many of them enter college now, and it’s moved on. Professors and doctors, nurses. Yeah.
In 2015, Johnny Frisbie returned to her home atoll of Pukapuka in the Cook Islands after being away for over fifty years. She was reunited with her eldest brother, Charley Frisbie, given away at birth to his grandaunt, and he’d become the oldest living Pukapukan.

 

After many, many years away, you went back to Pukapuka to see your brother.

 

M-hm. Yeah; and to film a documentary called Homecoming. And we flew from Honolulu. The producer director of the film, Gemma, we flew to New Zealand, and then to Rarotonga, and we waited there for a boat to sail to Pukapuka. And it doesn’t happen often. And we were lucky, because during that month of July, the Cook Islands was celebrating its fiftieth internal self-government from New Zealand. So, they are no longer a protectorate of New Zealand. So, all the island people from the different islands congregated on Rarotonga to celebrate this great event. Lots of beautiful music, drumming, singing, dancing; the whole thing was just mindboggling. And so, we asked to board the boat that was to take the Pukapukans back to Pukapuka. And they said, Yeah, come onboard. So, we did. Five days sailing, and every night, every day, there’s music and drumming. The Pukapukans would just, you know, stay up all night waiting to get home, playing the ‘ukulele on both sides of the deck, you know, singing. It was beautiful.

 

Five days of that?

 

Yes; five days, five days of that.

 

That is a very difficult atoll to get to.

 

Yeah, it is; yeah.

 

No regularly scheduled boat or air …

 

No, no.

 

We had to charter a plane, eight-seater. We had to, or we would be stuck there for goodness knows how long. That way, we were assured of getting back to Rarotonga.

 

What was it like after that great sailing prelude? What was it like going back?

 

Well, it was so amazing. I fell into it as if I’d never left. Just totally, totally into it. You know, and just walking on the reef, just on the beach collecting shells, and talking. You know, the language came back very quickly. And grating coconut, peeling taro, and scaling fish, and gutting fish. You know, just cooking it the way we used to in the old days. And it was just unbelievable. I just fell into it, and it made me wonder, gosh, have I been longing, homesick all these years, and I just kind of buried it somewhere? You know.

 

Did you want to stay?

 

No, I didn’t because I wanted to be with my family, with my kids, my grandchildren. In that sense, yeah, that’s utmost to me.

 

But you could go home again.

 

Yeah, yeah, yeah.

 

It was all the good that you remember.

 

Oh, yes. And church, you know, attending the church service with that beautiful singing. It’s like chanting, you know.

 

Oh, the harmony. I sat on the benches in the village where my mother comes from. I sat almost where she used to sit.

 

Wow.

 

Yeah; makes you wonder why I ever left.

 

After living in New Zealand for thirty years, Johnny Frisbie returned to Hawai‘i to live with her daughter, Haumea Ho, widow of the late Hawai‘i entertainment icon, Don Ho.

 

Seems like you’ve lived a larger-than-life life. Because I mean, for example, your daughter is Haumea, she was married to Don Ho.

 

That’s right. Yeah.

 

I mean, that’s a different kind of culture. You know, the show business culture.

 

Yeah, yes, yes. Yeah; that’s why I came to Hawai‘i. She asked me to come and be with her when Don passed away. And it was very wonderful; wonderful, wonderful to be with her. And also, my sister was married to Adam West, Batman.

 

Batman.

 

Mm; yes.

 

You were a performer. I mean, you danced, you sang.

 

Mm. Yeah.

 

So, that was just part of life.

 

Yeah; m-hm, m-hm. Yeah. It wasn’t a career.

 

You continue to write. And I think when you write, you know, it makes you think maybe better. I mean, just because you’re involved in the exercise of putting things down that have to be true and authentic.

 

M-hm.

 

What insights have you come to over your life as you look back?

 

I’ve been very lucky. Delved a lot in philosophy, and so, I want to make things honest, and develop that aspect of my soul, my nature. And I’m very, very much into writing about my philosophy about anything and everything that comes to mind. And I’m discovering that I haven’t really committed fully to what the majority of people think about some things, and how they do it.

 

When people remember you in years to come, how do you want them to remember you; as nurturer?

 

Well, that’s just me. I mean, I have no profession. I think what they see, what they’ve gotten out from me, if any, that’s probably, and I have no label to say, you know. It’s what they got from me, good or bad. I don’t know. Yeah; hopefully, some good things. Yeah.

 

You mentioned your birthdate, and it means that as we speak now in 2017, you’re approaching eighty-five?

 

M-hm.

 

I don’t know what eighty-five looks like anymore, because a people are so healthy longer. But you don’t seem like you’re anywhere near eighty-five. I’m sure you’ve been told that before.

 

I’ll tell you a story. About a week and a half ago, I flew to California to see a friend. And his daughter, I’ve never met before, came to the airport to meet me. And I was waiting, and she was looking around for me, looking around for me. And finally, she called me and she said, Johnny, you know, where are you? I said, I’m here. And she said, Okay, I’m gonna put my hand up, when you see me, you know, come forward. And so, I did. And she came over to me and she said, I expected a gray-haired woman, lots of wrinkles! And she was yelling. You don’t have any wrinkles!

 

How old do you feel?

 

I feel young. You know, I’m exhilarated by things, excited about things. And I feel love, I feel love all the time. But physically, as of last year when I was gardening at my son’s place in Punalu‘u, I felt the physical change, you know. I’m crouching and weeding, and I can’t quickly stand up, you know. I had to kinda—ooh, you know. You know, help myself stand up like that, and I thought, mm, now this is not good. But you know, accept it.

 

And that was only last year.

 

Yeah, yeah. Yeah; last year.

 

You know, people at age thirty are saying, My knee, it’s killing me.

 

At the time of this conversation in March of 2017, Florence “Johnny” Frisbie was about to embark on yet another journey; a multi-week trip across the Pacific. Even in her mid-80s, it seems the odyssey of Miss Ulysses from Pukapuka is not over yet. Mahalo to author Florence “Johnny” Frisbie of Honolulu for sharing your story with us. And thank you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha, a hui hou.

 

For audio and written transcripts of all episodes of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, visit PBSHawaii.org. To download free podcasts of Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox, go to the Apple iTunes store, or visit PBSHawaii.org.

 

Have you ever regretted saying too much?

 

Saying too much; no. No.

 

Have you ever regretted saying too little?

 

Mmm, no. No.

 

Do you not have many regrets?

 

That would be, I mean, that would be the best place to be in life, no regrets.

 

Yeah, there’s a couple of things, but not much, no.

 

[END]

 

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