Entertainment

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Pam Arciero

 

Hidden beneath the antics of Sesame Street characters, you’ll find a principal puppeteer who hails from ʻĀina Haina in East Honolulu. Pam Arciero has been with the children’s series for nearly 40 years, primarily as Oscar the Grouch’s girlfriend, Grundgetta. Arciero got her start in the Department of Theatre and Dance at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. There, she joined a summer program in puppetry – one that would change the course of her life.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 17, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Pam Arciero Audio

 

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Transcript

 

How would you describe how you were in class?

 

I was kinda the loudmouth.  I mean, I spent a lot of time being told to be quiet.

 

Surprise!

 

And you built on that for your career.

 

I built on that. Yeah; that really made it … you know, it’s—it’s who you are. And really, every puppet is a part of you. You have to find that part of yourself that connects directly to the character in order to make it believable and real.

 

Meet this Honolulu native from ‘Āina Haina who is now a principal puppeteer on Sesame Street… next on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaii’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. The characters of Sesame Street have become iconic staples of children’s programming – but have you ever thought about the people beneath the puppets? One of them, a principal puppeteer of the longtime children’s series, was born and raised in East Honolulu, and she’s my fellow Kalani High School grad – Pam Arciero. For more than three decades, she’s played Oscar the Grouch’s better half — or shall we say, grouchier half? – Grundgetta.

 

What are some of the great moments between Oscar the Grouch and girlfriend—your character—

 

Grundgettta.

 

–Grundgetta?

 

Um, well, we were gonna get married.  That was very exciting.  And then, we thought that uh, getting married would make us happy.  And being grouches, we don’t want to be happy. And so, we decided to call off the wedding at the last minute.  And then—but little did we know that actually, most people are not happily married, and so, we would have been perfectly happy. Who’s not a grouch; right?  There are times when you just a really grouchy.  And she—uh, she—also, she says exactly what she’s thinking at any given time.  You know, so that’s kind of a … in a world where you really do need to be circumspect a lot, you know, not … to offend anybody.  She just says what she’s feeling.  You know.  [GRUNDGETTA VOICE] That’s a hideous outfit.  You know, she’ll just go there.  So …

 

I know you took over that role from someone else.

 

Yeah; Brian Muehl had done it for one year, and I’ve done her now for thirty-four years.  So …

 

Did he give you any advice?  I mean, on how to play this woman grouch?

 

No.

 

He said: You’re—you’re the perfect person for this; you—I’ve seen you be a grouch.  And he handed it to me.

 

Oh, that’s it.

 

Basically.

 

Thank you for mentoring.

 

And I worked with him, yeah, on—on different shows, so he knew, he knew me a little bit.  So, he says: Yeah, it’s totally—y—you do it your way, ‘cause you know her better.

 

And you do other puppets as well.

 

Yeah.

 

Background, and who else?

 

Right.  That’s part of the—there are two skillsets you have to have.  Besides just doing a main puppet and a character, you do have to be able to um, do backgrounds.  And backgrounds are just like every dog, frog, cat, fish, bat; you name it, you get to so that stuff.  And then, there is assisting.  And assisting is actually a pretty major thing, and I actually love assisting.  Because you watch the other performer figure out how to do all these things.  And that is because some of the characters have um, two hands, like Ernie and um, Telly Monster has two hands.  And I consistently have been Telly Monster’s right hand for about 30 years.

 

Is that the important hand?

 

No, not really.  But it’s a balance.  Because your hand is in the head of the puppet, and then, your other hand is here—the left hand, usually.  And then, the right hand comes in, and you have to match and do everything in synchron- synchron- synchronicity with the other character, the other hand.  And it has to look natural.  It can’t look like this hand is doing this.

 

Right.

 

You know, you can’t be talking with this hand so… And movement is so important in puppetry.  In order to get a believable character, you have to break down the movement and take everything you do with the whole body, and do it between your elbow and your fingertips to make it … you believe that this is alive.  And you know, Bert—Bert moves differently than Ernie; right?  Bert’s very stiff when he walks, and Ernie’s kinda lumbering, and cute, and funny.  Um, and so, having a movement background is very great for puppetry, because you are breaking down the movement all the time in your head, and putting it, again, between your wrist and your elbow, and making people believe that Ernie is walking this way, and Bert is walking this way, very stiffly.  So, that analysis, the ability to analyze movement, and then put it into the character, is huge for me.

 

To be a puppeteer at your level, you also have to have lots of physical agility and strength.

 

Yeah; yeah.  We—we keep up.  I mean, when you work—when I first started working, and I first started working with Jim Henson, we did a hundred and ten shows in six months.  So, you were working every single day.  And I remember the first week I started, I was working in New York, and it was cold, and I was gonna get a cab home, and I’d been working all day.  And now, we work eight, ten hours a day with our arm like this, right?  We were walking, try and get a cab, and going… Somebody else, could you hail the cab?  I can’t lift this arm.

 

Oh …

 

I couldn’t do it, ‘cause it literally was that- that challenging.

 

And then, the focus to have everything between your hand and your elbow …

 

Yeah; that’s—it’s directing all your—all your energy—

 

Effort there.

 

Yes, right.  And it has to be alive, and all your acting goes into that little piece.  You know, so it’s—you learn it, and it takes a long time.  Really.  Uh, I—nobody walks in off the street and becomes um, um, a television puppeteer.  You just can’t.  Between the fact that we have three cameras, and—

 

Taking close-ups. 

 

Close-ups, and wide shots, and far shots, and you have to ride those three cameras looking at the monitor.  And the focus of the pup—the reason we do that is, the eyes don’t really see.  So, I’m looking at you right now, but a puppet might not be in the shot, because the eyes are stationary.  So, you have to learn to do that with each camera.  And every camera cut, you have to adjust the focus just enough to be alive, and looking down the barrel of the camera.

 

Right; all those intricacies.

 

So, that just takes time.  It just takes exposure um, to—to the process to being … all the details of what we do, it’s very, very—

 

Well, it also doesn’t look physically comfortable when we see you— I mean, and you’re right up against other puppeteers.

 

Right.  If you’re comfortable, you’re doing it wrong, is the rule of thumb [CHUCKLE] that we have among the puppeteers.

 

And yet, you love the work.

 

Oh, I love the work.  Uh, there’s nothing I’d rather do.

 

When you work with your gang on Sesame Street, everybody knows you’re from Hawai‘i, even though you haven’t lived here for many years.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

But you certainly visit.

 

Yeah; uh-huh.

 

But how do they know?

 

Well, I often have a flower in my hair, and I—I often dress in Hawaiian clothes.  In the middle of winter, you’ll see me in a Hawaiian print shirt with, you know, sweater underneath, and tights, and … And I kinda talk about it a lot.  And sometimes, I’ll slip into a Hawaiian accent—you know, I’ll do a Pidgin accent when they’re giving me a hard time. Eh, what; I owe you money?

 

And you also created a character who speaks Pidgin.

 

Yes, I did.  Um, we had an outreach kind of Baby Muppets series.  And um, so it was Baby Big Bird, and Baby Cookie Monster, and Baby Abby Cadabby—different ones.  So, I played Auntie Nani, Big Bird’s auntie who took care of him as a baby bird.

That was very exciting, and I was able to push that Hawaiian influence in.  ‘Cause then they said: Well, maybe we’ll go Jamaican.  And I go: Well, you gotta get a Jamaican person, because I can’t do that one, for sure.  But they liked the idea that he was from Hawai‘i.

 

Nobody around you could really relate to the dialect, right?

 

Not too much.  But they could understand it.  That’s the advantage to Pidgin; it’s quite understandable.

 

M-hm.

 

Jamaican Patois—‘cause I worked in Jamaica a fair amount, is almost—if they speak quickly, you will just not—you can’t believe it’s even English, ‘cause it is so fast.  And so, they also do much more in-words; you know, words that only they understand.  But Pidgin is pretty understandable, by most—

 

And that was the whole point, right, in the plantation days, so that everybody could understand each other.

 

Each other; right.  So, that was the basis for it.

 

 

It was here in Hawai‘i where Pam Arciero, a creative since childhood, got her first taste of puppetry, at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa… and caught the attention of a visiting lecturer, a renowned puppet and costume designer.

 

 

I was getting a drama and dance degree at University of Hawai‘i. The gals I was hanging out with at the University had a puppet troupe called Mo‘olelo Ki‘i ‘Ilima.  And it was kinda- more or less sponsored by the University of Hawai‘i drama department.  That was Tammy Hunt was there at time, and she was wonderful uh, Theater for Youth teacher, and taught puppetry as well.  And so, she encouraged us to do shows…

…and we would do—go out into the community and do these little Hawaiian story puppet shows for umm, pretty much every elementary. I mean, I played every elementary school in the State of Hawai‘i.  I’d been in every auditorium at that time. That just sort of led me to saying: Hm, this is interesting, this is good; I can make a little money.  ‘Cause we made a little money doing it.  And then, they said: Well, this man’s coming to teach this summer; maybe you want to be in it.  And I said: What?  And they said: His name’s Kermit Love, he works with the Muppets, and he’s coming to teach this summer course, so you should take it with us. So, I said: Okay, sounds great.  And um, so I did, and he was wonderful. Kermit umm, was the man who built Big Bird, and designed Snuffleupagus, and he was a famous costume designer.  At the time, he was already long white hair, long white beard; it looked like you were taking a class with Santa Claus. But he’d already worked with Agnes de Mille, and Mr. Balanchine at the ballet, he’s built costumes and puppets for them.  So, he was just world renowned, and you were just like: Oh!

 

So, he was named Kermit before any other Kermit.

 

Yes. The story is—Jim Henson and Kermit Love lived in the same apartment building, and the doorman said: You know, Jim, there’s someone who’s named Kermit in this building; I think you should meet him.  And so, they met, and they realized that they had so many similar interests, and then Jim hired Kermit into the—

 

But there was already Kermit the Frog at that point.

 

Kermit the Frog existed, and Kermit Love was way older than that. So, that’s how they connected.

 

Oh …

 

And- and just- he was a wonderful influence; wonderful mentor.

 

And didn’t he want you to get into puppetry right away?

 

Who?

 

Kermit Love.

 

Yes, he did. Probably ‘cause I was really, like, gaga about puppets. Well ‘cause once I found it, when you find what you love, you just can’t stop, you know, obsessing about it.  Just like being in love with someone, you’re in love with what you’re doing, so you just keep every- every detail.  And then, I think because I was so willing to just learn, and learn, and learn, and practice, and practice, and practice, hours, and hours, and hours standing in front of a monitor and camera to get that right.  And I still do.  I will still rehearse when I’m not working.  If I haven’t been on camera for a month, I’ll pull out my video camera or—you know, now it’s so easy ‘cause you can flip up your computer and just work in, and make sure that everything’s working properly in your body.  Because the other thing, it’s reversed; right?  The monitor is backwards.

 

Oh, that’s right.

 

So, when you have your hand up and you move this way, it goes that way on the picture.  And so, if you don’t have your—there’s a point where you brain just clicks it over, and it makes perfect sense.

 

 

Physical agility, creative interpretation, and hours of practice – these qualities were instilled in Pam Arciero long before her time at the University of Hawai‘i. Since she was a little girl, Arciero loved everything about the arts.

 

 

I always loved um … dance and ballet, and play-acting was kind of what I did a lot of.  And I loved playing with dolls and small figures, actually, as a kid.

 

And did you talk—did they talk to each other?

 

Oh, yeah.  I—

 

Did you make the voices?

 

Yeah, not so much.  But actually, I did; when I watched TV, I always imitated voices as well.  That was really fun to me, to try and copy voices.  So, of course, my parents thought that was an extremely odd thing, but they—you know: Go ahead.  Um, and so … as a kid, I never thought I would be anything—I thought I would be maybe a ballet dancer, uh, maybe an actress. I like to sing, I like to make stuff, art stuff, so I kinda just liked doing all of the arts.  That was very interesting to me.  Not so good on the math side, but—

 

What about singing?

 

Singing; I always sang.  Yeah; I always sang a little bit.  And you know, once I was in high school, I was in chorus, and all the different things.  Um, and we did uh, acting, a little bit of the plays at Kalani. But everyone said: That’s not a real job; what are you gonna do, what are you gonna do?  And I just went: Well, I don’t know, I don’t know; maybe I’ll be a ballet teacher, maybe I’ll be a schoolteacher,  maybe I’ll be …

 

I know your father was in the Army as an officer, and then he was a Matson executive.

 

Right.

 

Did he have any thoughts about what you should do?

 

His encouragement really would have just been—he was very much about being who you are.  Which was kind of unusual in those days; right? He was a very romantic and—uh, soul.  And I think—I think the war was very hard on him, which is why he would—you know, he’d often … he’d recite poetry and go off on these kind of tangents with me. But like many World War II people, they never spoke about what really happened.

 

Right, there are not a lot of details.

 

There’s no details about what it was, but you could just tell.  He’d just go: You know, life is really short, you just can’t.

 

That was that generation. They didn’t talk about it.

 

It was that generation; they did not tell you what happened to them.  They did not.  So, they would react.  And you know, like many men of his generation, they always—they would … tie one on pretty frequently.  You know, they’d get drunk, and they’d start rambling these different stories.  But not much detail of what those stories were.  But he would also do funny voices.  And part of—I think my ability to get funny voices was to make him laugh, while I made funny voices too.

 

Oh …

 

You know, and he loved humor and poetry, and dancing, and music.  So, it was a- umm, a very—he was a very interesting man.

 

And what about your mom?

 

My mom is also—was also in arts and crafts.  She loved Hawaiiana, she was always in a Hawaiian civic club or in a—um, what were they called, the U.E., United—they had ladies clubs in those days, and she was always starting one in the neighborhood so that they could learn how to make Hawaiian quilts, or they could make recipes and stuff.  So, she was very uh, involved mom, and active um—

 

And so, both artsy parents.

 

Somewhat; yeah.

 

Arts-oriented parents.

 

Yeah, yeah. I guess that’s true, in comparison to some others.  Yeah.

 

You know, our parents did lots of backyard hula, luau kinda things, you know.  Um … and … she was a very fun person.  I just loved being with her.  And she didn’t really sing, but she would try.  And like I said, she would sing with the Hawaiian Civic Club and do different things, and so, the inspiration was always, with her, the community that was happening.  And her neighborhood community, all her—all my aunties in the neighborhood, they would have coffee every day together, and it was that kind of, you know, old school style.

 

Was she a stay-at-home mom?

 

She was a stay-at-home mom until I was about thirteen.  And then, um … during the war, she um … her college education was interrupted by the war.  So—and we all know what the war in Hawai‘i ‘The War’.  Um—

 

World War II. 

 

World War II; the only war.  Um, and she always tells the famous story, I know many people have talked about this, being in boats and picking up on Pearl Harbor Day coming, picking up stuff.  Um, and in fact, my grandfather, who was half Japanese, um, was driving by Pearl Harbor.  He was a single guy, and uh, he had been at a girlfriend’s house and was coming home.

 

It was about seven in the morning when—

 

Yeah.

 

–the bombs came.

 

Right.  Um, and apparently, they spotted him and picked him up, and they arrested him.

 

Oh, for being AWOL?

 

No; for being a Japanese spy, they thought.  And so, my father had to go and bail him out two days later once everything settled.  They—they pulled him out of jail, took him home, and say: No, he’s just—he’s a dentist.  You know.  He’s a local Japanese dentist.  And he wasn’t even all, he was half Japanese.  So, um … but she’d always tell story about that—stories about that, and that, and you know, after Pearl Harbor, hel—helping to uh, recover bodies and parts, and stuff, you know, and boats.

 

And she did that?

 

She did that.  She worked for U.S.E.D.  We always sang that song when I was a kid.

 

U.S.E.D.?

 

Yes, you know.  Fifty cents an hour, four bucks a day.  Um …

 

Mm.

 

So, she had those stories.  And then, you know, my father was … I guess everybody at that time was pretty much involved with the war in some form or another.

 

And what about culturally; what would you say your culture was, growing up?

 

My father, being Italian from the East Coast, brought certain sets of ideas.  Some of it was sort of the macho Italian stuff.  And then, my mom; she’s, you know, Hawaiian, Japanese, English, kinda local stuff.  So, our culture really was a mix of that.  And uh, I would lean towards Japanese culture, was sort of where our comfortable wheelhouse was, and then a lot of Italian spaghetti stuff.  So, I always like to say: I don’t know whether to have sushi, or spaghetti. You know, is kind of where I came from.

 

And you had a big family, too.

 

Yeah; there was five of us.  Is still five kids.  Um, and that was … you know, they were spaced out rather well; we’re about five years apart, for the most part.  So—

 

So, you get along.

 

Yeah.  You have an—always an older—older sibling doing something.  And it was bad.  When I went to Niu Valley, every single class I went to, my three older siblings had had that teacher.  So, they had expectations of what you were gonna be like, and it was like, I was never that—you know, whatever they—

 

You were different from the other kids?

 

Absolutely.  Every one of us were different from each other, you know.  So …

 

How would you describe how you were in class?

 

Umm, I was kinda the loudmouth.  I mean, I spent a lot of time being told to be quiet. Surprise!

 

And you built on that for your career.

 

I built on that. Yeah; that really made it … you know, it’s—it’s who you are.  Um … and I think that’s really one of the things always in my life, I’ve tried to strive for; just to be who you are.  ‘Cause you can’t be anybody else, really.

 

But how ironic too, because you’re always becoming other people, or other puppets—

 

That’s where I become other people.  That’s where you get to look at other people, and make fun of other people. By choosing their character traits, and rolling them into a puppet.  You know.  Um … an—and getting to explore—and really, every puppet is a part of you.  I mean, there’s that—you have to connect to it on some level, just like any acting role.

 

M-hm.

 

You have to find that part of yourself that connects directly to the character in order to make it believable and real.

 

These days, when she isn’t bringing characters to life on Sesame Street and other programs, Pam Arciero travels around the world to perform live or train aspiring puppeteers. She’s proud to serve as Artistic Director of the annual National Puppetry Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center.

 

 

I had no idea that being in your field, you would be asked to go all over the world to teach, and to—

 

Yeah.

 

–perform, and—

 

Yeah.

 

It’s been—you’ve been everywhere.

 

Pretty much.  Um, I… I’m lucky that way.  I—I always wanted to travel.  Um, and so, pretty much, I go and I work.  I think … the most unusual place I went, I put in a—a large acting show in Saudi Arabia.  Um, and of course, there—this was about four years ago, three years ago.  Um … and they’re very repressive of women, um, as you probably know. Uh, I had to wear an abaya to work with my guys when we were outdoors.  But it’s a very schizophrenic thing, ‘cause once you’re indoors, you can take off the abaya, which is the black—the scarf and the black, and you can wear anything you want.  And we would work and rehearse, and do all our things, and then once I stepped—once I had to go outside, I’d have to get all dressed up to even just get in a car to go back to my hotel.  Um, and you had to eat separately; women eat separately from men there, if you’re alone.  Um—

 

Were the puppeteers squished up against each other, male and female?

 

No; they were the dancing ones.  They were the big—

 

Oh, I see.

 

–dancing, and they were all male.  There would be no females.  Yeah.  Females aren’t allowed to work.

 

How did they like a female directing them?

 

The guys liked it, ‘cause they were young men, and they keep—they all said to me: Pam, five years, it’s gonna change; I’m telling you, it’s gonna change. And I’m like: Yeah.  But umm, I would do semi-submersive things—subversive things.  Like, uh, if we did a song about driving, which we had a song called “Let’s Go Driving In An Automobile,” I made sure the one female character Khokha, which is umm, an Arabian character, she’s in all the Middle Eastern productions—she drove the car.  Because they couldn’t drive; women can’t drive.  So, I made sure the girl was always the one driving.  And then, we had this little thing where uh, Ernie and Bert teach you car safety.  And if you go through—and all the things—seatbelt, and you know—

 

Mm.

 

–all the things about being safe in a car—don’t hang out the window, then you would get a driver’s license.  And we made sure that every girl got a driver’s license and would go home and say: Mom, look, I have a driver’s license. Now, that just changed; right?  They just recently changed to have driver’s licenses.  So, that actually is a li—more of a change than I expected.  But the guys really said to me, when I—the guys I worked with really thought it would be completely different in five years, that it would be a much more open society.  And I just think it’s gonna take a lot longer than that.

 

What about women in puppetry?

 

So now, it is better.  It’s still not great.  If you look at the Muppets, the main Muppet guys are still six guys.  There’s no woman there.  But Sesame Street, we have five really strong women puppeteers, and we have nine really strong men.  That’s our core of puppeteers.  So, that balance has gotten much better.  And it’s a difficult thing, ‘cause not—initially, not that many women wanted to be puppeteers. It sounded—You know, if you’re an attractive woman who does a lot of voices, you can be a comedienne or an actress.  Why would you hide under a puppet; right?  And in fact, I was doing a show called The Great Space Coaster, and our guest was Steve Allen.  And he was playing the piano, and I was hiding under the piano doing the puppet on the side of him.  And the g—the human who was in our cast came out, and she—he’s talking to her, and I’m talking with him as a puppet.  And he looks at her and he says: Well, you’re not a puppeteer; right?  You’re much too attractive to be a puppeteer.  And so I stood up like this and looked at him, and said: What?  And he goes: Well, I didn’t mean—I said: Yeah, yeah, yeah.  And got back under the piano and went back to being a puppeteer.  But I didn’t get insulted by Steve Allen. Not many people can say that.

 

And you stood up and said you wouldn’t take that. 

 

Yeah.

 

So, better, but there’s still not a big infusion of women.

 

There’s still not a lot. Yeah, yeah. I mean, we’re working on it; we’re tr—constantly looking for women who are skilled, and training new women in.  And again, it takes a long time; you have to have the patience.  And it’s one of those things, either you have it or you don’t.

 

Mm.

 

And there are some people who can train, and train, and work, and work, and they still don’t have that natural feel for what—making the puppet alive.  And you have to have that core.  So, it is a kind of uh, unique-

 

Mhmm. Skill-

 

-skillset. But uh, I have traveled a lot, all over, um, directing those large dance shows, as well as teaching.  Um, I teach at … uh, Hong Kong Academy of Performing Arts, I’ve taught.  I’ve taught at the uh, Taipei National University of the Arts.  In Yukon, all over.  Universe—University of Hawai‘i.  Um, and actually, I have a lovely University of Hawai‘i thing that I love, which is Kermit Love came to teach the University of Hawaii puppetry, and I took that course, and that set me sail on a course.  And then, I came back 30 years later to teach that same course to—at the University of Hawai‘i.

 

And was there a young Pam Arciero there?

 

Kind of; yeah. No, not that I know, but yeah.  But it was just really that … it was completing that circle.  I’ve been very lucky to have circles that complete in my life.

 

Pam Arciero has lived in Connecticut for more than three decades, but says Hawaiʻi will always be her home. Her two sons, both of creative minds, are pursuing an array of projects, including stand-up comedy, live music, film production, and video-game voiceover work. Of her husband, Steve Lanza, Arciero says: “He has been my biggest supporter and fan, and a guiding light when I need it.” Mahalo to Pam Arciero for sharing her story with us – and mahalo to you for joining us. For PBS Hawai‘i and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

 

Did you ever doubt yourself, that: Oh, maybe I shouldn’t do this?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Or maybe I’m not—

 

The first few years.

 

–good enough?

 

Oh, yeah; I still do.  I still have my doubts. I’m like: What am I doing? How—how did I do … you know, that’s just part of the nature, I think, of being a performer, of constantly putting yourself out there, trying to put yourself out the best you can.  And then, there are times when there is no jobs.  Or you go to auditions—‘cause I still audition; we all audition to get whatever roles it is.  You go to auditions, and you leave and you just go: That was terrible; what—what was I thinking, that was an awful choice.  And then, you don’t get the job, and you go: Yup; definitely an awful choice.

 

Yeah.

 

You know.  So, that’s just kind of the way the business is.  It’s not easy.  It’s—it’s a hard … hard part of the business.

 

So, you have to have a thick skin and being able to take rejection, even now, after all this time in the industry, and all your accomplishments.  And you have to have a thin skin, because you’re dealing with children, and you have to be sensitive to that.

 

And you’re acting; you have to ac—be able to access your emotions in order to really get it across.

 

So, you have to really feel.

 

I—yeah.

If you really want to do something, you just have to do it.  And people are always gonna say: Well, that’s not a good idea.  And—but you have to say: Yeah, but …  I think if you do what brings you joy, and you continue to follow that, you will make it happen in some form or shape. In some ways, I guess people are just: Well, you’re a girl, you can be a ballet dancer, who cares what you become.  You’re gonna be a mom, was sort of how—

 

Mm.

 

Ultimately, you’re gonna be a mom, was sort of how the feeling I got from some people.  And it was like: No, no, you don’t understand; this is not about that, this is about expressing who you are through movement, through dance, through arts.  And I knew that in—intrinsically, and I don’t know why.  But I did know that that—that was the key for me, was just to follow, to stay the course, to do what I wanted to do, and it would pay off eventually.

 

You didn’t know what the end would be, but you—

 

No idea.

 

–knew this was the right thing to do.

 

Yeah, yeah; no idea.

 

[END]

 

 

 

GREAT PERFORMANCES
42nd Street

 

Tap-dance along to this musical extravaganza about a starry-eyed performer who gets her big break on Broadway, set to a lively score of iconic songs including “Lullaby of Broadway,” “We’re in the Money” and the show-stopping title song.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Lopaka Kapanui

 

“Chicken skin” storyteller Lopaka Kapanui grew up around old Hawaiian legends and ghost stories from his family, and says he’s always been sensitive to spirits. In the 1990s, he was introduced to Oʻahu’s original “chicken skin” storyteller, Glen Grant, and his ghost tours. Since Grant’s passing in 2003, Kapanui has taken up the local ghost story mantle with regular tours, books and community events. Kapanui views his job not just as entertainment, but also as a way to communicate and educate.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Nov. 3, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Lopaka Kapanui Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

As local people growing up here in Hawai‘i, we’ve been conditioned to believe that it’s a negative thing because of, you know, the different ethnicities who come here, who’re still here. My job mainly, is not just to tell ghost stories and to scare people, but also to clear up that misunderstanding of what this is all about which is really, really communication.

 

He says his spooky stories aren’t made up, they’re based on history, experience, and a knowledge and understanding of the unseen. Meet this Hawaiian ghost storyteller next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people. Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.   

 

Aloha mai kākou, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Robert Lopaka Kapanui is many things including a writer, an actor, a cultural practitioner, and even a former professional wrestler, yet he’s best known as a storyteller whose made a business of taking people on tours of what he calls Oʻahu’s most haunted places. Like many who grew up in Hawaiʻi, Lopaka first started hearing ghost stories at a young age and says he even had a few of his own supernatural experiences. He also experienced a scary start to his own life, but the reason for that was not supernatural.

 

At three months of age, I was severely malnutritioned and they said I was about the size of a rolled up newspapers, and my mother was having an argument with my grandfather and refused to go home. So, instead she chose that we should live in a station wagon behind a bar in Kalihi. But my health wasn’t good and my mother didn’t have the means, financially, to take care of me in that capacity, and so, as hard as it was for her, and she told me this later on, she had to do something, you know, to help me and to make sure I had a better life and her only option was to give me up for adoption, and at an appliance store where my mom worked as a secretary, she met a nice man who ended up becoming my adopted. My adopted parents had a little boy that they’d lost a short time before my adoption and so this sort of all worked out for them. The only condition after the adoption was that my biological mother couldn’t see me. That’s the agreement she had to make, that she wouldn’t involve herself in my life and not try to reconnect at any point, and so she had to agree to that.

 

And so, when did you see her again?

 

I saw her when I was 15 years old and she called my adopted father and told him that my biological grandfather passed away and his last request was to have me at his services, and the funny thing is my biological mother told me later on that she actually had a dream of what I would look like, what I would be wearing at the services for my grandfather, and so when I walked into Hawaii Memorial, there I was in the beige shirt she imagined me in, the white jeans, the slippers, and my hairstyle, of all things.

 

I guess at three months you wouldn’t have any uh, remembrance that you were, that you had a really tough time as a baby, that you obviously were really hungry and you were weak. How do you look back on your start in life? I mean, kind of a tough go.

 

You know, the funny thing is I don’t really recall any of that. I do know that I was sick for most of my early life, to the point that about six or seven years old, I had to go to Children’s Hospital and I was there for a couple of months to have my kidneys cleaned out. You know, I’m a Buddhist, so we believe in karma. And so, I personally think that, you know, somewhere in my past life, I was someone who caused somebody a great deal of suffering and so, maybe it was my karma early in my life to go through this, to eradicate all of that early so I wouldn’t have to go through that later in life.

 

Tell me about your adoptive family, your new family, what are they like?

 

You know, it’s a crazy life. I am adopted by a traditional Portuguese family. I’m a Hawaiian kid and I grew up thinking I’m Japanese.

 

Why? Because you lived in Kaimukī?

 

We actually…

 

Leslie: “You lived in Waiʻanae side, werent you?

 

We were in Waiʻanae, and we spent every summer in Wainaku on the Big Island. And, um, it was toward the end of the plantation era, so, a bunch of us, even though we were different ethnicities, everything we did was intrinsically Japanese. Okazuya, the weekend watched Toyoma no Kin-san, Kikaida, everybody does karate. And so we don’t think about it as being something Japanese, it’s just something we all did.

 

Well you were living with a Portuguese family, so did they have a sense of the ghosts?

 

You know the funny thing is, they would stay up all night with all the other neighbors and talk about ghosts and things that happened when they were growing up and so none of us were ever able to, to listen to that we had to go to sleep, and you know, I used to get spankings for this all the time, I would sneak underneath the kitchen table, because they had the big crochet cover, and I would hide and listen to them tell ghost stories. And so, they were very, very aware of what was going on and for the larger part of my younger years…and you know, in retrospect, I understand now why, but my adoptive father would always remind me that I was adopted and I wasn’t his son, you know, and we’d go out and meet people and he would introduce my brothers and say, oh this is, you know, my adopted son, not my real son. Father and son baseball game, my two older adoptive brothers don’t wanna play, I’m like, dad, we can go do it. No, cannot, you’re my adoptive son, the article says father and son, not you. And so, one of the things that happened is while I was in the hospital, my adoptive father was at work and he went to use the bathroom and he said someone’s pounding on the door, pounding on the door, turning the doorknob, and he says outside, after he yells to cut it out, he hears a voice saying, dad, dad, open the door, let me in, it’s me, dad, let me in. Claims it’s my voice, but knows it can’t be me because I’m in the hospital. And he says, whoever that is, just go away, go away, leave me alone. And then he hears the voice say, I know why you don’t want to open the door, dad. Cause I’m not your real son. And it left. Come to find out they had to call a Portuguese fatsera to come look at the house and she told my adoptive parents, she says there’s three Hawaiian people buried underneath this house and pointed to my adoptive father and said, they’re upset at you because every day they hear you telling the boy he’s not your real son, so they want to take him. They tired of hearing that. And so, her advice was, change your attitude now. He’s either your son or not your son, but you make up your mind.

 

You must’ve been thrilled to hear that.

 

Oh, years later on, you know, when I was a teenager and just had enough and wanted to leave, uh..

 

From Wai‘anae, I believe you lived in…you moved around quite a bit, as a kid?

 

We did, from Wai‘anae we moved to Waimalu, and that was interesting, because we, we lived in a haunted house and it was owned by a local Japanese family, so it had the shoji doors and everything. And nothing quite happened that was scary until one night, we’re sitting in the living room and the door to the hallway is here and we had this stand-up oil lamp, the only way you could make it work was through oil…sometimes the oil is dripping down the thing, and we see this little Japanese boy come out the door from the hallway, and he walks up to the oil lamp and he starts to lick it. He’s licking the oil and he looks at us and he turns around and he leaves. Everybody’s freaked out. We call a priest, he won’t come. We call a kahuna, who won’t come and so we call an odaisan, a Japanese, you know, person with, with gifts, who comes to the house and we explain what happened and that person says, oh, yes, in Japan they have a ghost like that, it’s usually a little boy and the ghost likes to lick the oil of the lamp. Can you get rid of it? Ah, yes, I will ask it to go somewhere else. And he said, same time, please throw away the lamp.

 

Wow, so was that your first experience with the idea of ghosts?

 

That was the first uh, visual experience. Up until then, I always heard voices, would have aromas around me, but never quite had the visual experience up until that time…and soon after that I became sick, about six or seven years old, had to go to the hospital, like I said, and while I was in the hospital, and this is a short story, my adopted grandmother, my adopted father’s mom, would come every day and sit with me and I had a roommate next door, who I would play with, his name was Scotty, and after I get out of the hospital, I found out that my adopted grandmother, grandma Lucy, had passed away while I was in the hospital, but they didn’t want to tell me because we’re really close, and I described what she was wearing and my adopted father went into the living room and brought out the picture, the black and white portrait and it’s the exact muʻumuʻu that I saw her wearing. It turns out that that was the portrait that was displayed at her services. My roommate Scotty, was a very famous kid, back then he was in a commercial where he was singing a Hawaiian song and he was very upbeat, I had no idea he was sick until one evening, the curtains closed and I can see the doctors, hear the family, they’re working on him, there’s crying, they leave. You can see his silhouette sit up in the bed and I see him jump off his bed, his little shadow comes up to the partition and he says—friend, friend, let’s play, c’mon friend, let’s go play. And I start to get off the bed and then I hear my uh, adopted grandmother say behind me, don’t get off that bed. I said, why? It’s my friend Scotty, he wants to play. You get off that bed, your feet touch the floor, you go with him, you never come back. And that’s at the old children’s hospital.

 

Lopaka Kapanui pursued several interests after finishing school including Hawaiian cultural practices, professional wrestling, and working in Waikīkī. But it wasn’t until someone told him about a chicken skin ghost tour led by University of Hawaiʻi professor named Glen Grant, that he found everything he’d learned and experienced up until that point in his life was coming together.

 

The job you have now, the business you have, this is all, it’s based on things that have happened to you all along?

 

All of my life and then I run into this guy in 1994 who’s hosting this downtown ghost tour and I’m working at the Halekulani at that time, and a gentleman by the name of Takeni Oshiro, who’s in charge of the front desk, is raving about this tour, and so I go the following Wednesday and the place is, it’s packed, a crowd of people…and when I hear this gentleman talk and he starts to go on about these stories, I’m astounded, I’m flabbergasted because the majority of what he’s talking about are things I already knew growing up and learned from my mom but the difference was there was documentation and there was history and there was things to back up these claims so that no one could say, well that’s just made up Hawaiian legends, you know, old wives’ tales.

 

What kind of documentation?

 

He would show photographs of places that were haunted and then produce the map as to what the place was before. For instance, like a…the area around Aloha Tower, there’s some sacrificial temples, there were areas where the spirits would gather late at night, you know, to, to basically frolic, and there was a map he showed regarding that and then it happens to be um, where the First Hawaiian Bank building is now. And as the tour went on, more people started to come and so, sometimes that tour would end like 2 o’clock in the morning. Um, the following Wednesday was when I was at hula with Keoni, because he’s also my kumu hula, and he told us, so listen, by the way, um, this friend of mine, uh, is doing this ghost tour out to Wai‘anae so I’m gonna do the, you know, Hawaiian part and he’s going to do the other part, and he said, so you guys are gonna dance at the heiau at Pokaʻi Bay. And so, he said, oh, I don’t know if you’ve heard of this guy, my friend, his name is Glen Grant. And so, we would do that tour all the time. My cousin and I mainly danced and one weekend, Keoni couldn’t make it and Glen was in a panic—I don’t know your part of the tour, what am I supposed to do. And Keoni says, oh, Lopaka knows it, you know, he can do it. And so that’s basically how it started, after that he called and asked, you know, more stuff to do, would you mind? And so it eventually, evolved into being mentored to basically take over the tour. You know, the thing about being trained by Glen Grant and learning from him, is documentation, research, and he actually said to me, I can get away with mispronouncing Hawaiian names and other things, he says, because I’m haole, so people expect me to make mistakes, but he says, you as a Hawaiian? One mistake you make, your own people will crucify you. So, he said, it’s harder for you than it is for me, so you have to get your facts straight.

 

But he was a professor so he would have to get his science right.

 

Absolutely, so, I remember I made a mistake about a legend about Pele, and uh, Koko Head Crater, and in front of a room full of people, he got up and told me I was wrong. And he said, what are you doing? You didn’t research that. He goes, don’t do that again.

 

Glen Grant described himself as a Jewish guy from…

 

From Hollywood.

 

Oh Hollywood, that’s right, I can see your cultural interest but what was his?

 

Glen’s story was when he moved here he was living in a dilapidated old, beat up house, on University between these high rise condominiums and again, the short story is immediately after they moved in, things started to happen, uh, roommate is taking a shower and he sees his girlfriend coming towards the shower curtain, he opens it, he’s got soap in his eyes and someone slaps him in the face and he turns around, no one’s in the shower, no one’s in the bathroom because it’s locked. Things being thrown around the kitchen and so they finally call a landlord over and explain to her what’s going on and she says to them, oh, I’m so sorry, I forget to tell you, before you come to this place, uh, some lady live here, her husband fool around, she hang herself in the kitchen, she hate men, so sorry.

 

That would’ve been nice to know earlier.

 

Yeah, so, Glen is telling me this in the old store and he says shortly after that, all those guys that were his roommates, one by one they were all killed in car accidents and he had a ’55 Chevy Belair station wagon and when it got creamed by this truck, like 2 o’clock in the morning, he just walked away with a scar. So, he’s the only one who survived and that peaked his interest in uh, ghosts in Hawai‘i. Primarily it started to be Japanese ghosts and then it became Hawaiian, Portuguese, and all the other cultures. And so, he even admitted himself that he was a big chicken, first one probably to run if anything happened.

 

Before this career there was another one, could you tell us about that?

 

Oh my god. I can’t believe, ok…um, I had a career as a…as a professional wrestler for 17 years, when I was still working for Glen Grant, I was still doing this, it was towards the end of my career, it wasn’t becoming fun anymore, and um, his secretary, when I’d tell her listen, I’ve got something this Saturday, like a match or something, don’t book a tour, she’d book it anyway, and we always figured it out. But one weekend, I could not get out of the tour and I could not get out of wrestling the match. So, I had to figure something out, so I got on the bus and before I got on the bus, I called the booker at the venue and I said, listen man, I’m stuck, what are we going to do? The booker says, I don’t know. I said, ok, let’s do this, I’m gonna bring my tour to the venue and I’m gonna do the match and instead of the main event, make the match first. And he says, ok. And I said, but, I’m gonna bring my tour with me. And he’s like, oh man, I don’t know about that…it worked out. So, I got on the bus and I said, listen everybody, we’re going to this venue, it’s a professional wrestling match, when the bus pulls up, you guys get out, go to the front door, sit in the front row. I’m gonna uh, run into the ring, beat the guy up, I’m gonna win the match, and then you go back to the bus and we’ll do the tour. And that’s exactly how it happened, I run in, beat the guy up, 1-2-3, get the belt, run out, people go on the bus, finally get out to the bus and get in and I’m looking at everybody and I get on the mic and I said, so, is anybody gonna give me a hard time? No, no…then you know, big round of applause.

 

Lopaka Kapanui says his knowledge of Hawaiian history and culture and the supernatural have come about through research and his own experiences as well as the encounter of others who share their stories with him.

 

Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe that there are actually ghosts? And what are they?

 

A ghost is uh, something that’s residual, that’s a recording that just plays itself back during certain times.

 

And where did it come from? It died and then part of it is left? I mean…

 

I have to honestly say it’s like working for the State and the joke is you work for the State, you die, no heaven or hell, you go back to work. So, a ghost is someone who’s been in a place for a certain amount of time and some part of them is still there, they’ve made some sort of impression of themselves. Like a psychic thumbprint.

 

Deliberately? Or this just happens?

 

Yeah, it just happens, you know, not intentional. And so, when you see a ghost, you’re seeing a recording, you know, an imprint of an event that’s happened in the past. Uh, when you see an apparition, an apparition is aware, it’s cognizant. It knows it’s not here anymore, it knows it’s not human, but it’s here for some reason, some unfinished business. And so, if it senses that you’re psychic, it wants to communicate with you.

 

And what’s the downside of communication?

 

The downside of communication is sometimes it leaves marks. Fingertip bruise marks, scratches, sometimes no matter where you go, you will hear a voice calling your name, you know, and it won’t stop until you answer the phone call, so to say. It’s trying to get through all this stuff to get the message across. And so that’s where uh, misunderstanding takes place and people think it’s evil, it’s demonic, but really, it’s just communication.

 

So there is, there are no ghosts that will harass you and drive you to your death?

 

Not that I know of. I’ve never heard of anyone yet, losing their life because of an encounter with something otherworldly. According to Hollywood and reality shows, it might happen, but in real life…not so much.

 

And there are ghosts of every ethnicity and background around the world?

 

Oh, absolutely, especially here in Hawai‘i. I mean, you may not believe it, but the most famous ghost story here in Hawaii is a Japanese ghost story.

 

Which one is that?

 

The woman with no face.

 

Tell us the story.

 

So, the short story is 19, uh, 1956, the Wai‘alae Drive Inn.

 

Yes, that’s the one. Ok, that’s the obake in the restroom, right?

 

In the women’s restroom. Uh, the double feature was Love Sways in the Amazon and Monolith Monsters, according to the article from Bob Krauss, who was a great guy, and it’s the intermission, the woman goes to the bathroom, doing her business she says she sees a woman in a white summer yukata come up to the sink, wash her hands, and the woman says when she looks in the mirror, the lady takes her hair back like this, has no face.

 

That is really spooky.

 

Yes, and so, to fast forward that event, uh, today that ghost is still haunting that area.

 

There’s no drive inn anymore.

 

There’s no drive inn, but there’s a Times Supermarket. And she’s been seen in the walk-in freezer, and the employee bathroom, and there was also a shopping mall. After the drive inn was demolished in ’94, she had nowhere to go. So, she went to Times Supermarket, and then the mall, and so, she’s been seen in the women’s downstairs bathroom at the mall, uh, at a department store and the 8-plex theatre. So, she’s still around. Apparently, she’s haunting theatre number six.

 

Why is it not okay to take pork over the Pali, according to legend?

According to the legend, and this is the short version, Pele and Kamapuaʻa were once boyfriend and girlfriend.

 

Ok, she’s the Fire Goddess, he’s the Pig God.

 

Right, right, and so, even though they were in this relationship, Kamapuaʻa has not changed his ways and so he’s out cavorting and Pele finds out and one afternoon he’s coming home and he says, what a wonderous sight, a tidal wave coming from the mountain, and he realizes it’s a tidal wave of lava, he says, oh my god, she found out. And so he’s running for his life, Pāpa‘ikou, Puna, Panaʻewa, and a hill outside of Hilo called Kauku is where the pig god lies flat and begins to pray and the Hilo rain, the Ua Kani Lehua begins to fall, they say roots from grey trees rise up and hold back the lava, the lake of fire, and finally, when it’s all cooled off, they say Pele appears and says, well, I can’t kill you, so what are we going to do. He says, let’s make this agreement that from this moment forward, the Koʻolau side of the island, the Windward side is mine, lush, green with rain and the Kona side of every island will be yours—hot, arid, dry. And none shall cross into the other’s territory. And Pele says, a ō ʻia, agreed. And so, if there’s any truth to this, it is really that you can’t bring pork from the Windward to the Leeward side. But to be more specific, you can bring pork through the H-3, the Wilson, the Pali tunnels, but you can’t bring it up that road at the Pali Lookout, that’s coming from the Windward, because technically, there’s a road at the Pali Lookout that crosses that meridian that makes it Leeward. I will send you a picture of someone who brought pork, over the Pali, coming from that side. It’s someone who unknowingly thought he was doing a good thing by making an offering, but come to find out his offering was pork to the pig god, which I later on told him, you realize you’re making an offering of pork to the pig god, do you understand that? And he says, why? Does it make a difference? I said, it’s like offering a mother her own children. Under his hand, in this picture, you see a green swirling mist, like this…um, I actually had to go back 4 o’clock in the morning to do prayers of apology for that guy and supplication. Because on these adventures, I’m pretty familiar with ghosts and spirits and other things, but a lot of times, it’s foolish people that worry me.

 

Are there certain pathways or interject points that are known for ghosts?

 

Yeah, they’re called ao kuewa, and the ao kuewa is an opening between worlds where after you die, your spirit is escorted to the next world by your family ʻaumakua.

 

What about the jumping off places? There’s several on the islands. One of them is at Mokulēʻia by KaʻenaPoint, and then Maui has one known as the jumping off place for souls?

 

Yes, that’s Kahekili’s Leap, the other one we’re talking about is, leina a ka ʻuhane at um, right on the cusp of Mokulēʻia and Kaʻena. Another one is Kalaeloa, Barber’s Point, and yet, another one is now the cafeteria of Moanalua High School, and so that’s another leaping place and Moanalua High School used to be on my list of the three most haunted public schools on the island but it’s fallen off since King Intermediate has taken its place.

 

Because of what happened there before?

 

Mainly because of the history, for instance uh, ʻAiea High School, the famous battle of Kaeokulani and Kalanikūpule months before the battle of Nuʻuanu, it takes place from ʻAiea High School all the way to where Pali Momi is. The unfortunate thing about that battle is when Kalanikūpule wins the battle over his uncle, every warrior that’s been slain on the uncle’s side, they’ve all been left, out in the open, they have not been given the proper burial of respect. And that’s uh, the sign of disrespect and so the large majority of that is the grounds of ʻAiea High School, the part of that freeway that always has accidents, Kaʻahumanu, Kaonohi overpass, which happen to be night-marcher trails. And so, the trauma that has caused by an incident makes a psychic thumbprint on the environment and depending on the kind of people who are around the area determines as to if that trauma becomes residual or cognizant. And so, what we’re talking about when we say residual is a-a-an event just repeating itself, it’s not aware that you’re there. Cognizant means the event is aware that it’s passed away, it’s aware that it’s not human, and when it becomes aware of us, it wants to interact and communicate and that’s when hauntings happen.

 

So many people think this is all balderdash, it’s just, you know, ridiculous. How do you explain to them that why you know this is true?

 

What I always tell them is, give me a chance to change your mind. Spend some time with me, come to the event, come listen, and give me a chance, give me that opportunity to change your mind. You don’t have to like it, uh, I would encourage that you at least respect it, but that’s the first thing I say, let me change your mind, and they usually end up becoming believers at the end.

 

We close this program with a spooky story that Lopaka Kapanui told a group at a Japanese cemetery in Mōʻiliʻili, Oʻahu during a full moon on the night of a Friday the 13th. Mahalo to Robert Lopaka Kapanui of Kaimuki, Oʻahu for sharing your life stories and chicken skin accounts with us, and thank you for joining us. Aloha nui.

 

There was a teacher and one night she’s home, sitting at the kitchen table, correcting papers and she’s sort of watching TV, and all of a sudden, the TV screen goes…white poltergeist and the wind suddenly dies and the sound is gone. And from behind the house, somewhere near the mango tree, she hears the tinkling sound of the chimes. Dum, dum, dum, and it’s coming around the house outside her bedroom, the bathroom, coming around from the living room, dum, dum, dum, and now coming up the steps, ding, ding, and she tries to get up to see what the source of the sound is, but she cannot move. Something is holding her down at the kitchen table. Not even her head can move, only her eyes can record the front door. chimes in return, there’s a skeletal fist with flesh falling off of it, and it walks into her living room, skeletal remains of a woman in a faded bloodied white kimono, clumps of hair are falling off of her skull, teeth bare, and she stands just in sight of the front door in the living room and she says, leave my house now.

 

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.

 

 

 

[END]

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Showbiz Masterminds

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Showbiz Masterminds

 

The glamour of the entertainment industry can be alluring, but with its heavy business risks, there are no guarantees of success. Polynesian entertainment company co-owner Cha Thompson; the late radio DJ and concert promoter Tom Moffatt; and former nightclub owner Jack Cione are three “showbiz masterminds” who excelled at entertaining local audiences. Revisit these conversations about their journeys, lessons learned and passion for showbiz.

 

Program

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Sept. 8, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

More from Showbiz Masterminds:

 

Cha Thompson – Authenticity in Entertaining

 

Tom Moffatt – Elvis’s Hat

 

Tom Moffatt – Elvis at Honolulu Stadium

 

Jack Cione – How to Hire a Naked Waiter

 

Showbiz Masterminds Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

And if you said you were from Hawaiʻi, that sold.  You almost didn’t have to do anything.  And so, we started traveling around the world.  And when we came home, people wanted shows.  We actually had to decide: We gotta get off the stage, you cannot be producer, director, business manager, choreographer, which is what we did. And oh, god; try do the books. Hello.

 

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

 

And what were the skaters wearing?

 

The skaters wore clothes, but the three girls that stood there 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.

 

Yes.  [CHUCKLE]

 

Was there a time you considered getting out, because maybe the risk was too high, or the cost was too high in some way?

 

No; I’ve never felt that way.  I always have been very optimistic about this business, that people want to be entertained, they want to see live concerts, they want to go out and be there, and experience that music firsthand.

 

The world of bright lights and big stages holds a certain allure.  But only a few carve out a successful business in the grueling entertainment world.  Meet three of Hawaiʻi’s showbiz masterminds, next, on Long Story Short.

 

One-on-one engaging conversations with some of Hawaiʻi’s most intriguing people: Long Story Short with Leslie Wilcox.

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wicox.  Show business can be fun, exciting, and profitable.  But there are no guarantees.  Yet, Polynesian entertainment company co-owner Cha Thompson, nightclub owner Jack Cione, and the late radio deejay turned concert promoter Tom Moffatt excelled in this risky industry.   These three people are very different from each other.  In common, they all trusted their artistic tastes and business instincts to entertain Hawaiʻi for decades.

 

First, we turn to our 2008 conversation with Cha Thompson.  In the early 70s, she was a nineteen-year-old hula dancer traveling the world for performances, when she was suddenly put in charge of a popular Polynesian dance group.  Cha Thompson and her husband Jack soon founded Tihati Productions, now one of the largest and longest-running entertainment companies in Hawaiʻi.

 

I was with the original Puka Puka Otea group that Elaine Frisbie from Rarotonga ran.  And we were the only one in the State to do Polynesian everything.  And then, when she was leaving, I was her lead dancer, and she simply said: Here, take it and run.  And at nineteen, excuse me, I knew nothing about business.  And so, you know, when I married my husband, I was working in medical records at Queen’s Medical Center, and he was working in reservations at Hawaiian Airlines.  And people started calling us.  And I’m telling you, it was so successful, because tourism at the time was the thing, and everybody wanted a show.

 

What year was that?  What general decade?

 

1969, ’70.  And if you said you were from Hawaiʻi, that sold.  You almost didn’t have to do anything.  And so, we started traveling around the world.  And when we came home, people wanted shows.  We actually had to decide: We gotta get off the stage, you cannot be producer, director, business manager, choreographer, which is what we did. And oh, god; try do the books. Hello.

 

You danced.  What did your husband do?

 

He was the emcee.  And his very first thing to do was, he came to Canada when I was with the World’s Fair, and I was a dancer.  And he was one of the few Polynesians who could speak English.  So, when our emcee got sick, he said: Give it to Thompson.  And he said: I’m not an entertainer.  You know. And in fact, just before we left, he said: I’m part-Samoan, surely I can learn the knife dance.  I always thought he was too handsome to be a knife dancer. He didn’t look as wild and savage. But he learned it, and became a knife dancer.  Terrible knife dancer in the beginning; can’t hold a candle next to my son, who’s a world title holder.  But that’s how we started.  We had to get off stage, and get a good attorney, get a great CPA, and we gave up our careers to run the business.

 

You were singled out to be the one to take over the dancing troupe.

 

Yes.

 

Why?

 

You know, I wonder if because shucks, I was always vocal. I always had an opinion.  I wonder.  And many of the Polynesian girls were more reserved.  I always had the plan, I always had the plan.

 

And it was a good plan?

 

It was a good plan.  I think survival mode; always in a survival mode, you know.  And I think that’s what my children detect. Like: Mom, oh.  You know, always plan for tomorrow, save, you know, the rainy day is coming, and always dress well if you get into an accident and make sure you have clean underwear.  [CHUCKLE] And you know, the house must be clean. Visitors will come, they’ll judge us. I always felt like I was being judged; always.  People started taking us seriously when we would sit on business boards, or when we contributed in a business fashion.  But yeah, I mean, you’re Polynesian; surely you can’t be too smart. And entertainment; heavens, you must fool around you must do drugs.  Well, we did neither, and it paid off.  It paid off for us.

 

I sense you’re a good negotiator.  I’m trying to figure out what your style is.

 

[CHUCKLE]  It’s the Pake blood, Leslie; it’s the Chinese blood.  And the funny thing about it is, in entertainment, they will say: Oh, come and put on a show, or come and dance for us, and you can eat all you want, and you can drink.  I don’t drink.  I’m really thin; I don’t eat that much.  I need something else.  And money was the thing I needed.  But we had to earn it, we had to earn it.  They didn’t take us seriously, you know.

 

I know you brought in some major acts.

 

Yes.

 

And you developed major talent.

 

I think we’re known as a Polynesian revue.  And I don’t know that many people know that Tihati Productions has a vast department that brings in contemporary acts.  Like, we brought in Lionel Richie, and Cyndi Lauper. And we also do thematic parties. You know, we’ll prepare a whole Raiders of The Lost Ark, or Aloha in a volcano.  So, we do many things.  But I think they still think of me as the hula girl.  I mean, maybe, because then they’ll say: Oh, you know, you run that halau. And I say: No, I’m not a kumu, I don’t have a halau.  But Tihati Productions, they think of as a Polynesian revue.

 

You’ve had to really strike a balance between Polynesian authenticity and entertainment.  How have you worked that out?

 

I decided early on not to educate them, rather to entertain them, but to not sell myself and not give them what is real.  Any Tihati revue that you see will have real flowers, we’ll use real ti leaf skirts, we do authentic numbers and sing it in the native tongues.  You know, Tahitian, Samoan, Fijian, and all of my instructors are from those islands, Hawaiian.  So, I never felt that tourism was a threat to me.  In fact, when some people might have thought, Oh, that’s a sell-out, she’s worked in Waikīkīfor thirty-five years, you know, why isn’t she with us?, I would say, Well, tourism dollars sent all my kids to college, and I never felt that I wasn’t doing exactly what is me.  You know, I believe God gave me a gift in my roots and my heritage, and I share it. And lucky for me, tourism is Hawaiʻi’s number-one industry, and they’ll always need the hula girl, and the steel guitar, and the fire knife dancer.  And so, I think I’m here to stay.

 

With clear vision, quick reflexes, and a tenacious attitude, Cha Thompson and her husband Jack built a respected, long-running entertainment business.

 

Our next showbiz mastermind is also a longtime entrepreneur.  Jack Cione first gained notoriety in the 60s with live shows that were new to Honolulu at the time—nude entertainers and bottomless wait staff.  He was fired up to put on his own dance productions after seeing what he called a lousy show at the old Forbidden City Nightclub in Kakaʻako.  Here, from our conversation in 2014, Jack Cione remembers talking to the Forbidden City’s manager about organizing his first shows there.

 

I just told him how bad his show was, and he said: 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.  So, I did a show at the Forbidden City.  And I did two shows that made a lot of money.  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.  So, they came over.  And I had the Japanese girls, and I used them as showgirls.  And I talked three of the Japanese girls into going topless. I just had them open their kimonos to add a little more to the show.

 

And what were the skaters wearing?

 

The skaters wore clothes, but the three girls that stood there 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.

 

Yes.  [CHUCKLE]

 

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.

 

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.

 

Throughout history.  [CHUCKLE]

 

Right.  And so, what was the law?  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.

 

You’re saying this like this is, you know, just part of doing business.  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 all 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 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.  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 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?

 

No.

 

No?

 

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.  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.

 

Paraded, without their pants.  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.

 

As clients.

 

That’s how it happened.

 

And people keep coming back?

 

Oh; unreal.  Four hundred lunches, Monday through Friday.

 

I just sense that your guiding force is money and showbiz.  But you weren’t really into the flesh stuff of it all?

 

No.  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, people would want to buy me a drink.  I said: You know, I’m in the business to sell this; I don’t drink it.

 

Jack Cione is a showbiz mastermind who went with his gut.  He knew what he liked, saw what worked, and gave people what they wanted.

 

So did our next guest.  Much has been said about the late Tom Moffatt’s career, first as a pioneering rock and roll radio deejay who introduced Hawaiʻi to Elvis Presley, then as a promoter of big name concerts, bringing everyone from The Eagles to Bruno Mars to the islands.  But let’s not forget Tom Moffatt’s work with local acts, especially during the Hawaiian music renaissance in the 1970s.  In our 2011 conversation, he recounts his work with Keola and Kapono Beamer on a recording that still strikes a chord here at home, and beyond.

 

I had just left radio.  I’d gone through a couple of owners at KPOI, and a third one was coming in, and I decided it was time to take a hiatus from radio.  So, I started my own record company.  And in the door walked Kapono Beamer one day, and said that they weren’t happy with wherever they were in recording.  And so, I got the two of them in, and talked to them about it.  And I said: Why don’t you guys go out and write, and let’s do a record together, an album.  So, I gave them some seed money to go out and write.  And Keola called me and said: I think I’ve got a song.  He was living up at Alewa Heights; I’ll never forget.  And I went up to Alewa Heights to hear the song. It was just when it was getting dusk, and that time of the evening when it was getting dark and the lights were coming on.  And he played for me Honolulu City Lights.  And I knew we had something.  So, that was my first recording endeavor, really on my own, and we came out with Honolulu City Lights.  Got Teddy Randazzo to help with the arrangements.

 

And for decades, I believe that was the highest-selling local album of all time. Is it still?

 

I don’t know, with Iz around.  [CHUCKLE]

 

And I think Kealii Reichel might have had a really big seller.

 

Oh, yes; yes.  But not that long ago, few years back, I think it was the Star Bulletin or the Advertiser, and Honolulu Magazine came out with a list of the best albums. Not best-selling, just the best albums, Hawaiʻi albums of all time.  And number one was Honolulu City Lights.  That was a thrill.  It’s still my favorite.  [CHUCKLE] I still love that song.

 

Me, too.  Actually, that came out when I was seeing a lot of friends off to college at the airport.

 

Yeah.

 

And it was always playing the airport then, and they were always crying. Those were the days where there was no security.

 

Yes.

 

You went to the gate to see people off.

 

You could go the gate with leis; yeah?

 

And local style, you didn’t bring just leis; you brought bentos, and food.

 

Yes; uh-huh.

 

And everybody had luaus, and that song was just playing—

 

Oh, yeah.

 

–almost continuously.  And if it wasn’t somebody was asking for it to be played.

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

Yeah.  So, that’s such a cultural memory in Hawaiʻi.  That was your first, ever, recorded song.

 

Yes.  I’d done some singles and so forth.  Once, I put out an album, a trumpet album, but that was with other people involved. But this was the first one I did on my own, was Honolulu City Lights.  At the same time, I had a girl that worked for me just as I was leaving KPOI, and she said: You gotta go out and see this group in Aina Haina.

 

Randy Borden?

 

No.

 

No? Okay; who?

 

Country Comfort.

 

Country Comfort.

 

Yeah.

 

Playing at the old—

 

At The Sty.

 

–M’s Ranch House?

 

No, this was at The Sty.  It wasn’t Aina Haina; it was beyond Aina Haina at The Sty.

 

Niu; that’s right.

 

Yeah.  And I heard these guys.  I went out and saw what was happening with the audience, and what they had going for them. And so, I finished off an album that—this was just before Honolulu City Lights, that my partner Irv Peninsky had started.  And I finished off the album, and we put it out together.  Then after that, I left out on my own.  But Country Comfort was one of my favorite albums.  I also did an album by The Surfers at that time called Shells, which I still think is one of the best Hawaiian albums ever produced.

 

Who were the local artists that you most enjoyed working with, and had the most success with?

 

Well, The Royal Drifters were one of the first local groups.  Dick Jensen, Robin Luke, Ronnie Diamond; they were all big singers in the 50s and early 60s. And we used them as often as possible on The Show of Stars at the Civic Auditorium, and whenever we could at the new arena.  Remember the first time that the Rolling Stones came to town, I put Dick Jensen on as the opening—Lance Curtis as the opening group, opening performer.

 

Lance Curtis.

 

And he danced like Michael Jackson.  This was before Michael Jackson.  He could dance.

 

You know, all of these enterprises, these artistic enterprises, and creative enterprises, to really be stable and to make a go of them, you have to be good at money.  You have to be good at restraint, and you have to be good at planning.

 

Uh-huh.

 

Did you have that all along, or did you have to learn that the hard way?

 

I’m still learning.  [CHUCKLE]  Still learning.  But I got good accountants around me.  Yeah.

 

And you’re not by nature prone to take unreasonable risk.

 

No.  We put quite a bit of money into some of the recording projects, but I believed in them, and they turned out okay.  Opening the Outrigger main showroom was kind of gamble.  It was a room that was sitting there was a convention room that they never used.  And Tommy Sands had come to Hawaiʻi, and was looking for a place to work.  And so, we opened that showroom.  And it’s been going ever since, after Tommy and I kinda drifted off.  And another time when the Beamers got going with Honolulu City Lights, there was another room that was sitting empty which we opened as the Reef Showroom at the Reef Hotel.  The Ocean Showroom at the Reef Hotel; that’s what we called it.  I put the Beamers in there.  That was kind of a gamble at the time, but I felt, you know, this record was happening.  So, we opened the showroom with Keola and Kapono Beamer, and Andy Bumatai as the opening comedian.  It was very successful.

 

Was there a time you considered getting out, because maybe the risk was too high, or the cost was too high in some way?

 

No; I’ve never felt that way.  I always have been very optimistic about this business, that people want to be entertained, they want to see live concerts, they want to go out and be there, and experience that music firsthand.

 

The concert promoter, the nightclub entrepreneur, and the Polynesian entertainment company co-owner; three masterminds in showbiz who trusted their tastes and instincts to entertain the islands.  After months of declining health, Tom Moffatt left us in 2016. What an honor to revisit his tremendous career.  And we thank Jack Cione and Cha Thompson for their savvy business stories.  Mahalo to you for joining is.  For PBS Hawaiʻi and Long Story Short, I’m Leslie Wilcox. Aloha nui.

 

You learn that from Kalihi.  Somebody puts you down and, ah, you know, I could do something better than they could.  I knew I could.  I don’t know how this is gonna sound, but what was important is, you gotta know how to beef, quite frankly.

 

You can beef?

 

[CHUCKLE]

 

You can beef?

 

Yeah, man.

 

You’re so elegant.

 

Yeah, man.  [CHUCKLE]  Or at least, I used to a lot.  And you know, when you come from a large family, nobody wants to beef with you. ‘Cause in the housing, families fight families.  I mean, I know it sounds imbecilical, but we did.

 

Did you beef boys, too?

 

Yeah.  Yeah, yeah. Most of the boys didn’t want to take me on, though.  I had brother, big brothers.

 

I mean, you were just a kid.

 

Yeah.

 

Playing at nightclubs.

 

I did.

 

What time did you go to sleep?

 

Well, I changed my age.  I was twenty then.  ‘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.

 

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 made thirty-five dollars a week.

 

Ouch!

 

I introduced Elvis Presley.  The place went crazy.  It was so exciting.

 

Really high decibels?

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

Shrieky.

 

Yeah.  And there he was, just a microphone, and a simple sound system.  But he held that audience.

 

And when had you met him before that?

 

Well, the day before, Ron Jacobs and I … Ron figured this one out.  Do something different.  And we’d me the Colonel, and we’d kinda hinted there might be something like this in the works.  And Don Tyler was one of our guys at KPOI, and we dressed him up to look like Elvis. Ron had his convertible, a Ford convertible, hardtop convertible, top went down.  And got a fellow who looked like Colonel Parker, and Ron driving. And we had it all planned.  I’m on the radio.  From the moment Elvis arrived, I’m on the radio playing nothing but Elvis records.  And I did this all morning, into the afternoon.  So, I kinda planted it; well, we understand that Elvis is heading for Kailua, for people to be out in the streets looking for Elvis, and drive down the streets, and people are screaming.  And we did this in different neighborhoods.

 

Did you get any fallout from it?

 

Well, we got back to the studio.  By then, I’d played Elvis for six straight hours, at least. It was mid-afternoon, and we were patting ourselves on the back.  And we get the message from our news guy that Colonel Parker wants to see you guys downstairs, immediately.

 

Dun-da-dun-da.

 

And we looked at each other.  We wanted to escape.  So, we went downstairs and there’s guards at the elevator.  We went down one floor.  And they took us into Colonel Parker’s suite.  We didn’t know what to expect.  Colonel said: Boys, that was a pretty good promotion you did.  Oh, my gosh!  Oh, and here’s Elvis.  In walked Elvis.  And that’s the first time I’d met Elvis.  [CHUCKLE]

 

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.

 

[END]

 

 

 

DIONNE WARWICK
Then Came You

 

Celebrate the legendary singer, featuring full-length archival performances of her chart-topping hits with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and duets with The Spinners, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. Songs include “I Say A Little Prayer,” “Alfie,” Then Came You” and many others.

 

 

 

PBS HAWAIʻI PRESENTS
Words, Earth & Aloha: The Source of Hawaiian Music

PBS HAWAIʻI PRESENTS - Words, Earth & Aloha: The Source of Hawaiian Music

 

Featuring some of Hawai‘i’s most respected cultural resources and talented performers, this documentary pays tribute to composers who flourished between the 1870s and the 1920s. The film looks closely at Hawaiian lyrics and the places that inspired them, and charts the evolution of Hawaiian music with the introduction of imported musical forms.

 









NĀ MELE: TRADITIONS IN HAWAIIAN SONG
Hūʻewa

NA MELE: Hū‘ewa

 

When you hear their name, you can’t help but smile. The young trio Hūʻewa is comprised of Kupu Dalire-Naʻauao, Kekoa Kane and Kahi Lum-Young.

 

“‘Hū’ is to hum or to make sound, to make music. And ʻewa’ is to go off course or to find your own path,” explained Hūʻewa member Kane. “…that’s what we do with our music…we make music on our own path, on a different style.”

 

Preview

 

The trio performs songs including “Kaulana Niʻihau,” where they’re accompanied by the dancers of Hālau Ka Liko Pua O Kalaniakea; and a medley consisting of favorite songs of each member: “Kaulana Molokaʻi,” “Pauoa Liko Ka Lehua” and “Meleana Ē.” Dalire-Naʻauao explains, “The Hawaiian music that we chose, the type of songs that we chose…we just like to pull things from back in the day.”

 

 

 

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