Marlene Sai

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Hawai‘i’s Golden Age of Entertainment

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX: Hawaiʻi's Golden Ages of Entertainment

 

Before their music reached audiences around the world, Marlene Sai, Danny Kaleikini and Emma Veary were known as staples of the local entertainment scene. Hear these three entertainers discuss the beginnings of their music careers in Waikīkī and other Honolulu venues.

 

Program

 

More from the guests in this show:

Danny Kaleikini

 

Marlene Sai

 

Emma Veary

 

Hawai‘i’s Golden Age of Entertainment Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Was there a lot of music in Waikīkī in those days?

 

There was a lot of it.

 

Showrooms?

 

Because, you know, Duke Kahanamoku’s was a supper club. Don the Beachcomber was a supper club.

 

What a different time that was.

 

Yes; yes.

And at that time, we had so many theaters. You can’t believe how many theaters we had, that had shows.

 

Live shows.

 

Live shows.

 

When I was at the Kahala, I used to tell people: Hey, go see Brother Don Ho, go see Al Harrington.  I says, The Surfers, you know, I said, The Society of Seven.  I said: We got some of the greatest shows in Hawai‘i.

 

We often hear about the Golden Age of Hollywood.  Today, younger people may not realize that Hawai‘i had its Golden Age of Entertainment, though ours was mostly on stage instead of on the big screen. Coming up on Long Story Short, we will revisit the days when live music filled the showrooms of Waikīkī with three of the musical talents to command those legendary stages.

 

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

 

Aloha mai kākou.  I’m Leslie Wilcox.  On this edition of Long Story Short, we travel back to the Golden Age, an exciting time when live entertainment lit up hotel showrooms, when beautiful Hawaiian songs and popular performers backed by live orchestras drew tourists and locals to Waikīkī, night after night.  To recall this bygone era, we feature encore interviews with three musical icons who helped define that time: Emma Veary, Marlene Sai, and Danny Kaleikini.  These stars are considered by many to be among Hawai‘i’s showbiz royalty.  They were staples of the local entertainment scene, and their stellar careers spanned continents as well as decades, from World War II into the 21stCentury.

 

In 2008, we visited with Emma Veary, who spoke of how she began her professional career when she was still a child.  Her career took off, just as the era that would be called Hawai‘i’s Golden Age was getting going.  Decades later, Veary would still be headlining at the Halekulani and Royal Hawaiian, and her gorgeous voice would earn this elegant performer the nickname Hawai‘i’s Golden Throat.

 

I started working when I was five.  I’ve been singing since I was five, because I discovered that people wanted to hear me sing, and they would pay me.  And being from a family that didn’t have a lot of money, wow.  I had a special letter from the Liquor Commission so that I could go sing in clubs.

 

At age five?

 

At age five.  And Mother would go with me.  And I sang at all the big clubs.  And at that time, later on, as time went on, all of the celebrities used to go to the Waialae Country Club.  That was the place to go.  And I used to sing there on weekends, so I had the pleasure of meeting all these lovely stars.  And of course, a couple that you don’t know, but there was Rochelle Hudson, there was Bette Davis, and there was Dorothy Lamour.  And I had the pleasure of meeting Dorothy as a child, when she was a very young woman.  And again, when I was working at the Halekulani one night, they told me: Emma, Dorothy Lamour is here tonight.  And I went: Oh, my god.  So, I pulled out a medley of her songs, and sang them to her, and reminded her about when we met when I was a child.  And she said: Oh, my god.  She says: After hearing you sing those songs, I never want to sing them again.

 

Aw …

 

And at that time, we had so many theaters.  You can’t believe how many theaters we had, that had shows.

 

Live shows.

 

Live shows.  There was the Princess, the Hawai‘i, Liberty, Queen’s, King’s, Palace, Pawa‘a Theater, Kewalo Theater.  These are all no more.

 

They weren’t movie houses?  They were musical acts?

 

They were movie houses.  No, they were movies houses, but they would have music, you know, between the shows, like Radio City Music Hall.  You know, they would have some come on and perform in between the movies.

 

That was standard in those days, in theaters?

 

Well, they used to have a lot of that going on. Yeah.  So, I used to go and sing at all of these theaters.  And I sang at Hawaii Theatre so many times.  And then, while I was going through that phase in 1941, Joe Pasternak came to Hawai‘i and saw me perform somewhere, and asked me to come to Hollywood, and he would groom me to become a star.  And we had said okay, and I was supposed to leave on the 8thof December in 1941.  And the 7th, the war started.  So, he called me and he said to my mom: Does she still want to come?  So, my mother said: You have to ask her.  So, I got on the phone; I said: Well, Mr. Pasternak, inasmuch as there’s a war going on, I’d rather stay home with my family. So, I lost out on that one.

 

For those who weren’t living here or weren’t alive in the 70s, your name was the class act around town.  You were the headliner, maybe the first headliner at the Halekulani Hotel.

 

Yes, yes.  They didn’t ever have an act there.  And Hal, Aku, my husband at the time, and I talked to him about doing the act. And so, we went down and we were at the Royal Spaghetti House, and we decided we wanted to leave that venue and come to Waikīkī.  So, he went and talked to the Halekulani, and talked them into putting me on the lanai there. And because of the way the room was, I said: I’ve got to design a stage that would work for me.  So, I had an H, and I would put the piano on either side of the—it was an H like that, the piano here, the piano there, and I had a round H and I could work here, I could work here, and I could work between the pianos. And so, they built the stage that I wanted, and they built me a dressing room.  And on opening night, I went to work at the Halekulani, and they put a drape down in the back where the ocean was, to keep people from looking in.  And so, I said to them: Excuse me, what is that there?  And they said: Well, that’s to keep the people out.  I said: You know, you have one of the most beautiful views in Waikīkī. And I said: I want you to take that away.  They said: Well, we paid five thousand dollars to build that thing.  I said: Well, I don’t want to go on if you’re gonna have that there, because there are people passing by, they will become fans, they will become clients and come in to the show.  I said: So, I’m not gonna go sing until you put that silly thing out.

 

So, they wanted to block you from the beach.

 

Yeah.

 

Even though it was an outdoor venue.

 

Yeah; because the people would look in.

 

Well, I have a different point of view on that.  My vantage was, I was one of the beach people.

 

Right, right.

 

You know, the rubber raft.

 

Right.

 

The kids, and the young adults who were taking advantage of the free music in Waikīkī. You could go up and down the beach, and sit on the sand.

 

I used to call them my scholarship crowd.  And eventually, they call came in.  And they would come in and have dinner, an see the show.

 

And that was a phenomenon that I think a lot of people have forgotten or didn’t know. When there were live showrooms in Waikīkī, and there were the cheap seats on the beach.

 

Right, right, right.  But you know, I felt like: Hey, where would I be without these people? They are also people who will eventually come to see me.  My fans are very precious to me.  And I communicate, people call me, I talk to fans.  And I have a relationship with my fans because I wouldn’t be who I am without them.

 

In those days, wasn’t it called at the Halekulani, the Coral Lanai where you performed?

 

Yes, it was the Coral Lanai.  Yes.

 

It wasn’t the House Without A Key; it was Coral Lanai.

 

No; it was Coral Lanai.  Yeah.  Because the House Without A Key is next door, was next door; yeah.

 

And then, you were headliner at the Monarch Room as well, at the Royal Hawaiian.

 

And then, after I left there, I went to the Monarch Room and performed there for a number of years.  And that was interesting; that was very interesting. Of course, there, I had a big orchestra, which was another style of work.  Because the other, I had either two pianos or a piano and a harp.  And then, I went to a thirteen-piece orchestra after that, with a piano player.

 

What was the most requested song when you were at the Monarch Room?

 

You know, everybody had their own different songs that they wanted hear.  Or course, everybody wants to hear Kamehameha Waltz, because that was a signature song.

 

Next, we reminisce with Marlene Sai.  Born into the Golden Age, Sai was just seventeen when she was discovered by the up-and-coming Don Ho, and his mentorship led her to embark on a successful singing career that once seemed out of reach.  During this 2009 conversation, Marlene Sai told us as a Kaimukīkid, she’d been laying the foundation her whole life to impress Don Ho, learning literally on the laps of talented musicians like her uncle, Andy Cummings, who composed some of her signature songs.  Sai’s journey to the stages of Waikīkīwould first pass through a small club in Kāne‘ohe.

 

So, Uncle wanted me to listen to the song, and I said okay.  And I would come home from school, sit me down on our steps outside of the house, and he’d play and he said: Now, I want you to learn the song.  And that’s how I started to learn Kainoa, which was the song that started me in the business.

 

It’s a signature song for you.

 

It’s one of the signature songs.  Yes.

 

How does it go?

 

I’m waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I adore.  My heart is true, I’m thinking of you.  Forever, I will love you, Kainoa.

 

Absolutely.

 

Yeah.

 

Beautiful.

 

Yeah.

 

Now, Andy Cummings is a heck of an uncle to get started in the music business with.

 

Yeah.

 

He’s, of course, one of the greatest hapa haole composers, ever.  And he wrote Waikīki, which is another song you are known for.

 

Signature; yeah.

 

Waikīkī

My whole life is empty without you

I miss that magic about you

Magic beside the sea

 

One day, I’m driving down Kalākaua, and I’m looking in my rearview mirror, and I see this … it looked like a Thunderbird.  And the top was down, and I see this car darting in and out, and it’s approaching me.  And this guy’s hair is blowing, no shirt on, and he’s coming up closer to me.  And I’m getting nervous.  So, I roll up my window, roll up this window, and I’m going further.  And he comes and he’s telling me to pull over.  So, I pull over, and I’m thinking: Who in the world is this?  ‘Cause I didn’t recognize him.  He got out of the car, came over to me.  And I had the window up, and he’s knocking on the window and he’s saying to me: You remember me?  I was playing the organ for you; you remember me?  And I’m thinking: What church is he talking about?  I couldn’t remember.  Organ?  And then he said: You came to my place with Jesse.  When he said Jesse, my player, I said: Oh—

 

Don Ho is at your window.

 

And I’m looking at him, so I rolled my window down. And he said: I lost your number. He says: I don’t know where I put the paper; I lost it.  He said: I’ve been trying to get your phone number.  So, he asked me; he says: You come down to Honey’s tonight, or tomorrow night.  He said: I’d like to know if we can get some songs together; if you’re still interested, I’d like for you to sing and maybe make some extra money.   And that’s really how it all started.

 

Singing at Honey’s, and your boss was Don Ho.

 

And my boss was Don Ho.  Yeah.

 

Was there a lot of music in Waikīkīin those days?

 

There was a lot of it.

 

Showrooms?

 

Because, you know, Duke Kahanamoku’s was a supper club. Don the Beachcomber was a supper club. And the International Marketplace, where it is now, you know, as we know the International Marketplace, way in the back of it to the left was Duke Kahanamoku’s.  That was where the supper club was.  In the front of it, on the street, was Don the Beachcomber’s.

 

That’s right.

 

You know.

 

So, there were all kinds of venues for live Hawaiian music.

 

Oh, yeah.  And then, down the road, Sterling Mossman was there at the Barefoot Bar.

 

At the Queen’s Surf.

 

And you had Queen’s Surf.  I mean, it was all over.  Across the street was the Moana Surfrider, so you had Pua Alameida playing there.  At the Royal Hawaiian, Haunani Kahalewai was playing.  I mean, it was all over the place, and it was just wonderful.

 

What a different time that was.

 

Yes; yes.

 

And you sounded fearless.  I mean, you were up for the challenges.

 

Well, because you’re young, I think.  You know, because you’re young and you want to explore, and you want to just give it whirl and try it.  And of course, the career was just unbelievable.

 

So, you were a teenaged recording star.  What if you hadn’t had access to all of these wonderful people—Andy Cummings, Gabby Pahinui, and the people who perhaps they didn’t—I guess, Uncle Andy coached you in so many words.

 

Sure.

 

But the others who you got to see in action and learn from that way.

 

I think what happens in life, if you are meant to be in a certain place, and things kinda unfold for you, which is truly the way I believe that things started to happen for me.  Because no way along this did I plan it.  I was just so grateful that it unfolded this way, and it was happening.  Because I just felt like the greatest gift was being given to me.

 

Do you ever miss seeing your name in those huge marquee lights in Waikīkī?

 

No; no.

 

Been there, done that?

 

Been there, done that.  Yes; yes.  I enjoy being Grammy, and I enjoy my grandchildren, you know, and enjoying the family.  Yeah.

 

Do your grandchildren know that Grammy was a huge star in Waikīkī, everybody knew your name, and many obviously still know it?

 

They know; they do know.  But you know, they also know that they have to know their place too.  You know. But they’re very good about that; they really are.

 

Showing respect?

 

Oh, sure.  But not, you know, boasting or anything.

 

But they have a sense of who you are?

 

They do have a sense; they do have a sense.

 

And the legacy?

 

Yes.

 

What’s your legacy?

 

What is my legacy?  God, she’s been around for a long time.

 

Our final entertainment icon has also been around a long time.  Danny Kaleikini left college to launch his career, and wound up as the longest-running showroom host at a single venue.  He would also come to be recognized worldwide as Hawai‘i’s Ambassador of Aloha.  In 2010, Kaleikini told us that long before the Golden Age of Waikīkī, he was living in Papakōlea, and his family was so poor he began working at the age of six—not performing, but delivering newspapers and shining shoes in Downtown Honolulu.

 

Before I went to Kāhala, I learned from the best from Hawai‘i.  I started at places, and I want to thank people. Even when I was shining shoes, I used to go every Friday; right across Hawaiian Electric was Charley’s Taxi. And they had jam sessions; Jesse Kalima and A Thousand Pounds of Melody.

 

Wow.

 

So, my brother and I, we’d go there just about five-thirty with our shoeshine box.  And they would say: Hey, the two brothers from Papakōlea; come over here, sing us a song.  We’d go up and there and we sing our song; ‘O Makalapua.  You know. And after the song, we’d pick up like two or three dollars, man, you know.  Ho!  So, we’d take it to Jesse; he tell: No, no, you guys take that home.  And I tell you, I never forgot.  Then I went to work at WaikīkīSands. From there, Ray Kinney saw me, and he took me to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.  And he said: You watch what I do.  He said: You gotta learn.  Then I learned how to be an emcee.  Oh, you know, I gotta thank Reverend Akaka, you know.  And Danny Akaka, when I went to Kauai, was my minister of music.  So, I was part of, you know, the choir.  But Kahu, you know, is really the one taught me about the magic word, aloha.  And the ukulele, you know, he told me the ukulele represents the world.  You know, there’s only four strings, but each string represents all the different people that make up our world—black, white, yellow, brown.  He said: You play each string, you’ll get a sound, you know, but try playing it all together, then you find a chord, then you find harmony, then we can all come together.

 

Who was in your high school class that people might remember today?

 

Ron Jacobs, Wesley Park.  You know, Wesley was my business manager.  Because of Wesley Park, and I thank him very much, he got me my job at the Kahala Hilton in 1967.  He got me a contract for five years, and the rate was $1.5 million.  I was guaranteed, which was unheard of.

 

What was it like?  Do you remember the moment when you realized: I’m gonna play the Kahala?

 

Oh, no; I was so scared.  I mean, it was like One Step Beyond, you know, to go from Downtown Waikīkī.  And Kahala was, you know, The Hilton International, I mean premier.

 

Did you replace anybody when you went to the Kahala showroom, or did you create that showroom?

 

I created that showroom.  I created that room.

 

So, what was the thinking process in figuring what will work in the showroom?

 

Well, first of all, I said: We’re too far from Waikīkī.  I said: We have to work hard to get people, ‘cause just to catch the taxi, and then local people said: Kahala Hilton; you know how much the cup coffee?  One dollar.

 

How did you draw them in?  What do you think brought them in?

 

I did it Hawaiian style.  I mean, you know, I did it from the pupu’s, and all the kanaka maoli.  I mean, I used to sing, “Ua Like NōA Like”, I did “Lei Aloha Lei Makamae”.  But I did all the … even like Andy Anderson was one; I love Mr. Anderson, I love his songs. And I used to sing “Malihini Mele”. And then everybody used to get a bang, ‘cause I used to add my own words to it.  But that thing was an upbeat tune, you know.

 

Real hapa haole.

 

All the hapa haole songs, I tell you.  And every night, I sang the Wedding Song.  And the other song was either “Lovely Hula Hands”, or “Beyond the Reef”.  Either one. Yeah; and everybody knew the song. Not only the malihini’s, but the kama‘aina’s as well.  ‘Cause Lovely Hula Hands, Andy Anderson wrote that song, you know.

 

So, you started out with a local crowd.  And then, what happened?

 

And then, the tourists started to come from Waikīkī.  Then, I had to go market the show.  Then I started to get the Japanese.  Once the Japanese, the second show was sold out every night.  Was unreal.

 

And that showroom was based around you; right?

 

Yeah.

 

It was the cult of Kaniela.

 

Yeah.  I mean, I got to meet Queen Elizabeth and her husband.  And Prince Charles used to stay there, ‘cause he played polo, and he used to come with Princess Diana.  You know, I got to play golf with President Ford.  All the presidents stayed at the Kahala, and I got to meet them all.  And Imelda, you know, she would come; she would stay at the Kahala Hilton, Mrs. Marcos.  And she would come to my show, and she always brought like about, you know, forty to fifty people, and they had a section.  And the security was tight, and everybody was comfortable and yet, uneasy because of the security and everything else.

 

Was it Governor Waihe‘e who gave you the title, Ambassador of Aloha?

 

Yeah; in 1988.  I was so honored, you know, ‘cause Duke Kahanamoku has been our Ambassador of Aloha.  And I had the privilege of working with Duke.

 

You’re still known as Mr. Aloha, the Ambassador of Aloha.  What does that mean to you?  Do you think of that every day?

 

Oh, I’m very honored just to share this aloha, not only here, but around the world, no matter where I go.  I can honestly say I’ve seen the world, and because of music.  You know, I thank Akua, I thank God.  But I go with aloha ke kahi i ke kahi, the breath of life that we share with one another.

 

What is the reason the show ended at Kahala?

 

They sold the hotel.

 

You would have kept going?

 

I would have; yeah.  I even asked the people if they wanted, you know.  But big management, they had a whole different outlook on what they wanted to do.  It’s a shame, ‘cause in 1967, we could have bought the hotel for $17 million.  But nobody would lend us the money.  Yeah; but you know, I look back and you know, I say I had a wonderful, wonderful stay, and I thank all the people that supported me, all the people that helped me.  We all worked together as one family, you know.  And I think that was the key in the success.  But the secret ingredient: A-L-O-H-A.  That made it work.

 

Danny Kaleikini, Marlene Sai, and Emma Veary; three iconic Hawai‘i performers, all members of the Hawaiian Music Hall Fame, and each honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hawai‘i Academy of Recording Arts.  By sharing their on and off stage stories, they help keep alive the memories of this magical time in Hawai‘i.  Mahalo for joining us for this reminiscent journey back to Hawai‘i’s Golden Age of Entertainment.  For Long Story Short and PBS Hawai‘i, I’m Leslie Wilcox.  Aloha nui.

 

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.

 

 

 

NĀ MELE
Traditions in Hawaiian Song – Nā Lani ‘Ehā from ‘Iolani Palace

NĀ MELE: Traditions in Hawaiian Song – Nā Lani ‘Ehā from ‘Iolani Palace

 

Contemporary artists bring music from Hawai‘i’s monarchy era to life. PBS Hawai‘i was granted access to the historic palace, where TV cameras and crews are rarely allowed. The program features Nina Keali‘iwahamana, Robert Cazimero, Marlene Sai, Haunani Apoliona, Aaron Mahi, Ku‘uipo Kumukahi and the late Dennis Kamakahi.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Marlene Sai

 

Part 1

 

Original air date: Tues., Aug. 18, 2009

 

 

Part 2

 

Hawaiian Music “Diva”

 

Singer and actress Marlene Sai tells Leslie Wilcox about growing up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, of her early years as a recording artist, her unusual after-hours recording session in a bus barn, and her iconic portrayals of Queen Liliuokalani on stage and on television.

 

Marlene Sai Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

So now, this Kainoa. [PIANO] I have to honestly say that I have never learned the words, because I believe that your recording is classic. No one else should have to ever record it again; and yet, at the same time, we do want the song to live. And that’s why this is such a great night, because we get to do it just one more time, and I get to play for you.

 

Yes; that’s my act.

 

When you think of walking through Waikiki at night, what images come to mind? Maybe traffic congestion, street vendors? Well, how about live music? Marlene Sai grew up in the golden age of Hawaiian music, a time when Kalakaua Avenue was full of the songs and voices that beckoned the world to the romance of Hawaii. Marlene entered that magical world at the early age of eighteen, and never looked back.

 

Aloha mai kakou. I’m Leslie Wilcox. Welcome to PBS Hawaii’s Long Story Short. There are only a handful of true divas in Hawaiian music, women who wrap their powerful voices with grace, elegance, and beauty. You can add to the list, Marlene Sai. This product of Kaimuki and the Kamehameha School is quite comfortable in a business setting; but she was destined first to be a singer, an actor, even to inhabit the role of queen. This regal performer started out life with the most undignified of nicknames.

 

You know, one time, I was kind of on the fringe of watching what you were doing, and uh, and somebody called you Goofy, and I was just offended on your behalf.

 

[chuckle]

 

Little did I know that all of your friends and family call you Goofy.

 

Yeah; I’m Goofy.

 

Why is that? How did that get started?

 

Oh, gosh. There is a story to that. When I was little, I had very curly, curly hair, and as my parents would say the Hawaiians would always comment, and they would say, Oh. And the older folks would say, Pupuka, referring to me. Instead of saying, Oh, she’s cute, oh, she’s pretty, oh, she’s this, they would say, pupuka. Pupuka means goofy.

 

Because they didn’t want you to get conceited?

 

No, because that’s the way Hawaiians are; you don’t compliment in that fashion. So you say the opposite.

 

You say the opposite.

 

You say the opposite. So as time went on, and of course, it just kind of stuck, and the personality became goofy oftentimes, you know.

 

[chuckle]

 

And of course, my father would always say, Oh, gosh, she’s so goofy. Well, it was he who kind of left me with that uh, nickname. But then our entire family, we all have nicknames, you know. I have siblings; I have three brothers, a sister, and myself. I’m—

 

Okay; what are the—

 

—right in the middle.

 

What are the nicknames?

 

My oldest brother Ronald, his name is Jiggy.

 

Jiggy?

 

Jiggy. And he works for Kamehameha Schools; he’s a retired fire captain, and he’s on the gate. So you drive in, you say, Hi, Jigs.

 

[chuckle]

 

My second brother Dennis, he’s retired from the telephone company; and his nickname is Big Head.

 

Oh-oh.

 

Because when he was born, his head was a little bigger than the rest of his body. But then as he grew up, they all kind of blended in together. And, of course, then it’s me. And my sister just below me, her name is Yvonne … Peewee.

 

Does that mean she was big, or she was small?

 

She was tiny.   The story goes that they could fit her in a shoebox, she was so small. And ‘til today, she still is very tiny. And she still works at Kamehameha Schools. And my kid brother, Gary, retired from the telephone company, he loved Hopalong Cassidy. So his nickname became Hopalong.

 

[chuckle] And nowadays, the new generation probably wonders …

 

Yeah.

 

What is that?

 

Yeah; oh, yeah.

 

You know, you lived in Kaimuki.

 

Right.

 

Nowadays, we would consider that town, but in those days, it was a bedroom community to—

 

Oh, yeah.

 

I mean, what was it like living in Kaimuki in those days? Because now, it’s such prime real estate, because it’s so close to town. I don’t know if you considered yourself town folks, though, right?

 

No; it wasn’t town, but it was a family community. And what I liked about it is, because as I was growing up, I loved the ocean. So I paddled a lot, I used to go surfing.

 

Did you catch the bus?

 

No.

 

HRT? [chuckle]

 

[INDISTINCT] or you walk it, you know. But no such thing. And, you know, we had our own little path. Made our own, because 4th Avenue never went all the way through, so you would just kinda make your way through the bushes and everything.

 

[chuckle]

 

Did all of that. Yeah. Good memories, though.

 

Off to uh, Kuhio Beach—

 

Off to Kuhio—

 

—pier?

 

—Beach. Well, you know, the wall?

 

M-hm.

 

Okay; we used to swim over there a lot; the wall. I would go to Ala Moana to paddle, because I paddled for Hui Nalu, Hui Kalia, uh, Healani.

 

And that’s a whole other kind of subculture and culture of Hawaii, the paddling community. So you were very much involved uh, in your life, first in paddling.

 

Yes.

 

And then music. And not one of the others went into showbiz.

 

No. None of them did. I was the only individual from the group. And I think because it—you know how in life, if you’re there, and things happen, and it’s meant to be, and it just develops in that fashion—and see, we were always surrounded by music as we grew up. Always.

 

What kind of music?

 

Hawaiian music and a variety of them, really; a variety of music. But I remember our house on Kaimuki on 4th Avenue; it was our grandfolks’ old house and my mom and dad took it over. And I remember every New Year’s, we would have um, a luau. And we would—Mom and Dad would uh, kalua pig and uh, you know, dig the hole and do the whole thing. And everyone would, you know, make something, and we would have a uh, a feast. And Uncle Andy and his musicians—that’s Uncle Andy Cummings, and musicians, and I remember Uncle Sonny, another aunt’s—my mother’s sister’s husband, got on the piano. And it was music … always. You know, it was continuous.

 

It was your own live music, you’re—

 

Oh, yes.

 

talking about?

 

Oh, yeah.

 

Oh.

 

So we kids were exposed to this all the time. As we grew older, Uncle Andy would be traveling, and we developed into our own music and besides hula, you know, we’d try to sing a song or two. But at some point in time in my growing up years, uh, I remember Uncle Andy and the Cummings family moved to the mainland. But when they moved back for just a spell while they were looking for a place, they stayed with us. And I remember attending Kamehameha Schools, and Uncle Andy would say uh, when he’d see me coming home from school, he’d say, Come, sit down over here. This was before doing homework. This was before doing anything. So I would sit on the steps with him, and he’d have this ukuele and he’d be playing a song, or whatever instrument. If it was a mandolin or—you know, ‘cause he played so many.

 

Was he—

 

So many.

—known at that time as a composer?

 

Yes. And he was I think this was my sophomore year at Kamehameha or even my fresh—I can’t remember. But in my early years. He was going to the Big Island, and he was working with a composer by the name of Jimmy Taka. And Jimmy Taka had the song, Kainoa, but he didn’t know how to write the music, to actually write it in music form. So Uncle Andy was helping him by putting it in meters an—and writing it and structuring it for him. So he was making these trips back and forth. So Uncle wanted me to listen to the song; and I said okay, and I would come home from school, sit me down, and uh, on our steps outside of the house, and he’d play the song. He said, Now, I want you to learn the song. And that’s how I started to learn Kainoa, which was the song that started me in the business.

 

It’s the signature song—

 

It’s one of—

 

—for you.

 

—the signature songs. Yeah.

 

How does it go?

 

[SINGS] I’m waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I adore. My heart is true, I’m thinking of you; forever I will love you, Kainoa.

 

Absolutely—

 

Yeah.

 

—beautiful.

 

Yeah.

 

Now, Andy Cummings is a heck of an uncle to get started—

 

Yeah.

 

—in the music business with.

 

Yeah.

 

Now, I have to ask you something about him. He was, of course, one of the greatest hapa Haole composers, ever, um, and he wrote Waikiki, which is another song you are known for.

 

Signature; yeah.

 

But I heard that he also tended to write songs about causes. I think he might have been against—

 

The puka in the Pali.

 

—statehood. Yeah; no puka in the Pali, right?

 

[chuckle]

 

‘Cause he didn’t want to see the Pali Tunnel built.

 

Yeah. He did all of that.

 

Do you remember all that?

 

Oh, yes; I do. And I remember him singing it, too. You know, I—

 

How did it—

 

—don’t know—

 

How did it go? I’ve never heard it sung.

 

Oh, gosh; I can’t remember it right now. Oh; it was the puka in the Pali. But when we would have these gatherings, you know, his group, which was made up of uh, Gabby Pahinui, Uncle Andy, and Ralph Alapai, and all of these old folks, and they would come to the house, and they would jam, and they would practice. And you don’t know all of this wealth of talent that’s right there with you.

 

You don’t realize these are—

 

And you—

 

—very special people. You think—

 

Exactly.

 

—everybody’s got uncles like this.

 

Exactly. Yeah, it was Uncle Gabby, and it was Un—uh, Uncle, Uncle, Uncle all over the place, which is the way we are, right? And then as you grow older, and then you realize all of this talent that’s right there with you, and how privileged you’ve been through your younger years.

 

I don’t think Uncle Gabby was at a whole lot of backyard—

 

No.

 

—luau. I think he was pretty selective.

 

Yeah, but you know, he was the baby in that group. So he was so kolohe. So when he played, you know, he was playing always from the soul, and the heart, and the seat of his pants. And he would just go into, you know, one song, and the rest of them would just jam. But it was um, it was a nice experience through those young years.

 

You know, when um, Uncle Andy would call to you on the uh, front porch—

 

M-hm.

 

—um, did he pick any of the other kids, or did he sense—

 

No.

 

—something in you?

 

No one else; it was just I. And I don’t know why. And because I would try to sing around the house, and I guess he would, you know, hear. Oh, maybe there’s possibility here, you know, with this child. Or nothing in particular for him to just pick me out of the—

 

He never said anything to you—

 

No.

 

—about—

 

Never did.

 

M-m.

 

Never did. But all he said was, uh, he would help me with the phrasing. Then, if I wasn’t hitting the note, he’d make sure that I’d get up to it, and we’d go over it, over and over again.

 

What did he tell you about phrasing?

 

Like, I’m waiting on a warm and you don’t take a breath until, seashore.

 

M-hm.

 

You’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore.

 

M-hm.

 

So we say you see what I’m saying? You see what I’m saying?

 

It’s the thought.

 

It’s the complete thought. So you’re waiting on a warm and sunny seashore, yearning for the one that I—so you don’t break up your phrases. Okay; okay. So here you are [chuckle], tenth grade, ninth grade. Okay, Uncle. But this would go on, sometimes for a couple of hours. Then my parents would step in; she has to do her homework, and she has chores to do. And so … things of that sort.

 

Did you have a—

 

—that’s—

 

—disciplinarian family or—

 

Very.

 

—or structured?

 

Oh, yeah; Dad and Mom were very much the disciplinarians. Yes. You know, with five kids, I guess you would have to be.

 

You went through Kamehameha Schools, and then what?

 

M-hm. You know, with all of the music besides all of the complete education that one gets, but the beautiful music that the students do learn, and that’s all the choral singing and that became a learning process too for me.

 

Yes, but I think you were doing it at a time when Hawaiian language was not in favor at Kamehameha.

 

Exactly; exactly.

 

So you got the music, but not necessarily the Hawaiian lyrics?

 

You would—

 

Or the meanings?

 

—get the lyrics, but we didn’t have, in those days the Hawaiian language was not taught at Kamehameha. This is my fiftieth reunion this year, so it’s been—’59, so 2009. So this will be fifty years for me. And back then they didn’t speak Hawaiian.

 

So you would sing Hawaiian songs, and not know what they meant?

 

Exactly. Or you would have to sit down with my parents or kupuna, and ask, you know, What does this mean and what is this all about?

 

M-hm.

 

Because the language wasn’t spoken, because the language wasn’t taught. You know.

 

Did your parents think you should learn the Hawaiian language? Probably not in that generation, right?

 

No, because they hardly spoke it at home. Rarely, did they speak it at home. It was hush-hush.

 

You’ve seen it come a long way.

 

I’ve seen it come a very long way.

 

Have you learned to speak Hawaiian since?

 

No. And I would love to.

 

You must hear it all around you now.

 

I do, I hear. And you know your phrases, and you know some things about Hawaiian, but that you can relate to. And yes; that, I know. But to converse; no, I don’t. And I would love to.

 

But you grew up at a home and at school in an environment that uplifted music as a value in life.

 

Well, and at that time too—well, when I graduated from Kamehameha, and during that period uh, my later years at Kamehameha as I said, you know, with all of the choral singing the music that came from there, I thought it was just a natural.

 

M-hm.

 

And so you apply it to oneself, and as you go to parties, and you’re with friends, and you’re sitting with an ukulele and you’re playing along with someone else, who has an instrument, and you’re carrying on; you’re singing all of these songs, knowing basically what they all mean, but not completely and totally. But you’re also bringing out what you’ve learned at the school.

 

M-M-hm.

 

All that was taught you. Because there’s music appreciation, and so therefore, you’re learning all different facets of it.

 

 

So at this point in Marlene’s life, the building blocks of her singing career are falling into place. A family that embraced the concept of kanikapila, the musical craftsmanship of her famed Uncle Andy Cummings, and an appreciation for music nurtured at the Kamehameha Schools; now, Marlene Sai just needed to be discovered.

 

 

It was when I came out of Kamehameha, and the plan was to go, because it was full-on business courses that I was taking at Kamehameha, ‘cause that was my intent to go on and further my education in business. And that was the concentration. I was working during that summer uh, in travel. Matter of fact, Uncle Andy had gotten me a job, ‘cause he was with either Aloha or Hawaiian Airlines. So he got me this job in this travel agency, and I would sell tours and do all of these things and earn some money during the summer. Well, my friends got to have jobs in the industry too, and so we would meet every Sunday. A good friend of mine, Vicky Hollinger, and this other gal, Norma, and I would meet at Joe’s in Waikiki. Because we were low on the totem pole, so we had to carry all of the Sunday work, and everyone else was home with their family. But we didn’t care; we were young. So we pulled the Sunday duty. And when we were done, we always planned, Okay, let’s meet at Joe’s, let’s have lunch and everything, and then plan from there what we’re gonna do. This one particular weekend, we’re at Joes, and in comes—and the beach boys would always come over.

 

Because you were attractive young women?

 

And because I used to paddle, so I knew a lot of them too. So, you know, they always—you know, Hi, Jessie, hi, you know, Rabbit, hi, hi, hi, and all of this. This one day, they were sitting around and everything, and said, Hey, uh, you want to come down to uh, this place. Our friend has a bar, restaurant bar, club on the other side of the island, Kaneohe. He’s taking care of it for his mom, and he manages the place. You folks want to go down next week? They have nice music, good music. Okay. So the next Sunday, we plan, and we all meet, and we all get in the car and we’re driving down. So one with the ukulele and another with the guitar, and the top is down, and we’re singing on our way down to Kaneohe from Waikiki. And we get to the other side of the island, and we get into this—park in the back, walk into Honey’s.

 

Honey’s.

 

Honey’s. And he’s giving us the lowdown on who this guy is, he’s a beach boy, and oh, they got great music. Sonny Chillingsworth, Gary Aiko; oh, these guys, they’re good, good. So we get there, and we’re hearing this music. Oh, my gosh. So this guy comes over and he says, I want you to meet Don Ho; I want to meet—this is Marlene. Eh, this wahine can sing; she was singing in the car. You gotta call her up to sing. And this is her friend Vicky. So we sat there for a little bit, and we were having our libations, and having a nice time. He calls me up to sing. I said, Oh, gosh. Do you know Kainoa? If I sang it, do you think you could play it? Sing it to us. Sonny. So I hummed a little tune to him, and he says, Oh, I can get it, sure. So I sang Kainoa, and they asked me to sing another song. I sang another song. And then I went and sat down. Before we left, he came up to me and he said, Can you write your name and your address, and your phone number, just you know, so I can get in touch with you? I said, Okay. He says, What are your plans? I said, Well, I’m planning to go to the university, and I want to get my degree. Well, maybe you can make some money; extra money. Think you might want to sing here? Sing? Really? Oh, my gosh; how much am I going to get paid? And I’m asking all of these questions. He says, I’ll call you. One week went by, two weeks went by; and I didn’t hear from him. And I thought, oh, gosh; put it out of my head completely. And I thought, okay, that guy was just all wapa. One day, I’m driving down Kalakaua, and I’m looking in my rearview mirror, and it looked like a Thunderbird, and the top was down, and I see this car darting in and out. And it’s approaching me. And this guy’s hair is blowing; no shirt on, and he’s coming up closer to me. And I’m getting nervous. So I roll up my window, roll up this window, and I’m going further, and he comes and he’s telling me to pull over. So I pulled over, and I’m looking at this—and I’m thinking, Who in the world is this? ‘Cause he—I didn’t recognize him. He got out of the car, came over to me, and he—I had the window up, and he’s knocking on the—

 

[chuckle]

 

—window, and he’s saying to me, You remember me? I was playing the organ for you; you remember me? And I’m thinking, What church is he talking about? I gotta remember organ? Where—and then he said, You came to my place with Jessie. When he said Jessie, my play—and I said, Oh—

 

Don Ho—

 

—Don Ho.

 

—is at your window.

 

And I’m looking at—so I rolled my window down, and he said, I lost your number. He says, I don’t know what happened to the paper, I lost that. He said, I’ve been trying to get your phone number. So he asked, Can you come down to the um, to Honey’s tonight or tomorrow night? He says, I’d like to know if we can get some songs together. If you’re still interested, I’d like for you to sing, and maybe make some extra money. And that’s really how it all started.

 

Singing at Honey’s. And your boss was Don Ho.

 

And my boss was Don Ho. Yeah. But things happened so fast. Because that night that I got down to Kaneohe, and there were these men that were sitting there; Bill Murata, George Chun, and I didn’t know who they all were, and they were all recording individuals. Herb Ono and I’m not sure if Jack DeMello was there too. And they were there to hear Sonny Chillingworth.

 

Because they were gonna make a recording of him?

 

Right; right. Sonny pulled me over; he told me what was happening. And he said, Don’t worry about it and just be comfortable, and we’re just going to rehearse. We went through rehearsal, and at the end of that time, Sonny said that a couple of the individuals wanted to talk to me about recording. I mean, it all happened that fast. So I said, What do I do? He said to me, Don’t worry; he said, just meet with them, and we’ll get a lawyer or somebody that you trust. And it just escalated from there. And in a matter of a short time, I mean, I was meeting Lucky Luck, and Jimmy Walker, if I remember correctly.

 

Who’s Jimmy Walker; another radio guy?

 

Yeah, he was a radio guy. And then J. Aku Head Pupule.

 

The uh, top paid disc jockey in the world—

 

Yes.

 

—as they said.

 

Yeah; yeah. But—yeah, and things really started to escalate, and really happen very fast.

 

And here you were, how old; nineteen?

 

No; seventeen, turning eighteen. I just got out of high school. And it was just that quick.

 

Quick, indeed. What began as casual conversations with her Uncle Andy had now turned into the opportunity of a lifetime. In Part 2 of our Long Story Short with Marlene Sai, we’ll hear the story of a highly unlikely recording studio that was the setting for one of her iconic songs. And we’ll hear advice for anyone aspiring to pursue a career in music. Until then, thank you for spending this time with us. For Long Story Short and PBS Hawaii, I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kakou.

 

I enjoyed Donald; and you know, his nickname is Quack.

 

Donald Ho?

 

Yeah; you knew that.

 

No, I didn’t. [chuckle]

 

Yeah; he was Quack.

 

You were—

 

And I’m Goofy.

 

—Goofy, and he was—

 

Yeah; yeah

 

—Quack.

 

Yeah. Uh, matter of fact, all of the uh, beach boys, everybody, all of his close friends called him Quack. Many of the songs that he recorded for all his beach boy days songs, lot of it you know, all of the different songs that he sang. And he would just sing it over and over, and over at his shows. I loved them, because they reminded me of my paddling days. So it was good fun. [SIGH] And I didn’t mean to interrupt you; I’m sorry.

 

Not at all.

 

As we’re talking, all of these different stories are just popping in my head.

 

Well, just the idea that you call him Donald, and if you don’t call him Donald, you call him Quack.

 

[chuckle]

 

This is Don Ho we’re talking about. [chuckle]

 

Yeah; yeah. I miss him. Yeah.