photographer

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Lorenzo DeStefano

 

Lorenzo DeStefano is a Honolulu born photographer, filmmaker, film editor and writer who explores the hidden lives of those who are often overlooked in society. He wrote and directed Shipment Day, a stage play that ran at O‘ahu’s Mānoa Valley Theatre. It tells the true story of his feisty cousin Olivia who contracted leprosy at age 18 and was exiled to Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i.

 

This program will be rebroadcast on Sunday, Oct. 13, at 4:00 pm and 11:30 pm.

 

Lorenzo DeStefano Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Having gotten leprosy and having struggled against the Board of Health, and the autocratic, dictatorial nature of fear and stigma, and having Patient Number 3306, I mean, just short of stamping it on your arm, you know, changed her, changed everybody who was caught up in that fear.

 

Patient Number 3306 was his cousin, and Lorenzo DeStefano wrote a play about her life. Meet this Hawai‘i-born photographer, filmmaker, film editor, and writer who explores the hidden lives of those who are often overlooked in society, next, on Long Story Short.

 

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.  Growing up in Hawai‘i, he was Larry Stevens.  Now, he is Lorenzo DeStefano, having gone back to the Italian origins of his family name.  Today, DeStefano lives in Ventura, California, but during the early years of Hawai‘i’s statehood, he was an island kid living in the O‘ahu neighborhoods of Kāne‘ohe, Wai‘alae, Kaimuki, and Waikīkī.  Lorenzo DeStefano tells his stories through different types of media.  He produced and directed a documentary film titled “Hearing Is Believing”, about Rachel Flowers, a blind musician and composer.  And more recently, he wrote and directed a stage play called “Shipment Day”, the true story of his cousin, Olivia Robello Breitha, who developed leprosy at age eighteen and was exiled to Kalaupapa, Moloka‘i.

 

[scene from “Shipment Day”]

 

That’s when he began taking scrapings from around that spot on my arm.  He went deeper into the flesh than I ever thought he would.  I tried really hard not to scream, and I didn’t.  I almost passed out.

 

LORENZO DESTEFANO

 

Jason, everything sounds good?

 

[OFF STAGE]

Sounds great.

LORENZO DESTEFANO

Yeah, that line with Lauren was okay; we got it?

 

[OFF STAGE]

Yeah.

 

My dad came from Brooklyn.  I think he came to Hawai‘i in the late 40s.  He worked at KGU as a radio announcer.  I don’t know if he spun music, or talked.  I know when he did go to KGMB.  Was it Channel 9, I think that was, a CBS affiliate.  He had a show uh, called Larry Stevens’ Matinee, and he played movies, screen movies of his choice, I guess.  They had a library of movies.  And then, between the breaks, he’d be sitting there with a cup of coffee, and he ran this thing called the Trading Post, which was sort of an early QVC type thing.

 

Really? 

 

Where they sold things.  And he’d say, like, you know: Mrs. Wong in Kāne‘ohe has a bunkbed she wants to sell for five dollars; if you’re interested, call 5671.

 

That’s interesting.  I’ve heard that since on the radio.

 

Yeah; I don’t know if he invented it, or it was something that he was assigned to.  But he got to be known.  But here was this guy smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee, and he’d say: Well, now back to the movie.  And then he played Charlie Chaplin’s song, “Limelight”

 

And he started off as a DeStefano, changed to Stevens.  So, you were born a Stevens.

 

Yeah.

 

You changed your name back.

 

Yeah.  Well, he was Severio DeStefano.  You know, this was the 40s, when we were at war with Italy, and you know, there was a lot of bias about immigrants anyway.  Jews, Italians, Germans; you know, a lot of people changed their name.  And he changed his name to Stevens, Lawrence Stevens.  So, I was born Lawrence Peter Stevens.  I just changed it back a long time ago to Lorenzo DeStefano.  I didn’t change my name, I just went back to what it was before, you know, before he had changed it.  And he approved of that.  You know, he says: Yeah, times are different now.  And I understood why he did it.

 

And your mother from Kalāheo, Kauai was a Silva.

 

Yeah.

 

And she turned out to be kind of a business dynamo.

 

Well, she’s the eldest of three.  They were orphaned when my mom was nine, when her parents died.  What I think that instilled in my mom, being the oldest of three, she was gonna make something of herself.  She wasn’t gonna be tagged as this orphan, this second-class citizen, you know.  So then, she got secretarial skills, and really made something of herself.  And I think when most women were maybe just homemakers and happy with that, she was that, plus she worked for Bishop Realty in the early 60s and throughout the 60s as one of the top brokers with Vi Dolman and people like this who were around at those times.  Really dynamic women, who were sort of in the business world.  Looking back, I feel honored and privileged to have been brought up here.  You know, lots of diversity, growing up without fear of the other people that looked differently or acted differently than you, multiculturalism.  I think, like anyone who was around then, life was slower and simpler.  The 50s was sort of maybe a fantasy period of tranquility.  You know, then I started to grow up.  Some of my first jobs were, I was a busboy at Rudy’s Italian Restaurant on Kuhio Avenue, and I sold koa wood bowls on Lewers Street.

 

On the sidewalk?

 

Yeah; yeah.  And then, I worked at a candy store making candy.  You know, I had two or three jobs.

 

Where was that?

 

On one of those side streets.  Then I went to Punahou for a year, until they suggested that maybe I’d do better elsewhere.

 

What was the reason for that?

 

Well, I was not applying myself, you know.  They were pretty strict, as they are still.

 

So, you were disappointed, or did you want to leave?

 

I wasn’t as disappointed as they were.  You know.  I think they were disappointed, but you know, my folks never really pushed me. They just wanted me to be myself. I guess they were kind of ahead of the times.  They weren’t really autocratic about—you know.  ‘Cause they both made made themselves, reinvented themselves from where they came from.

 

 

Lorenzo DeStefano finished his formal education at Kalani High School in East Honolulu.  Deciding against a college degree, he says he felt comfortable teaching himself, as he did during his teen years when he taught himself photography, namely street photography, capturing candid chance images of strangers.

 

I think my folks bought me Time Life books on photography.  It was like about eight or ten books, which were great books, you know.  I think I wasn’t the only one to get turned on to photography by those books and the great photographers in there.  Black-and-white, color, nude; all the stuff that was fascinating, you know.  And then. I saved my money from bus-boying and all that stuff.  And a friend of the family went to Japan and brought back a Nikon for me and some lenses.  And I just started shooting, you know.  It was really a sense of discovery for me.  And so, I got into these places.  I actually went into Leahi Hospital and shot a behavioral unit for kids. You know, emotionally disturbed kids.

 

I remember that unit.  There were also patients with tuberculosis there in your time, too.

 

Yeah.  But again, I had full access, you know.  Now, you know, you have to fill out forms, even if you could get in.

 

As a teenager on your own, no parent accompanying you or other friends, you just went on your own, and got in?

 

Yeah.  I got in my car, and went and did it.  And then, you know, like I remember shooting a Young Republicans rally at Kapi‘olani Park, and you know, seeing the different kinds of people.  It was, I guess, the Nixon days, and people with the flag.  And I thought they were rather curious people, you know.  I think the important thing is, as a photographer or writer, whatever, you have your own politics and your own values, you know, what you believe in, that either agrees with who’s in power, or doesn’t agree with who’s in power. But when it comes down to your work, you should be pretty much nonjudgmental, you know, about it. ‘Cause that lessens the power, I think, of what you’re doing.  Your job is not judge so much as a photographer, as to show, you know, whether it’s a play, or a novel, or whatever.  It’s to observe, translate, express, but not take sides.

 

Lorenzo DeStefano’s curiosity with still images progressed into a hunger to learn all he could about motion pictures and film editing.  He said that as a teenager, he saw the musical movie “Cabaret” more than a dozen times at the former Cinerama Theater in Honolulu.

 

The fourteen times I went to see Cabaret, I did that for a reason.  Because Cabaret was a brilliant film.  I’m not such a big fan of musicals, but there were great songs in there by Kander and Ebb, you know, the songwriting team.  But the way the film was put together was stunning to me.  You know, it was editing as impressionistic.  It wasn’t just shot over shoulders and, you know, sort of the standard TV type of editing, or even movies, mediocre kind of exposition.  It was very creative.  But I was convinced by that film I wanted to learn that craft, and I couldn’t do that here, you know.  There was no film school here at the time.  And so, I went to the mainland and eventually found myself in L.A.  And I found ways to get into the game, you know.  I basically lied about the experience that I’d had, and I got a job as an assistant editor at National Geographic.  We used do their editing down there.  And the first day in the cutting room, I got the job.  It was like three hundred week; it was like pretty good at the time.  People now are not making three hundred a week, you know.  Hundreds of thousands of feet of sixteen-millimeter film shows up from Africa of elephants.  Just elephants, you know.  And I’m going: What am I supposed to do with this?  And the other assistant, who I still know—she’s in New York, says: You don’t know much, do you?  I said: No, not really.

 

So, I did a couple of those National Geographic specials, you know, and I learned quickly, you know.  But I was always looking to get in the union—this was a nonunion job, so I could work on features, you know, movies.  So, it took me a couple of years.  You know, basically, what I did was, I had about ten editors whose names I had collected over a year or two whose movies I liked, you know. But I didn’t know how to contact them. This was not internet days, you know, where you can just find people pretty easily.  So, I called the Editors Guild, the union, and another group called American Cinema Editors, where these people belonged, and I basically posed as an assistant to a producer, a known producer.  And I’d read the trades, you know, Variety and the Hollywood Reporter, and find out what movies were almost in preparation to go into production. And so, I’d call up and I’d say: I’m—and make up a name, you know.  I’m revealing all this stuff now.

 

Intrepid; intrepid job-hunting.

 

I’d say: I’m assisting this producer, a real producer.  And they’d say: Oh, say hi to him.  I said: Okay, I will.  I didn’t know the guy.  But I said: You know, we’re looking for editors for this picture, and there was a real movie that’s in the trades.  I said: I need phone numbers and addresses for these guys.  You know.  And they gave ‘em to me.  So then, I’d write letters to these people.  And I’d say: You know, I’m willing to do anything, sweep up, whatever. And I wrote to about ten people, and it was amazing, about eight of them got back to me, either phoned or wrote a note. Six or so of them took me to lunch. Ended up working for four of them over the years.  Two of them were Oscar-winning editors, you know.  Richard Halsey, who won an Oscar for “Rocky”, was a big influence on me. I worked for him for four years. Bill Reynolds, who won four or five Oscars for “Sound of Music”, and bunch of films was another one.  You know, these are guys who had done it all, you know.

 

How long did it take to get to where you wanted to be, which was actually editing?

 

About five years.  Yeah.  First movie I edited by myself was “Girls Just Want to Have Fun”, with Helen Hunt and Sarah Jessica Parker.  And then, I cut about ten or twelve movies after that.  And then, I got on a TV series at Warner Brothers called “Life Goes On”, which was a show with Patti Lupone.

 

That must have been really long hours.  Were you doing a weekly show?

 

Yeah.  It was a network series on ABC.  It was on film, shot for eight days.  You know, it was a drama, family drama.  It was about a family with a young Down Syndrome child.  It was kind of a cutting edge, breakthrough series in a lot of ways.

 

I think you’ve compared film editing to writing.

 

Sure.  I learned that later, you know, that the final drafts of a script in the case of film is in the editing room.  You know. Where the script is now thrown away, and now it’s the film that was shot from the script, and then it’s free, you know, open season on how you’re gonna turn this into a film using all the techniques available.  Not just editing, but sound and music, and other things.

 

When you were editing fulltime, did you say: I have found exactly where I want to be, and this is where I’m gonna stay, this is me.

 

Yeah, I did have that feeling.  I think I chose well, in terms of my personality, you know. A lot of editors make great directors, you know.  David Lean was a film editor, “Lawrence of Arabia”.  Hal Ashby won an Oscar for “In the Heat of the Night” as an editor, went on to direct “Harold and Maude”, and “Being There”.

 

Did you have that aspiration to be a director?

 

I did; yeah.  But I was, you know, daunted by it, you know.  Editors don’t often make good directors, ‘cause it’s an insular kind of personality.  Directors tend to be more outgoing and jump right into the fray, you know.  And editors tend to—not to stereotype, but tend to want a more private controlled atmosphere.  And the set is not a controlled atmosphere; it’s basically chaos, you know.  And so, it took me a while to embrace the chaos, you know.

 

What did you direct?

 

Well, I did my own things, and then I did documentaries starting in the 80s.  Music films; I’m sort of a failed musician, you know.  So, I worked that out by making films about musicians.  I’ve done three of them so far.  And then, I directed on “Life Goes On”.  That’s when I got into the Directors Guild and worked actually in a studio situation.

 

I would think egos would come even more into play when you’re directing on a set.

 

Well, in that case, it was good, because people knew me.  The actors all knew me, and the crew knew me from being a producer and a supervising film editor.  And so, I was a friend, you know, I was part of the team already.  So, that was helpful. But yeah, that was a step, you know, of confidence-building.

 

In Los Angeles, Lorenzo DeStefano worked his way up the ranks as a film editor, later becoming a producer and a director.  He would eventually branch out on his own as a documentary filmmaker and writer.  During one fateful visit to Hawai‘i in the late 1980s, DeStefano learned of a family secret: a relative who had been exiled long ago when leprosy was a much-feared and little-understood disease.  DeStefano set out to meet his forgotten cousin, Olivia Robello Breitha.

 

Well, first of all, I should say she’s one of the most amazing people I ever got to meet, you know.  And the fact that she’s family was even more of a revelation.

 

What was the connection to her?  How were you related?

 

My mom and her mom, their mothers were sisters.

 

I see.

 

So, they were first cousins.  Yeah; yeah.  Portuguese girls from Kalāheo.

 

How did you meet her?

 

Finally, my mom told me about this cousin of ours who had leprosy, who was in Kalaupapa.  And I went over there to meet her.  And I hiked down the trail, and she wasn’t home.  I didn’t check first; I just figured she was there.  She was in Honolulu.  So, I missed her the first time.  But then, I met her Christmas of ’89, and we spent, you know, seventeen years ‘til she died in 2006, being very close, you know.  Especially after my mom died in ’96, ten years between then and Olivia’s death, Olivia who’d never had kids, you know, who loved children.  I wasn’t a kid anymore, but anyway, we bonded. You know, I like to call her the Rosa Parks of leprosy.  You know, she’s a simple woman, like Rosa Parks was.  Rosa Parks was a maid, you know, who took the bus back and forth to White people’s houses to work, and who wasn’t gonna change her seat.  Came a day when she says: I’m not doing this.  And then, we know what happened from there. She and others kicked off a whole movement, you know.  Olivia said: I’m not my disease, you know, I’m not my condition; call me by my name, Olivia.  And I really respected that.

 

So, did you remain on the mainland and go back and forth to see Olivia?

 

Yeah; m-hm.  I did, and she came there.  She went to the UN in ’97 with Bernard Punikaia and Catherine Puohala, and a lot of other patients that were being acknowledged.  It was World Leprosy Day or Month, the World Health Organization. And so, they got to meet Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the UN, and get medals.  And I still have her medal at my house.  And she got together in New York City, the only time she’d been.  And so she traveled, you know.  Like a lot of patients from decades of isolation, when they were able to travel, they just got out of Dodge and went all over the world—Belgium, and you know.  So, not everybody wrote a book, but she did.  And so, I think she made the best of the disease, I think.  She took the disease and said: You’re not gonna beat me down, I’m gonna beat you, and I’m gonna become what I’m gonna become, despite you, you know.  And she did. And you know, she made some enemies along the way.

 

She was feisty.

 

Yeah; she was not about to be pushed around, you know.  When she died in 2006, you know, I was in mourning for her, and I didn’t come to Hawai‘i for seven years after that.  My mom was gone, my dad, her.  There was really kinda no reason.  I’m gonna come here and get a tan?  You know. What am I coming here for?  And I came back in October of ’13 to put her gravestone.  I had a gravestone made in California with a picture of her and John, her husband, and it says: Together Forever on it.  It’s a nice little stone with the dates that they were married, and when they were born and died.  And took that over to Kalaupapa in October of ’13.  And that was the first time I’d been back in seven years.  And it sort of reminded me of what Hawai‘i meant to me, you know.

 

At what point during the seventeen years you really got to know Olivia did you decide: I want to do a play on this?

 

I didn’t.  Never.

 

Not at all during the seventeen years?

 

No, because it was happening, you know.  She would say; she says: Don’t ever make a movie about my life.  I said: Fine. You’re not so special, I’d say.  She’d say: Wait a second; what are you talking about?

 

Lorenzo DeStefano says that his cousin Olivia Robella Breitha taught him the value of fighting oppression, and to never lose sight of your quest for dignity. DeStefano decided to tell the early part of Olivia’s life story and her encounters with the stigma of leprosy through a one-act play he wrote and directed called “Shipment Day”, which was staged at Mānoa Valley Theatre in Honolulu, in late 2018.

 

She described to you what her life was like before she contracted the disease. And your play shows that, what it was like.

 

M-hm.

 

She was an eighteen-year-old, expecting to be married soon, and still living with her parents.

 

Yeah; yeah.

 

And very Portuguese household.

 

M-hm.  Yeah. Well, that’s in her book, as well as stories that she told me and stuff.   But it’s very much in her book in the early chapters.

 

What was the hardest thing about writing your Olivia play?

 

It really wasn’t difficult.  You know.  It wrote …

 

It wrote itself?

 

I won’t say wrote itself.  I mean, it was a one-act play, twenty minutes, and we did it at PlayBuilders of Hawai‘i, which is a local play development program run by Terri Madden.  It’s a terrific program that they have here.  And we won Best Play, and Ku‘ulei Shafee won Best Actress, and William Hao won Best Actor for this little twenty-minute thing we did.  And that’s what got Mānoa Valley Theatre interested in the full version.  And so, they asked me to write a full version.

 

[scene from “Shipment Day”]

It was in that moment that I became a stranger, leaving a home and people that I loved.

 

Inclusion is important.  And yet, people’s fears, you have to deal with them in a creative way. And that’s what’s great about cinema and theater, you know, is that you get people in the dark, and you kind of own them for a little while.  It’s a privilege, you know, to have people, especially when they bought a ticket, you know. And you need to honor that, the fact that they did choose to leave the house, when they really don’t need to leave the house anymore.  They can switch on anything they want.  So, to take that privilege of having them show up, and trying to maybe transform them a little bit, or … I don’t want to use the word educate so much, ‘cause that implies they’re not educated.  But to show them, expose them to something that they maybe weren’t expecting, you know; so that a controversial character, even someone who’s completely divergent from their belief system.  You know, if you’re a Democrat, and you take a Republican type character and make them human, that’s good.

 

Is there one paramount lesson or piece of wisdom you take away after having known Olivia for so long?

 

You know, basically, it’s like, don’t give up to the tormentors, you know, in your life.  You know, not everybody’s in an extreme situation like that, you know, where you’re really incarcerated.  Self-belief, you know, pride.  Not that kind of pride that’s boastful pride or anything like that, but inner strength, you know.  Yeah; she was strong, super-strong person.  Yeah.  That, I guess I take away, you know.  I guess I was drawn into those worlds, hidden worlds, which I think looking back—I don’t look back a lot, I try to look forward.  But looking back, I guess there’s a kind of continuity there, you know, of discovery, finding out what’s unseen or what’s overlooked, you know. And I think there’s a commonality there throughout everything I’ve done.  Which basically comes down to being a curious person, you know.

 

Lorenzo DeStefano is having his play “Shipment Day” translated into both Spanish and Portuguese with the hope of sharing Olivia’s story with foreign audiences. And as curious as ever, he continues to discover hidden stories to bring both the big screen and the stage. Mahalo to Lorenzo DeStefano, former islander, who makes his home in Ventura, California.  And thank you, for joining us for this edition of Long Story Short on 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.

 

Everybody loves stories.  We’ve got to find some commonality here.  You know, as people get torn apart by political differences, and ideological differences, those maybe never can be healed.  You know, maybe we’re in a place where it’s getting wider, and wider for people being able to really find any place to relate. And I do firmly believe, and I’m certainly not alone in this, that the arts is one place, if you can get people in.

 

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
#1014 – Top Stories from the Winter Quarter of the 2018-2019 School Year

HIKI NŌ #1014 – Top stories from the Winter Quarter of the 2018-2019 school year

 

This compilation show features some of the top stories from the Winter Quarter of the 2018-2019 school year:

 

–Students from Maui High School in Kahului introduce us to Maui High robotics captain John Fabella. John’s mother passed away when he was just seven years of age, and his father was deported. Growing up without his biological parents, John found an extended family in his Maui Waena Intermediate School robotics team and later, in the Maui High School team.

 

Program

 

–Students from Wai‘anae High School on tell the story of a female wrestler who used to be teased and bullied about her weight, and lost the pounds to regain her self-esteem.

 

–Students from Kalāheo High School in Windward O‘ahu focus on the importance of taking responsibility while driving. Their story is framed by the recent traffic fatalities in the Kaka‘ako neighborhood of O‘ahu and how that tragedy sparked a family’s memories of losing their daughter in a drunk driving incident.

 

–Students from Hawai‘i Preparatory Academy Middle School in the Waimea district of Hawai‘i Island show us the proper way to saddle a horse.

 

–Students from Ewa Makai Middle School on O‘ahu feature two cancer survivors who battled with their diseases at a very early age: Lily Mallory, who was undergoing treatment for her cancer at the age of three, and Emi Robison, who was battling leukemia at the age of seven.

 

–Students from Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kaua‘i introduce us to Mike Coots, a surfer and photographer from Kīlauea, Kaua‘i, who lost his leg in a shark attack and now, ironically, works to protect sharks against the ravages of the shark fin soup industry.

 

–Students from Maui Waena Intermediate School in Kahului feature a food truck owner who starts a pay-it-forward campaign to help feed workers affected by the recent federal government shutdown.

 

–Students from Moanalua High School on O‘ahu introduce us to figure skater and Moanalua High School senior Kyra Fukumoto. While Hawai‘i has only one ice skating rink, and its resources for training figure skaters is very limited compared to the Mainland, Kyra is adamant about being based out of her home state. She is very proud of being from Hawai‘i and looks forward to representing the islands in her career as a figure skater.

 

This special episode is hosted by Tyler Bright, a 2018 HIKI NŌ graduate from Wai‘anae High School on O‘ahu who is currently studying biology at Chaminade University in Honolulu, with hopes of becoming either a canine rehabilitation therapist or a physical therapist.

 

 

 

 

HIKI NŌ
#1011 – Shark Ambassador and other stories

HIKI NŌ #1011 – Shark Ambassador and other stories

 

TOP STORY

 

“Shark Ambassador”
Students from Chiefess Kamakahelei Middle School on Kaua‘i introduce us to Mike Coots, a surfer and photographer from Kīlauea, Kaua‘i, who lost his leg in a shark attack. Ironically, Coots now works to protect sharks against the ravages of the shark-fin soup industry. He decided to dedicate himself to protecting sharks after watching a YouTube video that informed him that 70 to 100 million sharks are killed each year for their fins. Coots uses the irony of his situation to get him into policymakers’ doors. He has lobbied the United States Congress, the United Nations and the Hawai‘i State Legislature on behalf of policies designed to protect sharks.

 

Program

 

ALSO FEATURED

 

–Students from H.P. Baldwin High School on Maui profile an asthmatic swimmer whose positive attitude and competitive spirit help her overcome any ill effects that her condition might have on her swimming.

 

–Students from Moloka‘i High School on Moloka‘i show us how to draw the perfect plumeria flower.

 

–Students from Moanalua High School on O‘ahu introduce us to a young equestrian.

 

–Students from Kapa‘a Middle School on Kaua‘i show what it takes to become a junior lifeguard.

 

–Students from Hawaiian Mission Academy in the Makiki district of O‘ahu introduce us to the grandson of Mary Kawena Pukui, one of the most influential Hawaiian scholars of the 20th century.

 

–Students from Punahou School on O‘ahu profile the late Beebe Freitas, who was one of the most prominent figures in Hawai‘i’s classical music community.

 

This episode of HIKI NŌ is hosted by students from Waiākea High School in Hilo on Hawai‘i Island.

 

 

 

LONG STORY SHORT WITH LESLIE WILCOX
Aunty Nona Beamer

 

Original air date: Tues., Oct. 23, 2007

 

Passionate, Intelligent, Talented and Truly “Hawaiian”

 

Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian” are just a few words that describe Aunty Nona Beamer.

 

Join Leslie Wilcox as she “talks story” with the woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer – the irrepressible Nona Beamer.

 

Aunty Nona Beamer Audio

 

Download the Transcript

 

Transcript

 

Aloha! And mahalo for joining me for another wonderful conversation on Long Story Short. I’m Leslie Wilcox. We’re about to sit down with Aunty Nona Beamer whose life as an educator and composer began simply enough – teaching hula to young, local girls in Kaka‘ako and to America’s first movie star, Mary Pickford. But, as a student herself, young Nona would be expelled from school – for chanting in her beloved language. And it was her love for that school – Kamehameha – that would lead her to write a letter as an adult demanding reform of… well, let’s let Aunty Nona tell her stories herself. We got together with her at her friend’s house at Diamond Head.

 

(Nona chants)

 

You wanted to do this interview near Kamapua‘a. What’s the significance?

 

Well you know, we are not here very often. And so much of our family background is mythology and legends and history and the Pele family and the love affair between Kamapua‘a and Pele you know, and all that exciting passion going on. Here’s a chance to see a replica of that symbol of the legends of the story; so I don’t like to pass up the opportunity to come and say, ‘Thank you!” We are so happy to have the myths and legends to pass on to our children and have my daughter with me, and you know.

 

You mentioned passions. Look at you. You still have such a passion for life. Have you slowed down at all? I mean, I know you were sidelined in the hospital for four months. But there you are back at it again.

 

You know, I’m having so much fun and I am so grateful and I think, look where we are in all of this beauty and no matter where we look around us it is glorious. How lucky can we be? How lucky?

 

You’re in your mid 80’s now.

 

Sweetheart, I was 84 last week. Is that mid?

 

And a couple of years ago you where in the hospital for 4 months. You had a bypass surgery, you had a stroke and lots of people were very worried about you.

 

Bye bye Nona (laughs). I guess God had another plan for me and I thought, well I better get off my arse and do something. So I am trying to do something. Yeah, life is so beautiful. And it’s so beautiful because of each other, you know? Our kindness with each other, our voices, our smiles, the way we touch each other’s hands. It seems so corny but it works.

 

And you saw some of that when you were ill in the hospital.

 

Yes, and people that I did not know, reams of cards, school children. And I’m reading them and I had no idea who these people were, but the healing vibes were just so powerful and all the prayers. They’d come to the door and say a prayer standing in the doorway, and I’d look and couldn’t make out who they were. And sometimes I couldn’t hold my head up and somebody would be chanting at my door. I thought, isn’t that wonderful that people would give up themselves and their healing energy is healing me, you know? This business of kindness and love, it’s so, so real. And it works Leslie, in every aspect of your life. And we say to live pono. That’s not very easy, pono spiritually, pono emotionally, pono physically in every aspect of your life. Moderato, you know? So you don’t overeat, you don’t get overemotional, so your blood pressure doesn’t go, you do things moderately and that’s a pretty good recipe for us, you know?

 

And that’s exactly what you’re doing with management of your diabetes. You are, you are, talk about structure, you are using structure to keep healthy.

 

My dear hanai sister has taught me how to do that. Yeah. And I have felt so much better since I’ve known the alternative, I keep to this rigid regimen because I know it’s keeping me healthy. So there’s no, no possible way to cheat. And I feel badly with so many Hawaiians, wonderful talent, beautiful people, stuffing their mouths, drinking the sodas. Oh the big uh, I forgot what you call them, with the rice, egg, hamburger, gravy. Loco moco, oh loco moco and I think so unhealthy, oh dear, if we could just get the Hawaiians to eat sensibly, they won’t all die of diabetes before they’re 20.

 

You are really watching yourself, you’re measuring your water intake even.

 

Yes, because the kidneys are not happy if you don’t give them enough water. Then I swell up if I give them too much water. So you just have to learn what that balance is, you know.

 

On the other hand, you were telling me that yours is now a life without laulau.

 

Yes, but I can have a half a cup of poi twice a week. So I’m happy about that. But no laulau. We make it with won bok. It’s the luau leaves – that has too much potassium for the kidneys.

 

So you are motivated just to keep going. Your body may be slipping up a bit but you’re all there in every other way.

 

I’m having a good time. But I’m looking for some mischief to get into. Do you have a grandfather for me? (laughs)

 

Having a good time and waiting for some mischief at age 84. You gotta love Aunty Nona. And there’s much more to her story. Did you know that it was none other than Nona Beamer who coined the term “Hawaiiana” back in 1949? We’ll find out how – and why – next.

 

You know, you’ve done so many things in your life. I mean it’s, you’re one of those “hyphen” people: educator, storyteller, hula choreographer, composer. How did all that happen?

 

Well of course we’re a big family. So that we had to take care of the children, telling them stories so they would go to sleep. And then my mother was ill one summer. I was 12 and getting ready to come to Kamehameha. And my father said that your mother can’t go to the studio, Nona. You have to go and your sister will go and help you, you know. I think my sister was 10 or 9, somewhere around there, so she was going to answer the phones. And I looked on the appointment book and the first student was Mary Pickford. And I said to my father, “Oh I can’t teach this lady. She’s a very important movie star. My father said, “Get in there.” And she came with Buddy Rogers. I think they were on their honeymoon and he was so nice. She was tiny – she was smaller than I was. And her little hands, little feet, she was completely charming. Got me over the fear of teaching because we were talking and singing and doing lovely hula hands, graceful as the birds. And I got over my fear. Well I get to Kamehameha in September and there’s a notice on the board. “Any girls interested in teaching at the Kaka‘ako Mission, sign up.” I thought, I taught, I know how to teach, so I signed up. And here were little preschool children at Kaka‘ako. It was a very deprived area, you know? And they didn’t know about soap and water. So the children had sores all over their legs. And they smelled bad. And ah, so the first thing we did was get big washtubs and bathe the children with tar soap, smelly brown tar soap. And I’m crying and trying to sing and then the children would say, “Oh, come to the singing lady. Come to the…” So my line gets long as the children were waiting for their baths and nobody at the other tubs. I thought, “Hmm, singing is the way to interest children,” you know? So the first class I faced I started telling them stories and then began chanting about the kahuli and the kolea birds (sings a bit). “Spooky, spooky, spooky!.” And they were frightened. So then I put one note in the song (sings a bit more). And they smiled and weren’t frightened anymore. I thought, “That’s how I’m going to teach. I’m going to teach them little songs, tell them the history and they’ll be smiling and learning their history all in one fell swoop.”

 

You composed music that stands forever. Every school kid, virtually, in Hawaiʻi knows Pupu Hinuhinu. You wrote it. How does that feel? I mean, virtually every child grows up knowing your song.

 

Well it’s a sweet little simple thing, you know. But I think that it’s appealing to all levels, children and grandparents, just the sweetness of it, you know? I think we are very lucky, if we can sing sweet little songs it kind of calms us down and maybe we’re not raising our voices, maybe there is more calmness in the family, you know? So I think it has a lot of uses.

 

So storytelling is really the basis of so much of what you’ve done and what your family has done as well.

 

It is, yes. Well we didn’t have books, we didn’t have you know, lot of authors writing about Hawaiian culture. In fact, I didn’t even know about the overthrow until I was on the Native Hawaiian Study Commission. I didn’t even know about the politics of those times, you know?

 

Where do you get your knowledge of Hawaiianess? From your family experience?

 

Yes, well it was from grandparents, grandmother.

 

But you don’t speak fluent Hawaiian?

 

No, no. We were not allowed to. And then the suppression at Kamehameha. I think psychologically it caused a lot of damage among a lot of Hawaiians in my age group, you know? Because we were forbidden, we were punished. Yeah, it was a psychological block.

 

And yet, as a teacher you had to have structure?

 

Well you know we didn’t have textbooks. We didn’t have curriculum, you know? We didn’t have a term Hawai‘iana until ‘49 when I coined it. And it was at a workshop with the department of education teachers. Well it was called Department of Public Instruction then – D.P.I. So I wrote on the board “Hawai – glottal i – dash – ana.” So I turned around, I looked at the teachers.. I said, “I’d like for us to study this word ‘Hawaiiana… Hawaiiana.’” Now the “ana” is the root word “to measure, to evaluate, to determine what is the best.” So we’re going to concern ourselves with that and teach only the best of Hawaiian culture in the classroom. And that was my reason for that word “Hawaiiana.”

 

You made it up.

 

Yes. And I didn’t mean “-ana” like Americana, Mexicana like a conglomerate of things, you know. But I meant to measure everything that we’re going to teach, and offer the children the very best in the culture.

 

That’s one of the many one-of-a-kind things you’ve done, firsts you’ve done. What about when you were a student at Kamehameha Schools and got briefly expelled?

 

(Nona holds up two fingers)

 

Twice you got expelled?

 

Well it was strange. The first time, the President of the Trustees, Frank Midkiff, was having a tea in the pink garden, in the bougainvillea garden – so pretty. And so he asked me, I had started the Hawaiian Club and it was simply because my friends had said, “Can we learn a song? Can we learn a chant? Tell us a story.” So we’d gather Monday after school and we would learn a chant. Unbeknownst to anybody else, but Mr. Midkiff was a champion of mine, a personal friend and hero. So for him I would do anything. So we came into the garden chanting (sings the chant). And we finished our chant and we bowed to everybody and we walked out. And then my principal said, “Winona you may pack your bag and leave this campus.” It was a sacrilege that I committed – to chant and do motions as we were walking.

 

Because?

 

Because it wasn’t allowed. No language, no chanting, no dancing, no nothing.

 

But you could do western dancing?

 

Oh yeah, we could do anything else, yeah.

 

But that’s how it was in those days at Kamehameha Schools.

 

Absolutely.

 

Because everyone was on this western path.

 

Well, it was just the mindset of the time, I think, you know? They were there to school good and industrious men and women, you know? And there was no further look about advancing us, as students or Hawaiians! I wanted to go to college. “Winona, there’s no reason to go to college.” I mean, my principal! I though, what kind of principal would tell you not to think about going to college? So it kind of hurt me that they wanted to keep us so subservient.

 

Have you had kind of a love-hate relationship with the school since you were a kid?

 

You know, I’ve loved them all my life, all my life. In 1927 my grandmother took me to the old chapel where Farrington School is now and I heard the voices of the Kamehameha men. Oh, the stone walls were just vibrating with these wonderful voices and I fell in love with Kamehameha. Didn’t know anything about it except just a name, you know? And I knew later on about the campus where my father had lived as a child. And then later on when I was hired we were given living quarters there where my father was when he was 6 years old. He was in his dormitory, you know? So there was a lot of joy in my heart for Kamehameha just from that initial love of the sound of their voices, the men singing. Of course, my grandmother was a graduate and my parents had attended. Of course all of us in our family had attended. And now it was time for the grandchild, and you know, they have been as close to me as my own blood family.

 

The school which expelled you twice was the school where you dedicated 40 years of your teaching life.

 

And $87,864 scholarship money I have raised in 35 years for scholarships for Kamehameha. Yes, I love them like my family. Well now they’re coming into the sunlight.

 

And you were part of that. You were part of bringing back the Hawaiianess into the school.

 

I like to think I was, but there’s a whole faction of us. Class members, students, they were asking. Why can’t we have Hawaiian? Why can’t we be what we are? Why do we have to be who we are not?

 

And the school was acting in what it thought was your best interest?

 

Yes, and yet they said Princess Pauahi, in her will, stated that we were not to speak, we were not to chant, we were not to dance. So when they hired me, the first thing I did, “Could I see the will? Please may I see the will?” Nothing in it about Princess Pauahi saying there would be no language, there would be no dancing, there would be no – they lied to me, they lied to me all those years. So my estimation of administration went (motion of hands going down).

 

Well and then what happens many years later, your idea of the administration had again fallen. You wrote a letter to the State Supreme Court in the late 1990s, in which you said, “Mrs. Lindsey, Mrs. Lokelani Lindsey, a trustee’s micromanagement methodology is an utterly diabolical plan of a self-serving egoist.”

 

Oh, I didn’t know her at all. But it was just an abomination that had happened.

 

In your letter, you were expressing what had been an inner angst, many people upset with what was happening at the trustee level at the old Bishop Estate. But so many people didn’t want to lose what they had and you were the one who brought it out.

 

Well, you know they were afraid of their jobs. The students were afraid of their scholarships. I didn’t have anything to lose. I had no children in school. I had retired. And I thought this was just not right. So when my hanai son Kaliko Beamer Trapp came home and told me that Lokelani had sent a directive to the University Language Department that the vocabulary they were developing could not be taught at the Kamehameha Schools, you know? So I just felt that because if it was spoken during Pauahi’s time we could have spoken it. But I thought ah, we’re back to the middle ages. We can’t speak it ‘cause Pauahi didn’t speak it 50 years ago. Something’s wrong, you know? So that really sort of capsulated it from there. We had to do something about it. That was the straw.

 

And there was a firestorm after you wrote the letter.

 

True. Well, I think it gave other people the courage to speak up too.

 

And that triggered an overhaul, a reform of the old Bishop Estate.

 

It was about time, about time. Well, I wish it were as lasting and as meaningful now. But they aren’t there yet, they aren’t there yet. I think they have to do more on campus with the old guard. I love them dearly. We’re all good friends. But they have to be more mindful of Hawaiianess, you know? Not to be thinking of all the business and the dollars and the cash register. Think about the students. That’s why we’re there – for the students. Not to amass fortunes in the bank.

 

The woman who coined the term “Hawaiiana” – lives it. Aunty Nona Beamer stands up for what she thinks is right – what she feels is pono. We don’t have much time left, so we’ll make the rest of this long story, short. Stay with us as we continue “talking story” with the irrepressible Nona Beamer.

 

Are we going to see you in future years standing up again, doing the kind of things that got you expelled, that triggered reform in the old Bishop Estate?

 

(Laughs) You know I am getting a little more outspoken and Keola says, ”Ma, you’re swearing more these days.” I used to say dammit, but now I say dammit to hell. (Laughs) Well I think that’s one of the perks of the elderly – that we can speak up, that we’ve been there and we have the courage ‘cause we know what it feels like to be denied your language, denied being a Hawaiian. So there’s no, I don’t think there’s any guilt. It’s just positive affirmations.

 

You’ve done it before and perhaps you’ll do it again.

 

Do it again? (laughs) Thank you honey.

 

You know, you have so much love, so much aloha and yet you believe in principles and standing up even if it ruffles feathers and makes people lose their jobs.

 

Yes. Well it seems, if it’s right, if it’s reasonable, it’s good you know, you should try to keep as much goodness as you can. And sometimes we just need a little help from one other. Just hang on to one another and make it better.

 

But I think what you’re telling us is it’s not just about being nicey nice. It’s about following principles, and values.

 

True, true, yeah.

 

Let me ask you one question – this may be dicey so let me know. One of the things that we do is we ask viewers what would you like to ask Aunty Nona? One of the questions that people always ask about and you may not want to talk about it, I understand. A viewer in Hilo would like to know if you see any mending between your sons Keola and Kapono Beamer?

 

Well you know there doesn’t need to be mending. They have diverse careers.

 

So your sons had a personal and professional parting of the ways. Does it hurt or is it something a family deals with?

 

Well I miss them together, I miss the sound of their singing. At my father’s funeral I was just weeping because I heard them singing together when I hadn’t heard them for a while. I miss the mellowness of their sound. But I see it coming in my grandson now. And I think of all the good things we’ve done. So if their direction is different, so be it. We can’t just stagnate in our same place. We got to grow or we die. So I don’t see that there’s a lot of mending because the love is still there. I don’t know that they’ll sing Honolulu City Lights together again. I don’t know.

 

But they both came to see you when you were in the hospital?

 

Yes they did.

 

Must have been nice to see both of them at once?

 

The same room – we were all talking together. Yes, yes. And I’m glad that it happened before I “make die dead”! (Laughs) Well I do think that they have a lot to contribute. I don’t know what direction. But I think we’re going to see something through Kamana. And his generation will probably mend the fences that their parents have knocked down.

 

They’re the next Beamers.

 

I think so. I think we are going to see some interesting things from him.

 

So what do you, what do you look ahead to? What’s ahead for you?

 

Well you know, I want to keep the Hawaiianess in things as much as possible. And it doesn’t seem as though it’s that important. In fact, it’s kind of corny when you say, “What is the Hawaiianess?” you know? It’s this aloha feeling – the kindness between people. You know, speaking nicely, looking at each other smiling, you know. Oh, it seems like so little. But it’s a gargantuan concept to keep this aloha in the world. And that’s what we all have to do in our own hearts – to keep this aloha. Not easy.

 

You know when people who’ve known you a long time and know you well describe you, the personal qualities they tend to talk about are: courage, stubbornness – and they say you’re full of aloha. Are they right?

 

Well, you know I’m very grateful and that’s a big stabilizer in my life – that I’m so grateful for all the things, the goodness of family and everything you’ve had behind you, you know. But you’re not here by yourself. Oh, my great-grandmother’s here, my grandmother’s here, everybody’s here behind me. And I think oh this is part of our aumakua, our belief in our guardians that are around us. But we have to listen. We have to be in tune because they’re all here to help us. But sometimes we get so busy we just run rough shot over everything. And life has so much beauty underneath it. If you just be quiet enough to listen to it.

 

Passionate, intelligent, talented and truly “Hawaiian”… just a few words that describe Nona Beamer. It was a pleasure sharing stories from Aunty Nona – and sharing them with you. I wish we had more time. But we have to make this Long Story Short. Mahalo for joining me. I’m Leslie Wilcox. A hui hou kākou!

 

 

 

 

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THE COLLECTION ON MASTERPIECE
Part 7 of 7

 

World War II is over and Paul Sabine is restoring Paris as the fashion capital of the world. His dresses are a sensation, and only his shady past and an inconvenient corpse block his way to success. Richard Coyle stars as Paul; with Mamie Gummer as Helen, his rich American wife; Jenna Thiam as Nina, the seamstress who becomes his top model; Frances de la Tour as his devious mother Yvette; and Tom Riley as his debauched brother Claude, the self-destructive genius designer.

 

Part 7 of 7
Nina is torn between Claude, Billy and the baby she gave up for adoption. Charlot’s new business venture hits the rocks. Amid a glittering celebration of high fashion, Inspector Bompard makes a surprise appearance.

 

THE COLLECTION ON MASTERPIECE
Part 6 of 7

 

World War II is over and Paul Sabine is restoring Paris as the fashion capital of the world. His dresses are a sensation, and only his shady past and an inconvenient corpse block his way to success. Richard Coyle stars as Paul; with Mamie Gummer as Helen, his rich American wife; Jenna Thiam as Nina, the seamstress who becomes his top model; Frances de la Tour as his devious mother Yvette; and Tom Riley as his debauched brother Claude, the self-destructive genius designer.

 

Part 6 of 7
While Dominique is in recovery, Charlotte courts Claude for her renegade fashion house. Nina tells Claude the truth. Marianne reluctantly reveals the past.

 

THE COLLECTION ON MASTERPIECE
Part 5 of 7

 

World War II is over and Paul Sabine is restoring Paris as the fashion capital of the world. His dresses are a sensation, and only his shady past and an inconvenient corpse block his way to success. Richard Coyle stars as Paul; with Mamie Gummer as Helen, his rich American wife; Jenna Thiam as Nina, the seamstress who becomes his top model; Frances de la Tour as his devious mother Yvette; and Tom Riley as his debauched brother Claude, the self-destructive genius designer.

 

Part 5 of 7
On a weekend at his partner’s chateau, Paul expels unwelcome guests. Back in Paris, Victor meets Dominique and tragedy ensues.

 

THE COLLECTION ON MASTERPIECE
Part 4 of 7

 

World War II is over and Paul Sabine is restoring Paris as the fashion capital of the world. His dresses are a sensation, and only his shady past and an inconvenient corpse block his way to success. Richard Coyle stars as Paul; with Mamie Gummer as Helen, his rich American wife; Jenna Thiam as Nina, the seamstress who becomes his top model; Frances de la Tour as his devious mother Yvette; and Tom Riley as his debauched brother Claude, the self-destructive genius designer.

 

Part 4 of 7
Inspector Bompard tightens the noose on the Sabines. Paul concocts false evidence. Nina gets closer to her child’s identity. Claude has a new lover. Someone steals Billy’s photos of Nina’s triumph.

 

 

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