August 23rd, 2009
Taking care of business.
It’s one of the foundations of the late Elvis Presley’s legacy.
It’s also a mantra of entertainer Marlene Sai, who says you’ve got to get a serious handle on the business of show to stay afloat and maintain a career that sails.
So she reveals in Part Two of her chat on PBS Hawai’i’s “Long Story Short With Leslie Wilcox,” premiering at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 25).
Sai, one of Waikiki’s enduring songbirds, was 19 when she turned pro, getting her initial show biz exposure with the late Don Ho, who then was managing his mom’s Kane’ohe pub, Honey’s.
She credits Ho, who became a lifelong friend, with setting the foundation of learning the biz. “Always be true to yourself,” she says of the advice Ho gave her.
Thus, she tells host Wilcox, that anyone yearning to venture into show business must “treat this business (entertainment) as it is a business.”
Be seriously committed, in other words.
This, from the thrush who counts among her career hits, “Kainoa,” “Waikiki,” and “I Love You” and the actress who played Queen Lili’uokalani in two separate docudramas and Bloody Mary in the Hawaii Opera Theatre’s “South Pacific.”
When Wilcox asks her what might be her legacy, Sai blushes: “Gosh, ‘she’s been around for a long time.’”
Sai is one of the few homegrown talents who’s done it all over 40 years. Recordings. Headlining in Waikiki nightclubs and showrooms. Doing dramatic and musical turns on stage. Running her own entertainment business.
Lately, however, Goofy (her nickname) best enjoys the gig as granny.
This is a trouper who grew up with a famous uncle, singer-composer Andy Cummings, who wrote her biggest hit, “Waikiki.” This is the Kamehameha Schools grad, who does not speak Hawaiian, who learned the ropes by being surrounded by notables like Gabby Pahinui and Sonny Chillingworth while growing up, and went straight to the sources — like composers Maddy Lam and Mary Kawena Puku’i, as well as Uncle Andy — to find out the intent and meaning behind a song before she recorded and embraced it.
All part of taking care of business.
When she was doing her first legit gig at Honey’s, she was under contract to Ho — but was wooed by Kimo McVay to venture into the Waikiki circuit. She was eager to make the leap, so she gave Ho notice of her intention of leaving.
He laughed, “You can’t leave, you signed a contract,” she says of Ho’s response. But she tells him, “I don’t think the contract is any good; I’m under age.”
He releases her to make the break but offers to take part in the negotiations and “he constantly checked up on me,” says Sai of her close relationship with the guy who “discovered” her.
That’s also part of her legacy.
Sai shares a charming story about where her first album, “Kainoa,” was recorded — at the old bus barn at Alapai Street, where buses still gather and the Honolulu Police Department calls home. She recorded amid the parked HRT (Honolulu Rapid Transit) buses of yesteryear.
She also reveals how Uncle Andy wrote his signature “Waikiki” while snowbound in Lansing, Michigan in 1938 — and yearning for the warmth of paradise. And she talks-sings some of the lyrics: “Waikiki, my whole life is empty without you, I miss the magic about you, magic beside the sea, magic of Waikiki.”
It’s now part of her legacy, too.
MARLENE SAI ON
‘LONG STORY SHORT
WITH LESLIE WILCOX’
Part Two airs 7:30 p.m. Tuesday (Aug. 25), repeats 11 p.m. Aug 26 (Wednesday)
PBS Hawaii (Channel 10)