Moana’s 115th gala: old times, new goals?
The Westin Moana Surfrider’s 115th anniversary gala, held in the historic Banyan Court ‘neath the vintage landmark banyan tree, was a time for Hawaiian souvenirs — with reflections of the past and expectations of the future.
The event, coordinated by entertainer Makana and staged on the actual 115th birthday (March 11) of the first lady of Waikiki — the iconic Moana Hotel — was a curious mixture of old times and manners and current styles and maneuvers.
Makana delivered a program that intended to recreate the golden days of radio, specifically the historic “Hawaii Calls” program originated by the late Webley Edwards, which beamed melodies and memories of the tropical Hawaii “live” (though actually in delayed radiocasts) in the heyday of radio. It was an era when imagination was a requirement for transportation to the idyll that was Hawaii. Via words and music, no visuals of hula or singing.
Because of licensing restrictions, the event had to reimagine the memories and delivery to “Radio Waikiki,” a last-minute name change. This mattered mostly to purists who recalled the original “Hawaii Calls,” before the era of television, when radio was a prime source of at-home entertainment, and the show was an audio beacon to lure travelers to Hawaii.
The format and execution assembled a bevy of performers initially adhering to the original Hawaiian format of the old radio show, but digressed into other rhythms and styles, which provided mixed results.
- Makana is a versatile singer, composer, slack key guitarist, and researcher, with ambition to spare, but he is no Edwards. He has a gift of gab, but radio is not his medium, yet he rallied with tireless energy and desire to please, enacting Webley as the fictional deejay with the fun-and-pun handle, Sunny Shores. The musical program strayed from its original course and started to include Latin rhythms and titles that within the scope of the era. And the show ran far too long, 2 ½ hours, with occasional dead spots. Still, Makana’s narrative and effort were impressive.
- The sole original “Hawaii Calls” cast member, the venerable Nina Keali‘iwahamana, remained regal in voice and delivery, still a champion of community endeavors that benefit from her presence and sheer good cheer. This, despite her recent battle with breast cancer. She brought authenticity and knowledge to the proceedings, via her stance on ancient Hawaiiana and notable on her “Makee ‘Ailana” selection, the romantic tune about the island once a popular destination within Kapiolani Park. Lamentably, she couid not deliver the vocal in her key, since Makana made it a duet at times, performing in his key.
- The guest roster also included Pomaikai Lyman, granddaughter of the late Genoa Keawe, whose “Hawaiian Souvenirs” and “Alika” offerings enchanted the audience, notably with her ability to hold that lasting “Alika” note; Palani Vaughan, the specialist in King Kalakaua-era music, was a pleasant surprise since he no longer is active on the show circuit, but his three-tune Hawaiian medley of monarchial steamships did not connect with the crowd, but he found redemption with his memorable Maui locomotive hit, “Kaa Ahi Kahului,” the “chuka chuka” sing-along charmer; Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, the transgender son of Kekuhi Kanahele-Frias and the grandchild of Pualani Kanaka‘ole of the famed Big Island hula ‘ohana tracing roots to kumu Edith Kanaka‘ole, was riveting and resourceful in her foray into modern-generation Hawaiiana, complete with contemporary rhythmic flourishes, making her now and wow and clearly a representative of a generation past with her own force of the imminent future; Taimane Gardner, garnering and building her legacy as a ukulele soloist to reckon with, with strumming skills combined with choreographic turns; and while Lopaka Colon, the expressive and effervescent percussionist-son of the late great Augie Colon was masterful in solo and back-up performances, his island-pop posture was splendid, but out of synch with the celebratory Hawaiian tone; Buck Giles, who collaborated with Makana in producing the concert for the Moana milestone, distinguished himself as a steel guitar artist, too.
Clearly, the radiocast format required descriptive poetry of the Hawaii that many dreamed of visiting, at a moment in history when ship voyages were more common (and expensive) than air travel. Makana’s script included this rhapsodic vision: “They built a castle by the sea, and pictures of it called to me. I dreamt of it on winter days, of sand beneath the sun’s warm rays. But none so true did sing my tune nor beckon me with lullaby croon, than that fine voice lilting on waves of sound and sea — it fed my craves to board the Lurline for her shores and leave the cold forever more.” Such was his spoken valentine to Moana, the gracious first lady of Waikiki hotels.
For atmosphere, a vintage stage mike and an “On Air” lighted sign added to the radio feel, and a “commercial” for the hotel mentioned a room with telephone and private bath, plus an elevator, for $1.50 per night. And with tongue in cheek, Sunny Shores shored up a weather report, mentioning Guy Yagi for impact, of “50 per cent chance of sunrise tomorrow.”
The anniversary celebration earmarked proceeds for the Bishop Museum, the Historic Hawaii Foundation and the Waikiki Aquarium, demonstrating the hotel’s commitment to become a valuable contributing member of the community with the goal to retain and reclaim the importance of things and themes Hawaiian.
For this, hotel manager Lawrence Hanson and his staff deserve hurrahs and applause. Waikiki has become overbuilt, overpopulated and divisive — know any locals who yearn to pay regular visits anymore?
Still, Hanson revealed that some longtime guests make regular pilgrimages to the Moana, to savor the hospitality and ambiance of the bygone days — and no, a stay isn’t $1.50 a night anymore. In this respect, the Moana still holds a special spot in the hearts of a declining population.
But inventive special events, like the anniversary party and the earlier February fund-raiser for ailing singing legend Jimmy Borges, attracted locals. Mount it, and they will convene.
On this note, perhaps Hanson and the Moana (still, the Westin Moana Surfrider in the current billing, including the old Surfrider wing) should possibly revive monthly or periodic shows at the Banyan Court as part of an ongoing program to perpetuate and preserve that culture of entertainment that seems to be static along Kalakaua Avenue. The grand days of showrooms in every hotel are gone, but some of the venues surely could resurrect reignite and reestablish a new generation of celebrants. Surely, Hawaiian entertainment could jump-start a cycle of locals returning to Waikiki and simultaneously encourage a new breed of a future Don Ho, Hilo Hattie, Alfred Apaka, Ohta-san and Haunani Kahalewai?
It’s got to start with the hoteliers. There’s a whole bunch of talent, but only few spots to developing acts to perform for a future generation of Hawaii visitors.