Review: Memories aplenty in John Rowles' Honolulu homecoming

October 25th, 2014
By



Haumea Ho, widow of Don Ho, did a hula to “I’ll Remember You” while John Rowles sang the Kui Lee tune last night (Oct. 24) at Blaisdell Concert Hall. johnrowles

It was one of those special moments in Rowles’ first return engagement here in more than 30 years. He was in his 20s at the time.

Rowles, of course, performed at Ho’s hangout, Duke Kahanamoku’s, in the heyday of Waikiki celebrityhood.

Now 67, Rowles, the Maori sensation who also gigged at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel’s Monarch Room and the Outrigger Hotel Main Showroom,  has matured gracefully. He sports white hair now, just like the snows of Mauna Kea at wintertime; his baritone has the essence of aged wine at its best.

He still has vigor and versatility and he revisited his Waikiki days with a clutch of songs associated with his then-budding career. Of course, “Cheryl Moana Marie,” penned for the youngest of his five sisters, became his signature and the tune, with Rowles’ still-powerful pipes, earned hurrahs and cheers when he sang it.

Rowles, happily, has not forgotten his island ties. He credited composer-poet Jay Larrin for one of his other popular adopted tunes, “The Snows of Mauna Kea,” bringing his deep baritone notes to new altitudes of bliss.

Backed by the Elvis Presley TCB (Taking Care of Business) Band, much of Rowles’ repertoire included a string of Presley hits, but he often put his own vocal imprint on the tune. Like, “Love Me Tender” was perfectly delivered in a subdued, unflashy mode, with Rowles accompanying himself on guitar. With the right exposure at the right moment, it’s a version that could easily connect with today’s younger audience, who many not (yikes, there are many of ‘em) know the EP original.

The TCB Band  is comprised of James Burton, guitar; Ronnie Tutt, drums; Glen D. Hardin, piano; and Norbert “Put” Putnam; they backed The King in the historic “Aloha From Hawaii” concert at Blaisdell Arena (then the Hawaii International Center),  and they’ve been an essential and under-appreciated combo in the annals of rock music.

So it was a no-brainer that the group provided the Presley-quality backup on titles such as “Hound Dog,” “In the Ghetto,” “The Wonder of You,”  “That’s All Right” and “Heartbreak Hotel.”

In a touching moment, “How Great Thou Art,” a secular favorite from the Presley library, Rowles mixed in Maori lyrics without sacrificing sentiment, projecting the universality of the hymn.

No, his was not a tribute –to-Elvis show. It was accentuating the bandsmanship of a historic backup band, with the vocalry of a prevailing Kiwi star, in an out-of-town “opening” preceding a planned tour of New Zealand and Australia in the months ahead.

Rowles was relaxed and playful with the sparse  but loyal audience. And happily, he didn’t forget the fabulous formative years of his launch in the islands. He dropped a few names, like Coronado Aquino, who was the longtime maître d’ at the Monarch Room; he acknowledge his then-peers in the house, from Melveen Leed to Al Harrington; he even shared an original composition, “The Girl in White,” about a fan he regularly spotted in the Pink Palace showroom. And yes, he remembered Kimo McVay, the late entrepreneur who was a mover-and-shaker in Rowles’ Hawaii presence.

Of course, his homage to Ho was expected. After all, he guested in Ho’s palace in the International Market Place. The invitation for Haumea, the entertainer’s wife, was a natural link to the past — and a passage to the present.

He said he’ll never forget his Hawaii ties; he even did a quick haka move, complete with tongue action and staccato body moves.

Clearly, he and his fans mutually had a grand time. Rowles was sure to widen his appeal with potent ballads like “If I Only Had Time” and “My Way.”

It sounded like if he had his way, he’d return to his island paradise someday.

Misalucha finale is Saturday; what’s the impact in Waikiki?

August 27th, 2012
By



An eight-month run of the Lani Misalucha Show at the Magic of Polynesia showroom comes to an end this Saturday (Sept. 1).
This, amid rumors of its impending closure and a Waikiki nightlife climate that has not reached expected attendance expectations.
This does not bode well for nightlife in Waikiki, where showrooms are few and attractions are dimming. The “star” marquee era — think Don Ho — is gone with his death.
And with Misalucha leaving the nighttime mainstream, there will be one less place to go and be entertained.
“This is a very tough decision for us,” said Percy Higashi, president and chief operating officer for Roberts Hawaii, the producer of the Misalucha show. The intent was to expose her stellar talent in a second-show slot of the Magic of Polynesia showroom at the Holiday Inn Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel.
“Lani is a phenomenal singer and entertainer, and we’ve received countless comments from guests who absolutely loved her show,” Higashi said in a press release. “Unfortunately, our experience is in line with what HTA (the Hawaii Tourism Authority) has been telling us, that while visitor counts may be rising, many travelers to Hawaii remain very budget-conscious and are holding back on their spending.”
Misalucha, a superstar in the Philippines who previously earned awards in the Las Vegas hemisphere while featured with the Hawaii-based Society of Seven, led by Tony Ruivivar. Her vocal prowess —rock to opera, pop to Broadway, impressions of show biz divas — made her a perfect fit for the SOS. But she went solo and eventually was wooed by Roberts Hawaii, a tour and transportation company, to headline her own Lani Misalucha Show that was launched last December and rebooted with a “Return to Paradise” billing about a month ago to lure visitors with a more tropical pitch.
While initial numbers were encouraging, attendance has been sluggish in recent months.
“Hawaii has become like my second home, and will always have a special place in my heart,” said Misalucha in a statement. “I’d like to thank Roberts Hawaii and all the wonderful people of Hawaii for their support.”
Because the Las Vegas-style showroom still has a resident star in magician John Hirokawa, it will continue to operate seven nights a week in the early hours.
The lights-off in the after-show hours means one less performance venue along the Kalakaua Avenue strip.
You recall, all major hotels had showrooms in the heyday of mainstream Waikiki entertainment in the 1970s and ’80s. Hyatt shut down its showroom in favor of leased commercial space; Hilton eliminated its famous Dome to built a more profitable high rise, and removed the Tapa Room for the same reason; the Royal Hawaiian relinquished the entertainment spotlight in its Monarch Room, making higher profits with special events like weddings, though tried mid-week special shows that failed to attract locals to sustain the experiment; the Moana removed Polynesian entertainment in its storied beachfront area beneath the banyan tree, for cocktail ambience for veranda patrons in recent decades; the Polynesian Palace on Lewers gave way for a hotel remake and the ultimate launch of Waikiki Beach Walk.
And you remember Don Ho; he was the big-name headliner at Duke Kahanamoku’s, now only a memory, unless you count his oversized statue on Waikiki Beach. Ho was able to shuttle from one showroom to another — the Hilton Dome, the Polynesian Palace, that second-level downsized club at the Beachcomber, which now is leased space for Jimmy Buffett’s franchise.
And the Outrigger, which still has a fading showroom with a bright history, is struggling to nail a deal with new owner prospects to keep the doors open. Otherwise, another showroom will bite the dust.
The other key showrooms in Waikiki are the Ainahau at the Sheraton Princess Kaiulani, where a Tihati Polynesian production has been in residency for decades; and the rooftop venue above the parking structure, where the Hilton produces a Tihati-created spectacular. A “showroom” that isn’t is that Monday-only high-end but exquisite Hawaiian show, on the green lawn outside the Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian, still another show with the Tihati stamp.
Oh, yes; the Royal Hawaiian Showroom, previously Level 4 and a showcase for a short-lived "Hawaii Nei" show, is supposed to be the anchor showroom at the Royal Hawaiian Center. It now is home to the "Legends" impersonation revue, which, like Misalucha's show, opened last December. "Legends" also is fighting for its share of the visitor/local pie, but it's also been a struggle; the big numbers have been somewhat elusive.
Misalucha’s numbers were inadequate because the show failed to generate visitor tour groups, that apparently wanted more Polynesian elements; hence, the “Return to Paradise” effort.
All is not lost for Misalucha, who is said to be seeking and getting some local and international bookings. But a full-time opportunity is gone.
Rumors persist that staff from one Waikiki hotel has been scrutinizing her show for possible two- or three-night bookings to keep her anchored in Waikiki.
“We considered a slew of other alternatives, but given its substantial production expense (singers, dancers, musicians), continuing the show was not a healthy option,” said Higashi.

Buddy Fo: Isle sensibilities, Mainland romanticism

May 25th, 2011
By



Buddy Fo had a heart problem he didn’t know about; it’s a condition he discovered about five years ago, when he had first heart attack, but didn’t tend to the issue.
Then he suffered a second attack, a third, and a fourth.
“He barely survived the third one,” his wife Sammi told me after Buddy died April 30 at age 78.
The fifth attack happened April 29, when Sammi rushed him to the ER in Kona, on the Big Island. But he needed to be air-ambulanced to Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu.
“I begged him not to ‘go’ (die),” she recalled about the last attack and the airlift.
“I remember him smiling. I kissed him,” she said. “I didn’t go with him (to the hospital). I turned back one more time and told him, ‘Call me first thing in the morning.’”
His call never came; the one that came brought the dreadful news: Buddy had died at 2:30 a.m. the next morning in his sleep.
“At least he didn’t have to suffer,” said Sammi. “No coma, no paralysis. And he gave me five years in the end.”
Buddy (real name, Allen Newton Keaweleiohawaii Fo) was the beloved leader of The Invitations, the Island group launched by Fo and his partner-in-music Sonny Kamaka in the post-Statehood Hawaii of the 1960s. The sound was the thing — the rich four-part harmonies emulating The Four Freshmen, the Four Aces, and the Hi-Los — and Buddy also admired the delicate falsetto of Hawaii’s jazz fave, Richard Kauahi.
The Invitations sound was a mixture of Island sensibilities with Mainland romance and nostalgia, and the repertoire was an equal blend of haole hits and local ditties that were by-products of a national surge fueled by the “exotica” music launched by the late Martin Denny.
Now Fo and Denny must be pumping out joyous music in the great tavern in the sky. Must be with Don Ho humming at his organ, too.
Known for tempoed, danceable hits like “Malia My Tita” and “Goin’ Out of My Head,” Buddy Fo and The Invitations were among the first local vocal-instrumental groups to record an album for a Mainland label, Liberty Records, on the Mainland. Remember, Denny and his prime era colleague, Arthur Lyman, were instrumentalists, painting pictures of an exotic paradise with riffs, notes, chimes and gongs — no lyrics.
At one time in Waikiki, Buddy Fo, Don Ho and Kui Lee were perking up and shaping the musical profile for local troupers, thanks to exposure via the Mainland labels — Ho was on Reprise, Lee on Columbia. Ho, of course, was the central figure to lure throngs of visitors to Hawaii because of Statehood, because of filmed-in-Hawaii shows like the Jack Lord “Hawaii Five-0” vehicle.
And Las Vegas had a role in the emergence of Buddy and Sammi Fo.
“He was the love of my life,” said Sammi, who met Buddy in Vegas when he was there performing at the Sands Hotel with Mr. Exotica Denny and she was performing in “Flower Drum Song.”
Denny was the keyboarder with assorted gongs and exotic percussion instruments, with some bird calls for atmosphere, accentuated on his national hit, “Quiet Village,” and Buddy played with Denny along with such local musicians as Frankie Kim and Augie Colon.
Though music was a large part of his life as an adult, on Oahu, on Maui and on the Big Island, Buddy wasn’t keen on a musical career as a youth. He was good in sports; he was a beachboy; he excelled in high school football; he might have had disdain for show biz because his dad put him luau shows when he was 5.
“He didn’t like music as a kid,” said Sammi. “He was an outstanding football player and athlete, and very active in sports. “But when he entertained, he was so much fun to watch.”
Married for 47 years, Buddy and Sammi were like Spam and eggs — an inseparable combination.
While he was skilled in vocals, he initially played congas; when the couple relocated to Montana, after “retiring” from Waikiki, he learned to play ukulele and taught her how to man the congas.
The couple briefly relocated in Montana to be close to their son; they lived and traveled in an RV for five years.
By the time they returned to Maui, where they lived and worked for the next 30 years, they had the elements of an act. Buddy and Sammi both sang and played instruments; and she was also a hula stylist, known to interpret and explain the story behind her chosen hula, an uncommon art.
So they found residency and success at the Maui Tropical Plantation, where their audience included a mix of locals and tourists, young and old alike for a decade. Buddy also had a Maui radio show.
They learned some of their show biz creds during their Vegas tenure; Sammi said Buddy earned some of his stripes watching the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra on the legendary Sin City strip.
For a spell, Buddy worked with Don Ho at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel. Buddy and Sammi also played at the Mai Tai at the Royal Hawaiian.
But the high cost of living in Honolulu prompted them to relocate to Ocean View, Big Island, where Sammi still resides.
Buddy earned a Lifetime Achievement Na Hoku Hanohano Award from the Hawaii Academy of Recording Arts in 2003.
“He was strict in music; everybody had to sing in key, every instrument had to be in key. He had a good ear for music,” said Sammi about Buddy’s work ethics.
Few knew that Buddy was proficient on a 4-string Martin guitar, an instrument like an ukulele, but larger and with a narrow neck. “Buddy picked up an inexpensive one on the Mainland and acquired another one here,” said Sammi.
At the time of his death, he was in the midst of securing a custom-made Buddy Fo Martin ukulele with larger neck, made by a Big Islander. “He was so looking forward to having a Buddy Fo ukulele instrument made especially for him,” said Sammi.
Because his dad called him “my little Buddy,” the name stuck.
Earlier services were held May 21 at the Ocean View Community Center.
“Buddy was a party guy,” said Sammi. “He loved to have a good time, and he loved to drink. So we’ll hold a celebration of life to remember him, not a funeral service.”
The gathering will be held from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday (May 26) at the Elks Club.
A service, with music, will be from 10 to 11 a.m.
The house band will include his buddies from the music community: Imaikalani Young, Greg Kaneaiakala, Gordon Alafapada, Brickwood Galueria and Benny Chong.
Besides wife Sammi, survivors include sons Allen, Derek “Ricky” and Kanai; daughters U‘ilani Roberts, Mikilani Wykes and Aloha Fo; brothers Henry “Chubby,” Talbot and Nolan George, and Teddy Imbleau; sister Sally Crowell; seven grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren.

BUDDY FO CELEBRATION OF LIFE

From 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Thursday (May 26)
Service, with music, from 10 to 11 a.m.
Elks Club

Don Ho’s Island Grill changes ownership

September 15th, 2010
By



Don Ho’s Island Grill, an original tenant on the waterfront of Aloha Tower Marketplace and a regular hang-out for the veteran Waikiki entertainer, has changed hands.
The new owner is Phillip Johnson, originally from Bend, Oregon, who spent summers in Hawaii in his childhood and had been living at Wailea, Maui since 2002. Last month, he negotiated a transfer of ownership of Don Ho’s Island Grill from veteran Honolulu restaurateurs Fred and Nicki Livingston, who had earlier acquired the site from Shep Gordon, and became owner on Sept. 10.
A sale price has not been revealed.
Johnson, 28, has been immersed in the Island dining and entertainment scene and hopes to continue to make Don Ho’s a player in the years ahead.
“I want to know every aspect of this place,” Johnson said in a statement. “I’ll be trained in every position, from host to dishwasher to manager… in the kitchen, the bar and on the floor.”
The restaurant always had a Don Ho theme and the “I’ll Remember You” and “Tiny Bubbles” singer frequently popped in for lunch, and sometimes, dinner, so sightings were common. His photos were splashed all over the restaurant, and budding talent competing in regular singing competitions usually wound up performing with Ho in Waikiki — an ongoing extension of Ho’s penchant to help nudge careers of youngsters.
Since Ho’s death in 2007, the restaurant has been somewhat of a museum of Ho memories, where video of his performances ran in constant looping, and the place has remained an environment for family-friendly gatherings — but minus Ho's regular visitations.
The new proprietor will build on this foundation by tweaking the menu, with a focus on customer satisfaction and employee appreciation, and will create incentives that would appeal to the local community. The menu will reflect some new additions named after Ho’s trademark songs and a “Tiny Bubbles” champagne breakfast on Saturdays will be offered, along with the usual Sunday brunch.
Most changes will be launched in December.

Posted in Entertainment | Comments Off

TV Review: Marlene talks about TCB on PBS

August 23rd, 2009
By



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.’”
Indeed.
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)