Roctober Magazine

Hilo Hattie

By Jake Austen

(From Roctober #35, 2003)

Hilo Hattie

The other day I sat on a train next to two young African American women discussing "The Rock" (the wrestling champ/action movie star who has Pacific Islander and African American heritage). Their conversation came to an interesting (and gender specific) conclusion. "It's a shame," one noted, "that you can't get those nice Hawaiian shirts he wears in girls' sizes." "You can!" I rudely interrupted, and proceeded to give them info (which they received with semi-interest) on how to order on-line from the Aloha Shirt monolith that is Hilo Hattie's.

Were Hilo Hattie merely the largest manufacturer of "Aloha Wear" in the world perhaps I'd be hesitant to give them free publicity. But the company certainly doesn't need it, having entered the 21st century with a bang by opening a mainland store (behind Anaheim's Orange Curtain) and by becoming the "Official Hawaiian and Resort Fashion Provider" for the now cancelled "Baywatch Hawaii." When you're putting leis on Mickey Mouse and David Hasselhoff you don't need my humble praises. However, my loyalty to the Hilo Hattie corporation is grounded not in their zillions of dollars in sales or their racks of well made shirts, but rather in their legendary source of "the Aloha Spirit." For unlike Big Boy, the Keebler Elves or the Pillsbury Doughboy, yes Virginia, there really is a Hilo Hattie!

Clarissa "Clara" Haili, was born on October 28, 1901. A natural comedienne, part-time school teacher Clara performed as a hula dancer and vocalist with Louise Akeo's Royal Hawaiian Girls' Glee Club. On a tour of Canada she introduced a song that had been discarded by Harry Owens' Royal Hawaiian Orchestra after Owens dismissed it as being too lowbrow for the famed Royal Hawaiian Hotel. After phenomenal response, the song would become not only Clara's calling card, but eventually her legal name.

"When Hilo Hattie Does the Hula Hop" is a funny "hapa haole" (which translates as "half-white," referring to Hawaiian tunes with English lyrics) song written by Don McDiarmid, Sr. when he was a member of Owens' band. Though he would eventually become a successful composer, orchestra leader and the founder of Hula Records, in 1935 McDiarmid didn't have the juice to make his boss add the tune to his repertoire.

Two years later, when McDiarmid's own band was playing the Monarch room at the Royal Hawaiian, Clara was also there performing with the Girls' Glee Club. She insisted on dancing and singing "Hilo Hattie" despite the composer's trepidation (he too thought it was too "common" for the room) and proceeded to tear up the joint, eventually being called back for five encores. Soon Clara would adapt "Hilo Hattie" as her name and her signature look would make her one of the primary ambassadors of Hawaiian culture in the decades leading up to statehood.

Though the hula is often associated with scantily clad, slim wahinisfor much of her career Hattie's vibe was more matriarchal...though she more invoked a funny aunt than a mom. In an oversized mu'umu'u with a floppy lau hala (pandanus leaf) hat tied on her head, and barefoot, she somehow diffused many of the undercurrents of sexual conquest and fertility colonists often project on "native" women. She developed a wholesome, warm persona that made her a beloved icon throughout the islands. Her international fame came when she joined the cast of Hawaii Calls, a radio show first broadcast on July 3, 1935 from the Moana Hotel in Waikiki. Hosted by Webley Edwards, the show was broadcast to over 600 radio stations and Armed Forces Radio and was heard by millions in North America, Australia, New Zealand, South America and Africa.

Opening with a haunting Conch-shell trumpet blowing in the distance as surf softly hits the beach, the show invoked the magic of the islands to listeners everywhere, and was probably the single most influential source for the popularity of Hawaiian music at the time. Though there was some music performed in the Hawaiian language, the show was primarily hapa-haole music. Slack key guitar, Hawaiian percussion and songs like "Sweet Leilani" and "My Little Grass Shack" were introduced to the general public on Hawaii Calls and soon Hilo Hattie was a beloved broker of the Aloha Spirit to people the world over.

Upon gaining Island and mainland prominence, Hilo Hattie was everywhere. She emceed the prominent Queen's Surf luau, did work for Easter Seals Of Hawai'i, performed at various California County Fairs (including San Diego in 1952 and Orange County from 1961-1968), and in the late 1950s appeared on the Harry Owens And His Royal Hawaiians TV show. Despite his initial rejection of her namesake tune, Hattie would be a member of the controversial Owens' group for years. Descriptions of Owens' temperament may invoke visions of an Island Buddy Rich, and his claim of inventing the Mai Tai is disputed by many in the Trader Vic camp. However, (on camera, at least) he had nothing but nice things to say about Hilo Hattie. He described her over the TV waves as a woman "whose voice is like a breeze from Polynesia."

Outside of her radio work, Hilo Hattie's first prominent mainland appearance was in the 1942 Technicolor film "Song of the Islands" opposite Betty Grable and Victor Mature. The film is a celebration of Western cowboy influence on Hawaiian ranching, a luxurious travelogue and one of the only pieces of Irish-Hawaiian unity propaganda I know of. Hattie is featured as Palola, Grable's childhood nurse. She sings "Hawaiian War Chant," "Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai," and generally is degraded as she chases a man who's hot for a svelter wahini. Humor concerning her family's cannibalism abound. Watch for the inevitable St. Patrick's Day luau.

Collectors of Hawaiian music treasure Hilo Hattie's singles. Over the course of her musical career Hilo Hattie recorded for Decca, RCA and a number of other labels, and her songs include "South Sea Sadie," "Princess Pupule Has Plenty Papayas," "Pidgin English Hula," "My Hawaii" "Ukulele Lady" (also recorded rather well by Ethel Merman) and the inevitable "Santa's Hula." Though she was in many ways a novelty act, throughout the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s she recorded with many of the best musicians in the Hawaiian scene.

Several events in the 1960s added to the legend of Hilo Hattie. On the negative side, "Hilo Hattie" was apparently a code name for a covert military operation that helped lay the groundwork for the Viet Nam war. On the positive side, in 1961 Hilo Hattie kissed Elvis!

Though not nearly as extensive as her role in "Song Of The Islands," Hattie's appearance in "Blue Hawaii" is nonetheless, extremely satisfying. The film opens with Chad's (Elvis) girlfriend (a Hawaiian/French halfbreed, to temper the King's miscegenation a bit) driving to meet his plane. She runs into Waihila (Hilo Hattie) at the airport, where Waihila is apparently a greeter, the equivalent of the women who draped you with leis were you to arrive on Fantasy Island. Hattie is striking in a huge red mu'umu'u, 50 pounds of leis and her signature floppy hat. What's most impressive is that she looks almost exactly the same as she did in the 1930s, with just a little wear around the edges. As the plane's hatch opens, "Chad" is making out with the stewardess, enraging the girlfriend and annoying a fat man trying to get off the plane. Hilo Hattie, in true Aloha Spirit, solves everyone's problem by giving island advice to the girlfriend, ("Be patient...some boys need time to get adjusted") and giving the fat dude a warm island greeting. In between she manages to kiss The King, who seems as excited to see her as he is his lady. Hilo Hattie doesn't appear again in the movie (she wasn't invited to the wedding?) but does garner 10th billing and got the most out of her cameo. That's what I call Taking Care of Business In A Flash!

As the 1960s turned to the 1970s Hilo Hattie managed to work her way into the last frontier of Hawaiian popular culture left for her to conquer: she appeared on "Hawaii 5-0"! In 1968 she helped get the legendary show afloat by portraying a suspect's mom who gets grilled by McGarrett in the second episode, "Strangers in Our Own Land," which actually dealt with colonial exploitation of Island natives. In 1970 in the episode, "The Late John Louisiana," she played Mrs. Pruitt, a suspect's neighbor. Interestingly enough, for a woman whose name would one day be synonymous with Hawaiian shirts, this episode prominently features the now derided early 70s Aloha Shirt style, with contrasting collar and cuffs.

The 1970s would prove to be the decade in which Hilo Hattie would gain immortality by both passing from the mortal world to the heavenly and by making the transformation from human being to corporate entity. In 1978 she was the first winner of the Sidney Grayson Award, for lifetime achievement at the Na Hoku Hanohano Awards. The "Hokus" are Hawaii's version of the Grammys. The next year, at age 77, Hilo Hattie died. However, before leaving the earthly paradise of the islands for otherworldly paradise, she cut a deal that would make her name live on as long as tourists dig pineapples. Kaluna Hawaii Sportswear, already a million dollar business, expanded that year by purchasing a manufacturing plant in Hilo. At the same time, in a move that doubtlessly brought the Island Spirit to their side, they bought the rights to Hilo Hattie's name and took it as their company's new moniker.

Founded by Jim Romig in 1963, Kaluna Hawaii Sportswear was a successful business, catering to thrifty tourists with the alluring promise, "Home of the $3.95 Aloha Shirt." Since taking on her name, the company, has provided Hilo Hattie scholarships to the University of Hawaii in Hawaiian studies and music. The real honor they have given her, though, is assuring that her name will be on the lips and her store part of the trips of every tourist passing through the isles. At their main store on Oahu you are not only greeted with complimentary juice and a shell lei, but also with the largest Aloha Shirt in the world, a floral fabric monstrosity that would fit someone about halfway in size between Andre The Giant and Godzilla. At that point one would be satisfied without even entering the store, but once you step in you get to see literally hundreds of different styles of Aloha shirts made out of some of the most amazing textile designs you've ever seen. Though there are a number of high-end silk shirts by other designers, the heart of the collection is the Hilo Hattie line, mostly all cotton, some with real carved coconut buttons, priced between $30 and $40. Every island theme you can think of is incorporated in the designs, so you can wear ukuleles, palm trees, grass shacks, hula girls, cocktails, island maps, conch shells, surfboards, and hibiscus flowers to your heart's delight. The best part, however, is that the Hilo patterns are available in all sizes, and in mu'umu'us, mini-dresses, and long dresses. Thus the fashionable traveling couple can wear the always-classy matching outfits! If only they hadn't gotten out at the next stop I could have told the girls on the train that tidbit, intimating that it might be possible if they ever date "The Rock" to wear matching duds! Better yet, I should have told them the tale of the woman whose voice was a breeze from Polynesia. If her charms can't sway you, then you are not the type of person I want to eavesdrop on and harass on public transportation!

If you want to stay in the hula groove check and