The Days Of Our Lives With Don Ho

Eddie Sherman
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Wednesday - April 25, 2007

Editor’s note: The first segment of this column is excerpted from Eddie Sherman’s “Frank, Sammy, Marlon & Me: Adventures in Paradise with the Celebrity Set,” published last year by Watermark. The second, Eddie penned last week for MidWeek.

In 1957, I was a bachelor and shared an apartment in Waikiki with Flash Miller, who managed the popular Queen’s Surf nightclub. Flash asked me one day if I knew of someone who could replace his star attraction, Sterling Mossman, at the Barefoot Bar. Mossman was going on a two-week vacation.

I suggested myself. Naturally, Miller thought the idea was crazy. But I had a plan. I would basically take a page from Ed Sullivan, who at the time hosted the top variety show on television. Sullivan was a New York columnist, while I was a Hawaii columnist. He introduced people from the audience, and I would do the same thing. But we would have entertainers planted in the audience who would be our “guests,” and they’d come up and do their bit when called upon.

Miller thought it was a great idea and not very expensive. He quickly went out and employed a band for the two-week period. The band was this group from Kaneohe led by a little-known performer named Don Ho.

Much to everyone’s surprise, our show was an instant hit, and for two weeks the Barefoot Bar was packed.

One night during a guest’s performance, Don and his band members were having a conversation behind the entertainer. I was furious. I told Don later how unprofessional and discourteous it was to the entertainer.

“Never do it again,” I warned him, “or I’ll see that you have a hard time getting another job in Waikiki.”

He just shrugged. “OK.”

A few months later, Don was starring in Waikiki at Duke Kahanamoku’s. He was a roaring success. Don eventually became the biggest entertainment name in Hawaii.

About our Barefoot Bar show, Ho quipped, “It had the worst emcee and the worst band, but we were a big hit.”

What was, and is, so special about Don Ho? How did he become such a major attraction? He’s of medium height, and not particularly attractive. He mumbles. He appears to have hardly any energy and often performs like he’s sleepwalking. He does-n’t possess a particularly good voice. What is the big talent? Why is he so popular?

I’ve been watching him and writing about him for most of his professional life. I’ve seen hundreds of his performances. Yet I’m still baffled at how he manages to capture an audience and weave his special magic. I’ve taken numerous guests to his shows over the years. After the first few minutes, they often ask me, “What’s the big deal about this guy?” Then two hours later, they’re on their feet giving him a standing ovation.

My own opinion? His “magic” is sheer charisma. Don was born with it. He has that special magnetism, presence, personality and charm - and yes, incredible sex appeal. People just eat up his laid-back, “I-don’t-give-a-damn” Polynesian attitude. Like he often says, “It ain’t no big thing.”

It’s just magic, that’s all.

Don’s performance schedule these days includes stops at many of the Indian gambling casinos proliferating around the country. There are more than 400 of them coast-to-coast. And his shows are often sellouts. Asked why he’s so popular on this circuit, he laughs and says, “They think I look like an Indian, so I must be one. People seem to believe that.”

Don has always been one of Hawaii’s most talked-about performers. When he first came to prominence in Waikiki, there were always rumors about his drinking, carousing and sexual activities. The youthful days of his Waikiki adventures were a bit on the wild side. His dressing room was always filled to capacity after shows with visiting young co-eds eager for a look, hug, kiss or even the ultimate Don Ho private favor.

Now in his mid-70s, Don continues to tour the country, and many of these former co-eds, now gray-haired grandmas, still flock to his shows, reliving their happy Waikiki memories. For his part, Don still has a liquid-filled glass on his piano, and will take an occasional sip. But booze it ain’t.

Recently, Don made headlines around the world when he had stem cells injected into his failing heart. The procedure seems to have helped. He’s cut back on his schedule, but still performs one or two nights weekly.

Don will never retire as long as he can still walk out on a stage. Performing is his life. He can’t live without it.

And did you know: Don Ho was a fighter pilot in the Air Force. He left the service in 1960 to tend to his ailing mother, and to perform at Honey’s, her nightclub in Kaneohe.

three star

One of my most memorable Don Ho experiences occurred about the time he exploded onto the national scene in the early 1960s. He was booked at the famed and historic Coconut Grove of Los Angeles, showplace of the stars. I went to the West Coast to cover the event.

Don’s Mainland debut was completely sold out. The nightclub lobby was packed with people offering all sorts of financial bribes to anyone who could squeeze them into the club. As I was escorted into the showroom by the maitre d’, I quickly spotted familiar faces of the entertainment world. Many were friends of Don’s. Looking around, someone was waving to me. It was Kui Lee. He asked me to sit at his table. Kui was decked out in a tuxedo. Two beautiful ladies were his guests.

“Can you believe this?” Kui said. “Here’s Don playing the Grove that’s sold out. I’ve been in a San Francisco nightclub for the past few weeks and can’t draw flies. And tonight I know he’ll be a hit because he’ll be singing my songs.”

Then Kui added, lifting a glass of champagne. “To Don!”

About an hour into his show, Don asked the audience how they liked his songs. A roar of appreciation and applause went up.

Said Don, “Most of the songs I’ve sung tonight were written by a young composer by the name of Kui Lee. To me he’s the best entertainer we have in Hawaii and the most talented songwriter. Kui Lee, come, come.”

Grinning, Kui leaped on stage. Grabbing a microphone he walked to the opposite end of the large stage from where Don was standing. Kui began to sing his composition She’s Gone Again while Don crooned another Kui melody I’ll Remember You. It was a riveting duet. Knowing their history, it was a very emotional moment for me, and I watched with tears in my eyes. Kui and Don conquered that sophisticated Coconut Grove audience.

Talk about memorable moments.

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