Sun, 30 November 2014
When I was in high school, I had earned the lead in the drama club’s musicals in both my freshman and sophomore years. So I assumed I was a “shoe in” for the role of Curley in Oklahoma in my junior year. I have never been afraid of the stage, and my audition went amazingly well. So you can imagine that I was simply crushed to learn that I did not get the part. I asked the director if my audition was as bad as all that, and he assured me the audition was absolutely rock solid.
“Then why didn’t I get the part?” I countered.
“Because you’re not blonde.”
Having always been a self-proclaimed wise ass, I retorted, “Neither was Ed Kenney when he played Curley.”
The director said, “Who the hell is Ed Kenney?”
And that was that.
Even at that tender age of 16 – nearly 30 years ago – I bemoaned the reality that Hawai`i’s entertainers received so little recognition beyond their island boundaries. And, in this case, not even one who starred in not one, not two, but three Broadway musicals in my director’s lifetime. And Broadway was less than 75 miles from my suburban Philadelphia high school. Still, the name did not ring any bells.
Back in Hawai`i, perhaps few knew – or cared – that Kenney was once a shining star on the Great White Way. They knew Kenney for his voice which had been part of their local music scene for more than 35 years by the time that both he and I had been insulted by my high school director. After a modest start in community theater, in 1954 a then 20-year-old Kenney was starring in the “Sunset Serenade Show” at the Niumalu Hotel (which only a few years later would be the home of Alfred Apaka when the Niumalu became the Hawaiian Village Hotel). For the next 25 years Ed Kenney would hold court for audiences at every major hotel and nightclub in Waikiki – the most notable, perhaps, being his lengthy stints at the Sheraton Waikiki, Halekulani, and Royal Hawaiian Hotels where he headlined with his then wife, the amazing hula dancer Beverly Noa. Oh, yes, and in between Kenney managed to escape his own local celebrity to forge a second career on Broadway, first in Shangri-La (1956), then the role for which he is best known, Wan Ta, in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Flower Drum Song (1958-1960), and finally in a musical about life in Hawai`i taken to Broadway by its writer, Punahou graduate Eaton Magoon, 13 Daughters (1961).
Perhaps because of his mainland notoriety – the snub from my high school director notwithstanding – Kenney signed a number of recording contracts with such prestigious record labels as Decca and Columbia. Performing a mixture of traditional Hawaiian fare and current Broadway hits, Kenney’s records sold well and received glowing reviews from Billboard magazine.
But despite the coming and going from his island home, Kenney never lost touch with – or pride in – his Hawaiian roots. He was the protégé of hula master and Hawaiian cultural expert Nona Beamer who worked with Kenney on hula, Hawaiian language, and every conceivable aspect of Hawaiian performance. As his friend and collaborator, Tony Todaro, wrote in his Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment, after his work with Beamer, “Ed’s subsequent performances were always gilded with his own genius and Nona Beamer’s magic.”
With this combination of good looks, fabulous voice, dance training, stage experience, utter fearlessness and willingness to try anything once, and deep roots in his Hawaiian culture, Ed Kenney would be the perfect addition to the Hawaii Calls family, wouldn’t he? Definitely! And yet, having read every publicly available piece on Ed Kenney’s life and career, and having mined nearly a hundred hours of Hawaii Calls radio programs, there is no evidence than Kenney ever appeared on the radio version of Hawaii Calls. He also never appeared on any of Hawaii Calls more than two dozen LP releases on Capitol Records. However, he was the shining star of the short-lived TV version of Hawaii Calls, appearing in nearly all of its 26 episodes, making no fewer than two (and often three) appearances per show in a program which offered only ten performances per half-hour episode.
In short, Ed Kenney was the star of the Hawaii Calls TV show.
As with co-stars Hilo Hattie and Poncie Ponce who also never appeared on the radio program, Kenney was likely recruited for the TV version of the show not merely because he was talented as hell, but equally importantly because he had a built-in following from coast to coast from his work on Broadway, television, and nationally-distributed recordings – work across a number of genres, all of which earned him rave reviews. But even Kenney’s star power could not save the program which was here and gone in only one season. But in his many performances on the show, Kenney demonstrates over and over again – as Todaro described it – the combination of his own genius and Nona Beamer’s magic.
We are going to spend the day here at Ho`olohe Hou examining a half-dozen of these performances and the spell that Kenney could weave. None of these performances have been available to the public in the nearly 50 years since they first aired. So I hope you will join me in this step backward in time as we look at one of the great entertainers of his generation – from Hawai`i or anywhere.
I don’t care what my high school director says.
Next time: Ed Kenney in a Hawaiian number tailor-made for his talents…
The songs heard in this set are from Ed’s 1962 Columbia Records LP The Exotic Sounds of the Spice Islands. Despite its ironic title, there is no Hawaiian music in this collection. Rather, it is the only LP which features Kenney singing the songs that made him famous – tunes from hit Broadway musicals and others from the Great American Songbook. The album is no longer available in any format.