Fri, 28 November 2014
A welder by trade, Ponciano Hernandez secretly desired to be an entertainer. The young man was raised playing his native `ukulele but also excelled at the saxophone, trumpet, harmonica, and bongos. But his real talent was comedy. His act went over well for tourists on Maui where he was born and raised, and he fared well too in local talent contests – even winning one hosted by local celebrity Lucky Luck. So he decided to make a go of a life on the stage and took the plunge completely by moving to Los Angeles where he was discovered by a used car dealer who also happened to broadcast a local radio talent show, Rocket to Stardom, right from his automotive showroom on Wilshire Boulevard. While performing at Ben Blue’s Santa Monica as a singer and stand-up comedian, he was discovered all over again by Warner Bros. executives who thought there might be a part for him in their new Hawai`i-based TV show just going into production. They signed him to a contract with one stipulation: Jack Warner (you know – one of the Warner Brothers) thought his name was too complicated for television audiences to say or remember, and fully expecting him to become a star, insisted on shortening it to something more clever and alliterative.
Before you know it, Poncie Ponce was one of the stars of the hit TV series Hawaiian Eye, the first regular series since the (then very recent) invention of television to be set in Hawai`i. His performance as the singing, clowning cab driver Kazuo Kim was well received – landing him on the cover of TV Guide and in the guest chair of talk and variety shows hosted by such notables as Mike Douglas, Red Skelton, Woody Woodbury, David Frost, John Gary, and Art Linkletter. Warner Bros. even enlisted him – as they did other members of the Hawaiian Eye cast (including Robert Conrad and Connie Stevens) – to record an LP – partly to tout Ponce’s vocal talents, but moreso as a shameless promotional tie-in to the TV show. The record, Poncie Ponce Sings, features hapa-haole classics performed by some of L.A.’s finest studio musicians (including steel guitarist Vince Akina) – most in the comic vein for which Ponce was noted. Billboard magazine agreed that the comedy tunes were Poncie’s strength, saying, “He does his best work on novelties.”
Such fame can be fleeting, but not for Ponce who, after the four-year run of Hawaiian Eye came to an end, went on to perform across the country – at such prestigious spots as the Flamingo Hotel in Las Vegas, the Palmer House in Chicago, Steel Pier in Atlantic City, and the Frank Sinatra-owned Cal-Neva Lodge in Lake Tahoe – as well as around the world with extended engagements and TV appearances in Sydney, Australia, Tokyo, Japan, and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Back home in Hawai`i he had runs at both the Outrigger Hotel in Waikiki and the Naniloa Hotel in Hilo. But he appeared most frequently Las Vegas – likely because it was easy to get to from his new permanent home state of California. And he also made a film appearance as one of the pit crew in Elvis Presley’s Speedway.
As with Hilo Hattie and others who appeared on the TV version of Hawaii Calls but never on the radio version which spawned it, show creator/host Webley Edwards likely did not choose Poncie Ponce to appear on the show so much for his popularity in his home islands as much as for his established nationwide notoriety. Here he performs one of the most notable – and earliest written – hapa-haole songs from the pen of the man largely credited for creating the genre in the early 1900s, Sonny Cunha (who is also known for composing “Boola Boola,” the still popular fight song for his alma mater, Yale University). Ponce performed “Hapa-Haole Hula Girl” on his 1962 Warner Bros. LP, but he performs it again here for TV audiences in an entirely different arrangement accompanied by the Hawaii Calls group. You can hear from this tune that he clearly excelled at this type of comedy material, and – perhaps because of breaking in first as a comedian – Ponce is one of the few performers who can actually convey the humor in the song with his voice alone even if you couldn’t also see the wink and the smile.
I hope you appreciate seeing this clip of Poncie Ponce which has remained in a vault somewhere for nearly 50 years.
Next time: The sensitive side of Poncie Ponce we never heard on record…