Sat, 15 November 2014
As his nationwide popularity grew – in part due to his weekly appearances on the Hawaii Calls radio program –Apaka took a short hiatus from the show and did a stint on the mainland. This included several appearances on Bob Hope TV specials in which he showed fair acting chops and good comedic timing. But it was the voice that America really loved.
Apaka was back home in Hawai`i by 1955 – the result of the proverbial offer he could not refuse. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser (of Kaiser Aluminum, Kaiser Permanente, etc., etc.) decided to set up shop in Hawai`i – fairly permanently. He began with the Kaiser Hawaii Kai Development Corporation which developed with luxury homes the area around Maunalua Bay on the Diamond Head corner of the windward side of O`ahu. (The “Kai” in “Hawaii Kai” is short for “Kaiser” – not the Hawaiian word for “sea” as many tourists incorrectly assume.) Then, with partner Fritz B. Burns (have you ever noticed how magnates insist on using their middle initials?), Kaiser purchased what was the Niumalu Hotel at the gateway to Waikiki at the corner of Ala Moana Boulevard and Kalia Road and began construction on the Hilton Hawaiian Village. The cornerstone of this newly renovated property was The Tapa Room, a showroom where Kaiser planned on hosting Hawai`i’s finest entertainment. However, some sources say that Alfred Apaka was not merely the spark that ignited Kaiser’s flame to create the Hilton Hawaiian Village, but was the catalyst for Kaiser to create his entire island empire. Kaiser hired Apaka as the hotel’s entertainment director – a post he held until his untimely passing only a few years later – and installed him as the permanent artist in The Tapa Room. In that now legendary showroom, Apaka employed a group of musicians which largely overlapped with the cast of the Hawaii Calls radio programs including Sonny Kamahele, Jimmy Kaopuiki, and Jules Ah See. Under the direction of arranger Benny Kalama – who would soon assume the same role for the Hawaii Calls show when Al Kealoha Perry would retire in 1957 – the group named themselves for their new musical home: the Hawaiian Village Serenaders.
When Apaka returned to the weekly Hawaii Calls broadcasts after his time on the mainland, he was now performing the material that he was making famous with his national contract with Decca Records and which he featured nightly in his Tapa Room act. Here are a few of those from some mid-1950s Hawaii Calls broadcasts.
As the first program opens, you hear host Webley Edwards announce that they are, in fact, broadcasting from the newly opened Hawaiian Village Hotel. This dates this program to some time after September 1955. Apaka opens that week’s program with a number that would ultimately become his theme song, “Here In This Enchanted Place.” While perfect for setting the mood for an evening of Hawaiian entertainment, the song was not, in fact, composed for or about Hawai`i. It was a Top 5 hit the previous year for actor and singing sensation Tony Martin. And as you might be able to guess from its demanding melody line, the music was adapted from the aria “Caro noma” from Rigoletto, Giuseppe Verdi’s beloved opera. The song became a Hawaiian standard nonetheless – in part because of Apaka’s virtuoso performances.
Before the next song, Apaka himself congratulates Kaiser on the completion of the hotel complex. Edwards also allows Apaka to announce the song himself. The script was likely written by Edwards (who wrote all of the scripts), but allowing Apaka to speak was likely an attempt at capitalizing on Apaka’s growing mainland popularity. The sound of the band and its backing vocals – which are slightly jazzier than those usually featured on the radio show – is not unlike what you would have heard in Apaka’s evening shows at this same venue. Here he performs one of the all-time great hapa-haole songs, “Mapuana,” one of the few compositions from the pen of an all-around fine musician, Lani Muk Sang – known professionally simply as Lani Sang – who spent much of his career in the Los Angeles area working at Hollywood’s venerable Seven Seas Supper Club as well as with the West Coast’s finest Hawaiian music aggregation, The Polynesians (which at various points in its history was comprised of any combination of Harry Baty, Sam Kaapuni, Bob Nichols, Sam Koki, and brothers Ernie and Freddie Tavares). Apaka recorded “Mapuana” on his mid-1950s LP Broadway Wears A Lei which was produced and funded by – who else? – Henry J. Kaiser.
A simple song that expresses such deep sentiment with so few words, “My Hawaiian Souvenirs” was one of those heartbreaking songs of longing for the islands (before the era of “Honolulu City Lights”). From the pen of one of the kings of hapa-haole songwriting, Johnny Noble, Alfred Apaka would go on to wax this song for Decca Records as well.
Next time: Hawai`i’s golden voice is silenced too soon...