Hawaii Calls – Hilo Hattie Hops

Don McDiarmid, Sr. (composer of such beloved comic hula songs as “My Wahine and Me” and “Sadie, The South Seas Lady”) wrote the wacky “When Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop” n 1935 when he was a member of Harry Owens’ band at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Don took the song to his bandleader boss for his approval, but Owens said they couldn’t play such a low-brow song in such a classy establishment as the Royal. But Clarissa “Clara” Haili Inter, a singer and guitarist with Louise Akeo’s Royal Hawaiian Girls’ Glee Club (the same group who performed daily for the Kodak Hula Show written about here previously), discovered the song, created an iconic hula for it, and made it her own – but, to contradict many accounts, she did so reluctantly. But it would not be long before “When Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop” would be more Clara’s song than McDiarmid’s. 

Now, by all accounts the diminutive Clara was quite the lady, as all members of Louise Akeo’s Glee Club were expected to be. On stage, they carried themselves with the utmost professionalism. But on a cruise to Portland, Oregon – far from Hawai`i and reputations – Clara performed the comic hula she had dreamed up with the ship’s orchestra and nearly capsized the ship from the uproarious applause. She continued to perfect the performance – trying it out at private parties, but never in public because she felt it would not be received correctly. But then one evening at the Royal, Clara decided she wanted to unleash the number on that classy audience. The song’s composer, McDiarmid, was now the bandleader, and despite Clara’s urging, he flatly refused. But this was not because he agreed with his former boss that the song was too low-brow for the establishment by any means. No, the reason is far more shocking. As McDiarmid recounted in the April 1947 issue of Paradise of the Pacific: “I had conjured up an exotic eyeful, tall and slender, voluptuous and glamorous. Well, if you’ve seen Clara in the role, I need say no more. She is neither tall nor slender, neither streamlined nor glamorous.” This revelation took me aback since my entire life I had seen the number performed by hula dancers who might be considered momona. But in the article McDiarmid went on to say that he clearly had in mind a prepossessing someone like an Aggie Auld or a Napua Woodd – tall, slender ladies with their curves in the right places who just also happened to excel at the comic hula. But once you have seen Clara do the hula she created for “Hilo Hop,” you simply cannot imagine anyone else doing it. And, before I forget to finish the story I started, Clara got her way, McDiarmid and orchestra accompanied her on the song at the Royal that evening, and they did five encores for a most enthusiastic audience. 

Clara Haili Inter embodied Hilo Hattie. And this is why she eventually changed her name legally to Hilo Hattie. Ironically, it was Harry Owens – who at first staunchly rejected the song – who assisted Clara with her legal name change since she was contractually obligated to do so by 20th Century Fox who insisted she use the name when she was featured in their 1941 film Song Of The Islands. 

And the rest, as they say, is history. Hilo Hattie went on to international acclaim on records, television appearances, and motion pictures. And not merely a footnote to the story, she even licensed her iconic name to the retail clothing chain whose stores dot the islands. Hilo Hattie was a performer, but she was also an enterprise – an akamai lady who also possessed the charm to win over her audiences, clients, and business partners. Ho`olohe Hou will feature her again when we celebrate her October birthday next year. But, for now, I hope you appreciate seeing Hilo Hattie in this clip likely not seen anywhere else in nearly 50 years and which may be the only video in which she is captured performing the song which made her famous – and gave her that name. 

Next time: If you’re lucky, a hana hou from Hilo Hattie… 


Trivia: The Hilo Hattie retail chain existed long before Hilo Hattie leant it her name. What was the chain called before it was called Hilo Hattie’s? (Difficulty Rating: Hard as hell regardless of your sources because not a single source on the Internet gets it right. Easy if you are an aficionado of Hawaiian fashion or a collector – as I am – of vintage aloha shirts.) 


Direct download: Hilo_Hattie_-_When_Hilo_Hattie_Does_The_Hilo_Hop.m4v
Category:50s and 60s -- posted at: 5:49am EDT