Tue, 4 November 2014
In the 1930s (just as it remains today), most tourist lu`au took place in the evening – commencing at sunset in order to maximize the romanticism of an island paradise. Fascinated tourists snapped picture after picture of the show – the myriad musicians and hula dancers – only to develop the film and discover nothing more than a purple-hazed blur. The combination of the low light of evening and primitive cameras made it impossible in that era for tourists to capture some of the most unique things about a visit to Hawai`i.
In the midst of the Great Depression, then vice-president and manager of Kodak Hawaii, Fritz Herman, hatched a plan. He enlisted Louise Akeo Silva to launch a daytime hula show on the lawn behind San Souci Beach – across from Kapi`olani Park, near the Waikiki Shell concert hall, close enough to Waikiki for the least energetic tourist to make the walk. A daytime hula show would allow tourists to return home happily with crystal-clear photos of swaying hips and the flourish of the feathered uli uli – all exceedingly adequately lit by Father Sun. But Herman had only one purpose in mind: To sell film.
When the show opened in 1937, it featured five dancers, four musicians, and an audience of only 100 tourists. But at its peak, the show presented as many as 20 female and six male hula dancers, 15 musicians, and two chanters and played to as many as 3,000 tourists each week. (Many of the cast of musicians and dancers were members of the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club.) During its 65-year run, the Kodak Hula Show entertained and educated more than 17 million visitors.
Over the years many in the Hawaiian music and hula community accused the Kodak Hula Show of pandering to the tourists with a preponderance of hapa-haole music (songs about Hawaiian people, places, and ideals but sung in the English language). But in its time, the show was an as authentic as possible representation of traditional Hawaiian music and hula as could be found in post-statehood Hawai`i when – as we have heard elsewhere at Ho`olohe Hou – Hawaiian music was evolving to incorporate such foreign influences as rock, jazz, R&B, and – a few years later – even disco and reggae. So despite that this was merely a haole gimmick to make money off of the Hawaiian people and their unique culture, the Kodak Hula Show represents an important bridge from the music and dance of Hawai`i’s past and present. It withstood all of the changes and influences that took hold of the acts up and down the Waikiki strip and remained true to its roots. And in some ways tradition won as the kind of music presented at the Kodak Hula Show during this tumultuous period is being performed again by some of the most popular acts in Hawai`i.
Everything old is new again.
Listen to this set list… It is clearly aimed at teaching tourists something about Hawaiian culture – even if its corporate producers didn’t care – as it is filled with standards of the hula (and one Tahitian otea, or drum dance). The set opens with “Ula No Weo” which, in the words of kumu hula and ethnomusicologist Amy Ku`uleialoha Stillman, was used by the Kodak Hula Show over its many years as a “cornerstone mele to demonstrate ancient Hawaiian dancing.” “Hanohano Hanalei” was likely used to demonstrate the use of the uli uli, a small, hollowed out gourd decorated with feathers and used as an implement in the hula. Then there is “Ho`onanea” (a more modern hula at the time, discussed here at length recently when Ho`olohe Hou celebrated the birthday of its venerable composer, Lena Machado) followed by “Kawika,” formerly a chant honoring King David Kalākaua but here taken in the more modern auana hula style with guitars, `ukulele, and even steel guitar. And they managed to cram all of that education into five minutes! I chose these songs specifically to demonstrate that the notion of the show being “too touristy” was merely a perception since the set list for the typical Kodak Hula Show elucidates that there were more Hawaiian-language song selections than hapa-haole.
The music heard here is from a record largely geared toward tourists. Although Music from the Kodak Hula Show was not recorded live during the show, it does feature the same musicians who worked the show daily throughout the 1960s. It would be nice, though, to see the Kodak Hula Show one more time for the music is nothing without the hula.
Next time: A tourist captures a few minutes of the Kodak Hula Show for posterity… But where was the rest of the traditional Hawaiian music in Waikiki in the 1970s?… And what happened to “Kawika” when a new generation of Hawai`i’s musicians got a hold of it…
Trivia: What veteran of the Hawaiian entertainment scene of the mid-20th century was a regular cast member of the Kodak Hula Show almost from its very beginning in the 1930s? (Difficulty Rating: Easy if you have Google.)