Genoa Keawe is so well known for her repertoire of Hawaiian and hapa-haole songs that it may be difficult for most folks under 50 to imagine her singing American pop standards with equal skill. Keawe's show-stopping rendition of "Alika" has been her musical signature for years, but two of her all-time favorite songs are "You Darling" and "Embraceable You."
Tribute recreates radio broadcasts
and recalls a Honolulu of days gone by
By John Berger
Although Randie Fong isn't quite old enough to remember the days when Keawe sang American pop hits at his parents' nightclub, Club Polynesia, he grew up listening to their stories of the old days. Now he's recreating the Club Polynesia era for a concert sponsored by St. Francis, that will honor Keawe for bringing happiness to patients for so many years. The production tomorrow night at Hawaii Theatre is being called "Embraceable You."
"She first performed there in 1946 (and) until about 1948, and then she made appearances every now and then through the '50s. We're going to recreate a radio broadcast that happened at Club Polynesia for many years," Fong said.
Keawe, who currently performs Thursdays at the Waikiki Beach Marriott Resort, will be the guest of honor as several generations of local singers and musicians share their talents in recreating the magic of an era when downtown Honolulu was the place to go for a night out on the town.
"We had a rehearsal with about 15 of the old-time musicians; some of them hadn't seen each other for years and they were talking about how on breaks they'd run over to Brown Derby --- Ella Fitzgerald had come to visit, there were big time jazz people there -- and then they'd run over to Club Polynesia for the finest Hawaiian entertainers."
"It was a period when the jukeboxes had both Hawaiian and (American) hit parade things -- you'd have Patti Page and then Genoa, Lena Machado and then someone else. Both repertoires were in happy company with each other and they were interspersed with a kind of nonchalance almost as if they were the same. That's going to come across so strongly when Gabe Baltazar comes out and the band does this incredible rumba to "Moonlight and Shadows."
Baltazar will be working with Amy Hanaiali'i Gilliom and Zanuck Kapala Lindsey in a segment recalling Keawe's early days at Club Polynesia. Brittney Anelaikalani Jennings and Na Palapalai -- Kaeo Costa, Kehau Tamure and Hoku Zuttermeister -- will represent the best of the new generation of traditionalist Hawaiian entertainers in another. The members of Na Palapalai are a good 10 years older then the talented teen, but Fong says that's still considered "young" by fans of traditional Hawaiian music.
"They're singing a repertoire that was popular 30 years ago. There aren't a whole lot of people even in their twenties perpetuating that kind of Hawaiian music," Fong said. Frank Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, O'Brien Eselu, and Frank B. Shaner are among the other entertainers who will be performing.
But Fong is offering more than musical memories tomorrow night.
"To begin each half of the concert we're having about a 5-minute video clip of Myrtle K. Hilo and Genoa walking down Nuuanu Avenue pointing out where things used to be -- Club Polynesia, Brown Derby, the Blue Note and all the popular night spots -- because many of them aren't there any more.
"I think the inside of the Pantheon is still there, but unfortunately Club Polynesia is gone, and Liberty Theatre too."
Fong, now 41, was still a child when his parents sold Club Polynesia. The nightclub survived for a while, but the building was eventually torn down in one of the spasms of "urban redevelopment" that destroyed downtown Honolulu as Oahu's entertainment center and saw some historic buildings destroyed and replaced by parking lots. For several decades afterward, downtown Honolulu was considered by many residents as little more than "Hotel Street" -- a place of strip clubs, porn shops and transvestite prostitutes. Waikiki replaced downtown Honolulu as the place to go for a nice night out; now there's Restaurant Row and the Aloha Tower Marketplace as well.
Fong is turning the clock back tomorrow night.
"We don't have the physical buildings but we can recreate a moment in time. For 20 minutes we can make believe this is 55 years ago, and, with some of the very same people who were involved in that (1949) broadcast singing similar songs, capture that very rare moment."
"Embraceable You: A Tribute to Genoa Keawe"When: 7 p.m. tomorrow
Where: Hawaii Theatre
Tickets: $75 (orchestra), $50 (parterre), $35 (balcony) and $30 (upper
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