Wednesday, May 29, 2002

James Grant Benton, a founder of the legendary trio Booga Booga, died yesterday.

Beloved comedian
a local legend

Benton helped found the
Booga Booga group in the 1970s

James Grant Benton / 1949-2002


By John Berger

Debra Benton thought for a moment that her husband, comedian and motivational speaker James Grant Benton, was "messing with me" when she got up for work yesterday morning and found him sitting motionless in another room.

"His thing was 'no mosquitos,' and he was sitting there with a lit (mosquito) punk in his hand. I thought he was messing with me, but he was gone," she said.

Benton, beloved since his college days as a founding member of comedy group Booga Booga and a seminal figure in contemporary local comedy, had died of a heart attack. He was 53.

"He went that fast, which was a gracious thing," Debra Benton said yesterday afternoon.

About "20 dozen roses" had already been delivered to the Benton's beach-front home by yesterday afternoon, and the phone had "rung off the hook" with calls.

"I'm grateful for all of it," she said.

Twenty-two years ago, three zany guys -- Ed Ka'ahea, left, Rap Reiplinger and James Grant Benton -- got together to form the comedy trio Booga Booga.

The comedian had been in failing health and battling a hereditary blood disorder for about a year. As with some of the other ups and downs he had weathered in his years as a Booga-man, Benton had kept his health problems well removed from his high-profile public persona as a local entertainment legend and motivational speaker.

"There was a whole side of James the public doesn't even know about," Debra Benton said. "He was a really neat husband and father and grandfather, and now he's gone."

Comedian Frank B. Shaner, star of the Hawaiian 105 KINE morning show, who had done club dates with Benton as a member of Booga Booga in 1986, described him simply as "the original, one of the legends."

Booga Booga started off as a performance theater group at the University of Hawaii-Manoa in 1974, but it was as a trio consisting of James Grant Benton, Ed Ka'ahea, and Rap Reiplinger, that "Booga" revolutionized island entertainment with the debut of "Kanaka Komedy" at the Territorial Tavern in 1975.

Some of their material and much of their presentation reflected their theater training but they were also keen observers of local character types, and excellent comic actors.

The influence of Booga Booga can be seen and heard in the material of almost every local comedian that followed.

Reiplinger left in 1977 for a solo career. Benton and Ka'ahea kept the group going in several configurations until Reiplinger returned for a series of "reunion" engagements that continued until his death in 1984.

"Dangerous Dave" Lancaster joined the group after Shaner moved on, Ray Bumatai became a Booga-man when Ka'ahea moved to Kauai, and Bill Ogilvie joined the team for a short-lived experiment with a four-man line-up. Booga Booga was again a trio -- Benton, Lancaster, and Bumatai -- when they performed in Kimo Wilder McVay's "Roach Bowl II" in Blaisdell Arena in 1988.

Benton's solo accomplishments included translating Shakespeare into pidgin years before the advent of contemporary local pidgin theater, and recording "Unknown Moments From Hawaiian History?!" for Prism Records.

In later years he was retained by television and film production companies as a language coach and cultural advisor.

Benton and others later founded the Mo'ili'ili Blind Fish Tank with Arnold Hiura and embarked on a new career as motivational speakers. The trio were a hit with corporate clients and governmental entities alike. Benton had several Fish Tank appointments scheduled for later this week.

Benton and Ka'ahea were also scheduled to perform at the "Lolo No Ka 'Oi" comedy concert with Mel Cabang, Augie T, Lanai and Da Braddahs in June.

Debra Benton said: "(James) loved the ocean and his crabs and his stick fish, and the goat in the mountain behind us that he thinks is Rap (Reiplinger), so now he's thinking he's gonna join Rap in the mountain and drive me crazy.

"He was happy doing his work that was nontheatrical -- 'Humor in the Work Place' -- with the Blind Fish Tank. He was a good man who was funny, who could make a lot of people laugh, and now he's gone."

Benton is also survived by his son, Kui, and his granddaughter, Nai'a. Services will be private.

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