Erika Engle

Friday, August 27, 2004

Decades-old Biggie’s
Nut Shell in Kailua
is packing it in

BIGGIE'S Nut Shell, a Kailua bar, institution and former gangster hangout with a funny name will pour its last drink Aug. 31 after more than 41 years in business.

James "Biggie" Gonsalves Sr. wants to retire, travel and spend time with the Pit Bulls -- his golf buddies. None of his eight children were interested in taking over the business.

But first, a big "Aloha No Paina" farewell party is planned for tomorrow at the bar at 115 Oneawa St.

Gonsalves, 72, downplays the stories about reputed mob figures holding court -- and allegedly doing other things -- at the bar in the 1970s.

Organized crime boss Henry Huihui was among Biggie's clientele. Gonsalves knew Huihui's grandfather and father from his youth in Kakaako, he said.

Carmel Purdy held a picture yesterday of Biggie's Nut Shell 40 years ago. Audrey O'Day and Biggie Gonsalves are seen in the picture.

The name Buster Parker brought a smile to his face. "He's my friend. He's all gray now," referring to the legendary crime figure's hair. The names of crime bosses Nappy Pulawa, Roy Ryder and "the Reigers of Maili" were also familiar to him, as he "used to go all over the place" when he was growing up, he said.

Guided by a sort of barkeep-customer confidentiality code, he would only say that the bar has hosted "the good, the bad and the ugly. As long as they come inside, spend their money and behave."

One particularly colorful story about an alleged "whacking" inside the bar, followed by the alleged feeding of the alleged decedent to alleged sharks in Kaneohe Bay, caused Gonsalves to shake his head and smile. "Don't believe everything you hear," he said.

In addition to underworld figures, Biggie's has had its share of above-ground local and national celebrity clientele, including the late Bobo Olson, the former world middleweight boxing champion from Kalihi; entertainer and radio personality Sam Kapu, major league baseball player Sid Fernandez and NFL players such as "Mean" Joe Green, Deacon Jones and John Stallworth, not to mention local boy Russ Francis.

Gonsalves' mother named the bar, using her son's nickname and her assessment that all his friends were "nutty." So the bar is the shell in which the nuts could be found.

"When (Biggie) and his friends would sit around and tell stories about the old days I would sit and listen, and oh, so funny," said Kapu. He started going in the 1970s when he worked alongside Don Ho. Gonsalves' son Brian also worked for Ho and eventually became the showroom manager.

"Everybody went to Biggie's," Kapu said. "Cops and robbers and servicemen and local people and they would bring their haole friends and introduce 'em.

"It was like the Hawaiian 'Cheers.'

"Had these aunties running the bar and if you had enough, they would tell you, 'Get the hell out of here before I kick your a--. You want me to call your wife?'" Kapu laughed.

Biggie's customers generally knew to behave and that there were consequences for "getting stupid," he said.

One night back in the day, James Gonsalves, Kapu and others went from the Don Ho show to Chuck's Cellar in Waikiki, which issued last call at 1:30 a.m.

Gonsalves protested, to no avail, that he'd come all the way from Kailua.

"He said, 'Who wants to go to Biggie's?' So we formed a caravan of five or six cars and we all headed back over the Pali."

The bar had closed but Gonsalves' companions put the bar stools back down, set the ashtrays out and commenced to pouring.

"He said, 'Sambo, you want to see me pack this bar?'" and proceeded to call regulars on the phone pretending to be "getting lickings."

"Within half an hour they come busting through the door," looking to help Biggie, Kapu said. Realizing they had been brought to the bar under false pretenses, Biggie's backers, some having left home wearing puka pants and others without putting in their teeth, uttered a few choice words and bellied up to the bar, Kapu laughed.

Out came the upright bass and ukulele from Biggie's office and "the next thing you know, that place is swinging."

By yesterday morning Gonsalves had already taken home many pictures of the bar's characters from over the years.

"Everything gotta be out by Tuesday," he said.

Still up, however, were funeral programs and pictures of beloved friends in a memorial niche, including one of Juanita Kapu, Sam's mother. She and Gonsalves worked together at Dairymen's (the predecessor to Meadow Gold) in the 1950s.

The majority of Gonsalves' clientele are long-time neighborhood folk who have become regulars.

Three generations of the Botelho family have made Biggie's a home away from home, for instance.

They are served by longtime employees, such as 21-year veteran Carmel Purdy.

She's not sure yet what life after Biggie's will hold.

The employee with perhaps the longest tenure was Gonsalves' sister-in-law, Rose, who died in July at age 75. She had worked at the bar for 35 years before retiring two years ago.

One Christmas season a boy of unspecified age poked his head in the bar and looked longingly at Biggie's Christmas tree. When Rose learned that the boy's family didn't have a tree she asked Biggie if they could give it to him.

"Tell your mother 'Come over here and get it,'" Gonsalves told him.

He also gave away a piano once. "When I drink ..." he said.

A Kaimuki High School graduate, Gonsalves served in the Hawaii Air National Guard before becoming a dairy delivery driver.

An injury put him out of work for nearly two years, until the opportunity arose to purchase the Lion's Den bar in Kailua in 1962. It was his the next year.

Gonsalves got a $30,000 bank loan and another $10,000 from his father, Joseph. Joseph Gonsalves gave his son six months to make the bar successful.

"I wish he was still here. That six months came to 41 and a half years," he said.

His original liquor license, signed by William Lucas, was displayed on the wall, just below the TV.

Chief liquor investigator John Carroll described Gonsalves as "always a gentleman." Carroll didn't have ready access to old liquor license records, but said next to the Smith's Union Bar, Biggie's was probably one of the oldest bars on Oahu.

As of Sept. 1, Kailua Palace Inc. will take over the space and will continue to operate it as a bar.

See the Columnists section for some past articles.

Erika Engle is a reporter with the Star-Bulletin. Call 529-4302, fax 529-4750 or write to Erika Engle, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210, Honolulu, HI 96813. She can also be reached at: eengle@starbulletin.com



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