Don Ho relaxes backstage after his show on Feb. 11, 1999, accompanied by his executive producer, Haumea Hebenstreit, who later became his wife.
Don Ho leaves behind a philosophy of life we could all adopt
After a while in this business, you develop a kind of radar that sifts through degrees of shallowness among the characters you meet, all of whom, more or less, have something to sell. Which makes the genuine article particularly memorable.
Don Ho was the real thing.
Some years ago I was assigned the task of spending a couple of days with Ho. It was my job to observe, analyze, prod, poke and devilishly incite him, and then wrap it up in a neat package of few hundred words. Most stars in this highly artificial situation are either overly friendly or coolly reserved, and you can't blame them.
Ho was, instead, wryly bemused. He reacted as if I was there for his personal entertainment. It was as if having an observer was, for him, an adventure, one he would plunge into headlong, and he would do his best to make sure all of us enjoyed the trip.
That, on its own, was revelatory. Don Ho was adventuresome. He'd try anything just for the experience, but he'd do it on his own terms.
After just a few hours, I told him I had him figured out. Go ahead, he said. I spun a psychological analysis based on his background as an Air Force command pilot and the way he conducted himself on stage -- he made it look easy and comfortable, even though he kept tight rein on every detail. It's an attitude pilots like to show off, to maintain an even strain, to shrug it off as "ain't no big thing" while pushing the envelope. Don Ho, I postulated, was a "right stuff" kind of control freak. Ho laughed and laughed.
It was impossible to grow up in the islands without being affected by Don Ho, a working entertainer for nearly half a century. His work ethic was incredible. But he also drew the enjoyment out of the average person, and his shows were legendary for audience participation. One of his achievements was to break down the "fourth wall" between the stage and audience, a deliberately casual approach that made everyone present feel as if they were part of the act.
Don Ho sang during his nightly show June 24, 2004, at the Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel in Honolulu.
Musicians who worked with him say he kept them on their toes, demanding their best, and -- better yet -- making them feel good about delivering it. Ho had an exquisite sense of comic timing, and that sort of thing isn't learned, you're born with it. He was not only a natural entertainer, he made entertaining seem like the most natural thing in the world.
Not everyone liked him. A former Honolulu Weekly editor, taking a new job elsewhere, indicated he left because "one man can stomach only so much Don Ho music." Others derided his apparently complicated family life; or the fact that Ho was as friendly with moneyed industrialists as he was with regular folks. In some ways, Ho was a national punchline when cheap jokes were made about laid-back Hawaii.
This was largely because Ho the man was indivisible from Hawaii the place. To most of the world, Ho simply was Hawaii, a sunny, vaguely hedonistic echo from the dig-me '60s, from a time when Hawaiian culture was inclusive, rather than exclusive, an era when Hawaii wanted to share its values with the world. Only Duke Kahanamoku also had that iconic status.
Others loved Don Ho, to a point beyond reason. The Web site RememberingDonHo.com is full of testimonials to Ho's influence on lives: "Tiny Bubbles" played at weddings and funerals; "I'll Remember You" the theme music for reunions and anniversaries; an emerging thread about how Ho epitomized not just Hawaii, but the special aura a Hawaii vacation had on visitors; many stories about his patience and endless kindnesses to awestruck tourists; an industrial baseball team that wears tacky aloha shirts and calls itself -- no kidding -- The Bastard Sons of Don Ho, a notion that so amused Ho that he became a team supporter. Many compare Ho to Elvis, a notion that might be true if Elvis had had Ho's work ethic and self-discipline.
Ho created modern Waikiki, the Pacific playground of modern mythology, the visitation zone that is the rhythm unit of the tourist industry. When Ho set up shop in the Barefoot Bar nightclub in the early '60s, he brought a hip, electric crackle to the evening, in a setting that had previously been defined by daytime activities. Hawaiian music became mainstream American pop, thanks to Ho, and to Ho's canny interpretation of Kui Lee's edgy, modern Hawaiian songs, and to Ho's amazing play-anything, anywhere, in-any-key band, the Aliis.
They set the bar. And they did it barefoot.
I eventually wrote a longish piece on Ho, and I was surprised, a couple of months later, when he showed up to hear my own band play, perhaps because we were gigging at the site of the original Honey's in Kaneohe, where he'd gotten his start so many years before.
Afterward, he had some words of kind, yet practical advice. "Never make it look like work," he summarized. "Make it look like fun. Then everyone has a good time."
Good advice, Uncle Don. I'll take it. Maybe we all should.