Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News
Patrons protest as Tahitian Lanai closes

By George F. Lee, Star-Bulletin
Tahitian Lanai patrons gather one more time around the piano bar.

The 40-year-old restaurant shut its doors on New Year's Eve

By Susan Kreifels

Connie Francis and the Lennon Sisters sang there. Michael Landon and Charles Bronson even pitched a few tunes.

But mainland stars were not the draw at the Tahitian Lanai piano bar.

Waikiki tourists came to see the local stars, like Iwalani Kamahele swaying in a graceful hula or singing the "Love Song of Kalua." Ilai Sam Jennings dancing to a traditional Samoan number. Retired Lt. Col. Don Painter belting out an island favorite in fluent Hawaiian.

Or 91-year-old "Auntie Mary" picking up any verse.

They came for the family feeling that glowed as warmly as the torch-lit grass shacks.

Tourists and locals alike called the 40-year-old Tahitian Lanai one of the last real bits of Old Waikiki - until last week, when the ebony and ivory fell silent forever, victims of karaoke, termites and highrise expectations.

The shutdown is bringing cries of protest from patrons as well as guardians of historic Hawaii who have watched places of age and tradition devoured by highrise hotels and boutiques.

"I'm not against progress but there are certain places they should leave alone," said Rick Ofilas, a 30-year patron. "People here really care about one another, tourists and residents. It's the last place with the feeling of Hawaii."

"If we continue to close down these buildings, the whole sense of Waikiki will be lost," said David Scott, executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation. "Certain institutions have greater value than straight economics and how many sandwiches they can sell."

Tahitian Lanai's parent company, The Waikikian Inc., announced in November that the adjoining Waikikian on the Beach Hotel would close at year's end. But the company gave only a four-day notice, on Dec. 28, that the restaurant and piano bar would shut its doors for good on New Year's Eve.

Tahitian Lanai general manager Jozef Juck said the entire complex could be demolished as early as February, though company officials have not decided what they will do with the property.

News of the hotel closure led people to believe the restaurant was closing as well, and business dropped 40 percent, Juck said. The restaurant was renovated a year ago but continuing termite problems also led to the shutdown.

"It was not economically feasible to maintain the traditional Hawaiian ambience," Juck said. "Unfortunately times are changing. There are not enough old folks to enjoy it and younger crowds are patronizing other establishments."

The Tahitian Lanai was on the verge of closing in 1988 and again last year. But Tony Sadama, bartender there for 28 years, was still shocked by the short notice.

Sadama, like other patrons and employees, felt owners wanted to avoid public pressure to keep the bar open. He said business had remained healthy in the piano bar, which attracted more locals than tourists.

But little can be done to preserve or even delay the demolition of the Tahitian Lanai, said Don Hibbard, administrator for the State Historic Preservation Division at the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

To become eligible for the Hawaii Register of Historic Places, buildings must be at least 50 years old or have "exceptional significance" - and there is no clear definition of what that means, Hibbard said. Most older Waikiki structures were built in the 1950s and fall short of the 50-year requirement.

And even if buildings make the register, they are not protected. The owner has the last say as to whether they stay or go.

But "the spirit of the law rather than the letter would indicate they should be considering these (Waikiki) buildings," Hibbard said.

The Historic Hawaii Foundation's Scott agreed. "Waikiki should have a listing of potential historic property and get more lenience," Scott said.

Mel Kaneshige, the foundation's chairman of the board, said property owners must have incentives such as tax breaks and the ability to transfer development rights to other places. The mayor and City Council would have to create such incentives.

"They can't continue to lose money," said Kaneshige, also senior vice president and chief operating officer for Outrigger Enterprises. Absent incentives, "this trend will continue."

Patrick Onishi, the city's outgoing land use director, did not return calls yesterday.

Meanwhile, patrons are wondering what will replace the camaraderie of the Tahitian Lanai.

Jo Carlott and Mary Hood from Illinois have spent the last 16 years celebrating Christmas and New Year's with their "family" at the piano bar. "We weren't tourists there, we were accepted with open arms," Carlott said.

Wherever the gang ends up, there will be singing, said Ron Miyashiro, at the Tahitian Lanai keyboard for the last seven years. "We wouldn't go anywhere without a piano."

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