Tribute to Alfred -- Apaka, icon of Waikiki entertainment, is remembered 'From the Heart'
By Burl Burlingame

EVERY drifty, fuzzy cliche has as its source a firmly lodged kernel of truth. Take the image of the superstar Waikiki entertainer, the calming center of a typhoon of hard-working musicians and dancers, a person whose name is forever linked with the room he performs in, a golden voice wrapped in a white suit garnished with a red carnation lei and red sash, the voice that transports listeners to balmy beaches by the sea and the hint of romance in the moonlight.

This was Alfred Apaka.

On Wednesday night, on the 78th birthday of Apaka, the Hilton Hawaiian Village will unveil a statue of Apaka. It is the first of two works by artist Kim Duffett -- the other is hula legend Iolani Luahine, now under construction -- that will book-end the resort's new Louis Vuitton expansion.

Until Wednesday, the work is top secret. Artist Duffett wouldn't even show us sketches. He did say he dealt with the inescapable dilemma of portraying musical and dance legends as silent statues by designing in a lighting and water environment that will cause the surface to ripple.

"Peter (Schall, HHV managing director) deserves a lot of credit for this. We were talking about sculptures that were needed, and we had settled on a hula dancer, and Alfred Apaka seemed like an obvious choice for the other," said Duffett.

"Historically, because of his connection to this site, and artistically, because he's such a seminal figure in Hawaiian music. The trick is capturing the character of his presence. He was such a charismatic and wonderful performer."

The work is called "Mai Ka Pu'u Wai," or "From the Heart." Because it's a private commission, no financial details are available at this time. But we have what we've always had -- Apaka's artistic legacy and his place in the memories of those who knew him.

Briefly, it was a family affair. Apaka's father Alfred Sr. was a fine singer and a Territorial legislator. Apaka's son Jeff also become an entertainer, and is involved in the unveiling. Apaka's great-aunt Lydia Ahola, a hanai daughter of Queen Liliuokalani, passed on the Queen's musical technique to her nephews.

"I like to think that Dad's musical training came in a direct line from the Queen," says Jeff Apaka, now 50.

Apaka sang with various orchestras including Don McDiarmid's Royal Hawaiian Hotel house band and Ray Kinney's troupe in New York. In the early 1950s, Apaka was "discovered" by Bob Hope at a Waikiki luau and soon was a regular guest on Hope's radio and TV specials. He was signed by talent agents Joe Glaser and Jay Faggen, and was poised to be injected into America's popular-music mainstream, there to go head-to-head with big-fish crooners like Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Tony Martin.

Instead, Apaka teamed up with industrialist Henry Kaiser and the two changed Waikiki forever.

It was a traditional patron-protege arrangement. Kaiser was bowled over by Apaka's talent and had the wherewithal to underwrite any venue they could dream up. Kaiser's grand scheme was the Hawaiian Village, probably the world's first theme hotel, and centerpieced in it was the Tapa Showroom, created exclusively for Apaka's revue extravaganza.

As Tony Todaro noted in "Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment," "Kaiser loved Alfred as his own son. And much can be said of the belief that Henry Kaiser's love for Alfred Apaka was the catalyst for Kaiser's decision to build a great empire in the islands."

From the mid-1950s to 1960, Apaka personified the Waikiki entertainment experience, and the average visitor didn't feel their Hawaiian vacation was complete unless the show was part of the tour package.

"Those were the Boeing years," said Jeff Apaka. "The new jets came along, and soon there were millions of visitors instead of thousands."

Deon Kane played harp with the Honolulu Symphony and was often asked to perform on the Apaka show. "We were so busy in those days," she recalls. "Hawaii had just become a state and every record producer in the country was intrigued by Hawaiian music. Hundreds of recordings were made in that period, which was actually the first renaissance of Hawaiian music.

"Alfred really epitomized all that. He was such a good showman, and he sang beautifully, and he was so handsome, and the girls loved him. He and Henry Kaiser helped create the Las Vegas syndrome in Waikiki -- big shows as a necessary part of the visitor's experience."

The Hawaiian Village became inextricably entwined with the image of Hawaii, orchestrated by Kaiser. Dennis the Menace visited Hawaii in a comic book and stayed at the hotel. The office of the detective agency in "Hawaiian Eye" was there, even though the show was shot in Hollywood.

And then, one month into 1960, a few days after a national television show was green-lighted, Apaka was playing handball at the Central YMCA, had a heart attack and died. He was 41.

The islands went into shock. He was interred in a giant ceremony befitting Hawaiian royalty, a microphone in his hands when they closed the casket.

"I was 13 and a half at the time... and when I heard they buried him with a microphone, that was ... unreal," said Jeff Apaka, who was away at school in a military academy and did not attend the services. "It's like he was the King, like Elvis was the King."

The early death also cemented the legend. "History will record that fateful day as 'The Day That Hawaii Cried,'" wrote Todaro.

"He was so classy," said Eddie Kamae, who performed once with Apaka on TV and often heard him at the Tapa Room. "And he was a classy Hawaiian person; he really made Hawaii look good around the world. He had the personality and the talent to compete internationally. He opened the door for Hawaiian musicians, not just Hawaiian music, to be taken on the level of Mainland acts."

Israel "Iz" Kamakawiwo'ole's parents worked at Steamboat's in Waikiki, and he's heard Apaka's voice all his life. "When I was eight or nine years old they played his music over the Steamboat's speakers, and it still sticks in my mind.

"He was definitely one of my biggest inspirations, maybe the biggest. He's the first guy people think about when they think of Hawaiian music. The red carnation lei, the spotlight on the ukulele player in the middle, the hula dancers coming out every once in a while -- he invented all that."

As George Kanahele pointed out in "Hawaiian Music and Musicians," Apaka was "possessor of the one of the most remarkable voices to come out of Hawaii. A natural untrained voice, it was strong, masculine and agile -- a delicate instrument that could range from B flat to E in pianissimo ... Apaka's stature has continued to grow and, thanks to his devoted fans who still pay homage to his memory, it has assumed legendary dimensions."

Todaro's "Golden Years of Hawaiian Entertainment" is dedicated to Apaka, whom he credits as "Always My Inspiration."

"Thousands of men, women and children throughout the world adored him," stated Todaro. "Multitudes wept when Alfred left us to join his Maker." He even included a photo of the handball court in his book.

Apaka's music continues to sell.

"I'm glad his music is on CD now -- it's good to go back to get that frame of reference, to see where we came from," said Kamakawiwo'ole. "When I heard they were putting up a statue to him, I was really stoked, man!"

As for son Jeff, the statue leaves him "totally elated -- it's a dream come true."

Apaka statue

What: Alfred Apaka statue dedication. Private function, but statue will be on display in a public area
When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. March 19
Where: Tapa Bar, Hilton Hawaiian Village
Call: 947-7816

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