Isle publicist's passion helped arts and restaurants flourish


POSTED: Saturday, August 22, 2009

Longtime public relations specialist Elissa Josephsohn's two-year battle with ovarian cancer came to an end when she died peacefully at her home Thursday.

Josephsohn, born in 1949, was one of Honolulu's larger-than-life public relations specialists for more than 30 years. She particularly focused on the performing arts and restaurants.

She helped publicize such visiting touring national productions as “;Grease”; and “;Rent,”; as well as the more recent “;Mamma Mia!”; and “;Slava's Snowshow,”; which ends its run tomorrow at the Hawaii Theatre. Her enthusiasm never waned, and up until two months ago she was sending out her upbeat press releases to the local news media.

One of the friends with Josephsohn at the end was Richard Vida from New York City. A Broadway performer, Vida flew to Honolulu three weeks ago for Josephsohn's 60th-birthday party and was originally going to return next week for a two-week visit but instead flew in Tuesday to be with his friend during her final days.

Vida said Josephsohn fell into public relations by accident.

After receiving her master's degree in history from the University of North Carolina, “;Elissa was working with the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina when they needed her to put out a press release for them,”; Vida said. Having no previous experience, “;she called a local news-paper, who helped walk her through putting it together.”;

Her reputation preceded her when she was hired by the Honolulu Symphony nearly 35 years ago, subsequently making her home here.

“;She's the most real and honest person I ever met,”; Vida said. “;Whenever there was an opening night for a traveling Broadway show here, she'd make it a benefit for something, and she did that for the Kapiolani Women's Cancer Center for the opening of 'Mamma Mia!'”;

Josephsohn also represented Ballet Hawaii, Army Community Theatre and Diamond Head Theatre.

At Army Community Theatre, producer-director Vanita Rae Smith said it was not until she started working with Josephsohn that they started drawing large audiences.

“;This island, everyone is going to miss the backing that she brought to the theater community at large. I think she has helped, in some way, just about every theater group in the islands,”; Smith said.

About a decade ago, Josephsohn also helped start Arts with Aloha, a program founded by Charlie Aldinger and Anne Smoke to promote performance and visual arts in the islands. She also brought travel writers to the islands to partake of its culture and arts, promoting Hawaii as having more to offer than surf and sun.

Ron Gibson, chief executive officer of GM Entertainment, who worked with Josephsohn on the Diamond Head Crater Celebrations in 2006 and '07, said, “;She was my pal for 35 years. When I first got to Hawaii, we worked together on an incredible show with the symphony, the 'Star Wars' laser show at the Waikiki Shell, and that's how our friendship started.”;

Josephsohn also had a passion for food, and the restaurants she helped to promote include Ruth's Chris Steak House, Romano's Macaroni Grill, Compadre's, Auntie Pasto's and Dixie Grill.

“;She's guided me through crises and helped me open 10 restaurants, seven of which I still own,”; said Randy Schoch, CEO of Desert Islands Restaurants and owner of the Hawaii franchise of Ruth's Chris Steak House. “;She's the longest person I've had with me in business — 28 years.”;

Beth-Ann Kozlovich of Hawaii Public Radio said, “;She was my friend, and she poured so much goodness into her work. With her, everything was possible, and that's an incredible gift to have. Elissa was without peer.”;

Josephsohn is survived by half sister Debbie Koerner, brother-in-law David Koerner and cousin Ann Hiatt.

A memorial to celebrate Josephsohn's life will be held from 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Hawaii Theatre.

In lieu of flowers and gifts, donations may be made to the just-established Elissa Josephsohn Spirit Fund for the Kapiolani Women's Cancer Center. Checks made out to the fund may be sent to the Kapiolani Health Foundation, 55 Merchant St., 26th Floor, Honolulu 96813.


Star-Bulletin reporters Gary C.W. Chun, Nadine Kam and Joleen Oshiro contributed to this report.