Anthony Conjugacion wasn't nervous about auditioning for headliner status in a Waikiki showroom. Nor was he concerned that his primary competition for the room was Melveen Leed. After all, he was only 8 years old.
Little Anthony keeps
By John Berger
"I can't believe I did that," Conjugacion said as he recalled his early years as a child star in Hawaiian entertainment.
Leed got the room but invited Conjugacion to be part of the show. She dubbed him "Little Anthony" Conjugacion and gave him several years of invaluable training on the art and science of being an all-around entertainer. Leed will rejoin her former protégé this evening as Conjugacion presents "Kamau Pono IV: The Golden Sands of Waikiki," a benefit for his Halau Na Wainohia.
Jimmy Borges, Leina'ala Haili, Don Ho, Danny Kaleikini, Sam Kapu, Iva Kinimaka, Lena Motta, Beverly Noa and Boyce Rodrigues are also scheduled to perform.
Conjugacion describes the show as an overdue tribute to a great era in local entertainment, and particularly to Myrtle K. Hilo and the late Myra English, who died earlier this year. Hilo will be there tonight but is not expected to perform.
"When we lost Myra earlier this year, it occurred to me that time passes on, and that generation has never really been acknowledged for their contribution to the music industry for some reason. That's (the time) when I literally grew up in the industry."
"Kamau Pono IV: The Golden Sands of Waikiki"
When: 7 p.m. today
Where: Hawaii Theatre
Tickets: $18, plus $2 theater restoration fee
Conjugacion will sing several of the songs "Auntie Myrtle" is known for.
"A lot of people think that Melveen was the one who gave me my start, which is true to a point, but prior to meeting Melveen, it was Myrtle who gave me my first (opportunity)."
Conjugacion's mother thrust him into performing after she came home one day and found him singing along to English's recording of "Many Happy Hangovers to You." Mom took him down to KCCN, where Hilo was hosting a Saturday morning show that featured young performers. Tony became a regular, sharing the spotlight with another young talent, Patty Kanuha, for about a year. When Hilo resigned, Conjugacion and Kanuha left as well. (Kanuha recorded a single or two in the early 1970s.)
Conjugacion's mother decided that playing a Waikiki showroom was the next step for him.
"Melveen got the room, but she took such an interest in me, and she took me under her wing. She asked my mom if she could coach me and teach me how to perform in that genre of performing. It was during those days that I met all these people like Don and Danny and Nephi and Lena Motta and all them."
Conjugacion's years as "Little Anthony" gave him everything he needed to become a versatile entertainer, although he didn't always enjoy performing in the stage persona Leed constructed for him.
"She just thought it was really cute, this little fat Hawaiian-Filipino boy on stage -- I was really chunky -- and one of the things I loathed when I was a kid was how Melveen used to dress me and my mother used to dress me. The white pants and the white shoes and the safari shirt with the kukui nut lei. That's why when I got older, I rebelled."
"Melveen and I always laugh about the time I was singing 'Ben' -- the one about the rat --- and she used to dress me kinda like Michael Jackson, and I would pull out of my pocket a rubber rat and sing to the rat onstage! I remember I told her recently, 'I could just kill you for doing that to me.' I was a kid (and) I thought it was cool, but as I got older -- a rubber rat?"
Although he says the kids at school used to tease him, they would have been jealous if they had known that he also got to hang with the adults after hours in Waikiki.
"My mom and Melveen would drag me all over the place after our shows at the Canoe House. We'd hit all the clubs, everybody get up and sing, and I was like a fly on the wall absorbing all of this stuff.
"Watching all those people inspired me to go on to some of the things that I went on to later in my life. The showmanship of all of them was something that's lacking in some of the performers today."
Conjugacion went on to make a few early recordings, hit big with his first full-length album, appeared in a local production of "Dreamgirls" and performed in "Miss Saigon" on Broadway (as Tony C. Avanti). He also immersed himself in Hawaiian cultural studies. He describes his hula lineage as consisting of the teachings of Darrell 'Ihi'ihiluaokea Lupenui, Maiki Aiu Lake and Vicki I'i Rodrigues.
Conjugacion began singing falsetto when his voice changed.
"The reason I started to sing falsetto was because I refused to change my keys and lower them when my voice changed -- and I didn't. I was singing in full voice until my voice changed -- singing songs by Linda Dela Cruz or Myra English, but in their keys because that's how I learned them.
"Melveen said, 'You can't hit those notes,' and I said, 'Watch me!' It naturally evolved after that. That's when I started to meet (falsetto) people."
Conjugacion had retired from the entertainment business and was working as a travel agent when record producer Ken Kahanu Post contacted him about a song he'd written for another artist. Post wanted a mechanical license to record the song with one of his artists. It was almost as an afterthought, Conjugacion said, that Post asked him if he could sing.
Conjugacion's first album for Post's Kahanu Records, "Hawaiian Passion," won four Na Hoku Hanohano Awards, including Male Vocalist of the Year and Song of the Year, in 1986. Conjugacion eventually quit his job ("My co-workers got tired of taking messages for gigs") and got back into the entertainment business.
He recorded two more successful albums for Post before the label folded. He recorded "O Ka Wa I Hala (Of the Time Past)," honoring Vicki I'i Rodrigues in 1996, and boldly fused the ancient tradition of Hawaiian chant with a potpourri of postmodern dance genres with his imaginative "TC2000" album and video project last year.
Conjugacion enjoys life on the cutting edge of modern culture, but the "golden age" of Waikiki showrooms and lounge performers remains dear to him.
"It's the period when they added drums and xylophones and all that stuff. ... Without it, we wouldn't be where we are today. I just really wanted to thank all these people for paving the path."
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