Kodak Hula Show Marks Its 60th Year

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BY TONY BARTLETT

Reed Travel Features

HONOLULU -- When May Akeo Brown started dancing with the Kodak Hula Show, she could watch the big liners out at sea. It was on the beach then, the grass area between the Waikiki Natatorium, a monument to Hawaii's World War I dead and where the New Otani Kaimana Beach now stands.

The year was 1938, May was 11 years old and the show had started the year before. "I liked it because I got off school," she said. "We use to get hundreds of people, but we only did one show a week." Tourists were different. They were all well-heeled and arrived by Matson liners. "We got to know them. They were friends. We all had the time," she said.

Has the show changed? "It's more programmed. We try to change the costumes every six months and to introduce new numbers. But we still really do the same thing," she said.

Brown is now director of Hawaii's longest running show, the Kodak Hula Show, which celebrated its 60th anniversary on March 7. With a cast of 40 musicians and dancers, Hawaii's most enduring nonscenic attraction is held three times a week year-round -- and it is still free. The location is one corner of the Waikiki Shell grounds in Kapiolani Park, opposite Honolulu Zoo (the city moved it from the beach in 1970). About 1,000 visitors flock from their Waikiki hotels for each performance, held Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 11:15.

The show begins with Tahitian numbers, then Hawaiian hula, from ancient to modern, and ends with tourists learning the hula. The Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club, which performs, is even older than the show. Brown's aunt, Louise Akeo Silva, formed it in 1927 (the glee club performed at the opening of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel that year). The club admitted only females until a few years ago. The show now includes six males.

For Brown, the show remains very much a family business. Her daughter Betsy and granddaughter Dawn are dancers. Many dancers, she said, have performed for 30 or 40 years, and one other -- musician Delphine Rickard Ornelles -- joined in 1938. Master of ceremonies Kimo Kahoano, a radio deejay, is only the third the show has had.

The show was the brainchild of Fritz Herman, Kodak's Hawaii manager in the 1930s. For Kodak it provided a chance to sell film (film still is sold, but by a concessionaire). During the war, there were no tourists, but hundreds of thousands of military personnel passed through the islands. Brown worked for the Navy and remembers the occasional promotion for Kodak, but added, "You couldn't even take photos of the beaches in those days."

Despite competition from Oahu's growing number of attractions and activities over the years, the show continues to attract 140,000 to 150,000 visitors annually. Tim Ryugo, Kodak sales account executive, said that, being free, the show does not attract support from tour operators. "All the dollars go to the show's production. We don't have any left over for marketing," he said. So why does Kodak continue to pay for the show, including its 52 employees? "We do it for public relations. It helps tourism," he said.

Ryugo would like to see the attendance of seven or eight years ago, when the bleachers (holding 2,500) were easily filled. However, he said that show attendance is up this year after being down for some years.

Last year, the show joined the Hawaii Attractions Association. The Kodak Hula Show is included in the group's brochures and Web site, and will be included in its revised video.

Marketing help also comes from another quarter -- Hilo Hattie, a Hawaiian product retailer and the state's largest aloha-wear manufacturer. Hilo Hattie's designs are modeled by dancers in a fashion show during each performance. It also has several motorcoaches waiting to take those who choose on a free roundtrip shuttle to its main store near downtown Honolulu. In turn, Hilo Hattie includes the show in its advertising and brochures.

"The show never ceases to impress me. They never skimp on quality," Carlton Kramer, Hilo Hattie's vice president of marketing, said. "It keeps going. This is really old Hawaii."

For details on the show, call Eastman Kodak at (808) 627-3379.

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