Originally published in the Phoenix New Times June 27th, 1996
Originally published in the Phoenix New Times June 27th, 1996
The song begins almost imperceptibly, two notes of languid bass wafting in, back and forth on each other. Then, from somewhere off in the distance, comes a high tenor voice bearing a soft chant in some mysterious, romantic tongue. It’s joined–just barely–by a native chorus and a steel guitar line that sound like a wave looks as it builds up before it breaks.
The voice gets louder, drawing each phrase out, then skips up about an octave and a half and just hangs there, vibrating in a serene space reserved for warm breezes and goose bumps. Then it sings in English: This is my night of love/this is the hour of the luau/My arms are open now/My heart has spoken now, aahh-ooooooo
The voice belongs to Hawaii’s Suntanned Arizona Irishman, the voice belongs to Ernie Menehune, and it is ingrained in vinyl on a song called “Kalua,” the fourth track on a record called Back to Aloha Land. On the Heath Productions label out of Safford.
On the back of the record is a group photograph of Menehune’s “Polynesian Friends,” against a tropical setting. Here are the people you could have seen performing this song in person when Kennedy was president: Four stunning women in grass skirts and bikini tops, two men holding island instruments, and a guitarist and a bassist, apparently Anglo friends, sporting Hawaiian shirts. Everybody is smiling, leis hang from necks, orchids peek out from cascading mounds of lava-black, hula-girl hair.
And at the center of this shot is the Golden Voice, the boss of the show, the Hawaiian Suntanned Irishman himself, offering a show-biz version of a Mona Lisa smile, a necklace of curved white fangs and two machetes crossed in front of his bare chest.
There were other records after that initial ’64 release–‘Round the Town, Showtime, My Way, Waikiki Jackpot, to name a few. All long unavailable, all sold at the live shows (if you can find one of these gems somewhere it’s sure to be personally autographed) that were the bread and butter of the Suntanned man and his exotic revue for some three decades.
Starting in the early Fifties, Ernie played all the Southwestern hot spots, all the bars, supper clubs, resorts, nightclubs and lounges. The Tropic Wishbone, the Tahiti, the Gilded Cage, Guys and Dolls. The Camelback Inn, Mountain Shadows, the Spanish Trail in Tucson, the Latitude 20 in Torrance, California, Harrah’s in Reno and Tahoe, the Tiki Kai in Albuquerque and its sister Tiki in Denver. And he hit Vegas, too–the Dunes, and five seasons in the Main Room at Caesars Palace.
Menehune knew and performed with the names that went with these swinging dens of hip: Tom Jones, Esquivel, Buddy Hackett, Shecky Green, Harry Belafonte, and, yes, ladies and gentlemen, let us not forget Mr. Sinatra.
Most of these gigs happened in the heyday of clubbing. People dressed up, looked like a million bucks, they drank highballs, and smoking was practically good for you. You got dinner, dancing and a floor show, and it didn’t cost anywhere an arm and a leg. The current generation of lounge-music fanatics would trade its stacks of CD-reissue bachelor-pad music for just one night of this kind of entertainment.
But that was a long time ago. The clubs are a thing of the past, and many of the acts that worked them had hung it up by the time “(Lord, I Was Born a) Ramblin’ Man” hit the charts.
So where is all of this going?
Back to the Hawaiian Boy with the Golden Voice! Back to the world of Enchanting Songs of the Islands! Back to Mr. Ernie Menehune, who did not burn out or fade away, but simply stopped being a professional Suntanned Hawaiian Irishman and settled down in a self-styled paradise hideaway outside Tucson, talent, warmth and an easy smile still intact.
Back to Aloha Land!
Here’s where we begin: I went from wondering if Menehune was even still alive to getting his wife on the telephone in as long as it takes to dial information. I found myself speaking with Beverly, not only the woman wed to Ernie, but one-half of the Waikiki Twins, two identically lovely dancers sandwiching the man in a photo on the back of the late-Sixties My Way album.
I was ecstatic.
Even more so when Ernie took the line and invited me down to Menehune Ranch nestled at the foot of the Tucson mountains.
“You won’t even think you’re in Arizona,” he told me, “people come here, and they think they’re on the islands.” I got in the car, and then I was there. Sitting beneath the setting sun in this huge backyard full of palm trees, beside a putting green, next to a waterfall that fed into a little pond full of flesh-and-blood ducks and a fiberglass shark. Other than the shark, Ernie built all of this, and he can turn the waterfall on and off whenever he wants. There was a corral containing a couple horses, a tiki-style band shell for intimate home performances, and great big, lazy dogs sleeping all over the place.
And there were Beverly and Ernie sitting there as well, sipping Diet Cokes as the sound of wind chimes filled in the holes between the rustling of the palms overhead.
Ernie (who actually does have some Irish blood) was born on the island of Kauai, where, among certain more modern skills, he learned to hunt wild goats and pigs for food near the cliffs. He learned to sing there, too.
“We always tried to sing falsetto, that goes way back. In the days of the kings and queens, only the men were allowed to entertain, that’s why they did the high vocaling and that’s how the falsetto developed. So the guys sang high.”
So he sang high for fun like the ancients, hunted, did other things, but curiosity of the mainland won out. In 1952, at age 25, seven years before Hawaii became a state, Ernie decamped to L.A.
“When I first came here, I worked in a gas station on Sunset Boulevard and, being a new employee, they had me on at the wee hours. California was the coldest place I had ever been–it was just cold and I’m pumping gas. But I wanted to be in Hollywood because they say you see a lot of Hollywood stars.” Like who? “Oh, I saw ’em,” he says. “Burt Lancaster, oh, I can’t remember . . . but I couldn’t stand the weather, I wanted to go where it’s warm. I got into Phoenix February 11th, 1953, and I loved it. I said this is for me!”
And it was. Ernie landed a job as a pipe fitter with a big Phoenix firm. “I remember doing pipe fitting at the JC Penney store right in downtown Tucson many, many years ago. Del Webb would sit down, open his lunch pail and have lunch with us.”
But at home in Phoenix after work, he grew to miss the islands and would head down to a club called Tropic Wishbone. “It was at 16th and Camelback,” he remembers. “I just used to go at nights and sing with the Hawaiian band, that’s the way it was back home, everybody’d just sit around and sing. But I couldn’t be at the nightclub and work during the day, so I missed showing up. People would say, ‘Where’s this guy that sang?’ That’s how it started. Finally, the management called and said, ‘We’ll pay you.’ That’s when I said, ‘Hey, maybe I’m doing the wrong job,’ you know?”
Our man moved on to the Gilded Cage, then a new joint called Guys and Dolls opened up around ’54 and stole Ernie away. “They’d heard of me, so they hired me for a week and I stayed four and a half years.”
In those days, Ernie encountered other fledgling Phoenix sons.
“Wayne Newton used to hang on my shirt, he was a little boy, waiting to go on a [local TV] program called Lew King’s Rangers. That was from a place called the Cloud Club on top of the Guarantee Bank.
“Marty Robbins and I, back in ’54, ’55, there was a little radio station on top of a garage, and after we got through working a nightclub, we’d go to this radio station and the guy would put us on the air and we’d take turns singing.”
Just singing was not enough for the Suntanned Pipe Fitter; Ernie was a man of ambition and figured the only way to learn more is to do more. When one Prince Makanuea and his Hawaiian troop arrived, so did opportunity.
“In ’58, he came through Phoenix and he was looking for a singer to join the show, so I decided to go on the road entertaining,” Ernie says. “I joined the group for a year, and when I came back with that knowledge, I put my own show together. It was strictly Polynesian then. I did Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, we put Filipino dancing in it, Japanese, Siamese, I made it a real Polynesia, I put the whole world in it.”
So let’s say it’s some Phoenix evening in the late Fifties. We enter a club with the Menehune name on the sign outside, score a nice table, the candle is winking through its bamboo holder, the drinks have been delivered. What happens?
Ernie smiles and squints from 1996 all the way back. “The lights would be off, and I would come out with a conch shell. I’d blow the conch shell, there’d be a drum roll, and then–‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present Hawaii’s Suntanned Irishman, Ernie Menehune and his Polynesian revue!’–Ta da da. The girls would come out with the gourds and the skirts and the whole thing, very flashy. Then it would calm down to a happy medium, music, singing, jokes, then POW again and we’d go out. I used to do the flaming-knife dance as a finale. That was fun, fun, fun.”
From the late Fifties well into the Sixties and Seventies, fun for the Menehune nightclub tribe reigned supreme. Bookings were constant, and Ernie added Anglo aspects to his act when necessary.
“I saw that after the floor show was over, they always had a house band for dancing. So I decided to capture both ends–all that Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher type of music was in–so I started rehearsing my band with that type of music so that people wouldn’t get tired of Hawaiian music all night long. We’d have country, rock, everything. We did all that Aquarius stuff.”
Later albums reveal a liberal mix of lounge-staple pleasers such as “Sweet Caroline,” “I’ve Gotta Be Me,” “That’s Life,” “Danny Boy,” “The Impossible Dream,” “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In,” and plenty of jokes. On record, at least, this stuff sounds like nothing to write home about. It’s always the island numbers that get me, and apparently got those live audiences back then.
“I was booked into a club at the river bed [in Phoenix] when Waylon Jennings was there. On his day off, I’d go in there, we’d have Hawaiian night and we’d pack the house.”
One of the clubs on Ernie’s late-Sixties road itinerary was the Latitude 20 in Torrance, California, and that is where the future Waikiki Twins–one of whom would become Ernie’s future wife–stepped into the picture. Beverly and sis were 18 when they joined in ’68, just out of high school. They were seasoned performers, schooled in Hawaiian dance, as fate would have it. Bev’s also done a bunch of TV shows–“a saloon girl, those were my parts”–and was in a Tucson-shot McCartney video a couple years ago.
Though they didn’t get married until 1977, Bev and Ernie have pretty much the same stories, lots of them, to tell from the past 28 years. And when telling them, they talk in and out and all over each other in a comfortable way.
“Frank Sinatra used to come to see us at Caesars,” says Beverly. “We always would know because here comes 17 guards first, they’d clear the area. . . .”
“Security would block off the area and set up a bar just for him. I used to do a medley of Charlie Rich’s two hits. Sinatra sent up a security guard with a note and said he never did like those songs, but he said the way I phrased those songs, he was going to start using them. You know, he’s the greatest phraser in the world, so that made my ego grow, I’ll tell you. And we used to talk to him in the coffee shop. Very nice guy.”
Bev: “We knew people like Buddy Hackett–I’ll take Shecky Green over Don Rickles, and I’ll take Buddy over both of them–and James Darren. He was Moon Doggy in those Gidget movies. He invited us to Tom Jones’ birthday party.”
Ernie: “Sonny was there, but he wasn’t with Cher.” Bev: “My outfit that I wore to that party still has his birthday cake all over it. It’s hanging in back . . . My sister and I were Elvis fans like you wouldn’t believe. When Elvis did his comeback show in ’69, the manager at Caesars got us into Elvis even though it was sold out. He said, ‘Just go to the gate and give the guy my card.’ We walked right in. They started taking us to the booths, and I said no, I don’t want to sit here. I want my elbow on the stage.”
Ernie: “Oh, yeah! It was a good life!”
And sitting there at the Menehune Ranch, the sun obscured against a huge volcanicky mountain that I say looks like Hawaii, where I’ve never been, which Beverly scoffs at (she still misses the party life in Vegas, she’ll tell you quietly with a smile while Ernie is grabbing more Cokes), life still seems pretty good.
The couple officially broke up the act in ’85 to be at home when their son started kindergarten, but the gig potential lingers on, in one form or another.
Weeks later, I returned to a ranch luau to witness Ernie and his band onstage, telling ancient jokes that probably worked at Tropic Wishbone and singing beautifully. He does shows for the Shriners (he’s a member) and at trailer parks; he sang the national anthem at a Tucson Toros game not too long ago and the crowd demanded an unheard-of encore of the same tune–“Can you believe that?”
He gets excited when I tell him that kids are embracing lounge and tiki music again; he wonders out loud why we shouldn’t set up a show in Phoenix, have a good time, make some money for both of us.
At some point, the term “has-been” springs up; Ernie laughs, tells me how much his wife hates that term. He’s not kidding.
“That’s the part I don’t like,” clarifies Bev, who can turn on the force as easily as the charm. “To me, I grew up in show business. First time I was onstage was at age 3 and I’ll tell you what a has-been is to me. A singer who has lost his voice and is still singing, or somebody who’s an alcoholic and can’t function onstage, that’s a has-been. Somebody that can still do their job as good or better than ever, just because they’re no longer doing it, to me that’s not a has-been.”
Says Ernie: “To me a has-been is a guy that’s given up.” Which does not seem to describe Arizona’s Suntanned Irishman. The pipes are there, the spirit is there, and I’m sure those flaming machetes are packed away someplace.