Polynesian Legend

At age 84, Ernie Menehune--the newest Tucson Music Hall of Fame member--refuses to slow down

Ernie Menehune has been performing music of all styles--including country, pop, big-band jazz and Irish music--but he is most famous for his elaborate Polynesian revues, including a big band, a chorus of singers and dancers. He has been professional entertainer in excess of a half-century, and a fixture in the Tucson music community for more than 30 years.

At 84, Menehune looks about 20 years younger with his deep tan, white teeth, sparkling eyes, Hawaiian shirt and puka-shell necklace. He arrives at an interview driving a massive red-and-silver sport van.

"My kids want me to give up the show and all that, but I say no, because I still enjoy it," he says. "The day I walk on that stage because it's just work, just a job to make money, that's the day I quit."

Billed for years as "Hawaii's Suntanned Irishman," he was a huge nightclub draw in the 1960s and '70s throughout the Western United States, playing the supper club circuit--everywhere from Caesars Palace to Tucson's once-glamorous-but-now-in-ruins Spanish Trail, on Interstate 10.

Menehune recorded several albums, most now out of print, the bulk of them for small regional labels such as Roadrunner and Gold Crown. He has long been known for his velvety "3-to-5-octave" voice, especially a beguiling falsetto.

A full-time Tucson resident since 1974--when his agent, accountant and manager insisted he channel some of his money into buying the five-acre Menehune Ranch west of the Tucson Mountains--Menehune is the latest addition to Tucson Music Hall of Fame.

In and around the Tucson Mountain Park area on Kinney Road, Menehune is still something of a celebrity. When he wanders into the doughnut shop or a Chinese restaurant, fans young and old greet him invariably with, "Aloha, Ernie!"

At the heart of his ranch is the Menehune Village, where he has re-created a vast and lush Hawaiian garden, complete with a stage and a couple of bars; room for dozens of dining tables; tikis he carved himself; mature palm, palo verde and cypress trees, as well as all manner of exotic plant life; and a huge fish pond and streams fed by a private well. The ground is covered with endless green indoor-outdoor carpet to give the appearance of lush lawns. The air in Menehune's village feels about 15 degrees cooler than it does under the harsh Sonoran sun.

"I created this village, because I was homesick for Hawaii," Menehune says.

It's true that Menehune has some Irish blood, but his heritage also includes Hawaiian, Filipino, Portuguese and German. "All that makes me the classic 20th-century Polynesian, with some native and some immigrant blood," he says.

Menehune was born in 1923 in the Waimea Valley of the island of Kauai. A grade-school dropout, he discovered his love of singing at an early age at home.

"When I was a kid, we had this large bathroom, with the whole deal--(including an) old-fashioned bathtub on legs. Back in those days, the idea of (electronic) reverb was unheard of, but I loved to sing in that bathroom because of the echo. I guess I was about 9 or 10 years old. The windows were open, and this neighbor of ours had finally had enough of my singing, so she yelled, 'Shut up!' And my mother, who was outside, heard that and yelled, 'Sing, boy, sing!' And I've been singing ever since."

After working in his dad's plumbing business for many years and singing in small bands in the Hawaiian islands, Menehune as a young man decided he "wanted to see what was on the other side of the ocean."

In 1952, he moved to California and pumped gas for a few months at a Hollywood service station. "I decided California was too cold for me. So someone told me to move 400 miles east to Arizona, and that would warm me up."

He wound up in Scottsdale in 1953. He practiced plumbing while moving up through the ranks of several local and regional Polynesian groups before starting his own band in the early 1960s.

"I toured around a lot on the circuit, and would always come to Tucson to stop and re-do the revue for a while at the Spanish Trail. Sometimes, I would stop for five weeks before going back to Nevada--Vegas, Reno, Lake Tahoe."

Menehune's beloved wife, Beverly, who used to be half of the dancing duo the Waikiki Twins, died about five years ago. He has 10 kids, all in their 50s. "Hey, I did put the ukulele down sometimes," he says.

Menehune still performs up to five times a week. "A lot of my performances are now in nursing homes or out in Green Valley, for the people who remember the music."

These days, he usually sings with the accompaniment of keyboards player Larry Armstrong, rather than a whole band. "With the keyboard, you can just punch up drums, bass, a saxophone, even a Hawaiian guitar," Menehune says.

He was scheduled to play this week at the Aug. 15 TAMMIES ceremony and is heading to San Diego for an Aug. 17 appearance at the Tiki Oasis 7 Polynesian music festival. He plays monthly at the Kon Tiki restaurant on East Broadway Boulevard near Swan Road; you can see him there next on Sept. 2.

Menehune also will host a large-scale luau in Menehune Village on Sept. 29, to benefit the Tucson Polynesian Society. "We sell only 300 tickets because we only have so much room," he says about the sold-out event.

Connecting with longtime fans is one of Menehune's greatest joys, he says.

"Sometimes at shows, people bring their albums up to me to sign, and I see that I already signed them years ago, so I just sign them again."

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