Island Whirl

WHEN I WAS growing up, the theater near my neighborhood used to regularly show triple-features. Of course, the back-end of that triple-feature had started off as a front-end a few months earlier, had slipped to the middle spot after several weeks, and was now bringing up the rear until it would fall off the cliff into oblivion in those pre-video days.

Music My parents would drop all seven of us off at the theater after church on Sundays. We would vegetate all afternoon, making the fateful choice on how we would spend our lone dime--on popcorn or a soda. I always opted for Jujyfruits, which partially explains why my sisters haven't spoken to me in years. (I don't know what the problem was; I gave them all the black ones.)

There was one movie which I saw a record 27 times, a film so sweeping in scope, so well acted and directed that it remains a part of me to this day. I'm speaking about that classic, Gidget Goes Hawaiian. (Not the one which starred Oscar winner Cliff Robertson as The Big Kahuna, but the one which starred Emmy winner Carl Reiner as Gidget's dad.)

I can still sing all the songs and recite huge chunks of Moondoggie's dialogue. But what I remember most is the big nightclub scene where the whole gang was wowed by a Polynesian revue which included hula dancing, flaming swords and lots of guys who dressed like Jimmy Buffett.

I've always wanted to see a show like that, and now, in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, I'm going to be able to.

Local legend Ernie Menehune is coming out of retirement, sort of, to perform at downtown's Airport Lounge on Thursday, November 14. Billed as "Hawaii's Suntanned Irishman" (darn those frisky missionaries), Menehune wowed audiences with his 3 1/2 octave range from here to Vegas for more than a quarter-century beginning in the mid-'50s. And he's bringing his whole revue along.

Menehune, who has about this much Irish in him, was born on the island of Kauai 73 years ago. He came to the mainland in the fall of 1952 and got an unglamorous job pumping gas on the Sunset Strip. He found L.A. to be too cold for his liking, so a few months later he moved on to Phoenix.

He got a job as a pipe fitter, but spent his nights at a Polynesian club called the Tropic Wishbone (don't ask).

"It was at 16th and Camelback," Menehune recalls. "I used to go at night and sing with the Hawaiian band. It was a lot of fun. But it got to be too much, singing at night and working all day. I stopped singing, but then the manager of the club offered me a job. Hey, I was making 90 cents an hour as a pipe-fitter and here this guy was offering me $10 a night just to sing. Not too hard a choice."

He moved around to other clubs, always for more money, and taking his loyal followers with him. During that period, he gigged with several up-and-comers in the Phoenix area, including little Wayne Newton and Marty Robbins.

When Prince Makanuea and his Hawaiian Troop came through Phoenix in 1958, they snatched up Menehune and took him on the road with them.

"I toured with those guys for about a year, and when I got back to Arizona I put together my own show. It had everything in it--Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, Filipino and even some Japanese and Siamese. A real Polynesian revue."

The show was a big draw in Phoenix, from the scantily-clad, exotic-looking dancing girls who opened the show to Ernie's show-stopping flaming-knife dance at the close. In between, Menehune would dazzle audiences with his amazing voice, which danced giddily from a rich baritone to a falsetto that would make Smokey Robinson cry.

As the '60s began, Ernie's troupe ruled the nightclub lounge circuit. They played all over the West, including huge chunks of time in Las Vegas, where Ernie hung out with all the biggies, including (hushed silence) Frank Sinatra his own self.

"Frank was cool. He ruled that town and commanded a lot of respect. But he was also very nice. He came to my show one night and heard a medley I did of Charlie Rich songs. He sent a note up to me saying that he liked the way I did them and then he added them to his show. I felt pretty good about that."

In the late '60s, he was playing the Latitude 20 Club in Torrance, California, where he met two 18-year-old sisters who would join his show as The Waikiki Twins. They were fresh out of high school, but had been doing Hawaiian dance on stage since age three. One of them, Bev, would become Ernie's wife. Today, the two of them have 13 grandchildren.

When Ernie saw the growth of Phoenix in the '60s, Menehune decided to move to Tucson, which was warm enough for him and not as crowded. ("I'm thinking of moving to Benson now," he quips.)

He became a local legend, playing at one time or another the Spanish Trail, the Hilton, Ventana Canyon, the Desert Inn and the Sheraton. He officially retired in 1985, but still sings occasionally at Shriner events. He even sang the national anthem at a Toros game and the fans demanded an encore! And that song, as songs go, sucks.

He says he won't be doing his whole show at the Airport Lounge. The knives are put away. "Can't do that any more. My chest fell down," he explains. "It now rests on my belly."

But, according to all accounts--including a completely unbiased one offered by Bev--his voice is still in fine form and he can go up and down that range of his just like the old days.

He wants everyone to know he's not making a comeback. "That kinda sounds desperate. I don't need to make a comeback. I'm retired. I just sing as a hobby now. If people want to come hear me sing, great."

I know I'll be there. I've always wanted to hear Ernie sing. And maybe I'll be able to get that Gidget movie out of my head once and for all.

Ernie Menehune performs at 9 p.m. Thursday, November 14, at the Airport Lounge in the basement of the Plaza Pub, 20 E. Pennington St. Cover charge is $4, $2 for seniors. For more information call 882-0400. TW

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