Hawai‘i greets the rest of the world at Waikīkī. Each year, millions of tourists compare their Hawai‘i brochures to the first impressions they get from the world’s most famous beach community. Jeff Apaka grew up there, entertains there, works as community relations director for Waikīkī Community Center and sits on the Waikīkī Neighborhood Board No. 9. He is a serious advocate for his community.
Hawai‘i operates on a delightful mix of pragmatism and altruism. We are very practical people who can make something from nothing, solve problems and find a way to do whatever is needed. We don’t think about rewards as much as we care about helping others. The highest praise is when a kūpuna says we are “nice.” That one word means we manage our kuleana (responsibilities) well, respect our community and try to make decisions that help people around us feel more comforted, happy and secure.
Jeff Apaka is nice. He is part Hawaiian, part Chinese and a few more parts; he embodies the finest Hawaiian traits. In his roles as a professional “showman” and a compassionate community leader, he taps into his gift of kindheartedness and uses his innate talents to make life in Hawai‘i a little better for everyone.
It wasn’t easy getting to where he is. Jeff’s father, renowned romantic baritone Alfred ‘Aholo Apaka, died at age 40 when Jeff was just 13. Besides a career as an entertainer and producer, Jeff had a family kuleana to care for two of his elders. Blending his gift of compassion into his entertainment talents led him to a long career with Waikīkī Community Center as a community relations director. Now in his own kūpuna years, Jeff is a protector of his beloved Waikīkī community, and the elders who live there.
His early life was split between Hawai‘i and Beverly Hills. When he was 6, the movies and TV drew the Apaka family to Beverly Hills with the help of Bob Hope. Billboards, neon lights and Hollywood glitz fascinated little Jeff, with bigger-than- life director, actor and studio executive “neighbors” like Caesar “Butch” Romeo and The Andrews Sisters. Beverly Hills High School schoolmates included Rob Reiner, Rick Dreyfus and Albert Brooks.
Alfred Apaka’s crossover career was hot. From his start at Don the Beachcomber (now The International Marketplace), his records began selling on the mainland. Postwar thirst for Hawaiian music was driven by a hundred thousand veterans who had fallen in love with the romantic, soothing airs of steel guitars, ‘ukulele and island tunes sung by luscious Hawaiian voices like Apaka’s. In the ’50s, aloha shirts were the rage and the “Hawaii Calls” radio show broadcast around the world. Sellout crowds at The Lexington Hotel’s Hawaiian Room in New York City clamored for the tunes of Alfred Apaka, “the darling of Manhattan;” Mahi Beamer; John Kameaaloha Almeida; Haunani Kahalewai; Nina Keali’iwahamana; Clara Inter (Hilo Hattie); and the Ray Kinney band.
Jeff’s dad appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Dinah Shore Show.” Bob Hope helped him get a contract to help Henry J. Kaiser popularize his new Hawaiian Village Hotel in Waikīkī. The sky was the limit.
Fame often takes its toll on families. When Jeff was in the fourth grade, his parents divorced and he returned to Honolulu with Mom. He began exploring his own performing talents. During eighth grade at San Rafael Military Academy, tragedy struck — Alfred’s heart suddenly failed during a game of handball — and Dad was gone.
Jeff took it hard. He spent two years at a Jesuit seminary in Canada before returning to Beverly Hills High School, where he graduated in 1964. He went alone to his audition for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York City, and joined a class with Danny Devito and Melanie Safka. He also took acting classes at Fordham University and in 1968, he was singing the mainland nightclub circuit when he had an offer to debut in Honolulu with his own show at the Monarch Room of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Things started to happen; he was signed to Capitol Records. Among all the Waikīkī entertainers, Jeff was always the baby; the youngest.
In performing arts, Jeff is his own man. “My voice is like my dad’s but not as romantic — my strength is as a song and dance showman. I had piano and violin lessons when I was young and I love music, but Dad wanted to be a physician, not a singer. He encouraged me to do well in in my studies, but creating live productions is my passion; I can do almost anything onstage.” Jeff also writes skits, directs and produces. His creativity, eye for detail and organization skills make him a talented event producer and manager.
From 1979 to 1983, Jeff starred with Audrey Meyers in the popular “Here is Hawai‘i” stage show written by Keola Beamer and produced by the late Tom Moffatt at the Maui Surf Hotel (now The Westin Maui Resort & Spa).
“That was my favorite gig. We had live rain, snow, an erupting volcano and falling stars onstage. For the “Honolulu City Lights” number, a big moon glowed over a silhouette of the Honolulu skyline as the lights came on in the buildings. A great show transports the audience to their deepest emotions: love, longing, joy and laughter. That’s why we had so much fun doing it and audiences loved it,” said Jeff. “Smiling and laughter is so important to health and longevity, and nothing brings more joy to people than live shows.”
After the Maui show, Jeff returned to Waikīkī to become a caregiver for his maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather. Nobody ever gets training for family caregiving. When the time came, he had the right stuff to honor his kūpuna and keep himself going — compassion and lots of energy.
After his kūpuna passed, Jeff built a career, first entertaining passengers as a cruise director on The Independence and The Constitution. Later, he produced the shows.
“During this time, I was also the chief barker for Variety Club: A Children’s Charity. On Christmas Eve, 1928, a club for entertainers in Pittsburgh found a baby abandoned in their theater and took her to raise. Today, Variety Clubs in many states aid children,” said Jeff. The chief barker (club board president) organizes fundraising events. Jeff’s success with Variety Club of Hawai‘i impressed the late Gerri Lee, who then recruited him to run fundraising events for the Waikīkī Community Center.
Compassion and Business
On the flip side, Jeff Apaka is a community leader. In the tradition of Hawaiian performers, his “day job” is critical for residents of Waikīkī. Last month, he celebrated 25 years as community relations director for the WCC on Paoakalani Avenue. In his spare time, he has been serving on the Waikīkī Neighborhood Board No. 9 for the last 18 years. Waiki¯ki¯ residents often see Jeff strolling with Ponoli‘i (the righteous one), his 13-year-old Chihuahua—a kūpuna “puppy.”
“When I grew up on Launiu Street, homes had gardens, hedges, coconut trees — no highrises. The Waikīkī neighborhood was full of Hawaiian families. Local kine beach boys ruled the beach and tourism was just beginning to boom. Later, mainland surfers moved in and brought drugs with them. The stretch from Liliuokalani Avenue to Kapahulu Avenue came to be called ‘The Jungle,’ a pejorative description that portrayed our home as tenement housing for kānaka maoli.”
“That was not the truth. Hawaiian seniors residing in this moderate- living community wanted nothing to do with addicts, who not only ran the streets but also renamed old shore breaks so that the Hawaiian names eventually became lost.
In 1977, Sen. Hiram Fong Jr. and Gov. George Ariyoshi founded the WCC by putting Gerri Lee’s Waikīkī Senior Program in the old St. Augustine parochial school buildings and Dr. Chong’s Waikīkī Health in the vacant convent. Today, WCC also includes the Early Learning Center for preschoolers and an active thrift store.
The board members, staff and donors of WCC developed a very successful nonprofit, offering Waikīkī residents senior health, wellness and prevention programs, and individual case coordination services for frail seniors at risk for homelessness. Caroline Hayashi, president of the nonprofit, said, “Our workshops, activities and educational programs meet the physical, cognitive, social, emotional and well-being needs of our kūpuna. We have over 70 different activities for seniors every month, from exercise to leisure interests — and free parking for all our
May 8, 2017, is the 25th anniversary of the WCC fundraiser, The Duke Kahanamoku Beach Challenge (formerly, the Ala Wai Challenge). Jeff built this paddling race around some of Hawai‘i’s most celebrated watermen — Tommy Holmes, Blue Makua, Michael Tongg, Nappy Napoleon and the late Myron (Pinky) Thompson. Now, this huge public event is held at Hilton Hawaiian Village on Duke Kahanamoku Beach, where the lawn comes alive with crafters and live entertainment. Canoes bring in dignitaries to the mauka end of the lagoon for a traditional Hawaiian welcoming protocol to bless the spirited competition and fun!
“When I was new at WCC, I wondered how I could pull off something like this, but the strength and inspiration of my kūpuna and my friends in the community led the way to success,” said Jeff. “It’s a great cause because we help so many kūpuna and keiki.
“Helping is fun. I like escorting seniors on travel tours to outer islands twice a year. At Thanksgiving, I plan a buffet dinner for kūpuna who have no family here or on the mainland. The Waikīkī Beach Marriott Resort & Spa and my musician friends help with food, beverage and entertainment.”
Jeff’s roots in Waikīkī are deep. “We all crave identity. I knew my middle name, ‘Aholo,’ was connected to Dad’s Hawaiian lineage, but our ties to Queen Lili‘uokalani explain my deep affection for Waikīkī and Maui’s red carnations. Actually, I did not really choose Waikīkī — my feet were already permanently planted here in the sands of my ancestors. Waikīkī is my kuleana and it makes me whole.”
Princess Lili‘uokalani adopted Jeff’s grand-aunt, Lydia Ka‘onohiponiponiokalani ‘Aholo, when she was 7 days old, after her mother died in Lahaina, Maui. Lydia played in the princess’s gardens on Wainani Way, Waikīkī, when Lili‘u’s land, Hamohamo, was an open meadow stretching across Paoakalani Street and the Ala Wai Canal to Kapahulu and out to the beach. Lydia attended Kawaiaha‘o Seminary School for Girls. She was the first graduate of Kamehameha School in Kalihi and its first Hawaiian language instructor. Lydia’s father, Luther ‘Aholo, taught at Lahainaluna Seminary. “Aunty Lydia ‘Aholo told Alfred Apaka to honor Queen Lili‘uokalani by wearing a double lei of sweet, tiny red carnations that grew in Luther and Keahi’s yard on ‘Aholo Road in Lahaina. Today, whenever Jeff performs, he wears white to set off the traditional ‘Aholo double red carnation lei — and his father’s jade ring.
Jeff talks about the future with the same energy and compassion that he puts into all his work. “I wish all kids could experience the mainland living. It would help them relate better to visitors, and allow them to better appreciate Hawai’i Nei. The ‘āina connects everything and we must do what we can to protect it. Waikīkī ahupua‘a extends up Mānoa Valley. A lot of the kingdom is underneath the concrete of Waikīkī.”
Jeff recently finished five years starring in and producing a Hawaiian show at the Hilton Hawaiian Village. “Visitors still come to Hawai‘i to hear live Hawaiian music,” he said. He is looking for a permanent theater home in Waikīkī for an updated live show.
Jeff worries about Waikīkī kūpuna on fixed incomes, and especially those who are being displaced by high-rise condominiums. “Just a small increase in the cost of living forces seniors to make choices about what they can afford to buy. Sometimes the choice is between rent and food.
Every little thing we can do for them that saves them money helps them keep going and stay in their homes. I hope everyone who reads this article will support the Waikīkī Community Center. I hope Waikīkī families will seek WCC services, participate in our programs, volunteer or donate.”
Feeling pity doesn’t help others; action does, but requires a lot of courage. Jeff does not shrink from his desire to help others. He finds a way to get things done, like the Hawaiians of old.
“Mahalo to all the community leaders and people who have worked with me through the years; I know your love for this place.”
Jeff makes me think of one Alfred Apaka lyric, “Keep a smile on your lips, brush the tears from your eyes…” Jeff energizes his deep compassion to help kūpuna, keiki and their families — and dry up their tears. It’s a powerful talent. Perhaps Jeff’s recipe for success is worth a try.
Lend Your Support for a USPS Alfred Apaka Stamp
Jeff is leading a campaign for a commemorative stamp in 2019, Alfred Apaka’s 100th birthday. The U.S. Postal Service counts on the Stamp Advisory Committee to decide who gets honored. We need thousands of letters from the entire Hawai’i community to win their attention. Write a short note today and send it to:
Citizen’s Stamp Advisory Committee
475b L’endant Plaza SW, Rm. 3300
Washington, DC 20260-3501
Aloha to All Committee Members,
Please consider commemorating Alfred Apaka (1919–1960) on a U.S. Postal Service stamp in 2019.
Before jet travel, the romantic voice of Alfred Apaka broadcast throughout the world live on “Hawaii Calls,” “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Dinah Shore Show,” making fans everywhere dream of visiting the Hawaiian Islands. In the dynamic years leading to statehood, Apaka’s popularity drew audiences to all Hawai‘i entertainers and a new genre of American music.
Mahalo for your kind consideration!