Used to Crowds in His Act and His Private Life, Don Ho Is the Man Who Put the Blue in Hawaii
updated 07/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 07/02/1979 AT 01:00 AM EDT
At Honolulu's Polynesian Palace, 1,100 haoles (mainlanders) and kamaainas (island natives) wait patiently to see the man known as Mr. Hawaii. At 8 p.m. the band launches into his theme song, Tiny Bubbles, and Ho's throaty baritone rises from the wings. Impeccably casual in tropical white, he strolls onstage to a squall of applause, heading for the rattan fan chair that sits behind his electric organ. Halting in mid-lyric, he scowls at his audience. "You're not ready for this," he mutters disgustedly, and orders the band to play something else. The mood is set. For the next two hours Ho baits, taunts, teases and strokes the audience until they are in the palm of his hand and anxious to stay there.
What is it that makes Ho the island state's biggest star, with a following that extends across the contiguous 48? Once, while Steve Martin's madness was still in its infancy, the lei'd-back Polynesian was billed as "The Wild and Unpredictable Don Ho," and the description is not inappropriate. He is Don Rickles, Wayne Newton and Charles Bronson rolled into one. His act percolates with sex; it is burdened with excruciating double entendres. He encourages audience participation, and the result is a sort of X-rated Gong Show. "You never know what's going to happen next onstage," says Ho. "It's like inviting a train wreck, but we haven't had one yet." The act is not slick or sophisticated; it's often closer to puerile. Remarkably, it works.
So well, in fact, that before she became Jackie O, Jackie K sat through three of Don's shows in one night. (At a party next day, he sent Secret Service agents into shock by heaving the President's widow into the pool.) Though the Hawaiian tourist trade may have been crippled by the recent eight-week United Airlines strike, not so the Polynesian Palace, where Don was SRO every night. Thousands of seats, naturally, were taken by Ho's most devoted fans, the "grandmas." At every show the blue-haired ladies flock onstage for a playful moment of passion—a big, wet, open-mouthed smooch from Mr. Hawaii himself. "I kiss grandmas because they're clean," he says with a twinkle. "I haven't picked anything up from a grandma yet. Besides, grandma don't yell rape; she appreciates."
Though his shows are as varied as his audiences, he maintains tight control without apparent effort. Seated at the organ, he wears an earpiece that links him to a control booth, enabling him to dictate sudden changes in format, lighting and sound levels, or to have a band member feed him the words of a song request. "Even though I have a game plan, I try to do things instinctively," says Ho. "I don't want to give them an overproduced extravaganza, because this is Hawaii, after all, and we're a casual, simple people."
While performing, Ho chain-smokes through a filtered cigarette holder and allows his voice to take on the sleepy, half-crocked tones of Rhoda's disembodied Carlton the Doorman. But the amber liquid he swigs through his act is nothing more potent than ginseng tea. The management doesn't cater to teetotalers, however, so Ho keeps the Mai Tais flowing by punctuating his act with hortatory cries of "Suck 'em up!" Incongruously, he ends his performance with a spirited recitation of the flower child's creed, Desiderata, and ambles offstage to the strains of God Bless America. Despite the unfailing standing ovation, he never returns for an encore. But the show isn't over. Backstage Ho greets fans, autographs albums and distributes kisses by the score.
Unlike macadamia nuts, Don Ho does not travel well. His records move slowly outside the islands, and though he hosted a short-lived game show for ABC two years ago, he rarely ventures to the mainland. "When I go on tour," says Ho, "I feel guilty because they lay off the waitresses and other help around here. And by the time I get home and the agents and promo people get their cut, forget it." Besides, he is an institution, and institutions ought to stay put.
Ho once told a reporter that he loved three things in life: "sleep, exercise and eating—in that order." The list is noteworthy only for its glaring omission. There have always been women in Ho's life—in bizarre combinations and startling abundance. "I'm extremely happy by the rules I've set down for myself," declares Don. Only the most fickle of satyrs would not be.
Married since 1951, Ho visits his wife Melva at their country house across the island nearly every Sunday. "After all these years we finally have a nice relationship," he says. "We rendezvous every once in a while, and it's more fun that way." But Ho's living arrangement in Honolulu makes Three's Company look like Sunnybrook Farm. He has two roommates, showgirls Patti Swallie, 27, and Liz Guevara, 23, who have lived with Ho for eight and six years respectively. The penthouse is dominated by a huge bed that, Ho points out, "sleeps three comfortably." There is little apparent jealousy among the participants in Ho's ménage; indeed, Swallie and Guevara often have lunch with the imperturbable Melva. "I believe everybody should be free," claims Don. "My wife knows that I thrive on independence, and whatever girls live with me must know that too. They must realize I have a certain respect for my wife and love for my children, and my work comes pretty much ahead of all that."
Presumably, then, Patti and Liz are unconcerned when Ho disappears for a one-night stand with someone he has met at his show. By the same token, Ho is understanding—if sometimes a little hurt—when they turn the tables and date other men. "The rule I've set for my gang is openness," says Ho, and he follows it to the letter.
But as candid as he is about sex, Ho is silent on the subject of money. Rumored to be one of the richest men in the islands, he rebuffs all questions about his finances out of fear of kidnap attempts on his six children and seven grandchildren. He will admit that he once lost $2 million on mainland real estate holdings and other bad investments, and liquidated them all except an apartment complex in swanky Marina del Rey, Calif. He owns homes on three different Hawaiian islands, as well as a small recording company. He does commercials for Ponds hand lotion and merchandises Tiny Bubbles champagne, but most of his income is salary—conservatively estimated at $1 million a year.
Geographically, at least, Ho has never strayed far from his roots. His apartment is less than a mile from the Honolulu waterfront where he grew up during the Depression. The son of a stevedore, Donald Tai Loy Ho's surname is Chinese, but his background is a mix of Portuguese, German, Dutch, English and Hawaiian—"chop suey," as Ho likes to say. When he was 9 his parents bought a rundown bar in the country for $500 and called it Honey's, after his mother. The adjoining house was too small for all eight Ho children, so Don lived in the garage "with all the equipment and the spider webs. My toilet was a coconut tree."
When the Sunday morning stillness was disrupted by Japanese bombers on Dec. 7, 1941, Ho was awakened by the explosions. "We sat there puzzled, bewildered and scared as hell. The guy on the radio kept saying over and over, 'This is the real McCoy! Take cover!' " In the frantic days that followed, Oahu was quickly transformed. "The island turned brown," Don remembers. "The whole countryside became a military camp. They just cut everything down and put up tents as far as the eye could see. With the tents, of course, came the servicemen." And with the servicemen came enough dollars for the Ho family to send Don away to an exclusive boarding school, where he played varsity football, basketball and baseball, and was known as "Quack" because of the way he walked.
He wanted to be a football coach, so he accepted an athletic scholarship to Springfield College in Massachusetts. Desperately homesick, he headed back to the islands after a year and graduated from the University of Hawaii in 1953 with a degree in sociology, a wife and a year-old baby. "Melva and I were high school sweethearts," he says, "and we got married too early." Ho joined the Air Force and piloted transport planes for five years before resigning his commission to lend a hand at the bar.
"I went from being an aircraft commander to cleaning toilets," he recalls, but soon he drafted himself into show business. Customers had fallen off at Honey's, and Ho, partly from boredom, set up an organ he had bought in the Air Force. "I had no intention of being an entertainer," he insists. "I just played songs I liked from the radio, and pretty soon that place was jammed. Every weekend there would be lines down the street."
Thus began the professional career of Don Ho. In 1963 he rented a little cafe in Waikiki, and a year later began doing three shows a night at Duke Kahanamoku's nightclub. People lined up six deep for blocks, and the crowd tended to get a little rough. "In those days," recalls Ho, "I had to punch out maybe 10 people a night—people I hadn't invited onstage." Eventually Ho tired of moonlighting as a pugilist—even at $10,000 a week—and walked out when Kahanamoku refused to pay him and his men a New Year's Eve bonus in 1969. He moved over to the Polynesian Palace nine months later.
For Ho, the show goes on and on—two a night, six nights a week, 52 weeks a year. By now he has become as much a landmark as Diamond Head, but he seems to take it all not very seriously. "I think the word for me is survival, not ambition," he says. "I'm really a lucky man. I've always accepted whatever I was in, whether it was driving a taxi or entertaining. The jet set might not enjoy what I do, but I deal with the average person."
It is 7:30 p.m. in the Ho penthouse. Outside, the sun transforms the Pacific into fiery copper. Inside, a ringing phone breaks the silence. For Mr. Hawaii, it is time to get up and go back to work.