Don Blanding Recalls --
His First Holiday in Hawaii
"WHEN WAS your first Christmas in Hawaii?" Editor Walt Christie asked me. "In 1915 or 1916. I don't remember which year," I answered.
"How clear are your impressions of that first Christmas?" he persisted. "What was Honolulu like then? What did you do, and where did you do it?"
"Walter, if a large community Christmas tree fell on you, you'd remember the mass effect more than the details, wouldn't you?"
"The oddest things happen to you!" Walter mused. "How did a community Christmas tree happen to fall on you?"
"It didn't," I said. "That was poetic imagery. Color, sights , sounds, tastes, fragrances and textures do for me what liquor is supposed to . . . and doesn't. They give me a terrific lift and a grand time . . . without the hangover. I landed in Honolulu three days before Christmas. The first day and a half were 'confined to quarters' due to an unwise experience with roasted kukui nuts. I ate them like salted peanuts instead of sparingly . . . like garlic. So the first full impact of Honolulu was in holiday dress and mood. It was like . . . ."
"I KNOW," said Walter, "the Christmas tree falling on you. Well, go over to the Archives Building and browse among the newspapers of that time. That will start the flow of memories and you can check details. Pick out the big, bright pieces and give us 2,500 words on your first Christmas in Hawaii for the Christmas Day issue of Hawaiian Life Magazine."
"Did you say 'give,' Walter?" I asked pointedly.
"Don't commercialize Christmas, Don," he retorted. "There'll be something in your stocking."
Walter was right. The prowl among the Archives started the memory-flow, first in a trickle and then in a tidal wave which left the flotsam and jetsam of reminiscences which I hadn't recalled in years. Ghosts walked . . . happy ones and otherwise.
MEMORIES START in 1916. I was on my way for a visit home in Oklahoma before returning for another year of study at the Art Institute of Chicago with money earned in the harvest fields around Moose Jaw, Canada.
Caption: p. 6, top
How many parents of children enjoying Christmas dinner today will remember "way back" to Christmas, 1916 -- when Don Blanding first arrived in Hawaii? Remember the old trolley cars? (Soon even the trackless trolleys will give way to diesel buses.)
Caption: p. 6, bottom
Yes, there was a Waikiki pier, back in 1916, as shown in this photo. Don Blanding says -- and he ought to know! -- that it was the scene of many a moonlit romance. Note the one-piece bathing suits worn by the beachgoers. They didn't leave much room for sun tanning.
Between trains in Kansas City, Missouri, I saw the stage show Bird of Paradise starring Lenore Ulric with real Hawaiian singers and dancers. Lenore pitched some fast curves which I caught . . . right in my imagination which seethed like Kilauea in the act where beautiful Luana barbecued herself in the lava pit of love.
I asked the ticket seller at the station, "Where's Honolulu and how do I get there?"
"It's five days and $90, second cabin," he said. (How did he know the size of my funds?) "The Great Northern is making a trip which will get you there on December 22. Want it?"
WANT IT? It was the one thing that I had to have . . . at the time.
I wasn't much use to my folks during my brief visit. I was already on my way to Hawaii except for moving the body.
The memories are coming fast and clear. The Great Northern put in at Hilo before Honolulu on that trip.
I shall never forget the impact of the great green-blue cabachon of Mauna Loa against the raw turquoise sky of Hawaii. Unbelievable blends of melted emeralds, sapphires and lapis lazuli were in the waters. The coco palms on the shore waved with the luring grace of a hula dancer's arms. Rich odors and fragrances were wafting shipward, a potpourri of jungle, sea-weed, lava, cane and mixed lei-perfumes.
I DIDN'T go ashore. The shore-trip cost money and I was saving my limited funds for down payment on a little grass house in Honolulu. Anyhow, I was getting about as much voltage as my wires could carry. I had known the vast empty horizontals of the Western prairies, the stark savage verticals of the Rocky Mountains and the fantasy and strangeness of Yellowstone Park. But I had no preparation for the lush, lavish beauty and the new dimensions of Hawaii. I started until my eyes must have gone out like telescopes from my face. Remember, I was just 21 and a young 21 at that.
I shan't do a verbal home-movie of the beauties of Oahu. They are largely unchanged and, thank God, largely unchangeable despite our well-intentioned efforts in the name of progress.
The files of the Commercial Advertiser and The Star-Bulletin have refreshed my mind as to what was happening during holiday week, 1916.
Caption: p. 7, top
Nary a Bikini in sight in this illustration of 1916 vintage. The lad looks dashing in his ultra-smart and so modest swim suit. Miss Hawaii 1916 needed all of her feminine wiles to coax him into the water.
Christmas Eve and New Year's Eve came on Sunday that year, so the whooppee and hurraws were turned loose Saturday night. Quotes: "Honolulu had Saturday night preview of Sunday Night Christmas Eve. Because Saturday night would be the last shopping night, Honolulu's stores were jammed. The narrow sidewalks were crowded and overflowing with last-minute shoppers and merry makers."
WITH MY conditioning of northern Christmases with holly, mistletoe, snow, headcolds, long underwear, mufflers and sniffles, I kept saying, as I wandered through that happy, good-natured throng, "This is Mardi Gras. This isn't Christmas."
The national backgrounds of the people were more strongly emphasized in 1916. There were many beautiful kimonos and obis, tabis and formal head-dresses, and even some stilt-style getas for rain. Yes, it rained. I learned that that was practically traditional for Christmas Eve. I learned also how lightly Islanders take their rain. It wasn't a very convincing rain, and soon cleared up.
In my highly romantic and naïve state of emotions, every pretty Japanese girl was Madame Butterfly; every lovely Chinese girl was a "mysterious flower of the Orient" and every lush Hawaiian girl was a potential Luana of the South Seas. I had a swell time.
The young-fry were violently in evidence with noise-makers, rattles, horns, serpentines and confetti. Girls coquettishly flung handsfull of confetti in the faces of the young bucks and fled, not too fast, from retaliation.
HONOLULU'S FIRST Municipal Christmas Tree (it DIDN'T fall on me) was aglow on the Palace Grounds, with several hundred singers from Kamehameha School. Carols blended with Hawaiian songs, to my vast delight. Again, the crowd was more fascinating than the performance, which was beautiful.
As a whole, the crowd was well-behaved although there were some brawls on Hotel Street. (There still are.)
Caption: p. 7, bottom
Looks funny today, doesn't it, but -- no fooling! -- Mom and Dad will tell you that these garments represented the zenith of fashion back on Christmas Day, 1916. Before the males start smirking, ponder this point: men's styles haven't changed very much at that!
What was happening during those holidays, 1916. The same things that are happening today. The quality, quantity and speed change but humanity then was the same ornery, splendid, shabby, glorious, bewildered, cocky, conniving, fine and footling aggregation that it is today.
The papers record that . . . "The Outdoor Circle ladies negotiate to buy out local Bill Board Business to keep signery from wrecking scenery." The battle is still on.
Schofield protests that it wants cleaner comedies. Current show company is so vulgar that audience is disgusted.
A lover of Hawaii in New Jersey is indignant at vulgarization, commercialization and degradation of Hawaiian music and dancing by phoney Coney Island "Hawaiians" and "Princesses" from the jungles of Brooklyn and Harlem. Toots Paka is dancing in New York but her imitators are making a sorry mess of the hula.
WAR BULLETIN, 1916. President Wilson launches Peace Proposal to embattled nations of Europe. Reactions mixed. That is, United States is on receiving end of a mixture of nine-tenths suspicion, vilification, misinterpretation and rejection with one-tenth comprehension of the ideals proposed. (Sound familiar, 1954?)
Canada will stand by Mother Country to the end.
Christmas finds the Trench Line in France unchanged.
British prisoners starved in Turkey.
Promotion Committee writes open letters through papers and directly to itchy-footed young men urging them NOT to come without sufficient mad-money to take them home in case they don't like Hawaii or can't get jobs. The didn't write me, but it wouldn't have stopped me, anyhow.
THEATERS AND MOVIES. Holidays, 1916. Hazel Dawn, lovely star of the Pink Lady, in Under Cover with Owen Moore who had been, was or was to be one of Mary Pickford's husbands . . . Blazing Love with Virginia Pearson, an opulent beauty who would have made Marilyn Monroe seem like something by Christian Dior . . . Mae Murray in Dream Girl. I saw her couple years ago on Hollywood Boulevard. She had the same bee-stung upper lip, the drooping eyelids, svelte figure and beautiful underpinnings which made her famous as the Nell Brinkley Girl in Ziegfeld's Follies . . . Dustin Farnum, famous as "the Virginian" in Davy Crockett, a matinee recommended for the young fry . . . Robert Manell, famous Shakespearean actor, with Genevieve Hamper in A Wife's Sacrifice . . . Wally Reid with Cleo Ridgley in The Selfish Woman. The handsome movie idol had not yet started on the unhappy path to his tragic death.
Caption: p. 8, top
Parasol and broad brimmed hat helped guard Mrs. Hawaii's complexion as she sauntered along Kuhio Beach in the years of World War I.
THERE WERE Tea Dansants at the Moana Hotel, four to six. Two dancers featured the Vernon Castle version of the fox-trot and the bunny hug. I flung a mean foot myself in those days . . . A stage show, So Long, Letty, was being played by the Ingersoll Musical Company. I recall a stage performance of either the Thirteenth Chair or the Witching Hour in the theater with the corrugated iron roof. It rained . . . and I mean RAINED. The performance turned to an equivalent of silent movies. It was too wet to go out. The show was audible during the last seven minutes. A good time was had by all.
The old Opera House was still standing. Pity it had to go. It was a museum piece in the European style of Opera House . . . "Little Melba" was scheduled for a concert there. Madame Melba (not yet Dame Melba) was to accompany her protégé in several numbers. Little Melba was Peggy Center, now wife of "Andy" Anderson, composer of Lovely Hula Hands, White Ginger Blossoms and other beloved Island songs. I saw her on the street the other day. The years have dealt as graciously with her as she has dealt graciously with life . . . Madame Lester was directing a society event, the Snow Cotillion at the Young Hotel Roof Garden. Many of the listed "dashing beaux and dainty belles" of that event are gone; others are city fathers and society matrons of today.
Nell Alexander's beautiful Tourist Center, Art Center and Native Crafts group, Laniakea, was where the Y.W.C.A. is today. It was ahead of its day. Honolulu could use its equivalent now. Artists, sculptors and crafts-workers of the various national backgrounds had studios clustering around the central Tea Shop. There I met my first Honolulu friend, Florence Butler, the sculptress, also D. Howard Hitchcock, Twigg Smith, Gordon Usborne, Frank Moss, Lionel Waldron and other "Bohemians" of that day. Laniakea with its beautiful coral and lauhala Little Theater was a war casualty.
ITEMS OF CURRENT INTEREST, 1916. Inter-Island Steam Navigation Company announces "Volcano Rising Rapidly, 130 feet from top. All expense trip, $30." . . . One newspaper had a cartoon of Santa Claus sliding down a rainbow to Hawaii. The other had him coming in on a surfboard. . . . Parents had no "Comic Strip" trouble with youngsters. One paper carried Mutt and Jeff; the other carried "It Happens in the Best Regulated Families."
SOCIAL NEWS. The Society event of the week was the marriage of Miss Betty Case to Navy Lieutenant Charles Horatio McMorris. (Later to become a distinguished admiral.)
LOCAL ITEMS. A powerful drive by various groups to get more beach space for the public at Waikiki . . . Item, 1954.
During recent Co-Ed Invasion there was an average of two persons to a beach towel. There's not much yardage left when I'm on a beach towel so I wasn't crowded. . . . TRAVEL GROUPS complain that Honolulu is losing money because of lack of accommodations for Conventions . . . and there's no adequate Convention Hall. That was 1916! . . . Christmas pardons by Governor Pinkham will delight many. . . . Fourteen thousand pupils are enrolled in Oahu schools.
LOCAL PROBLEM, 1916. What shall we do with jobless evicted Sadie Thompsons of infamous Iwilei? Which reminds me of a social error of mine. I was not used to the trickiness of Hawaiian names. A hostess asked me if I had enjoyed a pleasant week end. I said that I had had two grand days at Iwilei. She said that some of the better people did that but they didn't usually make small talk of the event, and maybe I meant Haleiwa.
WAR NEWS, 1916. Carranze of Mexico insists on withdrawal of Pershing's troops from U.S.-Mexican border. . . . WAR NEWS, 1954. Several nations are waiting to give us "Welcoming Away" parties in various parts of the world. . .
Merchants complain of dust on Queen Street. A good rain bushed the complaint. . . . An editorial declares that fences must come down at Waikiki. . . . An advertisement states, "Do you have any coconuts to sell. A mainland firm wants them." . . . MORALS AND MANNERS ITEMS. . . . A prominent reformer says that "the modern girl who is decent and wants to go straight these days must be 90 per cent chilled steel (ugh!) to withstand the snares and temptations set for her undoing." Mixing her metaphors, she continues, "Every agency in life seems to be a banana peel for the defenseless maidens." . . . A noted churchman points out the need for enlightening young people on sex matters. . . . ITEM, 1954. many young people today think that adults need the same enlightenment. . . . ITEM, 1916. A long article states that "The United States is a nervous nation. Unless we slow down our speed and pressure we will have a national nervous break-down. . . . 1954. he should see us now!
HUMAN INTEREST, 1916. The basic fineness of people is shown by this item: "Forty Korean men give 10 hours of labor each to Korean Seminary in improving grounds and doing carpentry and other necessary improvements." The Seminary was established by Dr. Synghman Rhee.
THE POLITICAL SCENE was about the same except for names, proportions and the volume and intensity of claims and counter-claims, accusations, vituperations and denials, promises and persuasions. Politicians depended on their voices, hula dancers, luau and free drinks. Radio, television, sound-trucks and loud-speakers had not entered the scene to help them invade our privacy.
THE PASSING SHOW
Out there beyond our eyes
the Passing Show
Goes on as it has gone,
as it will go
Through changeless Time
from ancient changeless Past
With changing scenes and
costumes, changing cast
But with the same old Plot,
the same Suspense.
With nothing really new
And after fifty years
we may begin
"Isn't this where we came in?"
WAIKIKI WAS awaaaaaay out, then. It seemed like a Territorial Possession of Honolulu. The rash of bungalows was just beginning. Who knew it would become an epidemic reaching to the present massive palis of the Princess Kaiulani and Waikiki Biltmore Hotels, the Edgewater Hotel and the various apartment houses which are changing the sky-line of the Beach area? The Moana Hotel was the center of social activities. Many grandchildren of today are follow-ups of romances begun on the gracious lanai or under the banyan under the magic of moon, music and murmurous surf. A pier ran out from the hotel. Malihinis were always diving off of it and breaking their necks despite warnings.
Sonny Cunha was directing the orchestra for nearby Heinie's Tavern. The Tavern was considered rather raffish in those days. It was an unwritten law that you didn't mention whom you saw there with whom because you'd be asked what you were doing there with whom yourself. . . . As I recall, the beautiful coconut grove of Ainahau was intact yet.
Caption: p. 8, bottom
Downtown Honolulu was as horizontal in 1916 as it is now - but nowhere nearly so vertical because tall buildings were yet to make their impact. Even the streets seemed wide enough in those days.
We rode to the beach on open-faced street cars. At the "rush hours" (?) we hung on like ants to whatever and whomever we could get a hand or foot hold. The motor men were accommodating folks. They'd hold the car indefinitely for some puffing matron hurrying down the street. Kids were delivered and errands done and messages delivered by request. This courtesy and thoughtfulness has been bequeathed to many of the bus drivers of today. . . . We crossed the Duck Ponds. At their mildest they gave off a smell of 10 day old hard-boiled picnic eggs. At other times they suggested tuna-and-fertilizer factories sprayed with low-grade insecticide. It was claimed that the effluvia discolored white paint.
There was an ordinance in effect at the beach that bathers must be "suitably covered" when parading Kalakaua Avenue. (That law was repealed not long ago.) "Suitable covering" meant beach kimonos, bathrobes, haori coats or draped couch-covers. Women hardly swam then; they just got water-logged. An advertisement of 1916 shows a belle wearing black sneakers, long black stockings, baggy bloomers, a ruffled full overskirt, blouse, puffed sleeves and what looked like a shopping bag on her head. Men's bathing suits went from Adam's apple to midway between thigh and knee. Nary a malo in sight.
A sports picture of the Beach shows the Champion Relay Team of swimmers: John Kelii, George Cunha, Duke Paoa Kahanamoku, Stubby Kruger and Clarence Lane, all in long one-piece bathing suits. OTHER SPORTS ITEMS. Paul Withington heads Athletics at Wisconsin University. Babe Ruth gives fewest earned runs in League. And this one IS sporting: Duke to get a regular salary.
ITEM, 1954. I look across from my place on the Ala Wai to the clotted constellations of street lights and home lights on the heights from Diamond Head to Punchbowl and remember when a few glimmers on Tantalus and some sparkles out Kaimuki way were about the only illumination.
The women's fashions were not too different from today. Full skirts, about the same height from the floor. But, they wore high button shoes with long lines of buttons half-way up the calf. They didn't have more hair but they did more with it topping their crowning glory with large-brimmed hats. The younger ones carried more all-over poundage.
Caption: p. 9, top
Every kamaaina of the 1916 vintage will recall - and quite fondly - the famous old Opera House. It occupied a corner on King Street, waikiki of the present Federal Building.
Caption: p. 9, bottom
Don Blanding suggested that we check old magazine files to see what Mother and the youngsters were wearing as underclothes back around Christmas, 1916. Here is the bitter truth. (Some Isle men still wear the type of union suit displayed by Junior.)
Men's clothes had narrow shoulders, tighter trousers and collars that came up to the ears giving the beaux a congested look. Straw hats had broad brims which helped them blow into the duck ponds. More men wore hats, and most of them had feather leis or fresh flower leis.
YOU COULD always tell when a boat was in because a rash of new stories would be in circulation. You had to work fast because within an hour folks would say, "Oh, yes, I've heard THAT one." We knew half of the people we saw on Fort Street. Now a familiar face looms up like the Aloha Tower.
Oh, yes. Advertising was in its infancy in those days. The Holiday ads of 1916 were mostly in the manner of a butler announcing dinner to the Duchess of Dullworth, quiet, refined and restrained. No high pressure, few cuts, no "Last chance at Colossal Bargains," etc.
Wall and Dougherty mentioned that "The Lord Loves a Cheerful Giver." The implication was that so did the merchants. Other firms listed "suitable gifts for the holidays." In those days everyone knew what every store had, anyhow, so why shout about it? How things have changed!
Whether for better or worse, who can say. The tastes of yesterday are not today's idea of "the thing." The massive carved koa furniture of 1916 would be scorned by today's young "functional or contemporary decorator" whose stark unsentimental furniture will probably be junked by his children when they start their homes. The "good old days" seemed good then; today will be tomorrow's "good old days." I try to take them as they come.
I've used up my verbal yardage. That gives you the general picture. Honolulu was fun then. It's fun now. I figure it will be grand fun a quarter of a century from now. I hope I'm here. Aloha. Mele Kalikimaka.
This article appeared in the Hawaiian Life magazine section (pp. 6-9) of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on December 25, 1954. Clear photos are not available.
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