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From the current Winter 2018 Issue

The story of the show that brought Hawaii to America

HAWAII CALLING

By Christopher Lynch

 

What comes to mind when one thinks of Hawaii’s place in popular culture? It might be the long-running television series Hawaii Five-O, with Jack Lord’s Steve McGarrett wrapping up an arrest by commanding associate Dan Williams (James MacArthur) to “Book ‘em, Danno.” It might be Elvis Presley’s 1961 movie Blue Hawaii, or perhaps his 1973 concert special, Aloha from Hawaii. It might be George Clooney’s 2011 movie The Descendants, about a family in possession of 25,000 acres of Kauai land.

But during the Golden Age of radio — when any land across an ocean might as well have been on the moon — many people were introduced to Hawaii through a program known as Hawaii Calls. The show debuted on July 3, 1935 and was hosted by its founder, Webley Edwards.

Edwards was blessed with a tenor speaking voice that was as clear as a bell, and which broke through the static. His show could be described as a Hawaiian version of the Grand Ole Opry, which had started broadcasting from Nashville a decade earlier.

In fact, Edwards’ inspiration for Hawaii Calls came not from lounging on the sandy beaches of Waikiki, but while listening to a program of Hawaiian music on KFRC/San Francisco. The Oregon-born Edwards — who had first come to Hawaii in 1928 for the purpose of selling cars — thought that this program was “terrible” and felt that he could do better. He could, and did.

That first broadcast of Hawaii Calls set the template of the broadcast for several decades. The program would feature Hawaiian musicians who would beat drums and strum ukuleles, an instrument then unfamiliar to Americans. And although ten songs were scheduled per weekly broadcast, only three of them would actually be Hawaiian.

The first Hawaii Calls programs were broadcast outdoors on Saturdays in front of a live audience at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a famous pink hotel on Waikiki Beach. Eventually, the show moved to the nearby Moana Hotel. Hawaii Calls also featured innovative remote broadcasts, travelling to other islands and once even broadcasting from aboard ship.

Those first shows were broadcast via shortwave to the United States, Canada, and Australia. Ironically, due to a technical quirk of shortwave broadcasting, many listeners around the world thought they heard the pounding of the ocean surf in the background. Radio historian John Dunning wrote that “the shortwave transmission had a pulsing quality, which added to the waves and enhanced the exotic favor.” Edwards sent a soundman to the beach with a microphone to record the actual sound of the waves.

By 1941, Edwards had become general manager of Honolulu station KGMB — and in a strange turn of events, he was on hand to broadcast both the beginning and the end of World War II in the Pacific.

At 8:04 am on December 7, 1941, KGMB was broadcasting organ music from the First Baptist Church of Waikiki, the station’s regularly scheduled Sunday programming. The music was interrupted by Edwards, who read a statement asking military personnel to return to their bases. At 8:40 am, Edwards broke into the broadcast again. “The Island is under attack! I repeat, the island is under attack! This is the real McCoy!”

The broadcast continued: “Attention. This is no exercise. The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor!… All Army, Navy and Marine personnel to report to duty.” Edwards’ announcements played an important role in alerting the military personnel on Oahu.

During a crisis, a radio announcer may grab the nearest record within reach, to stall for time while waiting for the latest news bulletins. At one point after one of the very serious Pearl Harbor announcements, a bulletin was followed by a recording of “Three Little Fishes,” which had one of the least serious lyrics ever written.

Needless to say, it is easy to see how listeners might have thought this Sunday morning broadcast was a joke, or an ill-conceived knock-off of Orson Welles’ classic 1938 production of “The War of the Worlds.” A member of the Board of Directors for KGMB called the radio station to inquire if these bulletins were some sort of farce. Edwards yelled back, “Hell, no, this is the real McCoy!”

With the United States at war, CBS recruited Edwards to cover the action in the Pacific. During that time, Edwards produced several scoops, including the first interview with Paul W. Tibbets, the pilot who led the flight responsible for dropping the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Edwards interviewed Tibbets on the island of Guam, where the pilot admitted that his B-29 aircraft had been named after his mother, Enola Gay.

Hawaiians heard Edwards’ voice on December 7, 1941; millions of listeners heard him on September 1, 1945, when he stood on the USS Missouri and announced “World War II is about to come to its official closing.” Moments later, General Douglas MacArthur and Admiral Chester Nimitz arrived with American and Japanese dignitaries for the official surrender of Japan.

With the war over, life got back to normal, and Edwards resumed broadcasting Hawaii Calls on KGMB. Now the show was heard on the Mutual network and on more than 750 stations around the world, from New Zealand to Norway. (By the 1950s, the show was also heard on the worldwide facilities of the Armed Forces Radio Service.)

Needless to say, Hawaii Calls was a powerful advertisement for Hawaiian tourism. With ongoing advancements in aviation, travel to Hawaii became a very real possibility for many Americans. By the 1950s, aircraft like the Boeing Stratocruiser were flying from Los Angeles to Hawaii in about 9-1/2 hours — actually quite fast for the pre-jet era. Certainly it was much quicker than traveling to the Hawaiian Islands by boat.

And like sugar and pineapples, tourism was becoming a large revenue stream for Hawaiian businesses. The relaxing music and tropical island scenes that Edwards painted with his words on Hawaii Calls whetted the appetites of countless folks in northern climes who were well-acquainted with dark and bleak winters.

The Hawaii Calls program from January 14, 1963 demonstrates how Edwards’ words and descriptions of Hawaii made countless listeners want to book a flight to the islands. The broadcast began with sounds of pounding ocean surf, which gradually faded, behind female voices chanting in the Hawaiian language.

Edwards announced boldly, “This is a call from Hawaii!” and a chorus began to sing in a rich harmony. Then, as Hawaiian guitars strummed softly in the background, Edwards pronounced, “This is Hawaii, the land of rainbows and flowers, the eight islands of the rich green mountains that rise up from the blue Pacific Ocean. We are on the island of Oahu now, right on the famous beach at Waikiki, on the colorful terraces of a reef hotel, with beautiful Hawaiian girls, and handsome Hawaiian men and delightful hula dancers. And all around us are visiting Mainliners who happily join us in our welcome to the islands of Hawaii and our Greeting to the world, ‘Aloha’ as Hawaii Calls!”

The audience enthusiastically shouted “Aloha,” and then — proud of their collective effort — clapped loudly. The Hawaiian guitars began to strum again. It’s enough to make listeners jealous that they aren’t there for this party. (The show’s popularity inspired Capitol Records to produce a series of Hawaiian music collections based on Hawaii Calls, purportedly produced by Edwards.)

On a personal note, this author’s mother was among those “Mainliners” who enjoyed seeing a Hawaii Calls program in the flesh during a 1955 visit to the Moana Hotel prior to visiting Australia with her family. As Edwards described, they sat in the hotel’s courtyard, at a table with a pale pink tablecloth under a large Banyan tree.

Ironically, the role Hawaii Calls played in introducing tourists to Hawaiian music and culture would also be its Achilles’ heel. In the show’s 37-year history, it had only one sponsor, the Hawaiian Tourist Bureau. However, unlike other programs from radio’s Golden Age with a solid sponsor (such as Ovaltine or Jell-O), the budget of a state agency like the Hawaiian Tourist Bureau was at the whim of political forces.

Edwards, whose pop-ularity eventually got him elected to the Hawaiian legislature, clearly had friends in that body, since the legislature routinely came through with funding for Hawaii Calls. But the novelty of Hawaiian music began to fade with the popularity of other musical styles, particularly the dominance of rock & roll.

The program’s tone also changed when Edwards suffered from a heart attack in 1972 and was no longer able to host. Danny Kaleikini stepped in to replace Edwards, but the program continued to struggle in terms of both funding and popularity.

After forty years and 2,083 shows, the Hawaii Calls series came to an end on August 16, 1975, broadcasting from the Cinerama Reef Hotel. Two years later, Webley Edwards died.

In the twenty-first century, Hawaiian music has made a resurgence with singers like the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole, whose exquisite Hawaiian medley of “Over the Rainbow” and “What a Wonderful World” has been featured in countless movies and television shows (including the BBC’s 2009 documentary South Pacific).

The Hawaiian language is a beautiful and nuanced tongue. The word “aloha” can mean both “hello” and “goodbye.” For his innovative radio programming and for making Hawaiian music’s first inroads into American culture, one can only say “aloha” and “maloha” (thank you) to the memory of Webley Edwards, a radio pioneer of the highest quality who created a truly wonderful program.


Tune in to Those Were the Days on January 20 to hear a broadcast of Hawaii Calls.

 

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