by Jim Nintzel
I learned today from local drummer Winston Watson that Ernie Menehune, Hawaii's suntanned Irishman, has died. I haven't tracked down the details, but Menehune was in his early 90s.
Menehune was inducted into the Tucson Music Hall of Fame in 2007. Gene Armstrong profiled him:
Ernie Menehune has been performing music of all styles—including country, pop, big-band jazz and Irish music—but he is most famous for his elaborate Polynesian revues, including a big band, a chorus of singers and dancers. He has been professional entertainer in excess of a half-century, and a fixture in the Tucson music community for more than 30 years.
At 84, Menehune looks about 20 years younger with his deep tan, white teeth, sparkling eyes, Hawaiian shirt and puka-shell necklace. He arrives at an interview driving a massive red-and-silver sport van.
"My kids want me to give up the show and all that, but I say no, because I still enjoy it," he says. "The day I walk on that stage because it's just work, just a job to make money, that's the day I quit."
Billed for years as "Hawaii's Suntanned Irishman," he was a huge nightclub draw in the 1960s and '70s throughout the Western United States, playing the supper club circuit—everywhere from Caesars Palace to Tucson's once-glamorous-but-now-in-ruins Spanish Trail, on Interstate 10.
I was lucky enough to see Menehune perform a few times at the Airport Lounge, Ye Olde Lantern and the Tucson Polynesian Club at Tucson Meet Yourself. He was always charming, hysterical and fun to talk with.
I first heard of Menehune when my friend Peter Gilstrap came to Tucson to interview him for the Phoenix New Times.
Gilstrap's whole profile is worth a read, but here's how he described Menehune's act:
So let's say it's some Phoenix evening in the late Fifties. We enter a club with the Menehune name on the sign outside, score a nice table, the candle is winking through its bamboo holder, the drinks have been delivered. What happens?
Ernie smiles and squints from 1996 all the way back. "The lights would be off, and I would come out with a conch shell. I'd blow the conch shell, there'd be a drum roll, and then—'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present Hawaii's Suntanned Irishman, Ernie Menehune and his Polynesian revue!'—Ta da da. The girls would come out with the gourds and the skirts and the whole thing, very flashy. Then it would calm down to a happy medium, music, singing, jokes, then POW again and we'd go out. I used to do the flaming-knife dance as a finale. That was fun, fun, fun."
From the late Fifties well into the Sixties and Seventies, fun for the Menehune nightclub tribe reigned supreme. Bookings were constant, and Ernie added Anglo aspects to his act when necessary.
"I saw that after the floor show was over, they always had a house band for dancing. So I decided to capture both ends—all that Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher type of music was in—so I started rehearsing my band with that type of music so that people wouldn't get tired of Hawaiian music all night long. We'd have country, rock, everything. We did all that Aquarius stuff."
Later albums reveal a liberal mix of lounge-staple pleasers such as "Sweet Caroline," "I've Gotta Be Me," "That's Life," "Danny Boy," "The Impossible Dream," "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In," and plenty of jokes. On record, at least, this stuff sounds like nothing to write home about. It's always the island numbers that get me, and apparently got those live audiences back then.
"I was booked into a club at the river bed [in Phoenix] when Waylon Jennings was there. On his day off, I'd go in there, we'd have Hawaiian night and we'd pack the house."
Here's where we begin: I went from wondering if Menehune was even still alive to getting his wife on the telephone in as long as it takes to dial information. I found myself speaking with Beverly, not only the woman wed to Ernie, but one-half of the Waikiki Twins, two identically lovely dancers sandwiching the man in a photo on the back of the late-Sixties My Way album.
I was ecstatic.
Even more so when Ernie took the line and invited me down to Menehune Ranch nestled at the foot of the Tucson mountains.
"You won't even think you're in Arizona," he told me, "people come here, and they think they're on the islands."
I got in the car, and then I was there. Sitting beneath the setting sun in this huge backyard full of palm trees, beside a putting green, next to a waterfall that fed into a little pond full of flesh-and-blood ducks and a fiberglass shark. Other than the shark, Ernie built all of this, and he can turn the waterfall on and off whenever he wants. There was a corral containing a couple horses, a tiki-style band shell for intimate home performances, and great big, lazy dogs sleeping all over the place.
And there were Beverly and Ernie sitting there as well, sipping Diet Cokes as the sound of wind chimes filled in the holes between the rustling of the palms overhead.
Here's Menehune performing "My Way" at Kon Tiki. He did it his way, all right, all the way to the end. RIP, Ernie.