Neighbors: Gone, not forgotten

For nearly four decades, John Molina Sr. kept the beat for the Molina Brothers Orchestra, the family ensemble that provided the soundtrack to some of the most significant events in many Maui lives.

“So many people tell me, ‘Gosh, I danced to them, they played at my wedding,’ or ‘I used to go to the armory dances when they played,’ or ‘They played at my prom,’ ” recalled Ann Cua, Molina’s youngest daughter. “Hearing that while I was growing up, I realized just how much of a presence they had here.”

The group’s longtime drummer and last remaining original member, Molina died April 15 at age 92.

“They touched many, many people,” said County Council Chairwoman Gladys Baisa, who herself met her future husband while dancing to the Molina Brothers Orchestra. “This is a real loss for the community, the last of the clan. An era has ended, in my opinion.”

John was still a teenager when he was tapped by older brothers Joe and Salvador “Sub” Molina to play the drums in a band that would feature seven boys from the musical Molina clan. The ensemble was soon playing at parties and dance halls around the island, but exploded in popularity when the “Big Band” craze took off in the late 1930s and early ’40s, said 84-year-old Frank Domingo, a friend who was later added to the group as a guitar player and keyboardist.

John was “a wonderful musician,” who could set a rock-steady beat and hold it with the accuracy of a metronome, Domingo recalled. The Tommy Dorsey classic “Song of India” was John’s signature number, he added, since it featured drum solos where he could show his stuff.

The group ended each performance by saying, “Thank you, music lovers,” a catchphrase they continued to use affectionately with one another at family gatherings long after their retirement from the music scene, said granddaughter Francine Corsaro. John Molina’s lustrous hair earned him the nickname “The Silver Fox,” she added.

After the big band sound went out of style in the early 1960s, John Molina joined Domingo and three other band members to form a smaller combo, Domingo said.

And for decades after the full orchestra was no longer playing professionally, the brothers still reunited often to provide entertainment for family parties, Cua said. The glue that held the group together was a love of music and family.

“They had a lot of fun,” she said. “When they got together they truly had a good time. Whether they were on stage or off stage, they always were laughing, always telling stories about the old days.”

Molina was born Sept. 22, 1920, in Keahua, the third-youngest child in a family of nine sons and two daughters born to Raphael and Salvadora Molina, who had immigrated to Maui from Spain.

It was a hard childhood, and from a young age the children had more work than play.

“The boys had to walk miles to gather grass to feed the livestock,” Corsaro said. “They also all worked in their family garden, to raise enough for their large family to eat.”

They were very poor, added nephew Mike Molina.

“They couldn’t even afford a baseball,” he said, “so they took a sock, put rocks in the sock, tied it up, and that was their ball.”

The musical influence came from their mother, a flamenco guitarist, who gave the children music lessons, each on a different instrument.

In addition to playing music, John Molina went on to work for Haleakala Dairy, Hawaiian Dredging and the State of Hawaii Housing Authority. He met his wife, Gwendolyn “Gandy” Feiteira, at a carnival when he was 18 years old. The couple was married for 71 years.

While two generations of Mauians may recall Molina for his stage presence and steady beat, his children and grandchildren were remembering him this week as a man who loved nothing more than good music, a good drink and enjoying life in the company of family and friends.

The day he retired, “He said that from that day on, his hardest job was going to be to walk to the mailbox and pick up the mail and come back,” said daughter Annette Alexander.

Until his death, he enjoyed a daily happy hour, sharing a drink and pupu with his wife and any friends who might be visiting. He was quick with a quip and known for coining wise aphorisms such as “Bottles were meant to be empty,” said granddaughter Elena Nishizaki.

“He was just so easy to be around,” she said. “He’ll be missed by a lot of people.”

On the night he died, his last words to family members were, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over,” Alexander added.

“Just a few hours before he passed, he still had his sense of humor,” she said. “Of course, we didn’t know he was going to go, but I think he did. I think he knew.”

Services will be held from 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday at St. Joseph Church, with a Mass at 11 a.m. Burial will follow at the church cemetery. Borthwick Norman’s Mortuary is assisting with the arrangements.

In addition to his wife and daughters Ann and Annette, Molina is also survived by daughters Charlotte Torres and Mildred (Rex) Vogan; son John (Charmaine) Molina; 16 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

* Ilima Loomis is a Maui-based writer and editor. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.