From the plantation to a pompadour for crooner
Allen Idemoto’s first glimpse of Elvis Presley was through a neighbor’s window.
Growing up in a small plantation house, with so many brothers and sisters that he had to sleep on the floor, Idemoto’s family couldn’t afford a TV. But one night, he noticed flickering lights, snuck over to the house next door, peeked in the window – and saw the King.
He was transfixed.
“It was really something,” he recalled. “I liked his moves.”
These days, Idemoto is likely to be the one rocking those moves – breaking out into Elvis’ signature hip-thrusting, knee-rocking, foot-tapping swivel in the middle of the Queen Ka’ahumanu Food Court on a weekday morning just to liven up a conversation. With a lifelong love of music and entertaining, Idemoto might be best known as a local Elvis impersonator.
Now 72, the retired wallpaper hanger says he lives for applause.
“I like to see the audience’s reaction, to see if they like what I’m doing,” he said. “It’s really satisfying.”
Idemoto had an unlikely path to his sequined jumpsuit.
He grew up in Camp 2, about a mile and a half inland from Kaunoa, with four brothers and six sisters in a tiny plantation house that leaked when it rained, in a community surrounded by sugar cane fields.
“There was no paved road,” he said. “It’s all dirt and rocks.”
The family was poor, but he recalls a happy childhood. His Japan-born parents worked hard; his father was a fieldworker, while his mother took in washing in addition to looking after 11 children. They raised chickens and ducks, and grew papaya, starfruit and avocado to help put food on the table.
“Everybody helped each other out,” he said.
It was a long walk to the beach, so for fun the kids would sometimes swim in the plantation reservoirs – keeping an eye out for the bosses to come driving by.
“Whenever you see that red truck, you just pick up your clothes and run away,” he recalled.
Other times, they would catch a ride into town on the sugar cane train – paying for their trip by giving the train workers papayas.
It was after graduating from Maui High School, as a student at the former Maui Technical College, that Idemoto started to explore his love of entertaining. His musical group, The Hitchhikers, performed 1950s pop and rock ‘n’ roll hits. “The reason it’s called ‘The Hitchhikers’ is we’d always hitchhike from the plantation to the city,” he said.
Idemoto had also grown up learning about his parents’ language and culture, and attending Japanese school. He continued his cultural interest by taking classes in Japanese music at places like Hale Mahaolu and the Kula Community Center. Popular Japanese songs like “Sukiyaki” became part of his repertoire as a performer.
“There’s a lot of sad (Japanese) songs. People lose their wives, their girlfriends – they have tears in their eyes,” he said. “I like to sing that for the ladies, yeah?”
But there was always something special about Elvis, he says.
“I liked his style, his moves and his love for Hawaii.”
Idemoto was already doing a lot of Elvis songs in his act – which featured a heavy rotation of country-western and classic rock ‘n’ roll songs from his youth – and he sometimes threw in an impression of the King’s classic hip-shaking moves into his performances. But then, about 15 years ago, he got the idea to take his show to the next level and start doing a real impression.
He got his first costume – an Elvis jumpsuit with a cape – from a Halloween supply store, and the rest is history.
Since then, Idemoto has performed his act with the Maui Pops and at the recent Maui High School reunion, and he donates his time with regular performances at Kalama Heights, Roselani Place, Kula Hospital, Hale Mahaolu, the Binhi at Ani Community Center and Kaunoa Senior Center, as well as a gig about once a month at Queen Ka’ahumanu Center.
In addition to performing and spending time with his wife of 43 years, Merle, Idemoto keeps himself in shape and stays active. He rides his bike frequently, takes Zumba classes and walks and does 150 sit-ups daily – passing the time by looking for shapes and figures in the clouds overhead. He’s also taken up oil painting, and has completed five Maui Marathons, eight Hana Relays, two Honolulu Marathons and two Great Aloha Runs.
“I’m not one to just sit around,” he said.
But he says his favorite moments are performing for the audience – channeling their enthusiasm into more excitement and energy.
“It’s important to check out the crowd, and see who’s really into it,” he said. “When I see someone who’s really clapping and having fun, I’ll always point to them during songs like ‘Teddy Bear.’ “