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Before Hawai'i 5-0: Hawaiian Eye
June 15, 2013 - Ray Tsuchiyama
Barely two months after Hawai'i officially became the 50th State of the Union, after the successful Alaska-First strategy of the Hawai'i leadership back then (it is difficult to recall a time when many members of the American Congress looked at Hawai'i as a place that did not “look” American), a powerful new television detective-drama series was launched. It was called “Hawaiian Eye”*, and preceded the “old” “Hawai'i 5-0” by nine years, and now forgettable “Magnum P.I.”
The cast (the show was completely in Black-and-White) featured Connie Stevens, Robert Conrad, Anthony Eisley, and a Maui-born comedian named “Poncie Ponce” (his real name is Ponciano Hernandez; he went to high school on the Island of Hawai'i) and ran for about four years with 134 episodes, stopping just as the Vietnam War was beginning. The show would trigger a surge of first-time vacationers and a surge of U.S. military R & R visits by the mid-1960s to Waikiki (today many top business leaders originally came to Hawai'i on R & R, and then returned to live and launch careers in the booming Hawai'i economy of the 1970s). This is the Wikipedia TV show synopsis (which is quite complex, in retrospect, and imaginative, in 1959):
Private investigator Tracey Steele (Anthony Eisley) and his half-Hawaiian partner, Tom Lopaka (Robert Conrad), own Hawaiian Eye, a combination detective agency and private security firm, located in Honolulu, Hawaii. Their principal client is the Hawaiian Village Hotel, which in exchange for security services, provides the agency with a luxurious private compound on the hotel grounds. The partners investigate mysteries and protect clients with the sometime help of photographer Cricket Blake (Connie Stevens), who also sings at the hotel's Shell Bar, and a ukulele-playing cab driver Kim Quisado (Poncie Ponce), who has "relatives" throughout the islands. Engineer turned detective Greg McKenzie (Grant Williams), joins the agency later on as a full partner, while hotel social director Philip Barton (Troy Donahue) lends a hand after Tracey Steele departs.
The timing was good: Hawai'i Statehood thrusted Hawai'i on the front page of every newspaper from Los Angeles to New York City. The slow elite passenger liner tourism was replaced by a technological transportation wonder: the Boeing 707. Recognizing the “new” tourism paradigm was a revolutionary businessman named Chinn Ho, who borrowed money to create the first “mass tourism” hotel called the Ilikai (which would figure in the iconic, MTV-predecessor introduction to the “old” Hawai'i 5-0 series with Jack Lord as Steve McGarrett looking piercingly into the camera from a penthouse lana’i) – and another Mainland real estate entrepreneur would tie-in his project to the “Hawaiian Eye” detective series – Henry Kaiser’s Waikiki mega-resort, now known as Hilton Hawaiian Village.
It’s surprising to note that in 1959, Henry Kaiser was 77 years old and had already completed several successful careers ranging from construction to ship-building to automobiles. He also pioneered health care think-tank and the first HMO, named after him. But he was still engaged, and he would bulldoze a fishpond along the southeastern shore of Oahu, and create the first planned community named “Hawai'i Kai”. At his age, he should have retired and puttered around a Kahala house garden, but he was still in the thick of business development and changed hotel and tourism development forever in Hawai'i.
What the entrepreneurial Kaiser did back then was to link a Burbank TV studio show (the actors and actresses were mostly filmed in the Los Angeles studio, not all in Hawai'i back then) with his hotel project – so television viewers around the U.S. would be seduced to come to the film “set” of a hit TV series. This exotic locale + dramatic action would later be the ingredients of many blockbuster successes, like the “Mission Impossible” or even James Bond movie franchise, still running strong since the mid-1960s.
If you wander about the Hilton Hawaiian Village, you can see vestiges of a very powerful imagination and promotional ability: Kaiser was already thinking about “Planet Earth” and sustainability with his first geodesic dome (after the famous Buckminster Fuller who was already talking these themes back in the 1950s) on the Hilton Hawaiian Village grounds. He was also the first to introduce “Asian” motifs into a Hawaiian hotel, like a small shopping mall with Chinese roof tiles. Two decades later, another hotel developer would run wild with Asian antiques and furnishings in Hawai'i and take Kaiser’s idea into the stratosphere – Chris Hemmeter – but that is another blog piece.
*To show how global “Hawaiian Eye” was, my spouse C. watched the show avidly in Tokyo. The show also spawned a Hawaiian music and fashion boom in Japan in the early 1960s.
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