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Captain Honolulu and 1960s Childhood TV Memories
July 6, 2014 - Ray Tsuchiyama
If a visiting family flew into Kahului Airport on July 4th, rented a SUV, dashed into Costco and bought $600 worth of bottled Kirkland water, Kirkland milk, bread, huge packages of ham, cheese, several dozen eggs, slabs of BBQ ribs, and bags of washed-vegetables for salads, the clan could then enter an air-conditioned condo in Kihei and never go out for a week, and spend days at the pool and nights watching cable television.
The television programs would show Mainland sports, news, a “Walking Dead” marathon, FIFA World Cup Brazil soccer, Mainland pro wrestling, London Wimbledon tennis, and many other programs, but very rarely any show made-in-Hawai'i (yes, there are few under the “OC” brand and a few others on Cable, but very few, except for the network big-budget detective fantasy “Hawai'i Five-O”). It would be as if the visiting family never left Tacoma or San Jose.
When I was a child I was mesmerized by a made-in-Hawai'i Black-and-White TV cartoon show called “Captain Honolulu” that began in the early 1960s. Sadly, Robert "Bob" Smith, who played the iconic "Captain Honolulu" host wearing a vaguely Air Force pilot’s uniform and cap (See Photo), passed away in 1997.
Historically speaking, Smith did not start out playing Captain Honolulu, but played a character named "Sergeant Sacto," the sidekick to Captain Honolulu, the "big" character who was never seen when the show first went on the air. How anybody came up with the name “Sacto” will probably remain a mystery, compared to “Captain Honolulu”, but there must have been some abbreviation.
Smith became the real “Captain Honolulu” later, abandoning the sidekick (his name would linger on), since by this time Hawai'i children recognized him as the show host, bringing the pleasures of Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, and Popeye cartoons, and even interspersed with Three Stooges comedies.
Unlike Checkers and Pogo and Hawai'i State Wrestling programs, Captain Honolulu did not host a “live” show, with dozens of screaming children, representing the wide range of Hawai'i ethnic groups.
Anybody who saw the show would do the "mask": at the end of each show, Smith would saunter out of the recording studio, up to a roof where a helicopter would be twirling its rotor blades, and he would turn his hands upside down against his face, encircling his eyes with his thumbs and index fingers, resembling large aviator goggles. I recall doing that “mask” with friends beginning in elementary school.
Amazingly, the Captain Honolulu show literally defined the 1960s as the show went off the air in May 1969, so any child growing up in 1960s Hawai'i would have seen the program. After the show’s demise (a decade would be a long time playing one character), Smith worked in Hawai'i television until 1976, then left for California to continue in what we now call the “media industry”.
The absolutely odd thing about Captain Honolulu was that he was like Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry” character: utterly solemn, serious, as if he was officiating a wake, not a children’s show. But even as a ten-year old I was aware of daily lists of U.S. soldiers killed in Vietnam at the end of CBS Walter Cronkite’s news broadcasts, so the 1960s had some dark memories (by the time I was fifteen my high school senior friends would be drafted and within six months after their senior prom were already fighting outside Saigon).
The 1960s up to the early 1970s had many “local” Hawai'i productions, including KGMB’s Napua Stevens Show (imagine a Hawaiian musical show now on local TV), and KHVH’s shows featuring comedian “Lucky Luck” and “Island Playhouse”, "Romper Room" with Robin Mann on KGMB, used-car salesman Lippy Espinda’s fractured fairy tales in pidgin (his used car commercials would run during Captain Honolulu shows, along with a smooth-voiced talent named Granny Goose), and the short-lived “Sheriff Ken”, a Western-cowboy-children’s show emceed by Ken Alford, a multi-talented musician and TV personality. Sadly, again, many of these early Hawai'i TV pioneers are gone.
For ethnic programs, there was "Filipino Fiesta", launched in the 1960s and was a long-lasting Sunday morning show that featured Filipino songs and news updates from what was then a far-off country (via Satellite and Cable Filipino shows from the Philippines would later come directly to Hawai'i living rooms).
For many in their fifties and sixties (now living in Hawai'i or L.A. or Vegas), to do the Captain Honolulu “mask” with elementary school classmates is to revive a connection to 1960s Hawai'i, a very different place and time, just when Honolulu was transitioning from a “town” to a “city” – and their children would have no idea about the joys of running home from school to watch a “local” TV program: memories of an innocent and wonderful childhood.
Update July 8 2014: a friend of mine informed me that at end of his television job, the station actually gave him Captain Honolulu's orange jump-suit (on B&W TV, we had no idea about the color of Captain Honolulu's outfit) and cap. Unfortunately, he didn't take care of it, and he threw out in the trash years later. If he had it now and put it up for auction on EBay, he could have easily gotten hundreds of dollars for the entire ensemble!
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Retro-Minimalist TV Studio/CH = Captain Honolulu