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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 Territory of Hawai'i leadership, a new television detective-drama series was launched. Now remembered by only a few, the show was called “Hawaiian Eye”*, and preceded the “old” “Hawai'i 5-0” by nine years, and now forgettable “Magnum P.I.”

The cast featured Connie Stevens, Robert Conrad, Anthony Eisley, and a Maui-born comedian named “Poncie Ponce” (his real name was Ponciano Hernandez). The black-and-white television show ran for about four years with 134 episodes, stopping just as the Vietnam War was beginning.

By the mid-1960s the show would trigger a surge of first-time vacationers and U.S. military R & R visits to Waikiki; today some top Hawai'i 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 a TV show synopsis (which is quite complex, in retrospect, and imaginative, in 1959, the dawn of television):

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.

Of course since the detectives' office is at a Waikiki hotel, there are many shots of bikini-clad women and endless rounds of tropical drinks with little umbrellas and pineapple sticks. An entire family in Chicago or Houston would be mesmerized by the very notion of an entire island or region devoted solely to a "vacation". Recall that the 1950s was a period of middle-class growth after a terrible war, and families yearned for more than a car ride to a cabin by a mountain lake.

The show's timing was impeccable: Hawai'i Statehood had put Hawai'i on the front page of every newspaper from Los Angeles to New York City. The slow luxury passenger liner tourism model was replaced by a technological transportation wonder: the Boeing 707. Recognizing the volume potential of the “new” tourism paradigm was perhaps one of the top Hawai'i business leaders of the 20th century: Chinn Ho, who took out a risky loan in the early 1960s to build the first “mass tourism” Waikiki hotel called the Ilikai. This hotel, on the far western edge of Waikiki, near the Ala Moana Shopping Center, was the center of action for the "new" Waikiki tourist of the 1960s.

The Ilikai would also figure in the iconic, pre-MTV wild rock-and-roll + montage effects of the “old” Hawai'i 5-0 series' "intro" with Jack Lord as the affected top police cop Steve McGarrett in the final image looking piercingly into the camera from a penthouse lana’i.

Before the Ilikai and Hawai'i 5-0 there was another Mainland real estate entrepreneur who would tie-in his Waikiki real estate project to the “Hawaiian Eye” detective series: Henry Kaiser and the Hilton Hawaiian Village, which emerged as a vacationer's "all-in-one" integrated hotel/shopping/entertainment center.

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 -- all on the Mainland and especially during the four intense years of World War II.

He also pioneered a health care think-tank and the first HMO, named after him.

But real estate was where Kaiser was still "engaged" with huge deals and projects, as we would say now, and he would bulldoze a fishpond along the southeastern shore of Oahu to create the State's first planned community named “Hawai'i Kai” (which was the predecessor of Mililani Town in central Oahu).

At his age, he should have just 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 a real estate-media play: he linked a Burbank TV studio show with his Waikiki mega-hotel project – so viewers would be seduced via the power of the television show which transmitted the message of a romantic tropical paradise, and if one had money to buy a plane ticket, he or she could visit to the film “set” (actually, a hotel) of a hit TV series.

If you wander about Kaiser's Hilton Hawaiian Village, you can see vestiges of a very powerful imagination and promotional ability: Kaiser was already thinking about “Planet Earth” and was decades ahead of his time, building a geodesic dome (after the famous Buckminster Fuller, the 1950s "sustainability guru") on the Hilton Hawaiian Village grounds, which also included penguins in a micro-green space.

He was also the first to introduce “Asian” motifs into a Hawaiian hotel, like a small shopping mall with Chinese roof tiles. Kaiser promoted Hawai'i as a "bridge" to the exotic East, yet English-speaking and the water was safe to drink, an "easy" place to visit for a Midwestern family.

Two decades later, another hotel developer would run wild with Asian antiques and furnishings in Hawai'i and take Kaiser’s ideas about mega-resorts with Asian themes into the stratosphere – Chris Hemmeter – but that is another story.

*To show how global the early “Hawaiian Eye” was, my spouse C. watched the show avidly in Tokyo. The American show (dubbed in Japanese) spawned a Hawaiian music and fashion boom in Japan in the early 1960s, and so laid the groundwork to embed "Hawai'i" in the Japanese middle-class mind-set as the top vacation destination.

When the Japanese government lifted passport and currency controls in the early 1980s and in midst of the "Bubble" hyper-growth Japanese economy, Japanese tourists and investors flooded into Hawai'i, skewing real estate values, and also was the reason that diverted economic diversification investments by Hawai'i business leaders.

By 1991 the Hawai'i economy would enter a long, seemingly endless "recession" until the early 2000s.

Perhaps the intertwining of "Hawaiian Eye" media branding, the growth of mega-resorts, and the Vietnam War that highlighted Hawai'i as a R & R destination had the greatest combined impact on Hawai'i tourism growth in the 1970s and 1980s. In hindsight, it is a fascinating historical and economic confluence with unexpected consequences.


Article Comments



Jun-17-13 7:47 PM

This was a great show. Everyone in Hawaii back then thought it was great. Connie Stevens was a babe and the HHV was the perfect setting for the show. Ponce Ponce was a for real local boy and the plots and scenery what there was of was very positive for the State of Hawaii. I was a little kid then but my Auntie Ruth won a trip out from Boston to stay at the HHV and we were thrilled to see her.


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