The most famous hula movie in Hawaii is not a movie at all but a “trailer” featuring torch-bearing hula dancers appearing on the screens in all Consolidated Theatres before every feature-length film.
For the last 22 years, Consolidated has run the “Hawaii” trailer more than a thousand times a day on its 96 screens. The film’s legendary producer Jon de Mello believes it is the longest running movie trailer ever made.
As a member of a halau (dance troupe) myself, I am always moved by the sincerity in the dancers’ faces.
My kumu hula, Keu Ostrem told us the most important feature of a hula dancer is not the hands but the face. Everyone can memorize hand and feet movements but only when a song or chant inhabits a dancer’s very being will it show in her face. The faces of the dancers in the trailer seem captivated in the moment as they move forcefully through the chant.
“We were completely into it,” said Healii Heine, one of the dancers whom I tracked down. I was curious to find out why the trailer (which is at the bottom of this article) was made and to know what has happened to the dancers in the 22 years since the filming.
One of them is now a grandfather and another is an award-winning kumu hula. The most radiant woman in the hula line has died. That’s Arletta Johnson Soon, who taught Hawaiian culture and language to elementary students at Kamehameha Schools. She died of breast cancer in 2008 when she was 43 years old.
Her friends say hula meant everything to Soon. She kept dancing in Robert Cazimero’s Royal Dance Company until she was immobilized by her illness.
All the performers in the trailer were professional dancers for either Robert Cazimero or Leinaala Kalama Heine. At the time, they were in a show six nights a week in the Monarch Room at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel.
They all knew each other well, brought close by their nightly performances and their love of dance.
“It was just a joy to make the film together because it captured the very essence of our culture,” said Healii Heine, the daughter of hula legend Leinaala Heine.
Not just hula culture but also canoe culture. The paddlers were from Hui Lanakila Club. They were filmed at sunset on Oahu’s Waianae coast across from the Kahe Power Plant.
Heine is the tallest woman dancer in the trailer. Today, she is employed as a project manager at a utility construction company.
Heine says that sometimes when the trailer comes on before a movie, she glances behind herself wondering if anyone in the theater knows she is one of the dancers on the huge screen.
“It was nice, very nice to say ‘yes I did that,'” Heine says. “Hula was a way of life for us. We lived hula; we breathed it. The trailer gave us an opportunity to give thanks for our culture. Every time I see it, I think this is the real deal.”
It was the real deal because that’s what Consolidated Amusement Company’s then-president Phil Shimmin wanted when he asked music producer de Mello, the CEO of Mountain Apple Records, to make the film to celebrate Consolidated’s 75th year in Hawaii. De Mello said Shimmin was very specific about how he envisioned the trailer, even down to the time of day it should portray: sunset turning into a very dark night.
Shimmin was tired of the silly “be quiet” cartoon trailer that Consolidated was running in its theaters at the time that showed a cartoon baby being yanked off the screen when the baby stared crying.
“Shimmin hated the canned cartoon music. He wanted something authentically Hawaiian, a production that gave a sense of place,” said de Mello.
The Hawaiian culture Renaissance was already underway here, but in 1992, de Mello said it was unusual for a movie theater company deeply immersed in popular American culture to commission such a uniquely Hawaiian product. He said Shimmin was far ahead of his time.
Kepa Maly, a haole who was raised from the age of 14 by a Hawaiian family on Lanai, is the chanter in the trailer. Maly’s deep voice intones, “Ku nihi ka mauna i ka la‘i e,” the classic chant known by almost every hula dancer. It is a mele chanted by dancers before their hula class to ask permission to enter the halau. The chant is from the epic tale of Hi‘aka’s journey to Kauai to fetch Pele’s lover, Lohi‘au.
Maly says he admires Consolidated’s effort to create an authentic Hawaiian trailer when the company could have kept showing a standard pre-packaged introduction seen by millions of people in theaters all over the country.
De Mello who played all the different instruments in the score wrote the music. He said the composition came to him in just one day. Steve Manke and Dennis Mahaffey of McHale VideoFilm did the filming.
De Mello says the trailer was made in the pre-digital era when “we didn’t have the tools and toys we have today.”
He says more than 40 different versions of trailer had to be made in the Hollywood production studio where they took the film to marry the picture to the audio. The 40 different versions were to ensure the trailer could be seen in all of Consolidated’s theaters, which at the time had many different sound systems and screen sizes. De Mello said a couple of the tiny theaters on the Big Island still had mono sound systems. “It was crazy,” said de Mello. “But a lot of fun.”
The filming was done near the Halona Blow Hole. Heine remembers they showed up for the shoot at about 8 a.m. and did not finish until after midnight.
Dancing beside her was Jackie Booth, who later became an Aloha Airlines flight attendant and a bookkeeper.
Dancer Michael Lanakila Casupang said the long day’s work gave him a genuine appreciation for what goes into making a movie.
Casupang, now 50 years old, is a teacher at Mid-Pacific Institute and is the co-founder with Karl Veto Baker of Halu I Ka Wekiu, which was the overall winner of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival in 2007 and 2012.
Casupang says the dancers in the trailer each received a one-time payment of $300.
“If we were paid a penny for every time it has been shown, we all would have retired long ago,” says Casupang.
Casupang is one of the dancers holding his finger above his lips. The other doing the same motion is Reggie Keaunui, the bearded dancer, who is now a grandfather. Keaunui has coached paddling and made voyages on the Polynesian sailing canoe Hokulea.
Dancer Keola Kamahele, now 51 years old, lives in Salt Lake City with his wife and two children. He has worked in mortgage financing since the late 1980s. When I called Kamahele on the mainland, he was astounded to hear the trailer was still running. “Oh my god,” he said. “I guess that has a lot to say about how carefully it was done. I am glad it is still there.”
Kamahele said the first time he saw it on the big screen he was “blown away by how masterful it was. It made me proud to be a hula dancer, proud to be Hawaiian, proud to be from the state of Hawaii.”
Reading International Inc. of Commerce, California, purchased Consolidated Theatres in 2008. After three days of emailing and calling, I did not get an official answer from Reading, but Lindsey Chun-Hori, events and promotions manager of Consolidated’s office here, says that as far as she knows the parent company plans to keep showing the “Hawaii” trailer. Chun-Hori says, “It is our hope that it will remain for years to come. We all grew up with it.”
De Mello says every time he pulls up at the Kahala Resort to have his car parked, the tall Hawaiian bellman tells him, “Oh, I love that movie. I cry every time I see it.”