By New Times
By Connor Radnovich
By Robrt L. Pela and Amy Silverman
By Ray Stern
By Keegan Hamilton
By Matthew Hendley
By Monica Alonzo
By Monica Alonzo
And there were Beverly and Ernie sitting there as well, sipping Diet Cokes as the sound of wind chimes filled in the holes between the rustling of the palms overhead.
Ernie (who actually does have some Irish blood) was born on the island of Kauai, where, among certain more modern skills, he learned to hunt wild goats and pigs for food near the cliffs. He learned to sing there, too.
"We always tried to sing falsetto, that goes way back. In the days of the kings and queens, only the men were allowed to entertain, that's why they did the high vocaling and that's how the falsetto developed. So the guys sang high."
So he sang high for fun like the ancients, hunted, did other things, but curiosity of the mainland won out. In 1952, at age 25, seven years before Hawaii became a state, Ernie decamped to L.A.
"When I first came here, I worked in a gas station on Sunset Boulevard and, being a new employee, they had me on at the wee hours. California was the coldest place I had ever been--it was just cold and I'm pumping gas. But I wanted to be in Hollywood because they say you see a lot of Hollywood stars." Like who? "Oh, I saw 'em," he says. "Burt Lancaster, oh, I can't remember . . . but I couldn't stand the weather, I wanted to go where it's warm. I got into Phoenix February 11th, 1953, and I loved it. I said this is for me!"
And it was. Ernie landed a job as a pipe fitter with a big Phoenix firm. "I remember doing pipe fitting at the JC Penney store right in downtown Tucson many, many years ago. Del Webb would sit down, open his lunch pail and have lunch with us."
But at home in Phoenix after work, he grew to miss the islands and would head down to a club called Tropic Wishbone. "It was at 16th and Camelback," he remembers. "I just used to go at nights and sing with the Hawaiian band, that's the way it was back home, everybody'd just sit around and sing. But I couldn't be at the nightclub and work during the day, so I missed showing up. People would say, 'Where's this guy that sang?' That's how it started. Finally, the management called and said, 'We'll pay you.' That's when I said, 'Hey, maybe I'm doing the wrong job,' you know?"
Our man moved on to the Gilded Cage, then a new joint called Guys and Dolls opened up around '54 and stole Ernie away. "They'd heard of me, so they hired me for a week and I stayed four and a half years."
In those days, Ernie encountered other fledgling Phoenix sons.
"Wayne Newton used to hang on my shirt, he was a little boy, waiting to go on a [local TV] program called Lew King's Rangers. That was from a place called the Cloud Club on top of the Guarantee Bank.
"Marty Robbins and I, back in '54, '55, there was a little radio station on top of a garage, and after we got through working a nightclub, we'd go to this radio station and the guy would put us on the air and we'd take turns singing."
Just singing was not enough for the Suntanned Pipe Fitter; Ernie was a man of ambition and figured the only way to learn more is to do more. When one Prince Makanuea and his Hawaiian troop arrived, so did opportunity.
"In '58, he came through Phoenix and he was looking for a singer to join the show, so I decided to go on the road entertaining," Ernie says. "I joined the group for a year, and when I came back with that knowledge, I put my own show together. It was strictly Polynesian then. I did Hawaiian, Samoan, Tahitian, we put Filipino dancing in it, Japanese, Siamese, I made it a real Polynesia, I put the whole world in it."
So let's say it's some Phoenix evening in the late Fifties. We enter a club with the Menehune name on the sign outside, score a nice table, the candle is winking through its bamboo holder, the drinks have been delivered. What happens?
Ernie smiles and squints from 1996 all the way back. "The lights would be off, and I would come out with a conch shell. I'd blow the conch shell, there'd be a drum roll, and then--'Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, we proudly present Hawaii's Suntanned Irishman, Ernie Menehune and his Polynesian revue!'--Ta da da. The girls would come out with the gourds and the skirts and the whole thing, very flashy. Then it would calm down to a happy medium, music, singing, jokes, then POW again and we'd go out. I used to do the flaming-knife dance as a finale. That was fun, fun, fun."
From the late Fifties well into the Sixties and Seventies, fun for the Menehune nightclub tribe reigned supreme. Bookings were constant, and Ernie added Anglo aspects to his act when necessary.
"I saw that after the floor show was over, they always had a house band for dancing. So I decided to capture both ends--all that Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher type of music was in--so I started rehearsing my band with that type of music so that people wouldn't get tired of Hawaiian music all night long. We'd have country, rock, everything. We did all that Aquarius stuff."