Waikiki's Ilikai Hotel and Suites Turns 50
One of Waikiki’s most iconic landmarks celebrates its 50th anniversary this month. Here’s the story of how this hotel/condo hybrid came to be.
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The Ilikai isn’t John Graham Jr.’s only contribution to statehood-era architecture in Honolulu. Graham designed the Ala Moana Office Building (1960), complete with rotating restaurant, La Ronde, an idea he would adopt for Seattle’s Space Needle (1962). He also designed the Ala Moana Hotel, which opened in 1970, also with rooftop dining, though of the nonrotating variety.
General manager Donnelly ran a tight ship, with the 13 or 14 hotel department heads required to start each day with a staff meeting at 7:30 a.m. sharp, “no matter what you’d done the night before, even the bar managers who’d worked the late shift had to be there.” Other key staffers were Donnelly’s secretary, Nina Kealiiwahamana, the “singing spokesperson,” who organized the hotel’s entertainment, and Auntie Napua Stevens, who set the tone for service and deportment.
In those heady days, the Five-0 crew brought an air of urgent TV production to the property while Hollywood films such as Tora, Tora, Tora brought a parade of stars to the hotel.
Some guests were literally out-of-this-world stars—the crew of Apollo 13, commanded by Jim Lovell, which narrowly survived the explosion of an oxygen tank. They never made it to the moon, but, against the odds, made it home, splashing down in the South Pacific on April 17, 1970. President Richard Nixon flew the crew’s wives to Hawaii, where they were reunited with their husbands at the Ilikai. “I remember the astronauts walking around in their white jumpsuits and white socks,” Kane recalls. “We took Lovell and his wife to dinner at the Dynasty.”
Then there were the shows in the Pacific Ballroom. “Five or six hundred people would attend to see Jack Benny, Jim Nabors, Engelbert Humperdinck, Tom Jones.” Add to that the local stars—Emma Veary played the Canoe House, for example—and you had a place where something was always happening. Kane speaks highly of Honolulu’s three-dot demigods, Eddie Sherman, Dave Donnelly, Ben Wood and Wayne Harada, who peppered their columns with Ilikai moments. “They were always very good to us.”
Says Harada now, “The Pacific Ballroom was one of the key cabaret show spots to see a hot name. Like Vikki Carr, when her ‘It Must Be Him’ peaked at No. 1 in 1967, and she was here to share the aloha from her Island fans.”
In addition to Veary, the Canoe House also hosted local legends such as Loyal Garner, “Lady Love at her best,” he says, and, later, Andy Bumatai, adding that it’s hard to believe that storied venue has been turned into a chapel.
The dining scene was a huge part of the Ilikai’s appeal. “Pier 7, a 24-hour coffeehouse restaurant for after-show, after-movie, after-shopping grinds. Or breakfast. Or lunch. Or dinner. But after hours was the time you’d see all the entertainers after their last shows.” At the Hong Kong Junk, Harada saw a musical act, the Fabulous Echoes, perform for the first time—they would go on to become Society of Seven, which performed until their Outrigger showroom closed in November.
At The Top of the I, that hat the Ilikai donned to dress up as a hotel, Harada saw The King himself, Elvis Presley, “stroll in one night with a party of 18.” (In fact, according to an account in The Daily Mail, Presley and singer Tom Jones struck up a lifelong friendship at the Ilikai when they met there in 1965.)
Local people flocked there for all this. For tourists, Harada recalls, there would be Hawaiian shows in the open courtyard between the lobby and the pool.