Remembering Rap: A New Book Tells the Story of Hawai‘i Humorist Rap Reiplinger
Thirty-five years after he died, the book, written by his widow, Leesa Clark Stone, shines a light on the man behind the laughs through untold stories of his success and struggles, as well as news that state officials reopened an investigation into his mysterious death.
Art from book jacket: cover illustration: Michele Melcher Illustration
By 1982 James Kawika Pi‘imauna “Rap” Reiplinger had earned an Emmy and a reputation as one of Hawai‘i’s best-loved comedians with a combination of impressions, keen observations and wry parody. His humor stuck with us but the story of the man behind the public persona remained largely obscured by his death at age 33.
Playing Auntie Marialani in Rap‘s Hawai‘i, 1981.The photo was taken by Bryan Furer, who handled makeup design, props and effects.
photo: courtesy of bryan furer
If you’re not sure of the lasting impact of a Hawai‘i man who died in 1984, try describing something in a local group as “not too sweet … ” and see how many people respond “not too rancid,” quoting Reiplinger’s much-loved Auntie Marialani “Cooking Show” sketch.
His first album, the 1978 production Poi Dog, earned a spot on HONOLULU Magazine’s “50 Greatest Hawai‘i Albums of All Time,” 20 years after he died, the only nonmusic album on the list.
This year, HONOLULU received an exclusive first look at the new book from his widow, Leesa Clark Stone. She plans to publicly debut the biography May 4 and 5 at the Hawai‘i Book and Music Festival. A journalist, she and Reiplinger met, then married just months before his death.
Stone mixes poignant personal insights with often uproarious behind-the-scenes accounts—many published for the first time—drawn from more than 50 interviews. She balanced two roles: journalist who pieced together the first 32 years of his life; with persistent widow offering a personal portrayal of a very public figure, while protecting his legacy.
She starts the story when he was a baby, growing up in a talented family, the son of famed hula dancer Lila Guerrero Reiplinger.
Lila’s life had always revolved around family, Hawaiian music and dance, so naturally she taught her keiki the art of hula. The children grew up visiting their grandmother Amelia at the house on Kānekapōlei, which is where Rap first performed in front of an enthusiastic audience in Waikīkī. It was, of course, a supportive crowd that included his large extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins. “My relatives always said, ‘Don’t be a performer. You’re going to starve,’” said Rap. “And there they were, every Sunday, playing music.”
Poi Dog album, 1978.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF MOUNTAIN APPLE CO.
He attended Star of the Sea School for his early grades, then Punahou School in high school, where he could get laughs beyond his family and friends and learned to love being on stage.
Finian’s Rainbow and the Variety Show sparked a fire inside Rap Reiplinger that would burn for the rest of his life: his love of theatre. He had been bit by the acting bug and found his voice in the process.
His family called him by his middle name, Kawika. At school, he was known first as Jim, until the kids nicknamed him Rep. When Reiplinger was 17, he started frequenting coffeehouses, including Tao Coffeehouse on King Street, where he joined others who strummed guitars and sang in open-mic style format. He got noticed by UH Mānoa radio station KTUH and student disc jockey David Farmer, who had a Saturday night music program called Jam where visiting musicians played live.
Farmer remembers one Saturday night, “in the late ’60s,” when they “had no luck lining anyone up. So we called down to Tao, and Rap came up. I misheard his name—being in somewhat of an altered state of consciousness. His nickname was ‘Rep,’ but I thought he said ‘Rap,’ which seemed totally appropriate given his patter and stand-up rapping.” So, for the first time, “Rep” was introduced as Rap Reiplinger and he proceeded to entertain the KTUH radio audience, not just with folk songs, but also with his original brand of unchained crazy comedy.
Promoter Tom Moffatt hired photographer Richard Ma to shoot this September 1983 portrait of Rap flashing a shaka.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF RICHARD MA
Some stories revolve around his work ethic. Stone interviewed Honolulu audio engineer Dunbar Wakayama about putting together the now-iconic “Room Service” sketch.
Mr. Fogerty: Uh, Room Service Please.
Dunbar: “At a little over five seconds, the third track of the phone ring and the supporting character Russell was recorded. Then the fourth track of the Room Service Lady, the main track, was overdubbed while Rap reacted to the Russell track just recorded.”
[Ring] Room Service Lady: … sel, go sit on one air hose! Housekeeping. Oh, no, no, no, try wait. You punk, tro me off!
Russell: Ah, wop your jaws!
Room Service Lady: Uh, Room service, can I help you?
Dunbar: “Next, Rap recorded the entire dialogue from Mr. Fogerty for the remainder of the sequence. As Rap recorded this track, he silently mouthed the words of the other characters in the conversation, so as to keep the approximate timings for the conversation flow. The three characters come together when Russell passes by whistling, and distracts the Room Service Lady.”
Room Service Lady: Can I help you, Mr. Frog Tree?
[Russell is heard whistling]
Room Service Lady: Russell, ganfannit, kulikuli! I trying fo tink!
Room Service Lady: [Sighs] Now where were we?
Baby photo, circa 1950.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF LEESA CLARK STONE
Some of the ethnic humor seems pointed against the more politically correct backdrop of 2019. But Reiplinger succeeded by superb mimicry and an ear for character, without resorting to namecalling. He was witty but not mean.
In his Emmy Award-winning old man character in Rap’s Hawai‘i in 1981, Reiplinger described Hawai‘i, the most racially diverse state in the U.S., as an ethnic “salad bowl” where the ingredients come together but still retain their individual identities.
His humor resonated, as with car dealer Murdie Murdock from “Alawai Motors,” venting about customers: “We got the best service in town, anybody can tell you that. So you know what BUGS ME? We have to be nice to YOU but you guys don’t have to be nice to us! You come walking in like you own the joint, eh? Well, play king someplace else, buddy boy! No window shoppin’ ova hea!”
Many well-known folks shared stories. Late, great jazz singer Jimmy Borges told Stone about Reiplinger’s power to hold an audience.
Performing in Punahou School’s Variety Show, 1968.
photo: courtesy of punahou school archives
“I had to ‘pee’ badly and he caught me going in as he was exiting the Infinity (nightclub) at the Sheraton. He grabbed my arm and started to philosophize and wouldn’t let me go, as he was wont to do. I literally PEED MY PANTS! Lucky, they were black slacks! Rap was so adamant that I stay until he finished his story that I peed rather than leave. I would have stayed anyway. That’s the demands of his humor. Once he started making you a fellow conversant, he owned you.”
The book includes behind-the-scenes tales such as the unplanned dramatic ending of the soda taste test TV sketch with Reiplinger and announcer Bill Sage.
Take after take of Rap doing belly flops on the table apparently stressed the table’s particleboard construction to its brink. When they got to that point again and Billy yanked the basket free, Rap dove after it once more. Except this time, the table broke right down the middle under the weight of his body. “It collapses perfectly dead center with him in the middle of it. It goes down! I was a little panicked; I didn’t want to ruin the take,” said Billy, recalling the terror of the moment. “I remember hesitating for a frame or two when he goes down, and then my first thought, ‘Oh my God, the camera’s still rolling!’ So just instinctively, I toss the mic disdainfully on his back and then mutter and walk off out of frame.”
In the 1970s, performing with Honolulu Theatre for Youth, as Māui the Trickster.
photo: Courtesy of honolulu theatre for youth
Still, it was important to Reiplinger that people thought about the message, too. A 1982 article in The New Yorker, titled “Isles of Discontent,” recognized the social commentary wrapped in the laughs:
“More than mockery lies behind the verses of Rap Reiplinger, Honolulu’s most popular night-club comic. In the tradition of Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce, he matches broad social satire with wit, but when he sings his songs there is a haunting note that is more fundamental than funny. The sardonically sad tunes ring true; one can see him playing out his tour-guide role, sitting alone in the empty bus at dusk holding a dead microphone or a few loose puka shells … after the passengers disembark.”
And the book traces the phenomenon of the comic trio Booga Booga.
THE ORIGINAL BOOGA BOOGA TRIO: FROM LEFT, RAP REIPLINGER, ED KA‘AHEA AND JAMES GRANT BENTON.
PHOTO: COURTESY OF HARRY B. SORIA
After launching in late August 1975, the irreverent comedy of Booga Booga quickly became the hottest thing going in Honolulu. “It was Ed Ka‘ahea, and Jimmy [James Grant] Benton and Rap and they would just go back and forth and it was just electric. The audience was always rolling in the aisles,” recalled voice actor Billy Sage, who saw Booga Booga at the Tavern many times.
Legions of rabid fans lined up for hours on the sidewalk outside the Dillingham Transportation Building at the corner of Bishop Street and Ala Moana Boulevard in the heart of downtown Honolulu. Booga Booga performed Tuesdays through Saturdays with a $1 cover charge and two-drink minimum. Even on Tuesdays, considered their slowest day, Territorial Tavern was packed. Once the door flew open, lucky patrons at the front of the line rushed to claim seats at one of the 16 tables and three booths on the floor, while others quickly grabbed every stool at the bar. Fans who trailed behind had to climb a wide staircase to the mezzanine level where there were a half a dozen tables. But once the show started, they had to stand along the railing if they wanted to see anything. Others crammed into corners or sat on the stairs to see the stage.
“They became...an instant hit because they were so different, unlike anything ever seen or heard in Hawai‘i,” observed Wayne Harada, who has written about Hawai‘i entertainment for more than four decades: “They were a part of the idea where … the Hawaiian Renaissance was on; people loving and performing Hawaiian music again and this comic element became a natural fit for the rebirth of local things, things Hawaiian. Those were wonderful times.”
“It was a very important cultural and social pivot point in our history,” reflects Ed Ka‘ahea some 40-plus years later. “We became aware of our cultural worth and our social standing in history. It gave way to the Kanaka Maoli nationalist movement, which is fervent and very active today. So yeah, I’m proud of what we did in the Hawaiian revolution.”
Jon Osorio was another regular entertainer at the Tavern who “almost never missed a performance because they seemed like they were coming up with new skits every week and sometimes some of them didn’t seem particularly practiced. Amazing humor and down to earth—it was a kind of kanaka humor that at the time, I didn’t realize why it was funny, but it was just outrageously funny,” Osorio reminisced with a laugh. “It wasn’t just that it was in pidgin, it wasn’t just that it seemed to place us as a people who we, you know, (were) somewhat ignorant but still, at the same time very deeply crafty. There was just something about that image that a lot of us just really loved. We didn’t act, we didn’t talk like haole, we were our own self and we were comfortable in our own skin. Nobody really does that like humorists. Nobody makes a people who have been, to be really honest, who have been oppressed, the way that we have, feel comfortable in your own skin.”
People all over Hawai‘i were wearing T-shirts bearing Booga Booga slogans sold at area surf shops and department stores including J.C. Penney, Liberty House, Kramers and Sears. Newspaper ads featuring flattering line drawing likenesses of Rap, Ed and Jimmy promoted the T’s with the heading, “Different Strokes for Different Mokes,” with calls to action like, “Git wit da mass … get Kanaka Klass.”
So the boys were living the high life, in every sense of the word. Partying, dinners at the best restaurants, enjoying success to the max. Jon de Mello reflects, “They went from starving to death to $5,000 a week at the Tavern.”
In the atmosphere of a place like Territorial Tavern, drugs are easy to come by—especially for entertainers. Ed Ka‘ahea remembers that drugs were practically thrown at them. “Yeah, anything, everything. ‘What do you want, brah? What can we do for you? We’re here to serve you. You guys are so great. You’re so funny. You guys are God.’ When that conversation starts happening to mid-20s guys, you go momentarily insane.” Benton agreed—that was the mindset of the three young actors. He and his fellow Booga Booga members “thought we owned the world.”
Filming Rap’s Hawai‘i “Comedy Robot” scene.
photo: courtesy of bryan furer
The book includes stories about Reiplinger’s encounters with well-known people he met along the way, including the late actors Pat Morita and George C. Scott, stoner duo Cheech & Chong, local singers Henry Kapono Ka‘aihue and Audy Kimura, as well as Walter Becker, half of the band Steely Dan. By 1977, Booga Booga split up and Reiplinger moved to Los Angeles. When he returned to the Islands in 1978 after playing clubs in California, he had begun work on that first solo album, Poi Dog. Then-manager Jon de Mello recalls record distributors were skeptical:
“They advised me not to release it. They said, ‘It’s just, it’s just too far out. Nobody is going to get this.’ … It was just, no one had done that before, I mean, a comedy album with the skits, the organic theatrical skits and such. So they advised me against it. And I said, ‘Well, thank you for your opinion, but nope, we’re goin’ ahead.’ And Rap was real excited.”
It wasn’t just false bravado on de Mello’s part; he stood rock solid in his stance. Those discouraging words from his distributor did not sway him at all. “Nah, born and raised here. I knew what the content was. I knew it was just going to jab into everybody who’s ever had a teriyaki burger here. It’s gonna lock into ’em. I didn’t know the scope of it. It was not what you would call a ‘safe’ album. It was on the edge and I didn’t have any expectations of what we were going to do with it. But I … loved what I felt from Rap; the creative juice was like, just insane. He was so quick in his mind, he was such a good writer.”
With the Hawaiian Renaissance in full swing at this point, Rap especially sizzled that summer of ’78. Everyone in the Islands, it seemed, was a fan. Not only were Poi Dog cuts getting regular airplay on popular Island radio stations, his material was even heard on the Honolulu Police Department radio. A three-dot columnist in the Star-Bulletin’s August 6 edition, reported that an HPD officer played part of Rap’s Room Service bit over the police department’s two-way radio airwaves: “Wait till I tell your supahvisah—you gonna get it!”
Leesa and Rap in a snapshot from the Big Island trip where they got engaged, 1983.
photo: courtesy of leesa clark stone
His Crab Dreams album followed in 1979 with more hits that ring as true today. Take “Record Offer” with these topical lyrics:
“Now, all the great ethnic hits of the Hawaiian archipelago are available for the first time in an unbelievable record offer from PayWell! … This Caucasian thought provoker by Greedy Banker and the Missionaries:
[Rap sings snippets, including]
We’re gonna take your land!
You guys can sleep in the sand.
We’re gonna build on every inch of rock
And give you guys the chicken pox!”
Rap with his parents, Lila and Frank James “Rip” Reiplinger, November, 1983.
photo: courtesy of outrigger hotels & resorts
Other albums, awards and appearances followed as his fame built. But, by the 1980s, the talented Reiplinger was experiencing more mood swings and arranged to have a doctor evaluate him. In the book, Stone reveals more about what medical conditions may have contributed to his troubles. She and Reiplinger met and married in 1983, during which she knew a mostly upbeat Reiplinger whom friends agreed seemed to be positively influenced by the new relationship. Stone says she struggled with talking about his depression in the book but did so hoping it will encourage others to seek treatment, rather than attempt to self-medicate, which she believes Reiplinger did with cocaine.
Six days after Reiplinger disappeared in 1984 in Stone’s car, she and Rap’s sister, Holly, found the car near a Maunawili trail. Police then recovered his body nearby, noting his death days earlier appeared to be a fall on the trail, likely the result of an accident. The Honolulu medical examiner initially pointed to the cause of death as a stroke brought on by high blood pressure, but the ruling was inconclusive because of body decomposition. Toxicology tests that came back days later changed the likely cause of death to “the toxic effects of cocaine.” Stone says she had felt that police were too quick to walk away from the investigation. She and other family and friends were especially bothered that some thought he’d killed himself.
So Stone kept asking questions. When he disappeared, she provided an answering machine tape of a man threatening Reiplinger about a drug debt. Later, she said she learned the tape had disappeared after she turned it into police. Stone never doubted that her husband had relapsed that day and bought cocaine. Even though he’d joined her as a born-again Christian and was looking forward to new work, she knew he was struggling to escape addiction. She felt some satisfaction when the Hawai‘i Attorney General’s office told her it had opened a death investigation into the decades-old case in December 2013. She says the ongoing probe has yielded new information that conflicts with the HPD theory that Reiplinger simply fell to his death. Stone lays out details of what she found and includes a nationally recognized cold case expert’s take on Reiplinger’s death.
Why write the book now? Stone says she’d put a lot of the painful memories behind her but began thinking of them again when she was interviewed for the 2011 KGMB show Rap: Hawai‘i’s Comic Genius. She says she hopes to “help untangle the mystery that has surrounded Rap’s death for all these years while giving his fans an inside look at the amazing man that he was away from the spotlight.”
In the end, Stone’s book reminds us of Reiplinger’s warmth and talent, the power of humor, and invites us to revisit a remarkable trove of work left by someone who died so young.
Rap and Leesa share a kiss after their wedding.
photo: courtesy of leesa clark stone
Stone opted to self-publish the book through Bess Press. To find the book, more stories and video clips visit Paradise2Paradise.com
In the 1990s, Jon de Mello and Tom Moffatt released Rap’s recordings on their respective labels on CD. Plans are for the launch of this book to coincide with the first iTunes release of his last three albums, Do I Dare Disturb the Universe, Strange Bird and Towed Away. Stone says any proceeds from downloads will be shared with Reiplinger’s family.
About the author
Leesa Clark Stone is a journalist who got her start in broadcasting at KKON radio in Kealakekua, Hawai‘i. She worked at KPOI/98 Rock, KMAI and KHVH Newsradio 99 in Honolulu before becoming a reporter/morning anchor at KITV. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, Columbia. She and her current husband, photojournalist Rich Stone, have two sons and a video production company. Her work with their company has earned an Emmy and multiple Telly Awards. This is her first book.