Editor's Page: Missing Donnelly

With Dave Donnelly gone, Honolulu seems like a less interesting town.


PHOTO: richard walker, honolulu star-bulletin

A day or so after Dave Donnelly died, I was talking to a friend in the entertainment business. “Just this morning I was telling my husband how much I missed Donnelly,” she said. “My husband said to me, But you didn’t even like him. I said, That doesn’t matter, I still miss him.”

Curmudgeon that he was, Donnelly was the first to be impatient with sticky sentiment. So he would have enjoyed my friend’s comment more than all the praise that has been heaped upon him since his death last month.

No matter what you thought of him, losing Donnelly is like losing part of the landscape. He wrote a three-dot column for more than 35 years, chronicling all those little moments—amusing, ironic, gossipy—that gave life in Honolulu its texture. With his passing, we’re unlikely ever to have a daily three-dot again. Our civic life is poorer for that.

Donnelly was also a piece of living history, a throwback to a wilder, less politically correct, far more fun Honolulu. The Navy brought him here in 1959, the weather kept him. During the infancy of rock n roll, he was a Poi Boy—a disc jockey on perhaps the zaniest Top 40 station on the planet.

Donnelly studied drama at UH. His most lucrative role was probably the year or so he played Checkers on the kids TV show, Checkers & Pogo. But, especially in his younger days, he was a force in local theater, bringing Waiting for Godot and Marat/Sade to the Islands, directing a young Bette Midler in Young Tom Jefferson for HTY.

In 1963, he was scheduled to appear in Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing! as part of the opening festivities for East-West (now Kennedy) Theater. But when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the musical’s political humor went flat. In five days, Donnelly learned the lead role in the replacement play, The Man Who Came to Dinner. He didn’t muff a line.

Still, the part he played best was Dave Donnelly, the character who had a black bra draped over his computer monitor in his office, a different date every other night, a quiver full of cantankerous, but reasonably witty opinions and, until he ran into health problems a decade ago, a real fondness for bar stools and bonhomie.

In 1990, he got angry at me because I’d published an interview with him. He hated one of the questions I asked: “If there’s a criticism of you, it’s that you’re a bit too Irish in your love of drink.”

“You made me sound like a damn drunk,” he sputtered at me, at the bar at Murphy’s, where he held court almost every afternoon after work. It was, in fact, where we’d conducted the interview in the first place, over cocktails. He drank a bit, but he was never a drunk, just an old-style character, who got under some people’s skin, but was a living reminder that Honolulu wasn’t always all fitness centers and sexual harassment policies.

I thought it was fitting that Donnelly’s wake was held at Murphy’s, the place packed shoulder-to-shoulder, the line at the bar three- or four-deep. The eulogies were far more likely to provoke laughter than tears. There was video of Donnelly singing, badly, his infamous song parody, “Korea, I just met a girl from Korea…”

I was about to write that Donnelly would have enjoyed it. Fortunately, before I could indulge myself in that cliche, my memories of the real Dave tapped me on the shoulder.

I could just hear him. Dave, did you enjoy your wake? “No,” he would have said, “It was too crowded. I went across the street and had a drink at O’Toole’s instead.”