Now Playing: Hawaii’s Most-Watched Hula Movie
Meet the people who brought you Hawaii’s Consolidated hula trailer. How this local favorite came to life; where the dancers are now.
We tracked down as many of the stars of the Consolidated hula trailer as we could for a photo shoot at Ward Theatres, where audiences have seen the trailer so many times before. From left, they are hula dancers Healii Heine and Jackie Booth, producer Jon de Mello, creator Phil Shimmin, hula dancer Michael Casupang and Kalei Soon, daughter of the late hula dancer Arletta Johnson Soon.
Theater Photos: Olivier Koning
Jon de Mello not only produced the trailer, he wrote the music and played all the instruments.
One of the most popular movies in Hawaii runs for less than a minute, yet it has captured the imagination of Hawaii moviegoers for more than two decades. The movie is the “trailer” featuring solemn torch-bearing hula dancers that appears on the screens at Consolidated Theatres before every feature-length film. For the past 22 years, Consolidated has run the trailer “Hawaii” hundreds of times each day on its 94 screens. The film’s producer, Jon de Mello, believes it is the longest-running movie trailer ever made.
Consolidated says more than a million people see it each year.
“It’s the best part of going to the movies,” says Hawaii Kai resident Annette Kaohelaulii.
Andrea Jepson, a Lanikai resident, says, “The dancers are like old friends. When they appear on the screen, everyone settles back in their seats. It puts you in a familiar place. It’s lovely.”
Phil Shimmin was president of Consolidated Theatres when he commissioned the trailer in 1991 to celebrate Consolidated’s 75th year in Hawaii.
Shimmin, 72 years old now and retired, says he’s astonished by the trailer’s continuing popularity.
“It was never intended to run for so long. We expected to show it in the theaters for only a few years.”
Something came together—the original music, the hula dancers, the chant, the torches on the beach—that still resonates with audiences, who have come to expect the familiar scene to welcome them to the movies. Even those involved in making the film had no clue it would earn them a kind of cult following among moviegoers decades later.
Steve Manke, who directed the trailer, says, “We knew it was good, but we didn’t know it was going to be forever.”
Jackie Booth, one of the six hula dancers, remembers being hesitant to be in the film. She was concerned it might be offensive to other Hawaiians. She didn’t want it to be a mockery of hula.
“I didn’t want to do a whole Hollywood kind of thing just to help Consolidated sell more popcorn,” she said.
But today Booth is one of the film’s strongest supporters. She believes it endures because “it is unifying. It pulls all of us together. It reminds us of why we live here, despite all the expense and frustration of life here, why Hawaii is special.”
Booth knows of no other movie theater in the country that has its own culturally appropriate trailer.
“Anyone who loves Hawaii can relate to it,” says Booth.
I love the trailer myself because of the sincerity of the dancers’ faces. There is nothing phony about them. They seem captivated in the moment as they move forcefully through the chant.
“We were completely into it,” says dancer Healii Heine, the daughter of hula legend Leinaala Kalama Heine.
During the filming near Oahu’s Lanai Lookout, Heine remembers walking down the side of the mountain over and over again while director Manke tried to get the lighting right. As they stepped barefoot over the smooth rocks carrying the smoking kerosene torches, Heine says they fell into a kind of trance. They danced to the chant “Kakuhihewa,” which is different than the chant that’s heard in the trailer. They whispered the words softly to themselves to keep on the same beat because there was no music playing during the filming. The soundtrack was added later in a studio.
As they moved in unison to the sound of their own voices for hours in the dark, Booth remembers, “We were in the zone. We were taken back to another time in Hawaii.”
Booth is 55 years old now. She worked as a flight attendant for Aloha Airlines and is currently employed as a bookkeeper for Ideal Construction company.
Booth says whenever she starts a new job, the other employees approach her, saying, “Oh, you’re the Consolidated girl. I tell them that was 20 pounds and two kids ago. It is amazing to think of this as my claim to fame. I have danced hula for some of the biggest stars in Hawaii, yet I will always be the Consolidated girl.”
Heine was 19 years old when the film was made. The rest of the dancers were in their 20s and 30s. Now one of them is a grandfather and another is an award-winning kumu hula. The most radiant woman in the hula line has died: 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 husband, Fred Soon, says hula meant everything to Arletta. She kept dancing in Robert Cazimero’s Royal Dance Company until she was immobilized by her illness.
Dancer Arletta Johnson Soon died in 2008, but two of her three children brought her portrait to our photo shoot. From left, Kalei and Kalamaku Soon.
He says the first Christmas after she died, their children Kalei and Kumakalekini said to him: “We want to go see Mom.”
Soon says he was depressed himself and didn’t feel like taking them to the cemetery. The children told him, “No, we don’t want to go to the cemetery. We want to go to the movies.”
Soon says they ended up spending Christmas day sitting through one movie three times to watch Arletta dance in the trailer each time.
All the performers in the trailer were dancers for either Robert Cazimero or Leinaala Kalama Heine. At the time of the filming, four of them were in a nightly show 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,” says Heine.
Not just hula culture, but also canoe culture. The paddlers were from Hui Lanakila Club. They were filmed on a different day 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 Henkels & McCoy utility construction company.
Heine says 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.
Reggie Keaunui, the bearded dancer, remembers taking his children with him to the Pearlridge Theatres soon after the trailer was made. Before the film came on, Keaunui told them to just watch the movie and not say anything.
“But when he saw me dancing on the screen, my youngest son turned around in his seat and proudly blurted out to the audience: “That’s my dad! That’s my dad!” Keaunui says he sank down in his seat.
Keaunui, now 56 years old, has three grandchildren. He works at the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and got called into work there the day of our photo shoot. He is an avid waterman who coaches paddling and has crewed on trips to Tahiti on the Polynesian voyaging canoes Hokulea and Hawaiiloa.
Keaunui started dancing hula when he was a high school student at Kamehameha Schools. He says the power of the Consolidated trailer has helped to erase a lingering stereotype that male hula dancers are effeminate or gay.
Keanui says the trailer affirmed that hula is for all men and women, all people.
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.”
Phil Shimmin was president of Consolidated Theatres when he came up with the vision for the trailer after watching the Merrie Monarch Festival on TV.
It was the real deal because that’s what Consolidated president Shimmin wanted when he asked music producer de Mello, the CEO of Mountain Apple Records, to make the film. De Mello says 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 Consolidated was running in its theaters at the time, which showed a cartoon baby being yanked off the screen when the baby started crying.
“Shimmin hated the canned cartoon music. He wanted something authentically Hawaiian, a production that gave a sense of place,” says de Mello.
In 1991, the Hawaiian cultural renaissance was already underway, de Mello says, but it was unusual for a movie theater company deeply immersed in American popular culture to commission such a uniquely Hawaiian product. He credits Shimmin as being far ahead of his time.
By the Numbers
Over the past 22 years, theatre officials estimate, the trailer has been screened more than 3 million times.
1992: Number of theaters: 20; Number of screens: 60
2014: Number of theaters: 8; Number of screens: 94
Shimmin says he became respectful of kahiko, the ancient Hawaiian style of hula dancing, after watching the Merrie Monarch Festival on TV. “It is so powerful. I knew we had to have it in the trailer,” he says.
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 lai 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 Hiiaka’s journey to Kauai to fetch Pele’s lover, Lohiau.
De Mello played all the different instruments in the score and wrote the music. He says the composition came to him in a single day. 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 the 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 says a couple of the tiny theaters on the Big Island still had mono sound systems. “It was crazy,” says de Mello, “but a lot of fun.”
The filming was done near the Lanai Lookout, between Hanauma Bay and the Halona Blow Hole. Heine remembers they showed up for the shoot at about 8 a.m. and did not finish until after midnight.
Film director Manke says he and cameraman Ken Libby had to keep watching the tide because the shelf jutting out to the ocean on which they were working was very narrow.
Reggie Keaunui says, after the sun went down, the male dancers, who were wearing only malos, got very cold. Luckily, he says, the film crew served them cocoa and coffee all evening as well as lots of hot food.
Dancer Michael Nalanakilaekolu Casupang says the long day’s work gave him a genuine appreciation for what goes into making a movie.
Casupang, now 50 years old, teaches dance at Mid-Pacific Institute and is the co-founder with Karl Veto Baker of Halau I Ka Wekiu, which was 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 shown holding his finger above his lips in the film. Movie audiences think the dancers are telling them to be quiet when they see them pointing their fingers below their noses but Casupang says they are actually making the classic hula motion known as “ala,” which means fragrance. Hula dancers use the ala motion to tell of the fragrance of a flower such as pikake or maile.
Another thing that isn’t quite what it seems in the film is the big rock the camera pans to at the end, with Consolidated’s logo carved on it like a petroglyph. The “rock” is really a large lump of foam carved and painted by Bryan Furer, who was the makeup artist for the dancers.
The only dancer who no longer lives in Hawaii is Keola Kamahele. Kamahele, now 51 years old, resides 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 says the first time he saw it on the big screen, “I 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, Calif., purchased Consolidated Theatres in 2008. Rod Tengan, regional manager for Consolidated, says the Mainland parent company has no plans to change the trailer, and will continue to show it before every movie.
“For as long as the trailer has been running, the overwhelming response continues to be favorable,” says Tengan. Shimmin says he knew it was a hit from the very beginning when he sat in the back row of the former Waikiki Theatre, to gauge the audience’s reaction. At first, he says, people murmured and whispered as if they were wondering, “Wow. What’s this?” But when the trailer finished, two or three people started to clap hesitantly and then everyone burst into loud, steady applause. “I think I am more proud of this than anything I have done in my life,” he says.
De Mello says people still stop him on the street to talk about it. He 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.”
An early version of this story first appeared on Honolulu Civil Beat.