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Hawaiians Hope the Dance Goes On

June 30, 1999

HONOLULU (AP) _ For visitors, it’s as mandatory as sitting on the beach at sunset, sipping a tropical drink with a jaunty parasol or trying poi at a luau.

The Kodak Hula Show, held Tuesday through Thursday mornings at the Waikiki Shell in Kapiolani Park, has drawn tourists since it debuted in 1937. You know the score: Ukelele players and grass skirts.

The free show was the brainchild of a former Eastman Kodak Co. executive, who saw it as a sure-fire way to sell film. Until then, tourists had little opportunity to snap pictures of hula dancers in daylight.

The gambit worked wonders until Kodak announced in May that it was ending its longest-running sponsorship in hopes of attracting younger photographers. There was a sigh of relief Tuesday among tourists and organizers when Kodak extended its sponsorship for 30 days until a co-sponsor can be found to help pay the show’s $550,000 annual cost.

Part cultural, part commercial, the year-round show has come to symbolize Hawaii to the more than 17 million visitors who have seen it over the past 62 years.

``We come every time we are here,″ said Debbie Corona of Los Angeles, who first saw the show as a 10-year-old in 1968. ``It’s fun. We get out there and hula and my dad takes videos.″

Tourism is the Aloha State’s No. 1 industry, generating $11 billion.

The show features a cast of 40 from the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club, including hula dancers dressed in traditional skirts made of green ti leaves and coconut bras, fragrant flower leis in their hair.

While it has evolved over the years, the house orchestra remains endearing: 14 musicians in long muumuus and sun hats perform throughout the hour-long photo opportunity.

During the show, hula dancers spell out ``Hawaii″ in big red and yellow letters, what the show’s host calls the quintessential ``Kodak moment.″ And tourists snap away every time.

``A lot of the music is what we used when we started, the dances too,″ said Lily Wai, who was in the first Kodak show. ``It’s great to keep up the old traditions.″

Word that the show could be saved was welcome news to May Akeo Brown, who has been part of the dance for 61 years, and now serves as the show’s manager and narrator.

``I’ve got goose bumps,″ said Brown, whose aunt, Louise Akeo Silva, created the show along with Kodak executive Fritz Herman. ``That’s great news.″

Herman saw the show as a way to sell more film to tourists since most hula shows in Hawaii are held at night, in darker hotel showrooms and arenas. If tourists run out of film, there’s plenty for sale nearby.

But this spring, Kodak spokesman Jim Blamphin said the company was looking to attract younger people into photography, and the hula show mostly attracts older visitors.

``It would be a shame to lose the show,″ said Brown, whose daughter, Betsy, is a dancer. ``I’ve made a lot of friends over the years, people from all around the world. A lot of people come back to visit.″

News of its impending demise prompted a community effort to save the show. Nearby businesses worried that tourists would instead spend money at the Bishop Museum, the Waikiki Aquarium or the Honolulu Zoo.

``It’s something different, something fun,″ said Delphine Rickard, who also started with the show in 1938 as a dancer, and now plays ukulele while her niece, Lehua Young, dances.

``It’s a great family tradition,″ Young said.

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