Sep 1, 2023

Don Ho and Gay Hawaii

In 1966, teens were listening to the new age of rock: "California Dreamin'", "Paperback Rider," "The Last Train to Clarksville."  The adults were listening to "Tiny Bubbles," a slow, lethargic audience participation song seemingly designed for cocktail lounges at 3:00 am, when the singer is drunk and the audience too tired to care:

Tiny the wine....make me happy....make me feel fine.

Wait -- I don't drink, but I've seen wine, and it's not carbonated.

The singer was a 36-year old Hawaiian named Don Ho (no relation to the Vietnamese singer),  who in fact wasn't drunk, but had been performing at his mother's night club, Honey's, since 1959.  "Tiny Bubbles" stayed on the charts for 17 weeks, and propelled him into stardom.

Between 1966 and 1971, Don Ho released six albums of slow-moving easy-listening, "nice" songs as an antidote to the hippies' acid rock: "What a Wonderful World," "The Lights of Home," "She's Gone Again"  Often interspersing English slang with Hawaiian pidgin: "Tu Tu Kane," "Mahi Pune."

He performed on The Joey Bishop Show, The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Hollywood Palace, and Laugh-In.  He had his own daytime tv series.

He appeared as himself on The Brady Bunch, Batman, I Dream of Jeannie, almost every tv series with an episode set in Hawaii (long after his heyday, he was still appearing as "himself" in Hawaiian-themed tv episodes, from Charlie's Angels to Life Goes On).

The adults loved him.  His fans included Lucille Ball, Sammy Davis Jr., and Judy Garland.  Teens didn't know what to think.  Was he an asexual Asian Uncle Tom, or the first Asian sex symbol?  Was he perpetuating trite stereotypes (hula dancers wearing leis in tiki bars), or was he celebrating his Hawaiian heritage?

Gay teens were especially perplexed; here was a man surrounded by ladies, but with decidedly gay-coded mannerisms. Who sang "Lovely Hula Hands" but employed hunky male back-up singers.  Was he a Hawaiian Liberace in pink sunglasses, hiding same-sex desire behind a glittery facade?

Probably not. He was married for 40 years, and had 10 children.  But he did share the stage with Judy Garland.

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