Clarissa Meleka Haili, one of five children of George and Rebecca Haili, was born into a musical family on October 28, 1901 in Honolulu, Hawaii. She first went by the name ‘Clara.’
She attended Kaʻahumanu Elementary School; graduated from the Territorial Normal School. Setting out to be a teacher, Clara began teaching at Waipahu Elementary in 1923.
Though she taught English, social studies and math, her real love was teaching music and many of her students remembered her with great fondness. (Singletary)
While still teaching she started performing – singing and dancing. (“I never had a hula lesson in my life. I just learned to dance by watching others. I just do what comes naturally.” (Clara; Reading Eagle, October 11, 1972)
Clara turned professional in 1936 when she entertained with the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club. They sang at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and the Waiʻalae Country Club. (“We would get $25 for an appearance, and there were 25 of us, we each got a dollar.” (Clara; Reading Eagle, October 11, 1972)
She took part in the Kodak Hula Show. Clara participated in the summer shows from 1937 through 1940.
While traveling to Portland, Oregon in 1936 for a teachers’ convention, Clara was part of the entertainment on the ship. She became such a huge hit with the passengers. (hawaii-edu)
This was a turning point in her career. During a program of entertainment on the ship, she first performed a song written by Don McDiarmid.
McDiarmid had a much more sultry dancer in mind when he wrote the song, and he was conducting the Royal Hawaiian Hotel orchestra when a dancer fell ill and Clara performed the song in her unique comic style.
He was astounded when the audience loved Clara’s interpretation. The song would later be her theme, as well as her name.
Clara continued to teach school while performing at night, when the National Shriners’ convention put her at the top of their list of entertainers in 1938 in Los Angeles.
She and Al Kealoha Perry and his Singing Surfriders entertained all over Los Angeles. Clara’s next mainland trip was to the St Regis Hotel in New York, in 1939.
Upon returning home, Clara was told by the Board of Education that she must choose between teaching and performing. She gave in gracefully and decided to go back to school herself to get her teaching degree.
However, Harry Owens took over the band at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel and immediately hired Clara. Clara said she would probably “still be teaching if it hadn’t been for a professor at the University of Hawaiʻi who told her to stick to entertaining.” (Reading Eagle, October 11, 1972)
Owens got her into movies in Los Angeles; they also entertained in various Southern California hotels.
Then the war broke out. They entertained soldiers and sailors departing for the Pacific and participated with the Red Cross, USO and hospitals. For the next 26-weeks, they were on the road entertaining at big hotels and military bases.
After the war, Clara became a disc jockey for Honolulu radio station KPOA. Harry Owens had a television program and Clara became a regular on the Hawaiian music show in 1949. The show ran for nine years.
During the late-1940s and 50s, she criss-crossed the country in Hawaiian-themed show rooms.
Finally, after years on the road, Clara returned to Hawaiʻi and the Tapa Room at the Hawaiian Village in 1960, where she recorded her first live album. Engagements followed at the Ilikai’s Canoe House, the Halekūlani, the Kahala Hilton, the Royal Hawaiian and Moana. She continued performing until 1977.
Oh, her stage name (and later, legal name?) … Hilo Hattie. And, the song, ‘When Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop.’
Here’s a link to “Hilo Hattie Does The Hilo Hop” and “Cockeyed Mayor Of Kaunakakai:”
Clara legally took the name Hilo Hattie at the insistence of Harry Owens when she performed in the 1941 film Song of the Islands. Unfortunately, she doesn’t perform her signature song in the movie, only a shortened version of ‘The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai.’
In 1971, an original line of clothing was also named after her. While attending the Merry Monarch festival in Hilo that year, Clara was approached by Evelyn and Richard Margolis and entered into an agreement for them to design and sell a line of ‘Hilo Hattie’ clothing.
The namesake store, Hilo Hattie’s, originally started in 1963 as Kaluna Hawaii Sportswear on Kauaʻi. The name changed in 1979, with the purchase of Hilo’s Evelyn Margolis Manufacturing and Retail Co and rights to Hilo Hattie’s name.
She was married a few times: John Baxter, in 1920 (divorced); Milton Douglas, in 1926 (divorced); Theodore Inter, in 1930 (divorced) and Carlyle Nelson (a violinist), in 1949 (the last lasted for 30-years.) She died December 12, 1979. (Lots of information here from Singletary.)