“(I)f you are really lucky … If you are one of those of whom refreshing and enchanting things sometimes happen. You will have wandered into the Hawaiian Room at the Lexington …” (Tucker, Man About Manhattan, June 14, 1938)
The Hotel Lexington (on Lexington Avenue and 48th Street, New York City) was completed just six months before the market crash of 1929.
The iconic hotel became an instant favorite for global leaders, celebrities, business executives and some of America’s most famous sports icons including Joe DiMaggio, who famously lived in a penthouse suite during his whole career playing for the Yankees. (Lexington)
However, in the basement, hotel management realized they were stuck with a large and useless lower dining room. In 1932, they opened the SilveL Grill, featuring bandleaders Ozzie Nelson, Little Jack Little, Artie Shaw and Carl Ravel.
Popularity waned, and hotel owners were in need of a show that would attract wealthy society members and keep the hotel in the black. The manager decided to experiment for a few months with all-Hawaiian entertainment in a cafe decorated with South Sea motifs and featuring Polynesian food.
At the time, Hawaiian and Polynesian cultures were growing in popularity and interest across the country. However, the creation of the Hawaiian Room was still a bold move not only because of the Great Depression, but also an increasingly complicated global scene as world conflicts were escalating in both Asia and Europe. (Akaka)
On June 23, 1937, the Hawaiian Room opened in the Hotel Lexington, the first major showroom for live Hawaiian entertainment in the US and the one that became the most renowned.
The Room itself was the first of its kind and featured a glamorous dining room with island decor, large dance floor and American orchestra, and a Hawaiian music and floor show that was unmatched in its professionalism, elegance and beauty.
It was New York after all – the land of Broadway shows, fast-paced lifestyles, ethnic diversity and celebrities. (Hula Preservation Society)
The initial band, named “Andy Iona and His Twelve Hawaiians,” included Andy Iona (born Andrew Aiona Long,) composer-singer Lani McIntire and Ray Kinney as featured singer.
Kinney assembled the dance troupe in Honolulu: the solo dancer Meymo Ululani Holt, plus Pualani Mossman, Mapuana Bishaw and Jennie Napua Woodd – they became known as the “Aloha Maids” – they became the faces of Hawai‘i in New York.
While numerous American showrooms featured live Hawaiian entertainment, the Hawaiian Room served as the industry standard to beat. In many cases, performers in other American showrooms appeared at the Hawaiian Room sometime during their careers.
A few other notable entertainers who helped “make” the Room over the years include Alfred Apaka, Aggie Auld, Keola Beamer, Eddie Bush, Johnny Coco, Leilani DaSilva, Ehulani Enoka, Leila Guerrero, Meymo Holt, Keokeokalae Hughes, Clara Inter “Hilo Hattie,” Alvin Isaacs, Momi Kai, George Kainapau, Sonny Kalolo, David Kaonohi, Nani Kaonohi, Kui Lee, Sam & Betty Makia, Tootsie Notley, Lehua Paulson, Telana Peltier, Luana Poepoe and Dennie Regore. (Akaka)
The venue became “the place to be” for celebrities in New York City, and it was the people who worked in the Hawaiian Room who made it such a success. Because of their talents, island ways and authentic aloha many were able to enjoy a piece of Hawaiʻi, even if they were on another “island” 5,000 miles away. (Akaka)
The Hawaiian Room was a place where dancers could establish viable careers. In the Islands, career options were limited. Hula dancers could earn between $50 and $100 a week, compared with $4 to $10 a week in the pineapple canneries.
For many Hawaiian women, hula presented a dream ticket out of Hawai‘i, promising fame, glamour and middle-class status difficult for them to achieve in the plantation and service industries. (Imada)
They became minor celebrities as performers in what was referred to in New York papers as an “off-Broadway show not to be missed.”
Big-time celebrities like Arthur Godfrey and Steve Allen sought out the Hawaiian Room entertainers to be on their television shows. The Hawaiian Room dancers were featured on the very first broadcast of color television in the United States. (Hula Preservation Society)
“They say (dancer, Pualani Mossman) is the most photographed girl in the Islands …” She became known as the “Matson Girl” for her pictures in Time and Life magazines.
Although the Hawaiian Room was in New York, it played an ever important role in the spread of Hawaiian culture across the continental United States, as well as the development of Hawaii’s major industry … tourism.
The nightly exposure of business executives, celebrities and New York’s working men and women to the Hawaiian songs, sceneries and hula at Hotel Lexington was sure to have put dreams of a Hawaiʻi vacation in the minds of more than a few over the years. (Akaka)
Over the course of its 30-years, millions of people from all over the world experienced the Hawaiian Room, its melding of Hawaiian music and hula traditions with current American musical trends, and its people of aloha. (Hula Preservation Society)
In 1966, a hula dancer at another venue was seriously injured when her grass skirt caught on fire. That prompted new federal workplace fire laws. (KITV) The Hawaiian Room closed that year because the needed fireproofing renovations were too expensive. (honolulu)