“There’s a star in the house!” James Grant Benton was on the phone, calling his boss, Territorial Tavern owner Bob Hampton, who was in his office at the downtown restaurant bar.
“Which one?” Bob asked.
“Bette Midler, with her group. They want front row,” answered Jimmy, who was not only one third of the comedy group that Midler had come to see; he was also the doorman at Territorial Tavern.
“Well, give it to them!” Bob ordered.
“No more, no more. Can they sit on the steps?” Jimmy asked, knowing that fire code violations were a constant concern at the Tavern, which was almost always packed on the weekends. Especially when Booga Booga was performing.
In the end, the island-born Midler and her entourage got proper seating and enjoyed Booga Booga’s show. Well, most of them. Eventually. Bob Hampton knew Midler was a huge Booga Booga fan from her frequent visits to the club, but not everyone with the star that night understood island humor. So even though Midler was flashing that famous smile and howling with laughter the entire time, Bob could see her occasionally lean over and say something to the person at her side, who he was told was one of the star’s producers. He assumed each time she was explaining a local reference in the material and why she thought it was hilarious.
Featuring locals-only entertainment was key to Territorial Tavern’s success. Owners Bob Hampton and Ed Greene purposely catered to island residents and refused tour operators’ requests to drop off busloads of tourists. Hampton and Greene knew that these visitors would take up precious space in their establishment, meaning even more locals would be turned away at the door after waiting in long lines. Besides, the tourists wouldn’t get it anyway.
“Unlike most entertainment forces in Hawai’i, who specifically gear their show to the tourist,” explained Ed Ka’ahea, “we specifically gear our show to the local people, and any deviance from that is to accommodate other people so they understand.”
After launching in late August 1975, the irreverent comedy of Booga Booga quickly became the hottest thing going in Honolulu. “It was Ed Ka’ahea, and Jimmy Benton and Rap and they would just go back and forth and it was just electric. The audience was always rolling in the aisles,” recalled voice actor Billy Sage, who saw Booga Booga at the Tavern many times.
Legions of rabid fans lined up for hours on the sidewalk outside of the Dillingham Transportation Building at the corner of Bishop Street and Ala Moana Boulevard (just before the latter turns into Nimitz Highway) in the heart of downtown Honolulu. Booga Booga performed Tuesdays through Saturdays with a one-dollar cover charge and two drink minimum. Even on Tuesdays, considered their slowest day, Territorial Tavern was packed. Once the door flew open, lucky patrons at the front of the line rushed to claim seats at one of the 16 tables and three booths on the floor, while others quickly grabbed every stool at the bar. Fans who trailed behind had to climb a wide staircase to the mezzanine level where there were a half a dozen tables. But once the show started, they had to stand along the railing if they wanted to see anything. Others crammed into corners or sat on the stairs to see the stage.
“It was kinda dark and it kinda smelled like beer and cigarettes in those days , but the audience--- you had local folks (in their) 20’s and 30’s… could be haoles, could be kamaʻāinahaoles, could be local Waianae but a good smattering of older kamaʻāinafolks that really loved the local humor. Every once in a while a couple haoles with aloha shirts would come in, very tourist-looking and they'd sort of, 'ha' (weak laugh). They'd laugh cause everybody else in the audience was laughing,” said Sage, adding, “nobody was saying, ‘Trow da bums out!’ but it was so geared towards the local that it was very, very hard for anybody else to even comprehend. It was not the Hawaii Calls purity for the mainland, it was for us and the buggas was funny!”
“They became…an instant hit because they were so different, unlike anything ever seen or heard in Hawai’i,” observed Wayne Harada, who has written about Hawai’i entertainment for more than four decades. “They were the buzz everywhere. Booga Booga was bigger than anything else that was on the scene. At a time when everybody was eager, Waikiki was there, the music started to take shape and started blooming, I think whether it was music or comedy, there was a hunger or a thirst for it. And I think that’s part of the reason why Booga, who were different, became the hit that they were.”
That hunger for things Hawaiian resulted in a cultural and artistic movement known as the Hawaiian Renaissance. It sprang from seeds of discontent sown after the United States’ overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy in 1893. By the early 1970s this cultural reawakening was in full bloom. The voyage of the double-hulled Polynesian canoe Hōkūleʻa from Hawaiʻi to Tahiti was one of the key events that helped stoke the fires of this resurgence in the mid-70s, which some called the “Second Hawaiian Renaissance.”
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Happy Birthday Rap!