Published on August 28, 2013 by Amy
Hilo Hattie (October 28, 1901 – December 12, 1979) was born Clarissa “Clara” Haili in Honolulu, Hawaii. She was a Hawaiian singer, hula dancer, actress and comedienne of Native Hawaiian ancestry.
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Clara loved to dance the hula and sing in the church choir. She began teaching at Waipahu Elementary School in 1923, entertaining her students with what would become her comedy hula routines. In 1930, she married Theodore Inter. By 1936, she had joined Louise Akeo’s Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club singing at venues around Oahu. The group got $25 per appearance to distribute among the 25 members.
The Don McDiarmid Sr-Johnny Noble song When Hilo Hattie Does the Hilo Hop became her signature tune. McDiarmid intended the 1935 song to be danced by the typical beautifully smooth hula dancer. But in 1936, while the band was performing as shipboard entertainment on a cruise to Portland, Oregon, the seductive dancer meant to perform it fell ill. Hilo Hattie, who claimed to have never had a hula lesson in her life, ran with it as a comedy piece, and it became a monster success in its time. Clara legally changed her name to Hilo Hattie, when she performed her second signature song, The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai, in the movie Song of the Islands. From 1939, Hilo Hattie was a favorite among the military.
By 1940, Harry Owens was conducting the Royal Hawaiian Hotel orchestra and hired her. Hattie joined the Webley Edwards-hosted Hawaii Calls broadcasts that went out to 600 radio stations around the world. From that point on, she became a global household name, touring the world and performing in movies and on television, with a recurring role in Hawaii Five-O as Mrs. Pruitt. In 1945, she was referred to as “the Polynesian Sophie Tucker” when she entertained at the Holland Supper Club in Eugene, Oregon. The divorced Clara married bandleader and violinist, Carlyle Nelson, in Las Veges in 1949.
She was still touring the mainland in 1956, when she performed four days and nights at the Merced County, California Spring Fair. Hilo Hattie and her Hawaiian Revue played the Peabody Auditorium in Daytona Beach, Florida in January 1959. Hilo Hattie began doing two shows a night, six nights a week, at the Hilton Hawaiian Village Tapa Room in 1960. It was an arrangement that continued for more than a decade. In 1961, she appeared in the motion picture Blue Hawaii with Elvis Presley. In June 1963, she entertained at the Sportsmen of Stanislaus luau in Modesto, California.
In 1972, she recalled having once made an attempt at retirement but live performing was too much fun. Hilo Hattie succumbed to cancer on December 12, 1979. She is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (Section U, Grave 653-A) under her married name, Clara Nelson.
Hilo Hattie is the brand name of a group of stores selling Hawaiian and Hawaiian-themed merchandise. The store cites the name rights as having been obtained in 1979 with the purchase of Margolis Manufacturing and Retail Company (Hilo, Hawaii) from Richard and Evelyn Margolis. As of 2010, there were seven Hilo Hattie stores in the state of Hawaii; at one time the firm operated stores outside of Hawaii as well. The store filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and has subsequently been acquired by its principal creditors, exiting bankruptcy in 2010.