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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 18, 2002

'Auntie Myrtle' recalls her days as a singing taxi driver

By Wade Kilohana Shirkey
Advertiser Staff Writer

Myrtle K. Hilo and her 'ukulele joined Charley's Taxi driver Alan Kawamura for his rounds through Waikiki.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

Seems like a no-brainer: Hawaiian music in the taxis that ferry tourists from the airport to Waikiki.

For Charley's Taxi, it was a recent, innovative concept. In an effort to build ridership while paying tribute to Hawai'i's musical heritage, Charley's signed up with Mountain Apple, a company based in Honolulu that records many well-known Hawai'i entertainers, and arranged to play the company's titles.

For Myrtle K. Hilo, veteran Hawaiian entertainer, it's no stretch at all: In the 1960s and '70s, the 'ukulele-strumming songbird was billed as the Singing Cab Driver.

The taxi company's action inspired a drive down memory lane, and the two concepts merged: Charley's Taxi driver Alan Kawamura took "Auntie Myrtle" and her 'ukulele holoholo through Waikiki for a one-time gig.

The glory days

Hilo began working as an entertainer in 1950, and was well known in Honolulu by the time statehood arrived. She credits entertainer Danny Kaleikini for helping her get started by sharing his Kahala Hilton stage with her, and remembers the glory days of playing at venerable Honolulu nightspots such as the Blue Dolphin Room and Club Polynesia, where she worked with Genoa Keawe. (Hilo appears via video in a tribute to Keawe at the Hawai'i Theatre tomorrow night.)

She added the taxi business to her resume in 1965, when her kids' Crane Park after-school programs, sports and changing teen priorities left her with more free time. At first, she was a dispatcher — but for only two days.

"One night, a driver didn't show up and they made me drive," Hilo said, laughing. The rest was cab-driving and Hawai'i musical history.

Toting her 'ukulele, gift of gab, and fair share of kolohe humor, Hilo took to the roads of O'ahu, combining her love of music with the tourists' insatiable appetite for things Hawaiian.

Her star was rising.

Her distinctive, melodious voice, with just a hint of rascality, was heard on the radio as she served as disc jockey on various local stations. She soon had five albums to her name. And phrases from her songs, such as "Will you love me when my carburetor is busted?" became part of the local lexicon.

"Cab driver, once more round the block," and "That's What Little Little Tears Are Made Of" made island hit parades. Soon, she was added to local playbills with that other famous entertainer named Hilo: Hilo Hattie.

In between, she drove a taxi.

A rare sight

"She was one of the pioneers," Kawamura said.

At that time, women weren't welcome in the driver's seat of a taxi. "It was very rare," said Dale Evans, daughter of Charley's founders Helen and Charles Morita. "Some downtown (taxi) stands (grumbled) when a woman was first hired."

Kawamura remembers when women drivers were barred from military bases. Today, the firm has less than two dozen. "But they're very popular," Evans said.

"We'd LOVE to have" Hilo, Evans added, tilting a gracious head toward the singer. "She's famous!" Hilo's eyes toyed momentarily with the prospect.

Hilo worked for Anuenue Cab Co., Island Taxi, Ala Moana Taxi and Tour, and SIDA — the State Independent Drivers Association.

While working as "The Singing Cab Driver," Hilo sometimes had trouble keeping her identities separate. Driven to stop and enjoy the luscious scenery in such green and breezy locations as La'ie, she'd pull out her trusty 'uke and kanikapila a bit, evoking the Hawai'i her fares had come to see.

Perhaps it'd be the latest tune, like "Beyond the Reef," something from her albums, or something irreverent like "Princess Pupule."

Adding to the party atmosphere, she'd bring ice, cooler and cups. Pulling up to a convenience store, she'd let the riders out, knowing the tourists would often return with something stronger than soda. Then the kanikapila would continue, more spirited than before.

"They'd (get up and) do this impromptu hula," she said, chuckling. "They were so cute."

She'd encourage the men to get up and "lu'au dinner-show style," or do "The Hukilau."

"Hips to the right," Hilo intoned, recalling those days as Kawamura's cab meandered through Waikiki streets.

Even back then, there was a musical tradition among cab drivers, she said. "Drivers used to have jam sessions at Charley's Taxi Stand down Alakea way: Linda Dela Cruz, Jessie Kalima ... and one named 'Sweetie Boy,' who could never get the chorus."

Music on wheels

A lot of Honolulu entertainers have driven cabs during the day to pay the bills through the years, Evans said.

And over those years, Evans always heard the same lament from tour agents and tourists: There was no Hawaiian music in Waikiki.

"I always felt Hawai'i needed to have a venue for Hawaiian music," Evans said. "When we were kids, we could sit on the beach," outside the Waikiki lounge shows, "and hear (Hawaiian) music. It was a place kids could go and learn."

The taxi company's pairing with Mountain Apple was more than a simple business decision, Evans said: "Music helps people connect."

Kawamura recalled when he took a visiting Scotland Yard official to Straub Hospital after the visitor had broken his leg. Despite his discomfort, the traveler took note of the nahenahe strains of Robi Kahakalau's voice in the taxi, and Kawamura brought him a duplicate tape at the hospital.

This night, as in the old days, Auntie Hilo was pulling her old magic. Singing in Kawamura's taxi, she attracted curious onlookers who listened to the impromptu moving performance.

"Show me the way to go home ..." she sang, passing the sites of long-gone Waikiki haunts where, as headliner, she held audiences spellbound. "You may go, I'll let you go — may God bless you."

When Hilo launched into "Another Kanaka Like Me," Kawamura kept time on the steering wheel.

Kawamura requested "Hi'ilawe," and "Kumaka ka 'ikena ia Hi'ilawe...," and Hilo sang. Approaching Diamond Head, she started into "Kaimana Hila," telling of the graceful landmark, virile Waikiki surfers and the long-gone Kapi'olani Park race track.

As the taxi made its way through the lights of modern, electric Waikiki, Hilo's "He Aloha No O Honolulu" took the cab back in time. She added her characteristic tagline: "My Home Place!"

Kawamura had rolled the windows down again to entice passersby. "This is a high point for me," he said. Happiness danced in Auntie Hilo's eyes.

For good measure, Hilo launched into one last go at another favorite, "Aloha 'Oe."