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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 9, 2002

Walter Clarke dies at age 89

By James Gonser
Urban Honolulu Writer

Hawaiian fashion promoter and newspaper columnist Walter Clarke, whose business card once read "Royal Hawaiian Beach, 3rd umbrella from the left," died in Palm Springs, Calif. Tuesday. He was 89.

Walter and Gretchen Clarke, who met at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, lived in Palm Springs, Calif.

Photo courtesy of Clarke Family

Clarke owned dozens of Waltah Clarke's Hawaiian Shops selling aloha wear, stretching from Beverly Hills to Florida, with one of the original stores at Ala Moana Center. He began his longtime love affair with Hawai'i after moving here fresh out of college in 1938.

He made friends with the beachboys fronting the Royal Hawaiian and gathered information from them for his syndicated column called "Hawaiian Holidays" about the comings and goings of the rich and famous for the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Chronicle.

"He absolutely loved Hawai'i and taught all of his children to love Hawai'i too," said Walter Jr. "What a nut he was. He drank and partied all night with the beachboys."

It was the beachboys who mispronounced his name as "Waltah," and gave him the nickname that stuck with him the rest of his life.

He met his future wife Gretchen at the Royal Hawaiian while she was here with her prominent Chicago family, who were trying to cure her of a crush on a suitor of whom the family did not approve. Clarke used his connection with the hotel's social hostess to get an introduction.

"Dad took her out to Diamond Head the first night and tried to kiss her," Walter Jr. said. "She looked up and there was a sign that said 'You're in Hawai'i, have fun,' so she thought 'What the hell, I'll kiss him on the first date.' It was love at first sight. She even mailed the ring back to the boy she was engaged to."

The couple moved to Palm Springs, Calif., and, with a $3,000 loan from his father, opened their first Hawaiian clothing shop in 1952. The company grew quickly, and at one time had stores across the country and on all the major Hawaiian islands.

Tim McCullough, president and CEO of Reyn's clothing store, met the couple on Catalina Island off Los Angeles, where they had a store in the 1960s, and described their taste in Hawaiian wear as kitschy "lu'au connoisseurs."

"He was a very sharp business man," McCullough said. "He knew what statement he wanted to carry in his stores. He was extremely important in taking Hawaiian aloha clothing to the Mainland."

In the 1950s, he produced and emceed an album called "A Beachboy Party with Waltah Clarke," which featured Duke Kahanamoku and other beachboys Chick Daniels, Splash, Kalakaua, Steamboat, Panama, Fat and Jimmy singing and playing songs on Waikiki Beach.

The album was re-released as a CD in 1999 on Taboo Records and is available at local record stores.

The couple ran their clothing stores from Palm Springs; Gretchen designing the fashions and her husband handling the promotions. Clarke wrote much of his own ad copy using pidgin sayings like "No poo poo da muu muu, it might be your wife inside."

"English teachers have told me I was setting language back 20 years," Clarke told The Advertiser in 1972. He went on to co-found the Pidgin English Hall of Fame.

Clarke visited the Islands regularly, bring his entire family to Hawai'i every summer to stay at the Royal Hawaiian, teaching the children to swim, surf and fish with the beachboys, Walter Jr. said.

Clarke will be buried May 14 in Palm Springs — wearing, of course, an aloha shirt and shorts.

"If you put him in anything else, he will roll over in his grave," Walter Jr. said. "He hated to wear pants and get dressed up."

Clarke is survived by his wife; six children, Walter Jr., Heather, Rolf, Gretchen Jr., Cameron and Cissy; and six grandchildren.