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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, May 29, 2002

James Grant Benton, local-style comedian, dies at 53

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Editor

James Grant Benton, one of the founders of the groundbreaking Booga Booga comedy troupe that gave life to a generation of performers who found humor in local-style characters and situations, died yesterday of an apparent heart attack at Castle Medical Center. He was 53.

Benton had a history of heart problems.

Advertiser library photo

His wife, Deborah, catering manager of the Hawai'i Convention Center, said she was up early on her way to work when she found Benton standing in their bedroom appearing disoriented. She summoned an ambulance from their Ka'a'awa home at about 4:30 a.m. and he was taken to Castle, where he was pronounced dead about an hour later. Benton had a history of heart problems, Deborah Benton said..

"I'm actually in a state of shock," said Edward Ka'ahea. Ka'ahea is now the lone surviving member of the original Booga Booga trio, which also included Rap Reiplinger, who died in January 1984.

Ka'ahea and Benton had been preparing for a June 28 comedy performance, "Lolo No Ka 'Oi," at the Sheraton Waikiki. "The show was going to be called 'The Viagra Years: Aging Gracefully in Paradise,' " Ka'ahea said.

Ka'ahea, a deejay at KONG radio on Kaua'i and a program director of the Hawaiian station there, was uncertain of the immediate future of Booga Booga.

"I know Bruddah Jimmy is having a good time with Rap," said Ka'ahea. "For me, it's a personal loss because Jimmy was a very caring and giving human being, one of those guys who'd give you the shirt off his back. Literally, he's done that for me. But for Hawai'i, it's a major loss of a real talent."

Benton's work in recent years included small parts in movies and on TV series shot in Hawai'i, as well as radio and TV spots. But his biggest fans remember him best for his work with the Booga Booga trio, playing Waikiki clubs in the '70s and '80s, cutting albums and appearing on comedy specials on local TV.

"James did it all," said Arnold Hiura, a longtime friend and business partner of Benton who shared offices with him at the Mo'ili'ili Blind Fish Tank.

Left to right: Rap Reiplinger, Edward Ka'ahea and James Grant Benton were the original members of the Booga Booga comedy troupe. Benton died yesterday of an apparent heart attack.

Advertiser library photo • 1983

With Ka'ahea and other actors, and under Hiura's aegis, Benton also developed a successful business of putting on workshops for Island businesses, using comedy to unify rank-and-file and management. "He provided the great humor and with Mokihana Calizar providing the professional training, there was depth to what they did," said Hiura.

Benton, Ka'ahea and Reiplinger organized Booga Booga in 1975 and established themselves as a different kind of group, creating a new kind of sketch comedy that developed characters, situations and dialogue, not just jokes and punch lines. Their material, delivered in dead-on dialects ranging from plantation pidgin to tourist haole, played off local idiosyncrasies, shared experiences and ethnic differences but never crossed into racial or crude humor.

Over the years, members included Andy Bumatai, Dave Lancaster and Ray Bumatai. But the public always revered the original trio, with Reiplinger and Benton creating some of the favorite routines.

From Las Vegas, actor and stand-up comedian Pat Morita said Benton was the most level-headed of all the original Booga troupers.

"I first met James when he emceed the shows at the Comedy Corner (in Honolulu, during the late 1970s); subsequently, we became tight friends," said Morita. "One of the most rewarding, albeit bizarre experience with him, was several years back, when Ken Thompson (an agent) was managing Rap, and these guys were hoping to get back together after a split. James was sort of at the forefront of the fever to get them back together; Ed was non-aggressive, Rap was on another planet. I played a small part of this reunion when they all came and stayed with me for a day and a half, when I had a place at 1350 Ala Moana.

"I shall miss him; he was wonderfully funny and a great friend."

Benton was born Jan. 15, 1949, and graduated from McKinley High School in 1967. He attended the University of Hawai'i in Manoa between 1971 and 1973 but never finished his higher education.

In entertainment circles, he had a stellar career in a variety of disciplines outside of the Booga circle.

In theater, he wrote and adapted a pidgin-English version of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night," which was dubbed "Twelf Nite O 'Wateva!" initially produced in 1974 and still remembered as a pioneering piece of theater. As a performer, he had a leading role in a landmark Hawai'i company production of the rock opera "Hair," which journeyed to Las Vegas in the mid-'70s.

At the height of set-in-Hawai'i television series, Benton became a seasoned bit player on "Hawaii Five-O," "Magnum P.I.," "Hawaiian Heat," "Baywatch" and "The Byrds of Paradise." For "Byrds," he served as a script consultant, overseeing dialogue requiring local lingo.

He also had a number of movie roles, including the popular produced-in-Hawai'i "Picture Bride," and the teen surf film "Blue Crush" set to be released this summer.

Television commercials also gave him wide visibility, most notably a Columbia Inn restaurant spot, where he portrayed a gamut of diners.

Benton was troubled for years by dependency on alcohol and drugs, "but that was BD — before Deborah," said his widow. "I met James when I first booked Booga Booga, and he was always good fun, crazy, like a roller coaster," she said. "He had become such a nice grandfather, happy with his dogs, eating heartily. He was off alcohol for two years, and not doing drugs."

"He finally got the demons off his back," said Ann Asakura, head of TEMARI, the Center for Asian and Pacific Arts with whom Benton had done a series of promotions. "He was not any moke with a toilet bowl mouth; he was really terrific, especially since he quit drinking."

"When he started up with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous), he really changed his life," said Hiura. "He was sober and clean and very focused, with energy level way up high."

Ka'ahea said that Benton occasionally wondered about his mortality, but acknowledged the healing power and nurturing of his comedy. "We often talked about how comedy can be a unifying force," Ka'ahea said. "(Benton) cared about Hawai'i and worried about getting old; that's why we customized our upcoming show for us two old farts."

Services are pending, but Deborah Benton said the comedian, who loved the ocean, wanted to be cremated, with his ashes scattered at sea.

Besides Benton's wife and granddaughter, survivors include a son, Kui Benton; his mother, Ann Wilms; two brothers, John Benton and Ralph Wilms; and a sister, Kathy Ahlo.