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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 3, 2003

O'ahu resident recalls her days as actress, entertainer

Don Ho describes Alita Arkin as a "beautiful, gorgeous woman."

Photos courtesy of Alita Arkin and Advertiser library

By Moon Yun Choi
Special to The Advertiser

Niu Valley resident Alita Arkin is a singer and pianist. In her younger days, Arkin used several stage names as she performed in films, on stage and in lounges.

Deborah Booker • The Honolulu Advertiser

As a poster girl during World War II, Violet Salvé was hailed as the Honolulu Honey in the 1940s and created enough excitement that Hollywood cast her for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movies.

Salvé's Honolulu performances — and her pinups — made an impression on many. But those not aware of her Hawai'i heyday probably don't know about her Hollywood contributions (as Amelita or Alita Salvé), either. There's not much opportunity to learn more about her work, considering that she flashed in the background of just one film and did a voice dub for another.

Fact is, she only had a small speaking role as an airline stewardess at the end of the 1947 film "Singapore," a poor man's "Casablanca" starring Fred MacMurray and Ava Gardner. And she did a singing-voice dub for a famous dancer, Sono Osato, in "The Kissing Bandit," a musical starring Frank Sinatra.

Back then, the movie credits didn't list minor roles, so Salvé's name didn't appear on screen.

But Salvé, now known as Alita Arkin, a blend of her stage and married names, is proud of her Hollywood efforts.

Arkin, who lives on O'ahu, thought it would be nice after all these years to know that copies of the movies she was in were available to Honolulu viewers. So she called the Movie Museum in Kaimuki to see if the theater/video store would carry a copy.

Arkin, it turns out, was hardly the first or last Hawai'i caller with a movie connection. The Movie Museum didn't have a copy of "Singapore," but ordered one after Arkin got in touch.

"In the 12 years that I've been running the Movie Museum, roughly 100 people have inquired about movies they or their relatives have been in," said Dwight Damon, the owner of the museum, which is a magnet for movie lovers. "Usually, we have the movies they are looking for, or we try to point them in the right direction — if we know the movies are still available somewhere."

"They're part of the faces that make up the pool of film history. Some people remember the faces, even though the actors aren't credited," Damon said. "Most importantly, the people who were in the movies have stories to tell. Walter (Ziegler, Damon's assistant at the museum) and I enjoy hearing those stories because they're intriguing and entertaining. We help people search out movies they're interested in, and it's a fun treasure hunt. For them, it's a nostalgic interest for revisiting the past and seeing themselves when they were younger."

As for "Singapore": It's "a variation of 'Casablanca' with Fred MacMurray returning to Singapore after World War II," Damon explained. "Ava Gardner is the woman with whom he shares a past. Instead of passports and visas being the object everyone's after, it's pearls."

A black-and-white photo from that era shows a very young Arkin in a tropical print two-piece bathing suit, tailor-made to be the object of desire for World War II-era servicemen.

Today, the attractive Arkin, of Filipino/mixed ancestry, looks younger than her years.

And if you were wondering about the name Alita, it's a stage name given to her by her agent.

Recalling her career

Arkin was born Violet Salvé. Her stage name evolved from Amelita to Alita, with different versions in between. When she came back home from Hollywood, she said, no one knew her by her real name — so she kept "Alita" because she still wanted to entertain.

As she recounts her adventures in Los Angeles as a young Hollywood hopeful, she maintains a well-spoken, soothing manner, her voice cracking only once during the history, when she mentions a daughter who died.

Rewind to 1946. Boxoffice magazine writes "lavish, laugh-laden and lithesome" in its review of "The Kissing Bandit." The video box reads: "He makes the women swoon and the men check their wallets. He's the notorious Kissing Bandit and he's played by a true scene stealer — the incomparable Frank Sinatra."

MGM has dancer Osato lined up to knock the socks off the audience — but Osato can't sing. No problem. The studio will hire a singer to dub over the voice. That singer was Arkin.

"For a little part like that, I had a three-day job, because I was working with a 36-member, live orchestra (at the MGM studio). In those days, if one person made a mistake, they had to do it over again," said Arkin. "Now they have computers, and it's easier to record."

In "Singapore," Arkin's part was just slightly more visible.

"I had a bit part as an airline stewardess. I appear toward the last part of the picture during the scene where Matt Gordon (MacMurray) leaves Singapore and leaves Linda Grahame, also known as Ann Van Leyden (Garner) behind, but at the end the plane turns around, comes back, picks her up and they're together," Arkin said.

Her scene was about three minutes long.

"Singapore" is a good movie for film lovers who can't get enough of "Casablanca." The plot is almost identical to that of "Casablanca" save for the ending — it's got a war backdrop, a jilted male lover and a confused heroine torn between love for the new man in her life and duty to her husband. Only in "Singapore," Gardner meets MacMurray first, and because of amnesia marries another man.

Arkin didn't get screen credit for either movie, but she "got paid big" — $100 a day — for a speaking part. That was the Screen Actors Guild scale rate. Extras were paid $35 day at that time.

War memories

Arkin started out in the entertainment industry in 1938. She was 15. Her recounted memories are accompanied by memorabilia that span the years leading up to and through World War II in Hawai'i.

She lays out photos and newspaper clippings on her coffee table, holds one up, and gives an explanation.

In this one, she's supposed to be a stripper chanteuse.

"I didn't take my clothes off there," Arkin said. "It's just that they show your legs and the shoulders, and the soldiers are holding up underwear. The name of the song that I sang was, 'It Raises Hell With Discipline but It's Marvelous for Morale.' At the end, I put curtains over my shoulder so all you see is the shoulder and the one leg."

'Hey Mac!'

During World War II, she performed as Violet Salvé in "Hey Mac!" — a musical revue produced by Capt. Maurice Evans, a Shakespearian actor who was then in charge of the Army Entertainment Section of the Central Pacific Theater.

This production made the pages of Time magazine on May 3, 1943. The magazine called it "the Army's most low-brow show, a bawdy, corny musical ... that the dogfaces are eating up." It describes it as "a soldier outfit in Hawai'i that suffers from too much red tape and not enough women."

Evans' Shakespearian reputation caught Time's attention at the time. However, the regal stage master is probably best known to baby boomers for his recurring, non-classical appearances on the TV series "Bewitched" as Samantha's loving but unapproving warlock dad.

After playing to thousands of servicemen over four months, "Hey Mac!" opened at the then-new Little Theatre at Schofield Barracks on June 26, 1943, and ran until July 5, according to a MidPacifican military newspaper article.

Arkin has a program of "Hey Mac!" signed by servicemen who performed in the revue. Most of them were killed shortly after, in the Battle of Guadalcanal, she said.

Salvé was named one of the MidPacifican's Honolulu Honeys in its Feb. 15, 1944, issue. She turned 20 five days later.

Although the headline read "Panther-Woman is Adored by Soldiers," she was described as a shy showgirl working with the Army's Special Service Office to boost morale.

The article also said her singing and dancing caused excited soldiers to hail her as "The Panther-Woman" and the "The Jungle Girl." Her photo shows her decked out in a white one-piece bathing suit.

Arkin's collection includes clippings from the New Philippines and This Week. She graces the cover of both publications.

A photo of her singing in a nightclub, printed in the New Philippines, lists her as entertainer of the year. In another photo, Arkin is in a sexy, cutout dress, singing at the Chi-Chi club in Palm Springs. She's wearing a tigress outfit in another photo.

Wowed in Waikiki

Jack De Mello, a pioneering Hawai'i musician and composer who influenced Hawai'i music with his lush orchestration, remembers Arkin fondly.

"She's a very talented lady with great stage presence," he said.

As Salvé, she sang in the "Coconut Willie Review" in 1948 during its eight-month run at the Lau Yee Chai restaurant/nightclub in Waikiki. The show was named after De Mello's first hit, "Coconut Willie" (and also included comedian Eddie Sherman, a longtime Hawai'i newspaper reporter who wrote for the Honolulu Advertiser and is now a columnist for MidWeek).

Lau Yee Chai today is a restaurant with a slightly altered name, Waikiki Lau Yee Chai, a few blocks from its original location.

"Filipina Songbird New Hollywood Find" was the headline for Literary Song Movie Magazine. It reported that she landed a seven-year contract in Hollywood and her first film was to be "Las Vegas."

"From what I can remember, that deal fell through because the independent agency under which I was signed couldn't come up with the financing for me to be in movies," said Arkin.

She married her first husband, Richard Davenport, in 1951. They had four daughters.

When Arkin's attempt at a long-term picture deal didn't pan out, she continued on her adventures before returning to Hawai'i at the end of 1958.

Jack Arkin, her second husband, now deceased, was a New York Life Insurance agent.

Of her four daughters, three became entertainers and models. The three, Jasmine, Ginger and Maile, were called the Davenport Sisters, and at one time all performed with Don Ho's show. Jasmine died from cancer at age 33.

Daughter Moya Davenport-Gray is an attorney and former director of the state of Hawai'i Office of Information Practices. She is an adjunct professor of law at the University of Hawai'i.

Entertainment was 'all gravy'

"I would sum up my career as fun," Arkin said. "My focus was to bring up children that would be an asset to the community, which they are. The other entertainment part was all gravy."

Don Ho remembers Arkin as "just a beautiful, gorgeous woman with an unbelievable personality. She was the beginning of bringing real classy entertainment to Honey's," Ho's mother's nightclub in Kane'ohe.

Arkin performed there as Salvé in 1960 or 1961.

From today's perspective, "I don't have any dashed hopes for Hollywood stardom," Arkin said. "I'm in the golden years of my life. Why would I want to return to it?"