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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Monday, August 16, 2004

Comedian DeLima teaches lesson of humor

By Anna Weaver
Advertiser Staff Writer

WAIMALU — Several hundred children sat cross-legged on the green, concrete floor of Waimalu Elementary School's cafetorium, waving their hands back forth and giggling as they sang, "Peanut, peanut butter ... and jelly!"

Frank DeLima performed recently at Pearlridge Elementary School, one of 350 Hawai'i schools that the entertainer visits every two years.

With children, DeLima sidesteps the ethnic humor he is known for.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

"Going on a Buta Hunt" followed the "Peanut Butter and Jelly Song," and the students laughed even louder as they pretended to search for a wild pig. Sitting in front of them and leading the singing was the songwriter himself, comedian Frank DeLima.

For 25 years DeLima has been traveling to schools around the state with his Frank DeLima Student Enrichment Program. Like his nightclub act, his school appearances are a mix of songs and jokes. But for his student audiences, he's got a serious message: Study hard. Respect your teachers and parents. Believe in yourself.

"In a nutshell, my program is character education," said DeLima, a 55-year-old with a child's imagination and energy. "Your approach has to be sincere. Kids can tell if you're fake."

He estimates that he has made more than 5,000 school visits since he began the program.

"We really appreciate that he reinforces the values we try and instill in our kids," said Helen Uyehara, vice principal of Pearl Ridge Elementary, who oversaw DeLima's recent visit to the school. "The kids always enjoy him."

"The thing I love the most is the reaction from the kids. I just love to see that innocence and joy when I see them laugh," DeLima said. "The other thing is that when I tell them something serious they take it well."

DeLima speaks about the Four Magic Words: Reading, Studying, Laughing and Family. And he shares personal experiences to emphasize his points.

For example, DeLima told the students that when he was a kid his parents always made sure he worked hard in school. "They'd say, 'Frankie, as soon as you come home, you have to do your homework,'" he said. And if it wasn't done neatly, he had to redo it.

DeLima told the students to be appreciative of their teachers. "I can remember each and every one of (my teachers') names," he said. "They were strict and they were fair. And when it was time to have fun, they did."

"I deliver my message through humor because that's what gets through to (kids)," DeLima said. "I tell the children, 'Comedians hold up a mirror and if you can laugh at yourself, then you have a good self-esteem.' "

While DeLima is known for his ethnic humor, he does not use it in school programs as he feels it's inappropriate for children.

The comedian says he started his Student Enrichment Program partly on a whim. While on a Maui promotional tour, DeLima found himself with free time between morning publicity work and evening performances.

"I was sitting around doing nothing during the daytime," he chuckled. One day he was visiting a friend who was a banquet manager at the Maui Beach Hotel.

"I was sitting at his desk and I said, 'Is there a school around here I could talk to?' " he said. DeLima felt that his background as a former seminarian and his master's degree might let him combine comedy with education.

He called up the principal of Kahului Elementary and 10 minutes later was at the school. "By the time we arrived the kids were out on the lawn and the PA system was up," he said. "I didn't know what I was going to do — anything."

The talk was a success, and soon other Maui principals were asking DeLima to speak at their schools. He now makes a circuit of 350 public and private schools throughout the state every two years. It's become almost a full-time job with two presentations a day, three times a week, nine months a year, besides his twice weekly nightclub shows at the Palace Showroom in Waikiki.

DeLima said that when he could no longer cover the Student Enrichment Program expenses on his own, private contributions and government grants helped pay for the approximately $100,000 cost involved, which included airfare, car rental and hotel costs, as well as a salary for himself.

He tailors his talks to his audience. One program is for kindergarten through third-graders, the other for fourth- through eighth-graders. He also puts together an annual Student Transitions Convention for intermediate school students to help them with the move from child to adolescent and into high school.

"Basically I don't know if the kids get it or not. I'm just consistent and persistent," he said. Though that repetition can sometimes backfire. "Kids remember. It's amazing. They'll say, 'You told that joke last year.' So I have to be careful."

DeLima stresses to parents the importance of being involved. Reading to kids, volunteering at their schools, and helping through the PTA are things all parent's should do, he said. "I want to make sure all the parents know what I'm talking about and for them to reinforce it."

Reach Anna Weaver at aweaver@honoluluadvertiser.com or 535-2455.