Don Ho's back on stage
By Eloise Aguiar
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Eloise Aguiar
Don Ho was back crooning, wisecracking and flirting at his Waikiki showroom last night, less than two months after he underwent an experimental stem cell procedure in Thailand to strengthen his heart.
A sellout crowd of 300 at the Hoku Hale Showroom at the 'Ohana Waikiki Beachcomber Hotel welcomed back the iconic singer in his first performance since Thanksgiving Day.
Wearing white pants, a blue velvet shirt and a white ginger lei, a smiling Ho greeted people entering the showroom for the 8 p.m. show. More than 50 people queued up for a snapshot with Ho, who charmed tourists and called out to old friends by name.
When he walked onstage at 8:30, the audience erupted in a standing ovation. He sat behind an organ and immediately launched into one of his standards, "Night Life."
His signature "Tiny Bubbles" was next, and by the end of the 90-minute show Ho had sung 10 songs and earned a second standing O.
"His charisma and presence were crisp. He was sharp as a tack," said Joe Correa, a Waimanalo rancher who went to the show with his wife and some friends. "It was great to see him do what he does."
Correa said he admired Ho for having the stem cell procedure and thinks it may open doors for others.
Ho, 75, joked with the audience about being away and about his four-piece band being a little rusty, but spoke little about his medical procedure.
He said he plans to be around for another 30 years "but I'll look like hell. If you come and see me in 30 years, you'll look like hell, too."
He had a goblet of a wine-colored liquid on the organ but didn't take a sip.
Singer Melveen Leed was among many local entertainers who were there to support their friend. Leed went onstage to serenade Ho with new lyrics she had written to the song "Smile."
" ... Your life is blessed — and sometimes a mess ... " Leed sang.
"He helped a lot of us with our careers," Leed said in an interview before the show. "He was one of our foundations. He taught me how to be an entertainer."
Jimmy Borges, Marlene Sai, Linda Coble and others also went onstage to sing to, or with, Ho.
The audience was largely made up of older people and they ate up Ho's act. They sang loud and lustily on "Tiny Bubbles" whenever Ho pointed his microphone at the crowd to give them their cue.
Ho also sang such well-known songs as "I'll Remember You," "Suck 'Em Up," "Hawaiian Wedding Song" and "Pearly Shells." His voice was strong. He slurred a few words and dropped others entirely — trademark Ho song stylings.
'A SYMBOL OF HAWAI'I'
When he walked off the stage about 10 p.m., the crowd gave him a standing ovation and yelled, "Hana hou!" But there was no encore.
For now, Ho will perform on Sundays only; he may add more shows at a later date.
Visitors Jim and Linda Udell from Oregon said last night was the first time they had seen Ho since 1977. "We came back to see the legend," Jim Udell said.
Elizabeth Gehris, a Hawai'i resident during the 1960s who now lives in Cape Cod, Mass., said she used to see his show all the time and tries to catch it during her annual visits here.
"Tonight there's an unusual amount of local people, including local celebrities," said Ho's publicist, Donna Jung.
Kimo Kahoano said that when he was a student and an aspiring actor at the Kamehameha Schools, Ho went to the campus to offer his support to students.
"He did something that nobody else did," Kahoano said. "He was able to connect Hawai'i and the Mainland and that, combined with 'Hawaii Five-0,' made a great impact at the time."
Margaret Kamahele, widow of the late entertainer Sonny Kamahele, said, "He inspired a lot of entertainers and was supportive of them. He's been a symbol of Hawai'i for so many years for tourists and locals alike."
HONEY'S TO HARRAH'S
Ho, a 1949 Kamehameha Schools graduate, got his start at Honey's restaurant in the 1960s to attract customers to his mother's waning Kane'ohe business. He gained prominence while singing at the now-defunct Duke Kahanamoku's in Waikiki from 1964 to 1970. The lounge was a hot spot for local and visiting entertainers, who would stop in to watch Ho perform or join him on stage.
His fame spread to the Mainland after he appeared at the Coconut Grove in Los Angeles in 1966. His sold-out shows led to appearances at the Sands in Las Vegas, Harrah's at Lake Tahoe and at hot spots in New York and Chicago. He also made guest appearances with Johnny Carson, Joey Bishop and Art Linkletter.
Before the stem cell treatment in Bangkok last month, Ho had been lethargic for months. He suffered from cardiomyopathy, a serious disease in which the heart muscle becomes inflamed and does not function normally.
After a particularly difficult show on Thanksgiving, he decided to move ahead with the procedure, Jung said.
VesCell therapy uses stem cells taken from the patient's own blood. The stem cells are isolated then multiplied through a patented lab-grown process.
The cells are then inserted directly into the heart or arteries to help restore damaged tissue and ultimately regulate the patient's heartbeat.
Stem cell treatment is still under review in the United States and not allowed here.
Ho, whose heart was operating at 10 percent capacity before the surgery, hopes that in the next six months he'll regain 50 percent to 75 percent of his heart's ability to pump blood.
At the end of his show last night, Ho spoke briefly about trying to get the word out about this alternative treatment.
Reach Eloise Aguiar at email@example.com.