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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, November 11, 2006

Josefa Moe, 73, storied Islander

 •  Obituaries

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Josefa Moe, shown in this 1961 poster, was a member of the first Polynesian group to perform at New York City's Lexington Hotel.

Moe family photo

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Josefa Moe, once considered the most photographed Samoan in the world, was a Polynesian renaissance man. The performer, artist, beach boy, athlete and businessman died Nov. 3 in Summerlin, Nev., his home the past few years, surrounded by family. He was 73.

Born in India while his parents were touring with Felix Mendelssohn's Hawaiian Serenaders, Moe led a storied life. He performed with Hawai'i notables Don Ho, Kui Lee and Ed Kenney between the 1950s and early '70s, did a vaudeville act in England, carved tiki, created a then-innovative koa Hawaiian Kepi bracelet with names etched in old-English lettering, and designed restaurants and clubs on the East Coast.

"The thing I remember most about my dad was his amazing talent," said his son, Joseph Moe Jr., a Los Angeles-based writer, director, musician and filmmaker. "I once asked him to do a treehouse and the next day, there was this fort on stilts, with trap door, practically overnight."

Eleven of Moe's 12 children made it to his bedside.

"He was strong as an ox," said Joseph, based in Los Angeles. "It was as good a death as you can have; he went quickly, in control. He waited for the youngest to make it over from Costa Rica.

"And when the male nurse at the hospital came to put an oxygen mask on, he said 'No.' He took a breath then he was gone. The sun was coming over the mountain in the desert. He was in charge, not letting us decide his fate. It was just amazing."

For years, Moe frequented Waikiki, as a craftsman selling his wares, as an entertainer in shows at Queen's Surf, Duke Kahanamoku's, the Royal Hawaiian hotel and the Sheraton Waikiki hotel.

"He played the to'era (Tahitian drum) with Puka Puka Otea at the old Queen's Surf," said Tihati Productions executive Cha Thompson, who started her Waikiki career as a dancer.

"He also performed with Kaui Brandt at the International Market Place. He could weave coconut baskets or hats in minutes. He was quite a character," Thompson said.

Showgoers may recall Moe as a skilled Samoan fire knife dancer "one of the best knife dancers in the world," said Dorian Moe, his cousin and a long-time employee at the Polynesian Cultural Center in La'ie. "The old-timers should remember Josefa; he was part of the first Polynesian group to leave Hawai'i, to work as a knife dancer with Kimo Lee, at the Lexington Hotel in New York."

"Josefa was his stage name," said Joseph Moe. "He was always this Samoan-Hawaiian guy, generally out of place, because he was a huge guy with that British accent he picked up while at an English boarding school. I remember joking with him whenever he got calls to do 'Hawaii Five-O.' They liked his looks, but when he spoke, he sounded British. Because he never got rid of the accent, he never got speaking parts, always working as an extra."

Moe was born on May 1, 1933, to Samoan father Pulu Moe and Filipino-Hawaiian mother Louisa Moe.

His resume is mind-boggling. He did comedy in England, worked as a beach boy in Waikiki, airbrushed T-shirts, served in the U.S. Army at Schofield Barracks, created Hawaiian koa bracelets he called Kepa, with hand-lettered calligraphic names in Hawaiian, and operated Academy Art Associates, a commercial art studio and sign shop in Hono-lulu.

He originated the Hawaiian Punch character the local guy named Moki who blurted "How 'bout a nice Hawaiian punch?" in print and TV commercials, according to family friend Sean Fernald, a long time best-buddy and Kalaheo High School classmate of Joseph Moe, who now lives in Los Angeles.

Said Fernald: "Josefa had a unique animated style and, if my memory at age 10 is correct, he was the guy who helped create the Hawaiian Punch characters. I know they were based on his designs and whether he got credit, I'm not sure, but the art style was his. Either he did it for them, and got paid, or they lifted it off his art board."

Dorian Moe said that Josefa did T-shirt art at the International Market Place and was involved in the initial success of Rick Ralston's Crazy Shirts, which had a booth at the visitor site.

"If you visited, you probably saw Josefa with his air-brushing," she said.

Fernald also said that Josefa Moe was responsible for a huge mural visible from Nimitz Highway. "He did everything freehand, depicting tourists and locals and smiling kids, with mountains in the background. He'd let us kids fill in the color of the sky or the mountain, but he did the people."

Moe also was a one-time cabbie. "I remember when he picked me up once, asked where I was going, and took me," said Fernald. "He was practically blind, wearing these thick, Coke-bottle glasses. He said, 'Come in for the ride of your life with the blind cabbie.'"

And Moe loved movies, introducing his son and Fernald to films.

"Once a week, he'd take us to see a triple bill at the old King Theatre downtown for 99 cents. He'd nap while we watched the shows. I think he was responsible for Joe and me getting into entertainment," said Fernald, a music supervisor for films.

Moe was the nephew of the renowned Tau Moe, the late steel guitarist who performed around the world, and was part of the family of entertainers who introduced Hawaiian music to audiences in Europe and Asia in the early 1900s. Tau Moe's daughter Dorian Moe is the last remaining member of the Moe clan in Hawai'i.

Survivors include his wife, Mindy; children Brian (by late wife Jacqueline), Joseph, Daniel, Robin, Jaymie (by former wife Marilyn), Christopher, Kalani, Taui, Tammy, Kaipo and Cheyne; grandchildren Brendan, Michelle, Daniel, Atua and Kili; and numerous other relatives.

Services will not be held in Nevada or here until next spring, said Joseph Moe. A memorial will coincide with his May 1 birthday next year, with his ashes to be scattered off Waikiki.

Friends may send condolences to the family by e-mailing Joseph Moe at gojoemoe@aol.com or phone him at (323) 665-1924.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com.