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The Honolulu Advertiser

Updated at 10:25 p.m., Saturday, April 14, 2007

Hawai'i music legend Don Ho dies

By Dave Koga
Advertiser Staff Writer


Don Ho

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Don Ho, said those who knew him best, wouldn't have understood what all the fuss was about.

Ho, who died Saturday of heart failure at age 76, was the pop-culture face of Hawai'i.

He became a national star in the 1960s, riding the crest of a tourism boom in the Islands and a catchy hapa-haole tune about cheap champagne.

Back then, he was the dark-eyed, laid-back, slightly boozy, vaguely hedonistic — and incredibly sexy — embodiment of the nation's newest state.

He became a Waikiki headliner, appeared on national television, had a network series, toured the world.

And he endured. Forty years in Waikiki and he was still packing them in.

But he never took himself seriously.

"He didn't come on with airs," said longtime entertainment columnist Eddie Sherman. "No matter what he achieved, he was always just a local boy. He would be happiest sitting in a joint someplace eating stew with his friends."

Said Big Island rancher Larry Mehau, who grew up with Ho and was a lifelong friend: "I don't think he ever realized how important he was to Hawai'i ... how big he was. I mean, he knew he had talent. But the other stuff ... he didn't care about all the other stuff.

"With Don, it 'ain't no big thing.' "

Haumea Hebenstreit Ho, the entertainer's longtime associate and wife since September, said she found him collapsed in the bathroom of their Waikiki home Saturday.

She said she called an ambulance, then tried to resuscitate Ho for 10 minutes. He was taken to The Queen's Medical Center, where he died.

"He is the love of my life," said Haumea Ho, who also was the producer of Ho's Waikiki show.

It was the only public statement made by Haumea Ho. The family has asked for privacy.

Friends and family had flocked to the hospital as news of Ho's death spread. Ho's daughter, Hoku, also an entertainer, was on a flight to Hawai'i from California last night.

"(Ho) was my father, my friend, my buddy," said Cha Thompson, a longtime entertainer in Waikiki. Thompson was the lone non-family member at Ho's bedside at the hospital, and was asked by Haumea Ho to help plan a farewell to the entertainer. Details on that event will be released soon.

For more than a year, Ho had been grappling with a life-threatening heart condition, called cardiomyopathy, which slowed him down and reduce his workload to three shows a week.

As a last resort, he underwent VesCell Adult Stem Cell therapy in Bangkok, Thailand, in November 2005, because his weakening heart could not be repaired with conventional treatment or surgery. The experimental procedure, not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration in this country, involved isolating stem cells from his blood, cultivating them in a lab, then injecting them directly into his heart muscle. The process was intended to regenerate his heart tissue.

Ho told The Advertiser last year that he hoped to have another stem cell procedure to build more heart muscle, but he did not follow through with another operation. He periodically had trouble breathing, and was able to return to performing only sporadically after having the stem-cell surgery.

"I was at his show Thursday night, which turned out to be his last," promoter Tom Moffatt said. "He did a remarkable show."

Bangkok-based writer Jerry Hopkins, who is working on a biography of Ho, was with Moffatt and met with the entertainer backstage.

"I guess we all worried about Don but figured he was going on forever. He seemed to be able to beat back those unbeatable enemies called age, time and infirmities.

"It may be a cliche, but Hawai'i will never be the same."