Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 11, 2008

Waikiki's Pink Palace due makeover

Photo gallery: Royal Hawaiian Hotel

By Robbie Dingeman
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Seth Chandler of Stockholm, Sweden, a regular patron of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, fell in love with the view from this room, which he requests on every visit.

Photos by BRUCE ASATO | The Honolulu Advertiser

spacer spacer
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

A model room shows how renovated guest rooms will look, with the crest-carved doors remaining.

spacer spacer
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Barbed wire ringed Waikiki Beach during World War II.

Advertiser library photo

spacer spacer
Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Dorothy Mackaill, movie star of the 1920s and '30s, moved to Hawai'i in the 1950s and lived at the Royal for the rest of her life.

Advertiser library photo

spacer spacer

"I immediately felt that I was living inside a postcard."

Seth Chandler | Regular guest of the Royal from Stockholm, Sweden

spacer spacer

"I got homesick in Australia. Not for home but for the Royal."

Macauley Deck | Student, fourth generation of Royal-visiting family

spacer spacer

When the Royal Hawaiian Hotel closes next month for seven months of renovations, it will be only the second time the iconic pink beachfront hotel has shut down. The first time came right after World War II, once the barbed wire was removed from the beach.

Some of the hotel's most loyal guests checked in this month for one last stay before the renovations begin at their favorite hotel. And they're taking a cautious look at the model rooms designed to give a preview of a "fresh and elegant" look with dark furniture and some tropical accents that include a pineapple motif.

The classic beachfront hotel is owned by Kyo-ya Hotels and Resorts and managed by Starwood Hotels and Resorts.The $85 million renovation is part of some $750 million in renovations planned for the company's four Waikiki properties.

Hotel officials envision a restored hotel that retains the classic feel but upgrades and updates the decor and amenities, said Ernest Nishizaki, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Kyo-ya.

They recently scrapped a plan to build a new entrance visible from Kalakaua Avenue because of structural concerns. "If we shift the weight of the hotel, it might have caused some structural issues," Nishizaki said.

And Nishizaki said a plan to build a three-level "fantasy pool" with water slides and a suspension bridge has been modified to two levels.

One of those watching closely is frequent Royal guest Maryann Fleck, who returns to the hotel several times a year, usually for a month or more. "I love the hotel; it's very iconic," Fleck said. "I'm very, very fond of the staff."

Fleck, 79, lives in the Seattle area where the family business is growing Christmas trees. She's stayed at the Royal more than 200 times but never really stopped to count.

While she first stayed as an infant in 1929, she began coming more regularly after she got married in the 1950s, then with her four children and now with her four grandchildren. Last week, she was back poolside, this time with granddaughter Macauley Deck, the fourth generation of their family to visit the Royal.

Deck is in law school and was interning in Australia this month but managed a quick getaway with her grandmother.

"I got homesick in Australia," Deck said. "Not for home but for the Royal."

Fleck knows that renovation will help but she hopes the consultants will retain the hotel's identity. An avid traveler, she said doesn't much notice sheets, "But I know they should be pink here."

She'll stay until June 1 when the last guests check out ("I think there's going to be a lot of tears on that day.") And she plans to be among the first to return Jan. 1.

Nishizaki started his own career at the Royal in 1966 as a busboy when he was in college. He worked in various jobs and then became the hotel's first local general manager in 1993.

So, he said he understands their concerns, even the worry that the new hotel will not be pink enough.

Nishizaki said he's "99 percent certain" that the Surf room will be back and the Monarch room will still be a site for banquets.

Hotel officials said about 400 employees will be affected, including about 380 members of UNITE HERE Local 5. Some will transfer to other Starwood properties on O'ahu and the Neighbor Islands, while others will likely collect unemployment or seek temporary work until the hotel reopens.

Housekeeper Jenita Ramones has worked at the Royal for 25 years. She plans to use the time off to clean her own house, her yard, work on projects and "visit family in 'Ewa Beach."

Lisa Morrill, director of sales and marketing, said the renovation won't change what's special about the hotel.

"It's the Royal," Morrill said. "It's like unveiling a palace that has gotten a little faded."

The hotel will join a Starwood brand of hotel known as The Luxury Collection that includes palaces and villas, and the interior design will be done by Philpotts & Associates.

The target traveler? Loyal (having stayed more than five times); educated; affluent with average household income of $350,000, professional, average age in the mid 40s.

What else do those customers want? Personally fulfilling experiences rather than expensive status-oriented stays. They like the staff to give them an insider or local perspective. They're looking for lifelong memories rather than souvenirs.

Morrill fields worries: "Is is still going to be pink? Will there be a Mai Tai Bar? Will there be canopy beds? Yes, yes and no.

But officials acknowledge there will be changes and less pink. At last check, the hotel towels will remain pink but the sheets a decorating flashpoint may be white with pink edging.

There will still be pink bathrobes.

Guest Elsie Williams checked out the model room, agreeing that some changes are needed. "You have to keep up with the times," she said.

But she hopes the modernization doesn't go too far. "I personally like some of the old things."

Seth Chandler, 48, is on the young side of the repeat guests but he's clearly quite taken by the historic hotel. He admits his first reaction to the news of a renovation was: "Uh-oh."

With the renovations just around the corner, he'd been thinking about why he flies halfway around the world to stay at the Royal several times a year. Then he checked into his beachfront room and looked out at the beach and Diamond Head: "I immediately felt that I was living inside a postcard."

Chandler first remembers coming to the Royal in the 1980s. He was working in Japan and passing through Honolulu. He'd stay in a far cheaper hotel a few blocks from the beach $40 a night including a rental car. But he'd head for the Royal to splurge on brunch, imagining the day he could afford to stay at the hotel.

He now makes his home in Stockholm, Sweden, where he works in advertising and corporate communication, and stayed at the hotel three times this year. And now he brings his wife and their 3-year-old daughter.

Chandler said "the flawless staff" takes care of guests in a way that makes them feel warmly welcomed into old-world elegance, not intimidated by stuffy surroundings. "You can't buy history and ambiance," he said.

Taeko Busk, the hotel's director of guest relations, started working at the Royal 31 years ago. Originally from Japan, Busk majored in philosophy at the University of Hawai'i-Manoa.

When she started at the hotel, she made only a three-month commitment to the job. "I didn't know I would like working in Waikiki," she said.

Something clicked. She stayed and became a key link to the many guests who return again and again. She sends them hand-written Christmas cards from a list grown to more than 1,700, cataloged in four big Rolodexes.

Busks notes their likes and dislikes: Likes apple bananas, no mini-bar, no TV, prefers Absolut vodka, likes lavender-colored flowers, the list goes on. Concerned about the confidential nature of such personal information, Busk writes some of her notes in Japanese.

"I think this hotel has a soul," Busk said. "It's not the building; it's the people.That's what sets us apart."

And Busk means the people staying in the rooms as well as the hotel staff. She said the longtime guests become like family. She'll run into a guest and find that a bellman took the guests' kids or grandchildren to the North Shore on his day off.

Busk knows a lot about guests and their antics and will share some of it. Like the time the wealthy Getty family sent a group of teens to the hotel as a high school graduation gift. One morning, they turned heads in the Surf room when a dozen of them turned up for breakfast, all wearing their pink bathrobes.

A child who grew up spending many happy family vacations at the hotel went off to college and got lonely in her dorm room, so she called Busk to chat. Another man keeps a bicycle at the hotel, so Busk offered to take it home during the renovations so it will be waiting when he gets back.

And Busk fondly remembers bygone film star Dorothy Mackaill, who starred in silent and sound films in the 1920s and 1930s. She starred opposite the famous leading men of her time including Basil Rathbone, Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart (in a 1932 film called "Love Affair.")

Her own love life resulted in three marriages and three divorces, and she moved to Hawai'i in the 1950s and made the hotel her home, swimming daily in the ocean for decades.

"She lived here for 38 years," Busk said. "She loved the water; she loved the glamour; she loved the beachboys."

Mackaill was colorful, witty and strongminded. "She was a star when a movie star was truly a star," Busk said. The two ate breakfast together in the Surf Room, at the same table, three or four times a week for years.

And Mackaill was famous for doing things her way. Busk recalls Mackaill was headed for California on one of the Matson ocean liners when she had an argument with her mother onboard. As the ship sailed off Waikiki, "she dove from the ship and swam here," Busk said.

She appeared in a couple of episodes of "Hawaii Five-0." Once Mackaill "borrowed" Busk's husband as an escort for a premiere. As they left, she joked to Busk: "If we're not back by Tuesday, we're not coming back."

Mackaill died in 1990 of liver failure. She lived her final days in her hotel room surrounded by beachboys, friends and staff. And Busk said she left more than a million dollars to them.

"She was some lady," Busk said. "I still miss her."

Nishizaki, the bus boy who became boss, said the staff of the hotel truly makes the difference with the oldtimers teaching newcomers. "They're really the backbone of that property," he said.

While the hotel is closed, Busk plans to host employee get-togethers at her house. For her, the staff and guests combine to create a job full of good memories.

"I don't think there are too many jobs out there that can give you that kind of reward," Busk said.

• • •


The present Royal Hawaiian Hotel opened in 1927 on Waikiki beach although another hotel of the same name once operated in Downtown Honolulu, where the Hawai'i State Art Museum now stands.

Opened: Feb. 1, 1927, by Matson Navigation Co.

Expanded: Royal Tower wing added in 1969

Original construction cost: $4 million

Architecture: Spanish-Moorish design by Warren and Wetmore of New York

Hotel rooms: 528

Grounds: 10 acres

Employees: More than 400

Room rates: $445 to $775 a night

Owners: Matson Navigation 1927-1959; ITT Sheraton 1959-1974; Kyo-ya Co. 1974-present with Starwood holding a long-term agreement to manage the property.

  • Famous visitors: Shirley Temple, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, The Beatles, Kevin Costner, Harrison Ford; movie star Marilyn Monroe and baseball legend Joe DiMaggio spent the night there in 1954 on the way to a monthlong honeymoon in Japan.

  • Birthplace of the Shirley Temple cocktail when the film star visited in the 1930s

  • Exclusively leased to the Navy for rest and recreation during World War II

  • Closed for two years of renovations after that: 1945-47

  • Former silent screen star Dorothy Mackaill lived at the Royal Hawaiian for 38 years, until she died there in 1990.

  • John McCain, senator and presidential candidate, met his second wife, then Cindy Hensley, at a military reception in Hawai'i in 1979, then persuaded her to have drinks at the Royal's Mai Tai Bar.

    Longtime Advertiser columnist Bob Krauss died in 2006 but his columns still provide some fascinating stories of Hawai'i of decades past.

    In this column first published Sept. 26, 2004, he provided an explanation for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel's pink pedigree:

    Portugal gets credit for pink

    By Bob Krauss

    The controversy continues as to why Tripler Army Medical Center is painted pink. Did the U.S. Army have a surplus of pink paint? Is it because pink doesn't show red dirt? Did the architect try to imitate the Royal Hawaiian Hotel?

    Whatever reason Tripler came out pink, we have firm documentation for the Pink Palace in Waikiki. It's a fascinating tale that produces an answer so improbable that you're not going to believe it. The Royal Hawaiian Hotel is painted pink because of the Portuguese.

    Our story begins more than a century ago when Kinau Judd, daughter of the legendary medical missionary, married Sam Wilder, who was just starting his barnacle-studded career as a shipping tycoon. He founded the Wilder Steamship Co. and built his wife a mansion in Nu'uanu Valley.

    Meanwhile, a royal canoe shed on Waikiki Beach became known as Kinau Hale after kuhina nui Kina'u, the regent for whom Kinau Judd Wilder was named.

    The Wilders had a son, Kimo, who turned out to be what they called in those days a Bohemian. He married an equally unconventional lady named Sarah whose ancestor founded the Pony Express. Are you still with me? OK, Kimo and Sarah preferred to beachcomb at Waikiki in Kinau Hale rather than reside in respectable Nu'uanu.

    Let us now switch to the enterprising captain of a coal barge in San Francisco, William Matson, who started the Matson Line to Hawai'i. The Matsons and the Wilders became close friends. Little Lurline Matson, the only child of the sea captain, played at Kinau Hale.

    However, she grew up in San Francisco. There she fell in love with Billy Roth. Her parents frowned on the match because he was Jewish.

    But Kimo and Sarah liked Billy. They helped smooth things over with Lurline's parents and the marriage took place to the satisfaction of all concerned. Billy Roth, who helped his father-in-law run Matson Lines, became godfather to the daughter of Sarah and Kimo, the late Kinau Wilder, our informant.

    In 1920, Kimo and Sarah took the grand tour of Europe where he painted and she potted. They fell in love with Lisbon, Portugal, especially houses painted pink with blue shutters.

    When they returned to Waikiki, Kinau Hale was dark green. In short order it was transformed to salmon pink with blue-green shutters. By this time Billy Roth had taken over Matson Lines and was building the Royal Hawaiian Hotel as a destination resort for his liners.

    He came to Kinau Hale and said to Kimo and Sarah, "I love what you've done to your house. Can I paint my hotel the same color?" So, you see, the Portuguese are responsible for a lot more than the 'ukulele in Hawai'i.

  • Reach Robbie Dingeman at rdingeman@honoluluadvertiser.com.