Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Baby and the Hula

Those who dance are considered insane by those who cannot hear the music.
–– George Carlin

I recently came across this 1927 tourist postcard of a young Hawaiian girl dancing the hula.  The penciled note on the back said, “Elizabeth Beamer who danced the Hula at the Volcano House, Hilo, Hawaii, May 2, 1927.”  The message was brief, but in combination with the striking pose of the young girl it was more than sufficient to warrant adding this card to my collection of real photo postcards with hand-written narratives. 



Elizabeth Beamer, Volcano House, Hilo, Hawaii, 1927


I sent a scan of this postcard to my friend Charlie Dahlberg, who grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, and whose family had a long-standing connection to the art of the hula.  I hoped that someone in his family might have heard of this young entertainer. I received a return email almost immediately – the young girl in the photo was his mother!

This extraordinary coincidence took Charlie and me by surprise – we were both amazed that I happened upon a real photo postcard of his mother  and that I chanced to share it with him.

My friend Robert and I first met Charlie during a two-week dory trip through the Grand Canyon in 2004.  After our first campsite supper, we noticed Charlie sitting by himself reading a beat-up copy of Atlantic Monthly.  That set him apart right away – I mean, who reads the Atlantic Monthly while on a trip through the Grand Canyon?  Robert struck up a conversation with Charlie about politics, and as the trip progressed we realized that he was well read, well traveled, and quite knowledgeable on many subjects.  He was also a welcome participant in all the trip activities and both he and Robert could out-hike most of the younger members of our group. We also took note of the fact that Charlie could swim with the agility of a fish and never missed an opportunity to bathe or swim in the river no matter how cold or rough the water.

In the years since the Grand Canyon trip, Charlie has become one of the regulars in our casual group of river runners, joining us at least once a year for canoe or kayak trips and, when prompted, he will tell us stories about growing up in Hawaii.

Charlie’s father, Bill, was a Texan who met and married a young Hawaiian woman just before WWII. (Yes, the young lady in the photo had grown up.) After the war, Bill settled into life with his wife’s large extended Hawaiian family.

One of the pleasures of river trips is sitting around a campfire and talking without the presence of electronic devices or television. As one might imagine, the topics on our “travels with Charlie” varied from deep philosophical questions to crude humor, but somewhere in that mix one subject that came up a few times was the hula. 

No, we weren’t dancing by light of the fire, (well, maybe once, but that’s another story) but Charlie told us that his mother’s family had a long tradition of participation and innovation in the traditional Hawaiian hula. At least as far back as his maternal great grandmother, the family had produced many Kumu (hula masters) and today several family members have their own halau (hula group or school).  In 2011, the family’s Beamer-Solomon Halau o Po’ohala group presented a hula drama at the Peter Norton Symphony Space in New York City.

 The Beamer-Solomon Halau o Po’hala perform “Eia Ka Hula: Behold the Hula” in New York City

Charlie’s mother, Helen Elizabeth Kawohikukapulani Desha Beamer, known as “Baby” to the family, was born and grew up in Hilo, Hawaii, and learned to sing and dance at an early age.  In Our Hawaii, published in 1942, Erna Fergusson describes a visit to the Beamer house to interview Elizabeth’s mother about the history of the hula.  During the conversation Elizabeth returned home from her job at her father’s hardware store, and her mother asked her to dance for Miss Fergusson:

“Have you a minute?” asked Mrs. Beamer after introductions.

“Not a minute, not a second. Dad is waiting.”

But Mrs. Beamer was going on: “I wanted you to dance for Miss Fergusson.”

“Oh, well,” said the daughter, “if it is to dance…”

She freed her feet from high-heeled slippers and flexed their muscles against the lauhala while her mother took a big calabash and sank onto the floor in a swift movement.  The daughter’s arms went out as she breathed a questioning phrase.  The mother answered with the same phrase as an affirmative, struck the calabash with her hand, and began to sing.

The hula was E Liliu e! (Oh, the Queen!) I had often seen it; Mrs. Beamer managed to give me it’s meaning.

“The Queen,” the chanter says, “is beautiful,” while the dancer’s hands outline the crown, and upturned eyes express reverence.  The dancer carries the rhythm of the voice and the calabash by the swinging of her hips, the turning of her torso, the dainty stepping of her feet.  But the effect is one of casualness.  As the song continues, the hands evoke the Queen’s specific charms.  Flashing eyes, the flush of her cheeks, with an upward gesture as a flush runs from throat to brow. “Shoulders graceful as a wave.” The hands sway outward from the shoulders as waves roll. Then they seem to caress a flowerlike skin, outlining the breasts, and the slim waist above the hips always rotating in an exquisitely feminine expression. “Her knees, beautiful as the mouth of a moi fish.” The knees show how graceful squatting and throwing out the knees can be.  The dance ends with the Queen’s tiny feet that walk like rippling water.

They ended together, laughing in a harmony far deeper than the synchronization of the mother’s instrument and voice with the girl’s dancing.  I begged for another one.

After being invited for lunch on Saturday, Miss Fergusson agreed to stay a few more days in Hilo, and she describes the greeting she received on Saturday after arriving at the Beamer house above the Wailuku River:

As I entered, a maile wreath was laid on my shoulders and “Baby Beamer,” the pretty blonde dancer, greeted me with a kiss that should accompany a lei in Hawaii.  Everybody was whispering there was to be an announcement;  “Baby” was to marry an Army aviator.

As Charlie tells the story, his mother first saw the only man she would ever love from her place behind the cash register at her father’s hardware store.  Bill had flown into Hilo to pick up flowers for an Officer’s Club function at Hickam Field and was looking sharp in his Army Air Corps uniform. After a few months of courtship Baby and Bill were married and this young haole from San Antonio, Texas was welcomed into his bride’s Hawaiian family.

Baby and Bill, Hilo, Hawaii 1940

As you may have realized, this part of the story took place in Hawaii only a short time before the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  Bill was stationed at Hickam Field during the surprise attack by Japanese bombers. He and Baby were renting an apartment high up on the outside face of what is now the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the “Punchbowl Crater.” 

When they heard the roar of the airplane engines that Sunday morning, they hurried outside and could just make out the “rising sun” emblem on the aircraft fuselages.  Bill told Baby to go to her brother’s house and he rushed to Hickam Field. He was unable to get airborne but was on the tarmac firing his sidearm as the later waves of Japanese planes went over. He and Baby did not see each other again for two weeks during which time she and other officers' wives stayed at her brother’s house. 

Baby stayed in Hawaii during the war, and Bill returned there in 1945, after serving in the South Pacific, Europe, and a final assignment in Russia.  The couple raised four children in Hawaii and worked together in their own business enterprises in Hilo, first with an ice cream business named Blue Bonnet, in homage to Bill’s home state of Texas, and later in the export business. 

After Charlie’s email reply telling me the young girl in the 1927 photo was his mother, I mailed the original postcard to Charlie and, in exchange he allowed me access to his family’s history and the amazing love story of Baby, Bill, and the hula.

Charlie’s parents are both gone now, but after putting this short narrative together around the beautiful postcard image of Baby, I feel as if I know them a little bit and I can sense the strength and beauty of their family bonds. 

I also gained some understanding of the song and rhythm of life that is the hula.

Aloha oe.



Note: 12/25/13, Here a little Christmas present for us – a different postcard image of Baby, obviously taken the  same day as the first one. It was scanned for us by collector Paul McAlpine.  Note that the message on the back is nearly identical to the first card.  Our best guess is that a tourist brought or sent both of these cards home in 1927, and Paul and I each ended up purchasing one of them at recent postcard shows.  kgw




 Dec, 2014 – Looks like Baby Beamer shows up each Christmas! We bought the card below online and mailed it to Charlie. Shhhh, don't tell him; He might not have opened it yet. Check out the volcano backdrop!



Link to the NYC visit of the Beamer-Solomon Halau o Po’ohala:

For another connection to Charlie and his Hawaiian family, see the blog entry of June, 2012, titled, "No Angel: A Seaside Mystery"


5 comments:

  1. Another wonderful Breadcrumbs story. Extraordinary, Ken. What a lovely world where such connections happen.

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  2. Please inform Charlie that I am in possession of a little more than a minute's worth of some pretty wonderful 16mm film, circa December 7, 1929. It depicts his mother, "Tiny", dancing the hula under the guidance of Aunty Harriet Magoon. Also trying to keep up with them is keiki Nona Beamer. The b/w 16mm film was taken by a tourist up at the Volcano House while in Hilo on a lay-over aboard Matson's SS Malolo while it was on her maiden "Round the Pacific" cruise.

    I am producing a documentary about this specific cruise and the footage will be one of the highlights of the film.

    Rick Helin
    aka KailuaKid

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks so much! Sorry for the delay in getting back to you. Is there a way Charlie could see the clip? If not, we will try to follow your progress, and look forward to seeing the film! You mentioned his mother "Tiny" is that an error or is it a name attached to the clip? All I know is "Baby" but I'm sure Charlie will reply to this. Thanks again!! Ken

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    2. Rick,
      Please keep me posted. I, as well as the entire Ohana, will be interested in your film. Perhaps I could offer some insight: I never heard my mother referred to as "Tiny", and Harriett was her step-sister.
      Aloha,
      Charlie

      Delete
  3. Thanks for the comment Rick. Send me your email address in a comment and I will contact you by email, and not publish that comment.
    Ken

    ReplyDelete

Your comments are welcome.