RECORD COLLECTOR NEWS
SERVING RECORD COLLECTORS WORLDWIDE AND BEYOND



The Sound and the Fury

October 23, 2019

Elvis, Hawaiian Style

ElvisMerchAtRockIsland

In search of The King in Oahu, Hawaii

ALOHA! THOUGH A SOUTHERN boy through and through, Elvis Presley also has a lot of connections with Hawaii. His first concerts in Honolulu were on November 9, 1957, and he returned to give further shows in 1961, 1972, and 1973. One of the 1973 dates was his Aloha From Hawaii show, broadcast live to a few countries at the time, though most fans had to wait to see it (the US airdate was April 4, 1973). The films Blue Hawaii (1961), Girls! Girls! Girls! (1962), and Paradise, Hawaiian Style (1965) were also partially filmed in Hawaii. So I went in search of Elvis on my last Hawaiian trip…

One site every Elvis fan must see is the commemorative statue outside the Blaisdell Arena, where the Aloha From Hawaii gig was held. It’s a main stop on the Elvis tours offered by one enterprising fan, Kathleen King’s “I’m Riding with the King” Oahu Elvis Tours.

Kathleen King with Mike Gelfo, owner of The Rock Island Cafe, stocks an array of Elvis memorabilia at his '50s-style diner.

Kathleen King with Mike Gelfo, owner of The Rock Island Cafe, stocks an array of Elvis memorabilia at his ’50s-style diner.

Kathleen lived in Waikiki’s Illikai Hotel while growing up, and briefly met Elvis when he stayed there while filming Paradise, Hawaiian Style. Acting on a tip, she was in the hotel’s parking garage early one morning when Elvis was leaving. Colonel Parker gave her an Elvis photo, and then she was facing Elvis himself. “And I just was speechless!” she recalls. So much so that when he asked her name, her voice broke, to Elvis’s great amusement.

Many years later, Kathleen’s gallery Kuloko Arts of Hawaii would feature Elvis-related art, which caught the attention of a writer with the Elvis Information Network website. The next thing Kathleen knew, she was offering visitors suggestions about Elvis-related sites on the island, and in 2019 decided to make if official, registering with the state as a tour guide.

Kathleen’s tours can take you to Elvis film sites, concert sites, vacation homes, and his hotel hangouts. Not to mention the kind of insights you get from someone who’s lived in Hawaii most of her life. “I do try and give the tours some sort of a local understanding,” she says. (go to Kathleen King’s O’ahu Elvis Tours “I’m Riding With The King” on Facebook, or call 808-941-4249).

The Elvis Presley commemorative statue outside the Blaisdell Arena. Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

The Elvis Presley commemorative statue outside the Blaisdell Arena. Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

If you like being surrounded by Elvis memorabilia while you dine, check out Waikiki’s Rock Island Café, whose website boasts “Step back to a time when Elvis was King, Marilyn was Queen and they both drank Coca Cola.” The Rock Island looks like a 1950s diner, the walls adorned with movie posters, action figures, and neon signs, television sets playing clips from vintage TV shows and movies, and a menu of burgers, pizza, and milkshakes (there’s also a full bar). After almost two decades in the King’s Village Shopping Center, owner Mike Gelfo moved the Rock Island to its current home at 1911 Kalakaua Ave. You’ll know it by the life-sized Elvis out front.

“It’s like going into Planet Hollywood or the Hard Rock Café — but being able to buy the stuff off the walls,” says Mike. Elvis memorabilia is especially popular. “Everybody wants something Elvis in Hawaii,” he says. “So we try to find as much stuff as we can with the Hawaii angle to it. We try to have a little bit of something for everybody.”

The Rock Island has Elvis records, vintage books and magazines, and other memorabilia. Of special interest are the Hawaiian-made posters for his films. Local film distributors only received stills, not posters, for the movies, so local artists hand-painted posters around the stills, making them unique one-of-a-kind items. For those on a budget, there’s a penny stretcher machine; for 50 cents (and one penny), you can have the coin flattened and stamped with a Blue Hawaii image of Elvis playing a ukulele.

“What’s neat about working here is that we get this fun stuff, I can enjoy it and appreciate it for a while, and then we sell it and I get something else cool,” says Mike. As the stock’s continually changing, there’s always something new to see. It’s one reason why, as Mike says, “The Elvis fans keep coming!” (rockisland.com; Rock Island’s also on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram).

My favorite live show in Waikiki is Rock a Hula, produced by the tribute artist company Legends in Concert. The show has changed over the years I’ve been seeing it. “This is a show that’s geared towards the islands,” explains Johnny Fortuno, who plays Elvis in the show. “If you see any Legends show, it’s pretty much standard; there’s five tribute acts. This started out as a Legends show, but it’s evolved into predominantly a Hawaiian show with Legends as a little bit of it.”

Johnny Fortuno appears as Elvis in Rock a Hula;. Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

Johnny Fortuno appears as Elvis in Rock a Hula;. Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

That’s the reason one of the meal options for the show is a luau buffet. And delicious as that is, I jumped at the chance to do the “Green Room Ultimate Experience” package, which features a backstage reception and tour, prime seating, and fancy food (lobster and steak). It’s well worth it if you want to indulge in splurgy night.

The current show offers an overview of 20th century Hawaiiana; there’s hula, surfing, and fire knife dancers (always a highlight). The tribute artists also have a Hawaiian connection. Michael Jackson’s (currently performed by Brandon Jones) last US concerts were in Hawaii. And Elvis’s numerous connections means that Fortuno gets to enter in an aloha shirt singing “Blue Hawaii,” later changing to a bejeweled jumpsuit for an “Aloha From Hawaii” segment.

Johnny, who was born in Hawaii, got his start singing with Don Ho. The “Tiny Bubbles” singer recognized that Johnny sounded like the King, “and I always got stuck with Elvis songs in his show,” he jokes. By the time he was 18, he was working for Legends; he’s also released recordings as himself. Being a local boy, he especially likes the Hawaiian element of Elvis’s work. “I connect with the Hawaiian stuff because I’m from here,” he says with some pride. “It’s like, ‘Hey, check my island out everybody!’” He’s a large element of the show’s success, and a big reason why I always enjoy seeing this production. (rockahulahawaii.com).

Rock Island Cafe's website boasts “Step back to a time when Elvis was King, Marilyn was Queen and they both drank Coca Cola.” Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

Rock Island Cafe’s website boasts “Step back to a time when Elvis was King, Marilyn was Queen and they both drank Coca Cola.” Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

And if you want to see a musician who actually worked with Elvis, head for Honolulu’s 53 By the Sea restaurant on Thursdays, La Vie at the Ritz Carlton (Waikiki) on Fridays, or the Veranda at the Kahala hotel (Kahala) on Sundays. That’s where you’ll find Ginny Tiu playing piano.

Ginny, and two of her siblings, appeared with Elvis in Girls! Girls! Girls!, singing “Earth Boy” with him, and twisting their hearts out in the film’s closing production number. By then, Ginny was a seasoned professional, having played piano since age three and a half (“I was just fascinated by the sounds I heard coming out of this piece of furniture!”). At age five, she came to Chicago from the Philippines (she’s of Chinese heritage) to appear on Don McNeill’s Breakfast Club, which brought her to national attention, and led to appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Her siblings joined her, in groups with names like the Ginny Tiu Revue, and Ginny Tiu and the Happy Little Tius.

“Even as an eight year old, Elvis made a lasting impression on me,” says Ginny. “He was so sweet and kind, soft spoken, and polite.” She recalls him being very patient if a retake was needed, and she was thrilled to get a gift of perfume from him. Everyone was so pleased with her work, she was asked to be in It Happened at the World’s Fair. But scheduling conflicts prevented that; she had concert dates booked, including one for President Kennedy at McCormick Place in Chicago. Her sister, Vicky, ended up being cast in the part. “I remember being so so disappointed.” Still, playing for the president isn’t a bad gig either (after her performance, Kennedy told her, “Oh, I wish Caroline was here, she would love it”).

Musician Ginny Tiu performs at various hotels throughout Oahu, and appeared in the Elvis film Girls! Girls! Girls! Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

Musician Ginny Tiu performs at various hotels throughout Oahu, and appeared in the Elvis film Girls! Girls! Girls! Photo by Gillian G. Gaar

Ginny is the only Tiu still performing: “I started it, and obviously I’m going to end it,” she jokes. At Vicky’s suggestion, she moved to Hawaii in 1987, securing a one-year contract with the Hilton Hawaiian Village hotel, and she’s been here ever since. She and Vicky spoke to Elvis fans at a 40th anniversary Aloha From Hawaii event in Hawaii 2013, and last year she went to Graceland to appear at Elvis Week, getting a kick out seeing Elvis’s famous home. She’s always happy to speak with Elvis fan that come and see her play. And you’re guaranteed an evening of melodic entertainment. Aloha!






One Comment


  1. What a great article! I will definitely visit Rock Island Cafe and take the Elvis tour.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *