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74 C hap t e r 5 A Landscape Set to Music The wonderfully sweet voices and weird melodies of these ukalele players strike a plaintive heart-note never to be forgotten once heard. —Hartford Courant, February 4, 1913 Theatrical impresario Oliver Morosco was hunting deer in the Tehachapi Mountains north of Los Angeles when word reached him that his latest production, The Bird of Paradise, had flopped on opening night. Morosco raced back to town to discover that playwright Richard Walton Tully had not made any of the many cuts he had ordered during rehearsals. The result was a play that dragged on for more than four hours. Furious, Morosco took matters into his own hands. Working from his own version of the script, he personally rehearsed the cast the following afternoon in preparation for that evening’s performance. “The patient rallied finely from the blue-penciled anaesthetic,” Julian Johnson, the Los Angeles Times drama critic, reported approvingly on September 13, 1911. “The novelty and beauty of the story; the newness of its locale, and the really fine touches of ‘atmosphere’ both human and material were much more apparent last evening.”1 After a successful four-week run in Los Angeles and a stop in Rochester, New York, the Bird opened on Broadway four months later to tepid reviews. The first night’s box office barely topped $300. Convinced of the play’s merit—he called it “one of the most exquisite plays ever written”—Morosco papered the house to give it a boost. Despite his efforts, the play’s New York run was fairly short, but real success for the Hawaiian-themed play with authentic Island music and dancing was to come on the road. By 1924, when efforts to produce the first movie version were underway, profits from the Bird were estimated to be more than $1 million, “as the play was one of the most successful in recent years and has been produced in nearly every city of the United States,” the New York Times reported. “Almost every season A Landscape Set to Music 75 three or four companies have had it on the road. It also met with great success in a London production and has been produced in Austr[ali]a and in India.”2 A perennial favorite in Los Angeles, the Bird returned at least six times between 1913 and 1921.3 “Plays may come and plays may go, but ‘The Bird of Paradise’ . . . seems destined to go on forever,” one Washington, D.C., critic wrote.4 Although Morosco was proudest of the erupting volcano effect at the play’s climax, the Bird’s Hawaiian quintet was the “touch of atmosphere” that was to have the longest and most lasting impact on its audiences. “Throughout the play Mr. Tully . . . has interwoven with great delicacy and appropriateness the weird and fascinating melodies of the Hawaiians,” wrote one early reviewer. “These songs, to the accompaniment of strangely floating airs from stringed instruments (already familiar to vaudeville lovers, but new to patrons of legitimate drama), were more effective in the establishment of the langorous, alluring, hypnotic atmosphere which the author describes, than all the costumes, native faces, odd properties, and elaborate scenery combined.”5 Although Hawaiian acts had become increasingly common in vaudeville, for many on the mainland Tully’s play was their first exposure to modern Hawaiian music and the first time they had seen or heard the ‘ukulele. “This is the play that made the ukulele famous,” a Morosco press agent boasted in 1918, two years after Hawaiian music and dancing was always featured prominently in the advertising for The Bird of Paradise, beginning with the original Los Angeles production in 1911. Chapter 5 76 the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce presented Tully with a letter of thanks and a “specially made and decorated” ‘ukulele.6 Among those the Bird introduced to Hawaiian music were two figures who would later play a major role in defining Hawaii to American audiences: Nebraska-born songwriter and bandleader Harry Owens, who saw Bird of Paradise at the Missoula, Montana, Opera House in 1913, and writer-poet Don Blanding of Oklahoma, the “Father of Lei Day,” who was inspired to travel to Honolulu after seeing the play in Kansas City in 1916.7 The music that the original quintet—B. Waiwaiole, S. M. Kaiawe, A. Kiwala, William B. Aeko (who played with the Volcano Singers in Chicago in 1893), and Walter Kolomoku—played on ‘ukulele, guitar, steel guitar, and...


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