beachboys


Lionized and mythologized band of easygoing Hawaiian surfer/waterman/hustlers who worked and lounged on the beach at Waikiki in the early and middle 20th century. The beachboy was both a cause and byproduct of the booming Hawaiian tourist trade; he earned a living primarily by lifeguarding and giving surf lessons and canoe rides, and spent his free time surfing, swimming, fishing, and playing music.

Beachboys first appeared on Waikiki not long after the 1901 completion of the Moana, the area's first hotel. Surfing and outrigger canoeing—nearly wiped out in the 19th century, as Calvinist missionaries frowned on such native recreations—were recast by tourist boosters as romantic symbols of tropical Hawaiian paradise.

By 1911, two surfing/canoeing clubs, the Outrigger and Hui Nalu, had beachfront quarters in Waikiki. The clubs brought a level of organization to the collection of locals who were already freelancing surf lessons and canoe rides to tourists, and when Hui Nalu captain Dude Miller made an arrangement in 1916 with the Moana Hotel to provide their concession on Waikiki, most of the beachboys came from his club. Miller's clean-cut uniform-wearing beachboys, known as the Moana Bathhouse Gang, officially weren't allowed to drink, gamble, or touch female visitors while working.

Turning a pastime into a tip-making operation, a group of guitar- and ukulele-playing beachboys meanwhile performed nightly on the Moana pier. They found other ways to entertain as well. "In their leisure moments," Good Housekeeping magazine reported in 1926, "the beachboys array themselves in outlandish costumes and parade along the beach indulging in all sorts of pranks and buffoonery, their own childlike enjoyment in these pastimes quite as great as the amusement they afford to others."

Others weren't so charmed. The beachboys, according to one newspaper-quoted Honolulu businessman, were "a bunch of lazy male prostitutes who made their living off mainland divorcees." (The 1961 Elvis Presley musical film Blue Hawaii riffs on this theme, as Presley's character Chad Gates plays a tour guide who spends most of his time lounging on the beach courting female tourists; one of the movie's hit songs, "Beach Boy Blues," is performed by Gates after being jailed for getting drunk and fighting). The California surfers who began coming to Waikiki in the '20s were perhaps more enamored of the beachboys than anybody, and after returning home went to great lengths to reproduce their laughing, easy-does-it style.

With the opening of the grand pink-stucco Royal Hawaiian Hotel in 1927, Waikiki became one of America's premier vacation destinations, especially for the rich and famous, and beachboys were soon tending to the likes of Carole Lombard, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, Cary Grant, and Bing Crosby. The number of beachboys shot up to keep pace with the growing number of tourists, and in 1934 the Outrigger Canoe Club formed the Waikiki Beach Patrol to bring individual beachboy entrepreneurs into a single concession. The unsalaried Beach Patrol was a success, with beachboys taking care of wealthy tourists, who, in turn, presented them with envelopes of cash upon their departure for the mainland. Panama Dave Baptiste, Chick Daniels, Scooter Boy Kaopuiki, and Steamboat Mokuahi were among the period's best-known beachboys. While Olympic gold medal swimmer and surfing patriarch Duke Kahanamoku was never a wage-earning beachboy, he was, in many respects, as 1968 world surfing champion Fred Hemmings put it, the "ultimate beachboy."

As World War II disabled the Hawaiian tourist industry, the beachboys took other jobs or joined the war effort. Afterward, "wildcatter" beachboys who often hustled the less-wealthy visitors north of the Royal Hawaiian—renting defective surfboards, for example, then charging to bring the sinking boards back to shore—quickly set themselves apart from the more genteel old-guard beachboys. By 1959, as Hawaii became America's 50th state, beachboys were being licensed; but overdevelopment, along with jet travel that brought more tourists but shortened the average length of visits, soon marginalized the entire group.

Beachboys of one kind or another have continued to work in Waikiki, but when Duke Kahanamoku died in 1968, the beachboy lifestyle in a sense died with him. Rabbit Kekai, 93 in 2013, has sometimes been called the last beachboy. "The aloha spirit that was once authentic has become commercialized," Grady Timmons wrote in his richly detailed 1989 book Waikiki Beachboy. "But the ocean remains. For a beachboy, it is the one constant, the one thing he knows he can go back to."