By Kent Coules, Publisher
Before there was Hilo Hattie the store, there was Hilo Hattie the entertainer. Born on O‘ahu in 1901,
Clarissa Haili started her career as a teacher before originating the comedy hula routine, which she’d perform for her elementary school students, long before her eventual rise to fame.
Her big break came in 1936 on a cruise to Portland, Oregon. The dancer performing with the shipboard entertainment fell ill, leaving the band without anyone to do “When Hilo Hattie Does the Hula Hop.” Haili, who claimed to have never had a hula lesson in her life, stepped up and ran with it as a comedy piece, turning it into a monster success.
Clara legally changed her name to Hilo Hattie, when she performed her second signature song, “The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai” in the movie “Song of the Islands.” From then on, Hilo Hattie was a famous entertainer, traveling the world and starring in movies and television. She appeared with Elvis Presley in “Blue Hawaii” and had a recurring role on the original “Hawaii Five-O” as Mrs. Pruitt.
In 1963, the store that would become her namesake got its start in Kaua‘i as Kaluna Hawaii Sportswear, a little grass shack on a stretch of road between Līhu‘e and Kapa‘a. Today, Hilo Hattie can still be found on Kaua‘i, with convenient locations also on O‘ahu, Maui and the Big Island, each carrying the trademark selection of souvenirs and aloha wear that has become synonymous with the Hilo Hattie name.
“We have the best selection of aloha wear and Hawaiian made products in the world,” says store manager Michelle Chen. “And to this day we spread aloha with leis for every customer.” What Hilo Hattie is perhaps best known for is their Family Matching wear. Outfits are available for keiki as young as six months up to 5XL for adults. “We have people send us their family vacation photos with a thank you note”, says Chen. “Our most popular family matching collection for over 50 years has been the Classic Hibiscus Pareo P1272. It’s one of those prints that always remind people of family, fun and sharing aloha.” Hop on down to Hilo Hattie and see for yourself why they’ve delighted visitors for over 65 years!
[A version of this article can be found in print in the pages of This Week magazines]