Did the Duke ever meet the King?

This article is adapted from a piece originally published in Pacific Longboarder 2009, vol.13 issue 2

A recent trip to Hawaii taking in the Duke Fest reinforced in my mind that the Aloha sport and the spirit of Duke Poa Kahanamoku himself is very much alive and that Waikiki, the spiritual home of surfing, can still offer and inspirational experience.

Run by the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation, the Duke Fest is primarily a fundraiser for junior scholars and sportspeople and features a multitude of beach sports including the Rabbit Kekai Pro Longboard, the Gidget Women’s Tandem, Paddleboard, SUP, a mile ocean swim and beach volleyball.

A little-known fact is that the Duke himself introduced volleyball to Santa Monica Beach, sparking a craze that eventually morphed into a major mainstream pro sport in the US and around the world. Remarkably, after his international swimming career, at 42 Duke also made the US water polo team or the 1932 Olympic Games.

With so many fine watermen and women in their prime and many others just past it, the competitive spirit at the Duke Fest was alive and well. But above all, the emphasis across all events is on participation and fun – the Duke was known for being a fierce competitor but also for recognizing there were times when it was best for somebody else to win. 

The 2009 Ho’omana opening ceremony was conducted on the lawns, adjoining the lagoon behind the Hilton Hawaiian Village Hotel, virtually on the very site where the Kahanamoku boys were raised some 100 years ago. This amazing hotel on 25 acres with seven towers has plenty of history itself, albeit mid 20th century. I looked up at the top floor of the Rainbow Tower during the ceremony and imagined Elvis, who stayed there when doing his three Hawaiian based films and the legendary Aloha Concert (beamed live around the world), leaning out over his balcony and looking up  the beach at the breathtaking view of Diamond  Head. Elvis, by the way, has a statue constructed in his honour in Waikiki for his generous contributions to the Pearl Harbour Memorial.

Right next door to the Hilton at Fort De Russey, some 30 years before the Aloha Concert, a young Dutchman with big dreams serving at the military base decided he’d take the name of his commanding officer for his new life in America. Under his new name, Colonel Tom Parker immigrated to the mainland, where he lived as an illegal immigrant for the remainder of his life. He would meet a young truck driver from Memphis and music would change forever.

Apart from army service in Germany, because of Tom Parker’s immigration status the only place the King ever visited or performed a concert outside mainland US was Hawaii. He was considered an honorary Hawaiian and the state had the largest per capita fan club membership in the world. Elvis was known to sneak into the Hilton showroom late when the lights had gone down and take a private seat to watch the Don Ho show. This would sometimes be followed by a trip with Memphis Mafia buddies and some pretty little things down to Duke Kahanamoku’s Club at the International Marketplace on Kalakaua Ave… I wonder…  did the King ever cross paths with the Duke? Given the huge of public attention that followed both men wherever they went, surely, if they did meet, somebody would have managed to capture it on camera. I have spent a fair amount of time searching, and to my knowledge no such photograph has ever come to light…

July 10, 2020 — Ashenafi Holmes