The Spark that Started the First Ukulele Craze in 1915

From the Winter 2014 issue of Ukulele | BY JIM TRANQUADA

If you stand at the corner of Baker Street and Marina Boulevard in San Francisco’s affluent Marina District, the modern urban streetscape gives no clue that you’re at ground zero of the Great Ukulele Craze of 1915. This is where the Hawaiian Pavilion stood during the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), where over the course of ten months, a coast-to-coast cultural phenomenon was launched that firmly lodged the then–exotic ukulele into the American mainstream.

The original plan for the exposition had nothing to do with ukuleles or Hawaiian music. Ostensibly it was to commemorate the completion of the Panama Canal, an engineering feat that cut through the Central American isthmus to create a seafaring passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. But an ulterior motive was to demonstrate how San Francisco had rebounded after the widespread destruction of the 1906 earthquake and fire. Organized by a group of San Francisco merchants and civic leaders, the exposition was embraced as a means of advertising the city’s remarkable recovery, which as one modest booster put it, “swept away the vestiges of a calamity greater than befell Rome under Nero, or London under Charles.”

San Francisco persevered despite financial setbacks, a toe-to-toe political battle with New Orleans’ competing bid, and even the outbreak of World War I to open the exposition on schedule on February 20, 1915. Built on reclaimed marshland, the fair stretched for more than two miles along the city’s northern waterfront—enough room for 32 states and US territories, and 28 foreign nations to be represented among the enormous exhibit palaces, all dominated by the Tower of Jewels, a 435-foot-high structure decorated with more than 100,000 cut glass “gems” that shimmered in the sunlight.

Music was central to the visitor’s experience of the PPIE. The exposition’s board of directors, which included Philip T. Clay of Sherman, Clay & Co. (one of San Francisco’s biggest music houses), built four outdoor bandstands and budgeted more than $620,000 for musical talent (the equivalent of $14.6 million dollars in today’s currency) so that fairgoers could enjoy “music that would appeal to all classes—not trash for that purpose, but good, popular compositions, and especially things that were new,” Frank Morton Todd wrote in The Story of the Exposition.

The runaway hit of the fair, however, came not from the appearances of John Philip Sousa’s famous marching band or the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns in the Festival Hall, but from a lei-bedecked quintet playing on a small platform in the middle of a decidedly European-looking Hawaiian Pavilion.


PPIE Hawaiian Pavilion

Ukuleles had been a feature at international fairs since the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, when the Volcano Singers entertained visitors at Chicago’s Midway Plaisance. Twenty years later, the territorial legislature of Hawaii signaled its intent to have the islands’ most ambitious presence ever by allocating $100,000 for a Hawaiian building at the San Francisco fair. The goal, according to the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce, was “to exceed in beauty, interest, and educational value anything hitherto attempted by Hawaii.”

Hawaiian-born architect C.W. Dickey of nearby Oakland, California, was hired to design a French Renaissance-style pavilion in a prime location—next to the Palace of Fine Arts and lagoon, straight down Administration Avenue from the fair’s Baker Street entrance. Dickey’s design showcased two attractions: live Hawaiian music in the main hall and a semi-circular aquarium full of colorful tropical fish. (A high-tech touch was added with motion pictures of Hawaiian scenes that screened twice daily in an adjacent 50-seat lecture room.

Having pinned such high hopes on the pavilion’s ability to promote Hawaii, island visitors to the fair initially found the building underwhelming—or worse. “I felt rather disgusted at the lack of attractions and the absence of anything adequately advertising the territory,” Honolulu businessman J.W. Waldron groused to reporters back home. Lorrin Andrews, an attorney who came to the islands in 1899, was even more outspoken on his return from San Francisco, stating that the building was “rotten, rank, and a disgrace to islands, and nothing more than a collection of dead fish.” The Honolulu Star-Bulletin rendered its verdict in April, less than two months after the pavilion opened: “Singing boys and painted fish… are not enough.”


But mainland visitors to the Hawaiian Pavilion—as many as 34,000 in a single day, according to one estimate—couldn’t have disagreed more. “While the visiting islanders… may fail to find much of interest in the pavilion, it is the reverse with the visitor who has only heard of the ‘Paradise of the Pacific’ in a magazine or a steamship folder,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported. “The Hawaii building has been thronged daily with appreciative crowds until now, it is one of the most popular at the exposition.”

Voting with their feet, visitors walked out of the often chilly San Francisco weather through green-framed glass doors into a tropical atmosphere where, instead of the usual static exhibits of agricultural products or manufactured goods, they encountered “the soft tinkle of the ukulele and the sweet tones of the native voices crooning melodies of welcome in true Hawaiian fashion,” the Honolulu Star Bulletin reported.

On a small elevated bandstand in the center of the main hall—surrounded by tree ferns and other tropical plants, dioramas of Diamond Head and Nu’uanu Pali, and Gordon Osborne’s statuary of three surfers—the Kailimai Hawaiian Quintet played songs like “Aloha Oe” and the hit tune “On the Beach at Waikiki,” composed by the 37-year-old Henry Kailimai.


Visitors could not only hear ukuleles but could buy one of five styles made by Jonah Kumalae of Honolulu, whose booth next to the lecture room sold a wide range of Hawaiian curios and sheet music as well as ukuleles, taropatch ukes, and guitars. A colorful entrepreneur and local politician, Kumalae had providentially expanded his Liliha Street ukulele factory the previous year and become one of the largest ukulele manufacturers in Hawaii. He brought his own quintet, headed by George “Keoki” Awai, to perform at his booth and help sell his wares. “Because business is quite fair, I had to send home two wireless messages, one for one hundred ukuleles and one for other goods to be shipped right away,” he wrote home in April. He also was awarded an exposition gold medal for his ukuleles, a fact he wasted no time in advertising.


PPIE Pineapple Packers: The Hawaiian orchestra at the Pineapple Packers venue featured visiting artists, including soprano Nani Alapai of the Royal Hawaiian Band.

Fairgoers had many opportunities to hear island music outside the Hawaiian Pavilion as well. They were entertained by musicians in the Hawaiian Pineapple Packers Association’s popular 500-seat venue under the Horticulture Palace’s enormous glass dome, where pineapple and Hawaiian coffee were served at a moderate charge.

Hawaiian music also was featured at the openings of the New York State and Press buildings, in the California Building during Southern California Day, in the Manufactures and Varied Industries buildings on Varied Industries Day, at a private dinner for former President William Howard Taft (who had hosted a Hawaiian band at the White House in 1910), and in the Day of All Nations Parade. After darkness fell on Hawaii Day, June 11, musicians on five barges towed by outriggers on the Palace of Fine Arts lagoon played “the languorous, throbbing harmonies of that strange and gentle people,” as Todd put it, in front of a crowd so large that it shut down Administration Avenue, one of the exposition’s main thoroughfares.

The demand for Hawaiian musicians was just as great outside the fair gates. “We took in over a hundred dollars last week just from singing at entertainments, and last night we sang in a Methodist church for all the collection taken during the evening (a snug little sum, too),” Kumalae boasted. He wasn’t the only businessman who benefited. “Dealers in San Francisco are already increasing their orders in the Hawaiian Islands for these little instruments,” A.P. Taylor wrote in a 1915 Commerce Department report. “One of the largest San Francisco firms placed an order a while back for 200 instruments; he has now increased this order to 500.”

Among the many people captivated by the Hawaiian music was Henry Ford, whose Ford Motor Company had one of the most popular exhibits at the exposition: a replica assembly line in the Palace of Transportation that turned out 20 cars a day. After an October visit to the Hawaiian Pavilion, the multimillionaire was so impressed he made an offer on the spot for the services of Kailimai and his band. “Listening to your boys sing and play the sweet Hawaiian music has made me desirous of enabling our people in Detroit to enjoy the same pleasure,” he wrote in a formal offer. Kailimai, his quintet, and their families ended up moving to Detroit after the fair ended to perform for Ford employees and company events throughout the Midwest. Renamed the Ford Hawaiians, Kailimai and company went on to record for Edison and performed on Ford’s Dearborn radio station, WWI.

By the fall of 1915, a national ukulele craze had been engendered by 18.8 million fair visitors being exposed to the Hawaiian performers. Newspaper headlines proclaimed: “The Ukulele Is Becoming Popular” (Tucson Daily Citizen),  “Ukuleles To Be Fashionable” (Anaconda Standard , Montana);  and “Hawaiian Music Is Hit of Exposition” (Duluth News-Tribune). Nationally syndicated advice columnist Marion Harland was even asked how to spell ukulele correctly. (Accustomed to handing out cooking and lifestyle advice, the 85-year-old Virginia native admitted she had no idea.)


PPIE SF Chronicle ad: The Pineapple Packers Association regularly advertised Hawaiian music as a major feature of its venue in the Horticulture Palace.

Mainland manufacturers were also quick to capitalize on the growing popularity of the instrument, much to the distress of Hawaiians. Mainland-made ukuleles had already appeared in the 1914 Sears catalog, and Lyon & Healy and the other big Chicago firms had begun mass-producing lower-cost models made of birch or mahogany on a scale that Kumalae, Manuel Nunes, Ernest Kaai, James Anahu and other Honolulu-based makers could not match.Although the ukulele craze may seem to have appeared out of nowhere, it arose from a foundation that had been laid by years of Hawaiian vaudeville touring groups, such as the Toots Paka Hawaiian Troupe, as well as by the growing sales of Hawaiian records and cylinders on the mainland. In fact, Hawaiian music was nothing new in San Francisco, where island musicians had been living and working since at least 1898.Eager to cash in on the fad for the Christmas season, music stores advertised ukuleles—“the new musical instrument, a craze of the Frisco Exposition”—from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Columbus, Georgia, and from Kansas City to Washington, DC. In December 1915, just three weeks after the fair ended, Kailimai’s song “On the Beach at Waikiki” had been hastily shoehorned into two major Broadway productions: Irving Berlin’s Stop! Look! Listen! and Very Good Eddie, for which Jerome Kern added a new verse to the hit Hawaiian tune.

To counter the competition from the mainland and to protect the real thing from spurious imitations—the Hawaiians insisted their instruments were far superior to anything from the States—that summer the Hawaii Promotion Committee announced plans to create a special “Made in Hawaii” label to be placed on ukuleles actually made in the islands. The result was the so-called tabu brand, featuring the Hawaiian crown set atop a hoaka (crescent), two crossed kapu sticks (a traditional Hawaiian symbol of tabu), and the words “Tabu—Made in Hawaii,” which began appearing on Hawaiian-made instruments the following spring.

Riding the wave of enthusiasm fomented by the PPIE, the promotion committee announced its slogan for a new publicity campaign, “Buy a Ukulele,” shortly after the fair closed its doors in December. Even critics of the pavilion had been convinced—selling the islands had worked thanks to the little four-stringed instrument. “The ukulele has done much to advertise Hawaii and the same may be said of Hawaiian music,” said committee secretary A.P. Taylor. “When you have them humming the songs and playing the instruments, you get something that makes them think of the Paradise of the Pacific.”


It’s still true a century later.

Jim Tranquada is the co-author of The Ukulele: A History [University of Hawaii Press]

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014 issue of Ukulele magazine.

Ukulele Magazine - Fall 2014

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