Hanging Out in Waikiki

Waikiki Beach in 1928

Waikiki Beach in 1928

Why did Ursula go to Hawaii? Unlike with her travels in Europe, I don’t have her own words to tell us her reasons, what her experiences were like or what she thought of the U.S. territory. There are only a few concrete details of her time in Hawaii; the rest must be left to our imaginations, based on her own life history and the events, music and culture of the day.

Ursula at college

Though her mother was always nearby, Ursula had gotten her first taste of independence as a student at University of California, Berkeley and then as a protégé of opera luminary Emma Calvé, studying in Europe. After a brief romance, Ursula married an American in Italy but split with her husband shortly thereafter, returning to California with her mother and living with her in Los Angeles after that.

Ad for ladies hats 1928

An ad for cloche hats, all the rage during the time Ursula was in Hawaii, from a 1928 issue “The Honolulu Advertiser”

Traveling to Hawaii with her friend Elizabeth and living there for a year gave Ursula a chance to experience even more freedom in an era—the Roaring Twenties—when single women in general were enjoying greater autonomy than ever before. Voting! More work choices! Short skirts (well, knee-length—short for the time) and shorn hair! Nude stockings! Cocktails! Petting parties…even sex! Cars! Jazz!

I’ve wondered whether Ursula’s divorce would have posed a social hindrance then, but according to the 1931 book “Only Yesterday—An Informal History of the 1920’s,” during that decade, divorced men and women in urban communities were socially accepted without question. “Indeed,” the author wrote, “there was often about the divorced person just enough of an air of unconventionality, just enough of a touch of scarlet, to be considered rather dashing and desirable.”

In the past, several California newspaper articles had mentioned how charming and popular Ursula was among the “younger set,” and I have no doubt she continued to be so in Waikiki. I imagine her stylishly dressed and coiffed, with an elegant and sophisticated (having traveled abroad), but open, air about her.

Evening gown ad 1928

Illustration in an ad for evening gowns of the sort Ursula might have worn, from a 1928 issue of the “Honolulu Star-Bulletin”

The European travelogue she wrote for her sorority’s quarterly journal made it clear that she approached new places with curiosity, enjoyed seeing the sights and appreciated natural beauty. Hawaii would not have disappointed her!

Island life offered plenty to do, and Ursula didn’t have to go far. Sunbathing, swimming, riding surfboards, body surfing and canoeing were favorite pastimes at Waikiki beach. Ursula and Elizabeth could have rented surfboards right at their hotel’s bath house, and paid for expert surfing lessons and Outrigger canoe rides from the famed Waikiki “beach boys.” With nicknames like Chick, Rabbit and Steamboat Mokuahi, beach boys also fished, kept the beach clean and safe, wove hats, and entertained tourists with story, music and song. A 1932 Honolulu souvenir map explains:

Beach boys with their ukuleles and steel guitars add distinctively Hawaiian atmosphere to Waikiki—their Sunday night concerts on the Moana pier, featuring the songs of old Hawaii, are famous.

Dancing 1928

A couple dancing in the late 1920s

Ursula would have enjoyed more live music, and dancing, at her hotel. The Moana Hotel Orchestra played there regularly under the direction of composer, arranger, and performer Johnny Noble, dubbed “The Hawaiian Jazz King.” According to a program on the Territorial Airwaves, the band achieved a mellow, tropical sound with saxophones, stringed instruments and drums, but no horns. Johnny Noble was known for developing compositions that mixed traditional Hawaiian music and American ragtime (jazz). The nearby Royal Hawaiian Hotel also put on music shows, including performances by the Royal Hawaiian Girls Glee Club.

Moana Hotel Orchestra 1928

Johnny Noble (seated) and the Moana Hotel Orchestra around 1928

Here’s a song that Johnny and his orchestra—”his Hawaiians”—recorded in 1929:

If you’re interested in exploring the history of Hawaiian music, including listening to recordings of 78rpm records, check out Territorial Airwaves, a great source.

More to come next week!

Photo Feature: S.S. “City of Honolulu”

LASSCO brochure

A 1930 LASSCO brochure

Since I was away for Labor Day weekend and have not had time to write a full post, this week’s edition of Mystery Dancer brings you a photographic treat instead. Over the past week, I corresponded with one of the authors of “Hollywood to Honolulu: The Story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company [LASSCO],” the book I mentioned in a previous post (“Ursula’s Hawaiian Adventure”). This fascinating volume chronicles the history of the company that owned and operated several cruise ships — including those that Ursula sailed on – running between California and Hawaii during the “Roaring Twenties.”

Co-author Gordon Ghareeb has generously shared with me the pages of a 1930 LASSCO promotional brochure that features several photographs of the S.S. City of Honolulu, the luxury ocean liner on which Ursula and her friend Elizabeth spent six days at sea steaming toward the Aloha State (well, U.S. “territory” back then). Sailing first-class, Ursula was one of 301 passengers on board. She may have rubbed elbows (or gone swimming!) with ex-Senator James Wadsworth of New York, movie comedy star Chester Conklin, and other prominent fellow travelers.


Ship in dock

The S.S. City of Honolulu docked at a Honolulu wharf convenient to downtown and the beach

I’m not sure if Ursula and Elizabeth shared a stateroom (or suite), or had their own rooms, but they would have been comfortable (if seasick – they did encounter some rough seas on their ocean voyage). With the City of Honolulu, LASSCO aimed to duplicate the experience “of the most palatial of hotels.” The brochure touts staterooms with comfortable beds, hot and cold running fresh water, electric fans and heaters, and ample space for clothing. (For more ship details, please see the “Hawaii-Bound” post.)

The following photos (thank you, Gordon!) will give you a glimpse of what Ursula’s life was like aboard the elegant ship.

A typical double stateroom

A typical double stateroom

Single room

A room of one’s own

Sitting room

Each deluxe suite on the City of Honolulu featured a sitting room

Suite bedroom

The bedroom of a deck suite

Suite bathroom

Deluxe suites boasted private combined shower-bathtubs


Elevator service ran between the five main decks

Dining room

The “grand dining salon” designed with Greece in mind

Music room

The music room combined French and Italian Renaissance period architecture

Music room foyer

Music room foyer

Swimming pool

Passengers enjoy the ship’s Pompeiian-style swimming pool.

Deck sports

Deck sports were popular on LASSCO ships.

Garden lounge

A corner of the garden lounge

Tea room

A cozy nook in the English verandah café tea room

The writing room

The writing room