Friday, December 26, 2014

Boudoir Serenaders

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Secret Service did not have a vehicle with adequate protection, so President Roosevelt made use of a heavily armored Cadillac that was originally owned by gangster Al Capone – Roosevelt rode in it to give his “Infamy” speech to Congress the day after the attack.  (CBS)

Alphonse Gabriel Capone (“Al Capone,” “Scarface”) was born of an immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York on January 17, 1899.  He quit school after the sixth grade and later became a member of a notorious street gang. Johnny Torrio was the street gang leader, among the other members was Lucky Luciano.

About 1920, Capone joined Torrio in Chicago where he had become an influential lieutenant in the Colosimo mob. The rackets spawned by enactment of the Prohibition Amendment, illegal brewing, distilling and distribution of beer and liquor, were viewed as “growth industries.”

The mob also developed interests in legitimate businesses in the cleaning and dyeing field, and cultivated influence with receptive public officials, labor unions and employees’ associations.

Torrio soon succeeded to full leadership of the gang; in 1925, Capone became boss when Torrio, seriously wounded in an assassination attempt, surrendered control and retired to Brooklyn.

The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre on February 14, 1929, might be regarded as the culminating violence of the Chicago gang era, as seven members or associates of the “Bugs” Moran mob were machine-gunned against a garage wall by rivals posing as police. The massacre was generally ascribed to the Capone mob, although Al himself was in Florida.

On October 18, 1931, Capone was convicted of tax evasion and prohibition charges and served his sentence in the US Penitentiary in Atlanta and at Alcatraz.

After serving his term, suffering effects from syphilis, he had deteriorated greatly and became mentally incapable (in 1946, doctors concluded Capone then had the mentality of a 12-year-old child.)  He died of a stroke and pneumonia on January 25, 1947.  (FBI)

The Capone automobile link post-Pearl Harbor attack noted above is not the only connection of the gangster to the Islands.

Al Capone’s brother, Ralph, liked Hawaiian music.  His reputed favorite Hawaiian musician was Johnny Kaʻaihue (Johnny Ukulele.)  Johnny left the Big Island in 1916 when Duke Kahanamoku hired him as a member of the band that accompanied the Duke’s surfing demonstrations in Atlantic City and other spots on the mainland.

When Johnny was in town, Ralph would let Johnny stay in a suite in one of the hotels run by the mob.

Besides being an entertainer, Johnny was also an expert swimmer, and when he wasn't playing music, he was appearing and competing against the likes of Johnny Weissmuller and Buster Crabbe.

But that’s not the extent of the connection of the Capones to Hawaiʻi.

It turns out Al Capone liked Hawaiian music, too.

Ralph Kolsiana was born on Oahu in 1912. When he was six, the family moved to Philadelphia, where there was a sizable Polynesian community, as there was in Atlantic City, Cleveland and Chicago.

His father played woodwinds with John Philip Sousa; he introduced his son to the Royal Hawaiian School of Music in Philadelphia, where Ralph and his brother John were taught by Jimmy Kahanalopua and Henry Kamanuwai.

At some point in the late-twenties the two brothers entered a talent show, the Major Bowes Amateur Show, and won the first prize of $1,000.

In the early thirties the two of them and Kamanuwai were invited to play at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, as part of a large group called Aldridge’s Steel Pier Hawaiians.

Ralph Kolsiana was one of the early greats of the steel guitar but is largely unknown because he played clubs instead of radio dates and only recorded a handful of records – he also performed as the Ralph Kolsiana Islanders.

I’ll let Kolsiana tell the rest of the story …

“It was in the early 30s that we were hired by the infamous gangster Al Capone in Miami.”

“(H)e had us come and play on one of his small islands that were connected by small arch-type bridges in a group near the Miami Area.”

“You may find this as amusing as we did at the time, but he and his cohort were really hung up on Hawaiian music. We were to serenade his guests who stayed overnight in the master bedroom of his mansion.”

“This room had alcove-like sections which were closed in by beautiful blue velvet curtains. We would serenade them while they made love after the big party downstairs was over.”

“We did the same at his posh hotel suites in New York City. He called us his ‘Boudoir Serenaders.’”  (Kolsiana; Ruymers; Brookes)  The image is Al Capone.

© 2014 Hoʻokuleana LLC

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