Monday, January 25, 2010

The Big Kahuna

The Big Kahuna died on Sunday. For us kids who grew up in LA in the 60s, so did another sweet part of our youth. The Big Kahuna was really Chris Varez, 69, who played a larger-than-life character that was still not as large as he was in real life.

From my book about growing up in the 60s:

1966 was the “Summer of the Big Kahuna” – KHJ’s most creative and ambitious promotion yet. They created this mythical character, “The Big Kahuna” who legend had it had lost his precious stone in Los Angeles and was coming to find it. Along the way he’d be making personal appearances, giving away money, and be the centerpiece for several contests including a new car giveaway and a luau.

With great fanfare the Big Kahuna arrived at LAX. He was this large Hawaiian aborigine adorned in fur and beads and shells and feathers. In truth he was a crazy German whose father built the bunker Hitler died in.

LA kids went along with the conceit. We flocked to the Big Kahuna’s appearances. God knows what he was smoking in the back of the KHJ prize van at high schools but the Big Kahuna became a local sensation. We followed his exploits on the air, saw him when we could, hoped he’d give us free money and maybe a hit off those funny cigarettes, and scrambled to be the 9th caller when we heard the “Kahuna cockatoo”. Winners were entitled to attend the big beach luau, and here’s how different things were then: the invitations that KHJ sent out were actual coconuts. You were allowed to send full size coconuts through the U.S. Mail.

After the promotion ended Chris eloped with a KHJ secretary, split for the Virgin Island and wound up in jail for “Piracy on the High Seas”. He later returned to Hawaii where he became a fisherman until a fellow fisherman accidentally speared his foot. He had several wives (not all at one time) and several children.

Ron Jacobs, the program director of KHJ and mastermind of the whole inspired promotion, knew Mr. Varez well and writes about him on his blog.

It always feel a little weird to be so saddened by the passing of someone you didn’t really know, but for the joy he brought to me and millions of people in Southern California, I raise a glass – no, a hollowed coconut – to the man, the legend, the pirate, the father, the lover, the BIG Kahuna.

16 comments:

Steve said...

Love the picture of Sam Riddle (future producer of "Star Search")on the left & The Real Don Steele on the right of The Big Kahuna. Amazing, that even 30+ years after the creation of the character, hearing a Big Kahuna jingle on K-Earth 101 and Chris actually making a cameo appearance with Robert W. Morgan one morning, still sent chills up my leg in Chris Matthews fashion. Ride ride ride the wild surf Kahuna!

KEN LEVINE said...

That's actually Gary Mack, not Sam Riddle in the picture on the left.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

No Ken, that IS Sam Riddle on the left. This picture was taken on the "Boss City" T.V. show in 1966 on KHJ-TV. Steve wins the prize!

KEN LEVINE said...

Sam is on the left on the picture on the right, yes. But on the picture on the left, Gary Mack is on the left. But I'll give Steve the prize anyway.

Jeffrey Leonard said...

I was talking about the BOTTOM picture. Yes, that is Gary Mack on our left, the Kahuna's right, in the first picture. Ya know, this is starting to sound like an Abbott and Costello routine...

RON JACOBS said...

To set my friend Ken and the record straight: In the graphics posted in his nice tribute to da Kahuna, the lineup is as follows:

1 - Cover of the KHJ Cartoon books issued for big Boss events. I won't get sucked further into the caption debate. These cool items were done by two young and talented artists, who I am too bummed out right now to look up.

2 - L-R: Boss Jock Gary Mack wearing his official 93/KHJ jacket, Duke Kahanamoku (The Father of Surfing, etc.) and the very horny Big Kahuna, Chris Varez.

3 -L - R: Boss Jock Sam Riddle, Kahuna and fellow Boss Jock The Real Don Steele interviewing their hero on KHJ-TV's "Boss City" show.

The year this all took place was 1965. I can't wait for his book to come out, whether he let's me fact check it or not. Copies of my memos to the KHJ air staff are as: http://www.93khj.com/memos.htm

A good piece with details of KHJ's rock origins is still available online at Johnny Mann's website, for advanced students of all of that: http://www.johnnymannsingers.com/the_ron_jacobs_khj_story.html?2a49a2cea8b3db740a4eb51c70872ea6=xescyfhsw

The Milner Coupe said...

Melancholy news for sure. I was just a kid back then but KHJ WAS boss. We moved to Hawaii when I was in junior high and I can tell you we've never seen the likes of the Big Kahuna in the islands. He will be missed.

Aloha

Gary Mack said...

Thanks for clarifying.

In my younger days, I'd have known me anywhere...

Lairbo said...

Grew up listening to and loving KHJ, KRLA & the Wolfman. Most of what I remember about AM rock radio of that era was that everybody talked really, really fast and that the playlists were wildly eclectic. Tina Delgado is alive and well, as far as I'm concerned.

Steve said...

I'll expect my prize when & if you ever make a roadtrip with the Dodgers to National's Park Ken...we can play the KHJ song with all the Boss jock names (including the "Mack, Mack, Mack"!) along with the Johnny Mann jingle session for my old show "The Rock & Roll Revue"...BTW, I'm on the right in every picture LOL

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Ron Jacobs error...Wasn't the "Big Kahuna" promotion in 1966?

Jeff said...

Did the Big Kahuna ever hit on Tina Delgado? Is Tina Delgado dead...alive...or did she exist only as a figment of the Real Don Steele's imagination???

Derryl Murphy said...

You're still allowed to send coconuts through the mail. The odd soul goes to Hawaii and decides it would be a clever thing to send to their long-suffering nephew back home (via, I imagine, his long-suffering postie).

spacemonqui said...

Jeff, i read on some blog that purportedly Tina Delgado was a teenage girl who happend to be the 1st recorded fatality of someone killed by a train while listening to a transistor radio

Anonymous said...

Where is Sam Riddle these days? Still producing? In the music biz?

Susan C said...

What is Sam Riddle doing these days? Is he still producing? In the music biz?