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.