In 1959 Hawaii became our 50th state, making travel to that delightful island group easier and less expensive. During the next few years there was a bit of a nationwide Hawaiian craze which included a brief interest in island music, or at least a mainland version of same. And then there was the Big Kahuna.
“Kahuna” in Hawaiian means “wise man,” but somehow that got mangled in translation to the point where radio stations, beginning with KHJ(AM), Los Angeles, turned it into a goofy contest that soon spread across our nation with cheap knock-offs trickling down to markets like, say, Toledo, Ohio, home of WOHO(AM).
Even though I arrived at WOHO in 1972, there were still plenty of people on staff who remembered this promotion from 1966. Apparently the station sent a male employee out on the streets of Toledo dressed in a grass skirt, colorful Hawaiian shirt, sandals and for mysterious reasons, a fake bone in his nose. From the pictures I saw, this costume made the guy look more like the Wild Man from Borneo that appeared at county fair sideshows rather than a native Hawaiian.
Usually the 7 p.m.–midnight jock had to “volunteer” to play the part because these appearances were made during the day. Our cheap general manager never offered additional compensation for being The Big Kahuna because it was an “honor,” and because, he insisted, the “lucky” jock should do it in the spirit of cooperation and team spirit. Yeah, right.
WOHO announced on the air that “The Big Kahuna” was coming. Just those words with some Hawaiian steel guitar music in the background. That went on for weeks, and then the station sprang for some billboards to build anticipation.
The week before the promotion swung into high gear, the on-air announcements expanded to include the contest rules. If a listener saw The Big Kahuna anywhere in Toledo, he or she needed only approach this individual and ask, “Are you WO-HO’s Big Kahuna?” And if the listener had approached the right person and not some other individual wearing a grass skirt, The Big Kahuna would bestow upon the listener a “valuable” prize such as a coupon for a free Arby’s Roast Beef sandwich (worth up to $1.50 at the time), two tickets to a local movie theater or perhaps a coupon good for one free cupcake at a local bakery. All the prizes were traded out, meaning the station paid nothing for them. It’s hard to imagine getting excited about a prize worth less than $5, but these were the days before big lottery payouts and before inflation had decimated the buying power of a dollar bill.
Often The Big Kahuna would call the WOHO DJ live on the air from a two-way radio in the station vehicle, a 1965 blue Ford Thunderbird (also traded out) emblazoned with the station logo. The conversation on the air would sound like this:
DJ Buddy Carr: Hello, Big Kahuna! Where are you calling from today?
The Big Kahuna: Hey, Buddy, I’m at the Westgate Shopping Center on Central Ave. right now, and there are some lovely young women here. You want to say “Hi,” girls? (Sounds of teenage girls screaming in the background). You should see these chicks, Buddy. They’re real cute! Yeah, we’re giving away a boatload of prizes out here, so you should tell everyone to come out and join us for the fun. Remember, all you have to do is find me, which isn’t hard because I’m the one in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses, and ask me if I’m WO-HO’s Big Kahuna! If it’s me, you get a prize!
DJ Buddy Carr: OK, B.K. We’ll look forward to talking to you next hour. Aloha!
And so it went for a few weeks, or until the station ran out of free coupons. I’m told that an appearance by the Big Kahuna could garner a mention in the local newspaper, a feat that would be unheard of now.
Usually this promotion went well, but on at least one occasion it didn’t. A WOHO DJ named Chuck Charming (not his real air name but close) was playing The Big Kahuna and decided to take the station cruiser over to a bar one night, while still wearing his native get-up. A policeman saw him in the dark parking lot and approached The Big Kahuna. Chuck was fairly inebriated at the time and was unable to explain his weird clothing or why he had an open bottle of alcohol in his car, not that there could really be a plausible explanation for such circumstances. The Big Kahuna’s next personal appearance was at the Toledo police station downtown where he was forced to call WOHO’s general manager to come down and pick him up. I’m sure free Arby coupons were generously distributed to the local gendarmes that night.
Ken Deutsch is a writer who lives in sunny Sarasota, Fla., and has a book of these tales available, Up and Down the Dial.