The Clarkes brought aloha to the desert
Hanging out on the beach offering surfboard rides and canoe trips to tourists to support their modest surfing lifestyle, the beachboys of Waikiki were a phenomenon starting in the 1930s. They developed their own vernacular. The single slang is still incredibly popular today, “brah”.
A musical group, The Waikiki BeachBoys, was formed based on the vibe. They recorded an album in 1963 of their Rat Pack style nightclub show with their playful jokes. The album “Duke Kahanamoku Presents Beachboy Party with Waltah Clarke” was part of the rejuvenation of the Waikiki bar scene and its export of tiki to the mainland. The album cover showed Duke, the king of surfing, with Clarke, the man who brought Hawaiian shirts and muumuus to the mainland.
Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Walter Clarke graduated in liberal arts from the University of Southern California and sought his way in the world. Her obituary in the Los Angeles Times recounted that after graduating, Clarke “threw a coin – Paris or Hawaii – and Hawaii happened.” Clarke moved to the Islands in 1938 and met Vic Bergeron and learned about catering by running “Trader Vic’s” in Honolulu. He then met Donn Beach and was General Manager and Advertising Director for his “Don the Beachcomber” restaurants.
But more importantly, he met beachboys hanging out and surfing, speaking in what seemed to be their own laid back language, Hawaiian Pidgin. The beachboys called Clarke “Waltah”. The sound of it embraced the very concept of aloha, so Walter changed his name to match their pronunciation.
“Clarke was a jack of all trades… until he tried his hand at writing a Hawaiian gossip column that was syndicated to West Coast newspapers in Chicago. The Pidgin English that he learned while hosting luaus for Donn Beach, or acting as a host for the Visitors Bureau, was a hit with mainland publishers, ”the Honolulu Advertiser noted many years later.
The LA Times obituary continued, “Clarke’s base of operations was the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, a magnet for Hollywood socialites and celebrities whose activities he recounted. His business card read “Royal Hawaiian Beach, 3rd umbrella from the left”… Strongly boosting for the islands, which were ten years away from becoming a state, Clarke ended each column with a weather report: “Gosh! he wrote in one: “The weather has been beautiful lately … typically winter, with bright blue skies, scorching sun and clouds of spun sugar. Simply perfect for traveling around the islands. ‘”
In 1952, he opened his first Hawaiian imports store in Palm Springs, selling everything “from muumuus to monkey bowls” at the El Mirador hotel. On a shopping trip to Hawaii in 1953, he met a recent Northwestern University graduate who had studied textile design, in the lobby of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, where she and her parents were staying. They married the following year. His colorful and now iconic designs for shirts and dresses were an instant hit and perfectly suited to the desert resort style. Waltah and Gretchen continued to expand their chain on the mainland.
When Disneyland opened in 1955, it included a Hawaiian boutique Waltah Clarke. The custom label sewn into all of their clothing mirrored their other newly opened stores in tony locations like Beverly Hills, Balboa Island and Laguna Beach.
In November 1955, The Desert Sun announced the departure of the El Mirador Hotel: “the official opening of the most complete Hawaiian store in Southern California… at 136 South Palm Canyon Drive”.
The article continues: “The interior shelves and cases will boast nearly $ 50,000 in clothing of all brands and descriptions of the South Sea Island … Waltah Clarke to distribute necklaces, frangipani flowers and purchases fun specials, as he is wont to call them, for those visiting his new establishment. Imbue the entire establishment will be that feeling of Aloha and her sales assistants may or may not be dressed in the very latest Hawaiian fashion, even to the point of walking barefoot.
The general atmosphere was relaxed and laid back, her “daughters” at the store were treated to a trip to Hawaii to learn firsthand their way of life on the island. But above all, the authenticity of the place was exemplified by “Hawaiian style dresses that match the style and the way of life here in the desert are found in all colors, styles and fabrics in the most complete way”.
And after a decade of expansion on the mainland, the Clarkes opened their first store in Hawaii at the Ala Moana Mall and expanded to major hotels on the outer islands. The Ala Moana store was great news. The Honolulu announcer interviewed Waltah: “Bringing me here to open a store like this was like hauling coal to Newcastle, or you could say hauling coconuts to Kalapana.”
Its newspaper advertisements were in pidgin with a written caveat that the obvious errors in the use of English were not the newspaper’s fault.
Gretchen Clarke was quoted in the LA Times obituary. In the 1960s, she said, “we took the muumuu up a notch and made it into fashion – cocktail dresses and resort wear – not just a loose dress.” The company’s ad at the time read, “We’ve come a long way from muumuu, baby.” And, she said, “When the miniskirts came along, we made them shorter above the knee. We called it “the mini muu”. All the young girls bought it. We were innovative and followed the trends, but always with the Hawaiian flair.
In 1975, the Governor of Hawaii, John Burns, awarded the Clarkes a Special Citation of Merit for their “substantial contribution to the economic development of Hawaii”. In 1980, there were 31 Waltah Clarke Hawaiian stores, including those in Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Palm Beach, and Chicago, as well as 17 stores in Hawaii.
After an incredible career, Waltah and Gretchen returned to the wilderness, the site of the very first store. The country’s largest aloha clothing retailer, Waltah Clarke’s Hawaiian Shops, closed in the mid-1980s. The couple would live in the wilderness for the rest of their lives.
Waltah takes its Hawaiian-style name from the pidgin-speaking surfers of Waikiki Beach and a career in dressing vacationers in their way of life. These surf boys, Duke Kahanamoku and Waltah Clarke embodied Hawaii. “Beachboy Party with Waltah Clarke”, is on Spotify for all the curious. Play poolside while sipping a rum drink adorned with a small umbrella.
Tracy Conrad is president of the Palm Springs Historical Society. The Thanks for the Memories column appears on Sundays in The Desert Sun. Write to him at [email protected]