Nelson, Clara Meleka (1901–1979)

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Nelson, Clara Meleka (1901–1979)

Hawaiian teacher, singer, musician, and dancer who was best known for her comic Hawaiian hula. Name variations: danced under the name Hilo Hattie. Born Clara Meleka Haili in Honolulu, Hawaii, on October 28, 1901; died in Kaaawa, Oahu, on December 12, 1979; one of five children of George and Rebecca Haili; attended Kaahumanu Elementary School; graduated from the Territorial Normal School; married John Baxter, in 1920 (divorced); married Milton Douglas, in 1926 (divorced); married Theodore Inter, in 1930 (divorced); married Carlyle Nelson (a violinist), in 1949.

An elementary school teacher for many years before she ventured into show business, Hawaiian-born Clara Nelson, or Hilo Hattie as she came to be called, became particularly well known for her unique comic hula, which she usually performed to the tune "Hilo Hattie (Does the Hilo Hop)" as part of a nightclub act. Nelson's repertoire also included a group of English and Hawaiian songs which became classics of her day, among them "The Cockeyed Mayor of Kaunakakai," "Princess Pupule," "Manuela Boy," and "Holoholo Ka'a."

At age 38, Nelson's stage career began when she joined the Royal Hawaiian Girls' Glee Club, a group of homemakers, secretaries, and teachers who performed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel during summer vacations. By 1936, she had perfected her comic hula, which she had previously performed to entertain her young students. In 1940, after school administrators objected to her afterhours activities, she quit teaching and pursued the act full-time. That year, she also made her first film, Song of the Islands, with Betty Grable , in which she danced to "Hawaiian War Chant." Later films including Miss Tatlock's Millions (1948), Ma and Pa Kettle at Waikiki (1955), and Blue Hawaii (1960), with Elvis Presley.

Nelson toured the mainland until the out-break of World War II, when she moved to San Francisco. There she performed at the St. Francis Hotel, becoming a favorite with soldiers. Following the war, Nelson briefly returned to Hawaii, then moved to Los Angeles, so she could be close to performing venues in Hollywood and Las Vegas. In 1960, she returned to Hawaii, where she was a headliner at the Village Hotel's Tapa Room for many years. She performed there and in other popular island hotels well into the 1970s, despite advancing age, heart problems, and a bout with cancer. Her popularity was such that on her 74th birthday, she was honored with "A Hilo Hattie Love Affair," a gala held at the Hawaiian Village Hotel and attended by 1,500 friends and admirers. As was typical of her, she insisted that the evening be a benefit for the Easter Seal Society, one of many charities she supported.

One of Nelson's last performances was with Hawaiian singer Don Ho in Las Vegas in 1977. In June of that year, following a show in Palo Alto, California, she suffered a massive stroke which left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Her fourth husband, Carlyle Nelson, nursed her at home until her death on December 12, 1979.


Peterson, Barbara Bennett, ed. Notable Women of Hawaii: Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 1984.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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Nelson, Clara Meleka (1901–1979)

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