Note From the Margins




Video Sunday: Jerry Rio and the Hawaii Kai


Hawaii Kai Restaurant, New York City

Jerry Rio visits the Hawaii Kai, or what’s left of it. Interviews people who remember the Hawaii Kai in all its glory.

The Hawaii Kai was before my time, but it turns out I know it well – Hawaii Kai was the setting of the infamous Joe Pesci ‘You think I’m funny?’ scene from ‘Goodfellas’. Now that’s culture!

Enjoy these memories of the Hawaii Kai. Somehow, I just don’t see anything existing like this in the New York of today.

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  • Stacy Fine

    Hi Jerry Rio,
    My dear friend and partner in nightclub fun Alison Mayer and I rented Hawaii Kai to make parties (for about 4 weeks,1x/week) in the Winter of early 1989. Chris Smith covered the night called “True Lava at Hawaii Kai” in New York Magazine’s “Fast Track” section. Hawaii Kai was right next to the Winter Garden Theater. I stumbled upon it one early evening and thought “Wow, it’s fantastic.” The big draw for us besides the wild interior and hula dancing was that Hawaii Kai had a stage we could use to present live music. It was so authentically kitsch with the Tiki bar, a troupe of “Polynesian” dancers who gave lessons in the round b4 their big show in a hut and the drinks were like you reported served in totem pole glasses with plastic swords spearing maraschino cherries or olives. Elder New Yorkers told me that Hawaii Kai was where you had your Sweet 16 back in the day (late 50’s.) The place was so neat and fit us. We were using Carmelita’s Reception House on Mondays for our Lite Lounge and thought we could do Wednesday night events at Hawaii Kai at the same time.

    My experience working within Hawaii Kai will shed some light on the now dark but not forgotten gem of a place. First, the whole Polynesian thing, the troupe of dancers were actually American Indians who were closely connected to the American Indian House on Lafayette Street. A man named Rudy who I know is no longer alive but legendary in the NYC AI community was like family to Hawaii Kai’s stage show and he was really nice to Alison and I. He invited us to Lafayette St. I went. That was cool crossing cultures. Rudy was an AI activist and exceptionally handsome with his two long braids. There was an elder named Ken (?) who led the dancers who was also ‘important’ to the AI community and he was the person who allowed us to use the space with them.
    During this time Hawaii Kai kept employed its original doorman Pee Wee who was a famous fixture of The ‘Original’ Hawaii Kai. He was small–like very short maybe 4 foot 6 inches? He had a remarkable but piercing voice and he would talk to you when you walked in like it or not. When John Lydon (formerly of The Sex Pistols aka Johnny Rotten) walked through Hawaii Kai’s doors he passed by Pee Wee and muttered, “Take his batteries out.” Pee Wee and our friend Carlo McCormick (Paper Magazine) manned the door at the same time and were quite a match. I recall Joey Ramone, John Holmstrom (Punk Magazine) and Mr. Lydon all present on the same night. Might have been our first party at Hawaii Kai. Alison and I made invites for “True Lava” inspired by AREA’s style of original invites. Fortune cookies made w/ a message “You will find TRUE LAVA at Hawaii Kai.” We wrapped the paper messages around small lava like rocks using wire so similar to hippie crystal jewelry. We got all our stuff from Chinatown and making our invites was an adventure in itself. We did everything by hand x-cept the cookies. Our mailer was a standard Chinese Wedding invitation, red and gold. By hand I mean we used a pen.
    The Wednesday night format was inviting people to the Luau, then Steve Blush (American Hardcore, Seconds Magazine) would play music on turntables: Judy Garland, Surf music, The “Lolita” Soundtrack and other stuff like Ton Loc. Then a band would play. Our first booking was “The Soul Assassins” featuring Steve Hager (High Times’ Ed-in -Chief and Cannabis Cup founder) Bob Brandel, Brian Spaeth and Dave Rodway on drums. I had seen them once b4 at The Big Kahuna on lower Broadway and they were really up. Not only were The Soul Assasins a cool garage band unto themselves but they had with them The Assassinettes- Abby Lavine (RIP), Kimona 117 and Lucy who were so beautiful and were also the hottest girls in the East Village (that I knew of) besides The Cycle Sluts who could really put on a show and were talented in voice and stagewomanship–they sounded good. Hawaii Kai was far from their home turf which was also 14th St.@places like Ivy & Anne’s “The Mind’s Eye” and Jon Weiss events. There was real hub of the Psychedelic and Garage Revival and WFMU’s Wildgirl and Bill Kelly were the star D.J.s. Norton Records was and remains the “it” label. Today Jon Weiss produces live music w/ “Cavestomp” and Sirius serves up “Little Steven’s Underground Garage” featuring Bill Kelly… Far as photos of Hawaii Kai goes I’m certain Patrick Mc Mullan snapped his camera there.
    Alison and I ended our “True Lava” nights because winter was rough and midtown was far from our Downtown/home, but we tried. Our greatest fan at the time of Hawaii Kai’s Wednesdays worked at Rhino Records–Antone De Santis.I recall he said something to the tune of, “Don’t give up” and offered to DJ for the fun of it. Now Antone and his wife Holly hold court a few blocks south of the Winter Garden with coffee, homemade baked goods and I’ve been meaning to get there (I live in Hudson Valley.) Bis-co-latte is the hot spot for 2013. At least I know they appreciate what was and what will be.

    • COS

      Hi Stacy,

      Thanks for the comment, some great history, didn’t actually know the Hawaii Kai had a punk/ hardcore element, although this was from just slightly before I got to New York (here by way of Montreal then London). I’ll pass this on to Jerry Rio and will visit Bis-co-latte next time I’m in Hell’s Kitchen . .

      I’m renovating this site, so am probably missing a lot of images. To be restored sometime soon.


    • COS

      Hi, I commented on a later comment, but I’ll repeat here – thanks for your comment, glad the post jogged some memories – but I’m not Jerry Rio. You can reach Jerry at:


  • Antone DeSantis

    Jerry thanks for the trip down memory lane. Before Stacy promoted the Wednesday nights in the late ’80s I went to the Kai for some zombies with some friends who were in punk bands. It was an amazing experience going into this Hawaiian paradise. When Stacy started the night the lounge and exotica revival scene was just gearing up. She found a spot that was a true old school midtown ’50s lounge that needed some new life. Downtown came uptown. It was way cool to mix Martin Denny, Les Baxter, Esquivel with punk and hip-hop. It was a moment in time. If you find yourself in Hells Kitchen come visit our biscotti cafe/bakery Bis.Co.Latte at 667 10th Avenue for some find coffee, biscotti and more.

    • COS

      My apologies – I’ve been neglecting the site of late and forgot I hadn’t actually approved these. Also, I should mention – I’m not Jerry Rio. You can reach Jerry at:



  • Kimona

    Wow, Stacy, thanks so much for refreshing my memory. While I have never forgotten playing inside Hawaii Kai’s little gazebo in the middle of the dining room (with our 7-piece band…the Soul Assassins PLUS the Assassinettes!!!), I had forgotten about your invites & other details. Thanks for the memories. And thanks for the love. Xo Kimona

    • COS

      Sorry, I’ve taken so long to get to these – I was migrating and renovating the site (which I’m still doing) and kind of forgot about it for awhile.

  • Gidget

    I have a picture at the Hawaii Kai , my mom took me there so many times.
    I still remember the drinks in the coconuts and the Hawaiian dancers. They use to pick people from the audience to dance with them . Most of all I remember the midget doorman. He remains a wonderful childhood memory. My mom had four kids, she only took me. I must have visited that place at least 25 times.
    I celebrated my first bra there.

    • COS

      Hi Gidget,

      Thanks for your message. Sorry for the long reply – I haven’t been keeping up with this at all. Hard to imagine the Hawaii Kai in Times Square now, I’m sorry I never got to see it. A piece of real Americana, lost in time.