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|THE KING AND I
June 30, 2016 - By JOHN BURNETT Hawaii Tribune Herald / Elvis Express Radio
|This month (July 15th) marks the 50th anniversary of the release of the Elvis Presley movie “Paradise, Hawaiian Style.”
That’s a milestone for the legion of devoted Elvis fans worldwide, but for one Hilo resident, it’s more personal. She was a child actress with a prominent role in the film.
Donna Butterworth was 9 when the movie was filmed in August and September 1965 and 10 when it was released nationally June 15, 1966.
The Pennsylvania-born Butterworth was 3 when her father, who was in construction, moved the family to Hawaii to take part in the post-statehood building boom. She also was a
show-biz veteran who had sung with Don Ho, released a single, “Sailor Boy,” on a national record label, appeared on “The Hollywood Palace” and “The Andy Williams Show,” and
garnered a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Newcomer for her role in the 1965 Jerry Lewis comedy “The Family Jewels.”
That, however, didn’t save her from being starstruck during her first encounter with King of Rock ’n’ Roll, who played Rick Richards, a helicopter pilot trying to start a tour business
after a crash caused the FAA to suspend his license.
“Our first scene was up on Makapuu,” Butterworth recalled. “That’s where the helicopter crash was. And I’d just met him. I’m not even 10. So the director (Michael D. Moore) says
‘action’ and I’m supposed to run into his arms and say, ‘Uncle Rick! Uncle Rick!’ When I jumped up into his arms, and I saw his face, I just (inhales sharply). I got it on the second
take, but to see him up close and personal like that, I just froze. He was just so dynamic. Everybody had to calm down because they were laughing at me because I was so
enamored. They just cracked up.”
The film was typical Elvis fare, or as Butterworth put it, “about paradise and women.” Add a macho profession, such as helicopter pilot, some songs, a brawl or two and a happy
ending — and the formula is complete.
A memorable scene featured a tram descent by Presley through some breathtaking Kauai scenery — with Marianna Hill, best known as Fredo Corleone’s wife, Deanna, in “The
Godfather: Part II” — into the tapa-and-rattan Piki Niki bar, where they performed the duet “Scratch My Back.”
“That was really the Hanalei Plantation when the train came down to the bar and they did that number,” said Butterworth, who joked that the resort — reduced to ruins by a tropical
storm in the 1970s — catered to the “newlywed and nearly dead” before turning serious.
“It was so remote, but it was so beautiful,” she said. “We took a small plane over there, and when we got there, only two stop signs on the island of Kauai back then, all the way to
Hanalei. I have that in my heart forever.”
In addition to Makapuu and Hanalei, other filming locations include the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oahu, the Kona Coast, Maui Sheraton Hotel and Torrance airport in Southern
California. Most of the interiors were shot on soundstages at Paramount Studios in Hollywood.
Butterworth’s character, Jan Kohana, was the daughter of Elvis’ (as Richards) buddy, fellow chopper pilot and business partner, Danny Kohana, played by the late, great Hawaii-
born actor James Shigeta.
“For years afterwards, (Shigeta) used to send my mother a Christmas card every year. He was such a gentleman,” Butterworth said.
Butterworth got to sing, as well, and harmonized on duets with Elvis. Those included “Queenie Wahine’s Papaya” and “Datin’.” With a bit of Hollywood magic, it appeared in the
latter that Presley was flying with Butterworth as his passenger.
“Because of insurance reasons, they wouldn’t actually let us fly,” she said. “They’d put boards underneath us in the studio and get them rocking.”
On singing with the King, Butterworth said, “There’s been no other better experience because we just grooved. We knew we had to move it and groove it, and it just hit. Our music’s
in the Library of Congress.”
The King was known for romancing his female co-stars, and the cast of “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” included Suzanna Leigh, the late Julie Parrish and the aforementioned Hill,
who reportedly rebuffed Elvis’ advances because she found it odd the so-called “Memphis Mafia” — Presley’s pals and bodyguards, which included brothers Red and Sonny West,
Jerry Schilling and Joe Esposito — was always around.
“He didn’t go anywhere without them,” Butterworth said.
“We were all down at Chinaman’s Hat, near Kaneohe. And his Memphis Mafia, all his braddahs, they all take care of him. He always had to have one case Pepsi. If you took one out,
you’d better put one back in. If you open the (cooler), you’ve got to have 12. So after this scene, they dumped them out. And Elvis looked inside, no more nothing. He started
looking around, and they were just laughing.”
While the King’s cronies were sometimes court jesters, they were also his wing men, keeping Elvis’ dalliances from his future wife, Priscilla, then 20, who, according to Butterworth,
treated her "Her little sister.”
“I got a little upset because he has Priscilla, but he was always around all these women on the set,” Butterworth recalled.
“So he has Joe Esposito come and pick me up in the golf cart and take me to his dressing room. Back then at Paramount, dressing rooms were like apartments. Now, they’re
trailers. But Elvis has me driven to his apartment, and I like tacos, so I have a bag of Del Tacos, and he has a bag of cheeseburgers. And we’re sitting there, and he’s like (imitates
Elvis), ‘What’s goin’ on, li’l sister?’ I said, ‘How come you’re supposed to be with Priscilla, but you hang around with all these girls?’ … He says, ‘Well, ya know, li’l sister, the Lord
wants you to love all your brothers and sisters, but you can only be in love with one person. And that would be Priscilla. And that was it. We wen’ grind our tacos and cheeseburgers
and went back to work. Dat braddah was da bomb.”
Butterworth made several more TV appearances and has pursued music as an adult, releasing a CD in 2006, but “Paradise, Hawaiian Style” was her last movie.
“I remember the day we wrapped shooting,” she said. “There was Joe Esposito in the white Rolls-Royce, with Red West and Sonny and Jerry. Shooting was pau; the movie was
done. My mother and I were waiting to take a first-class flight home back to Hawaii. I’ll never forget. He came out of that apartment building and kissed my mother like she was his
mother. My mother will never forget that. And he kissed me like the daughter he didn’t have yet. And he got into that white Rolls-Royce and said goodbye. And that was it.”