‘Johnny Lingo’ cast, crew hold Laie reunion

Mahana and Johnny Lingo

Kaho’ilua-Wilson (left) and Makee Blaisdell in “Johnny Lingo”

 

Story and photos by Mike Foley (July 2010)

LAIE, Hawaii — Cast and crewmembers of the 1969 Latter-day Saint film Johnny Lingo reunited on July 29, 2010, in the BYU–Hawaii Cannon Activities Center to celebrate the cinematic Polynesian fable’s perennial popularity over the past 40 years and also to hear from two of its main characters, Naomi Kaho’ilua Wilson who acted in the role of Mahana and Joseph Ah Quin, who played her father, Moki.

The BYU–Hawaii based Mormon Pacific Historical Society and the Laie Community Association co-sponsored the reunion as part of the annual Laie Days, which similar to the Days of ’47 in Utah, celebrates Laie’s Latter-day Saint pioneer heritage going back to 1865.

The 24-minute Johnny Lingo, filmed on location here by the Brigham Young University Motion Picture Studio for the Church’s Sunday School auxiliary, tells how a Polynesian trader — played by the late Hawaiian actor, Makee Blaisdell (also known as Blaizdel MaKee) — gets ridiculed after he offers her father, Moki, the excessive bride-price of eight cows for Mahana. Moki and others regard Mahana as ugly and a poor match. They calculate she is worth one cow at most, at a time when other women boast of being a “four-cow” and even one “five-cow wife.” When the couple return from their extended honeymoon, Moki and the villagers are stunned to learn how beautiful Mahana has become, while Lingo explains to Mr. Harris, the local shopkeeper played by the late Francis Urry, that he had loved Mahana since they were children, and it was important for her to know how he cherished her.

The film, which does not mention Mormonism, has proved consistently popular all over the world, as demonstrated by the fact that at least once a year, every year since it was produced, Wilson is asked to speak on her role as Mahana, and fans still recognize the Hawaiian beauty wherever she travels.

After the audience watched the film, Wilson explained she grew up in the Hawaiian homestead community of Keaukaha near Hilo and since 1975 has lived in Spokane, Washington, where she teaches classical piano to advanced students; but when she was a sophomore speech major at Church College of Hawaii (renamed BYU–Hawaii in 1974), studio director Wetzel O. “Judge” Whitaker picked her to play Mahana.

Once filming began, Wilson recalled that Whitaker was worried about a scene where she was hiding up in a tree, but nobody had brought a ladder, so she simply used her Hawaiian childhood skills to climb a vine attached to the tree. “By the time I got to the top, I so became Mahana,” she said, adding it was also hard for her to keep a straight face when she peeked down because the wigs Moki and his elderly advisor — played by the late Joe Te Ngaio, a Maori who worked at the Polynesian Cultural Center — looked so funny.

Wilson also admitted that “the real potential and worth of the film was invisible to me at the time. I was unaware of what the Lord was trying to make of us”; but Mahana’s character soon began playing a positive role in her life. For example, about a year after the film was completed, she was offered a TV commercial acting job advertising a local beer. “When I found out what the ad was for, I thought, Mahana cannot do that. I think the adversary tests us often, and puts us in an environment where our values will be stretched.”

She noted the film has also become an influence for good. For example, an Air Force officer she met on a plane told her the Pentagon showed Johnny Lingo in various countries “that had experienced disasters. It helped the people to rebuild.”

In another instance, a Peace Corps volunteer she met in an airport recognized her and asked her to autograph his copy of the video, which he said “was part of the packet” he was taking to his assignment in Africa.

And a Church member from Ghana then serving a mission in Nigeria wrote about 10 years ago to tell Wilson that as he watched the movie, “I had a wonderful feeling that my life would be better if I continued to try, that my Heavenly Father knew my heart and would help me to become the man that I should.” Wilson added she receives a bag of similar letters from Church headquarters every few years.

“The journey of Mahana has taught me many things,” Wilson said, citing Johnny’s speech at the end of the film: “There are many things that can happen to make a woman beautiful. What matters most is what she thinks of herself.”

“I have learned to measure success by doing the most good for as many people as possible with that which the Lord has entrusted us,” she said.

The Laie-born Ah Quin, a white-bearded Hawaiian who is best known for his beautiful singing voice and willingness to share it, came directly to the reunion from being hospitalized for a broken ankle. He explained he got reacquainted with Wilson about 25 years ago when she invited him to sing The Lord’s Prayer at her son’s missionary farewell in Spokane, and added that he hoped he has used his talents “to be a good representative of the gospel. My love goes out to each and every one of you.”

Ann Terry of Honopou, Maui, came to the reunion to represent her brother, Blaisdell, who passed away in 1988. She explained that Makee “was always an actor,” and that he also worked on stage and in television productions. “He was a Shakespearean actor — so dramatic. You could probably see that when he was acting in the film,” she said.

After the reunion, casting director David Jacobs explained how Johnny Lingo came to be filmed in Laie: Though the original story written by Patricia McGerr was set “in the Pacific,” Whitaker and his brother, Scott, who was a screenwriter, wanted to film in California for budgetary reasons. However, Jacobs, who previously worked at the studio and had taught speech here from 1967-68, suggested that the Church College of Hawaii and the adjacent Polynesian Cultural Center would be the perfect base of operations.

“I prayed about it a lot, and I knew it had to be here,” said Jacobs, who is now retired from the Motion Picture Studio and lives in Orem, Utah. “We could stay in the dormitories…and the students could help us…with the ocean, mountains and waterfalls within minutes. CCH was the answer…and they were so willing to help.”

“The cast and crew started each day with prayer, and we really took this film seriously,” he continued. Still, that didn’t mean there weren’t hurdles. For example, Jacobs responded to Wilson’s comments about the wigs for Moki and his advisor. He ended up buying the wigs at Ala Moana Shopping Center in Honolulu. “They were awful from the day we saw them, but Judge said we just had to have them.”

“This film is amazing. It just keeps going and giving,” said Jacobs. “We knew we were making this film for the whole Church, but little did we know this was going to reach the whole world.”

Johnny Lingo cast and crew members at the reunion included (left-right, front row): Tuione (who did the set design and construction) and Mahana Pulotu (who loaned her name); Naomi Wilson, Joe Ah Quin, Emma and Bill Ernestburg (villagers along with their children Gilberta, McKay and Pumpkin); (back row, l-r): Ann Terry, Bill Ah Quin (a production crewmember now living in Utah, Kent Fonoimoana (the village boy who first sees Johnny Lingo at the beginning of the film), his sister Maria Fonoimoana Feagai, David Jacobs, Cindy Fonoimoana Tutor and  Gilberta Ernestburg:

After the reunion, the Mormon Pacific Historical Society served soda and p?k? [Chinese] cake, old-style island movie treats, to the audience.

Comments

  1. Marilyn "Ikalani" Kendall says:

    I grew up in Hauula and watched the Legend of Johnny Lingo several times during my elementary years at Hauula Elementary. It had a big impact in my life and I have shared the story with my daughters as they grew up. I have been trying to find out how I can purchase a copy of the movie. I found one that was made recently but really would love to watch and share the original one that I remember as a child. I love that movie and so glad to read about the reunion. Mr. AhQuin was my Hawaiian Music teacher at Kahuku High School. Brings back so much memories. Aloha and Mahalo.

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