Story by Paul Wood | Illustration by Guy Junker
Every October, a giant Ferris wheel rises above Kahului, poised to fill the Maui night sky with the screams of teenage girls. It’s county fair time again. A carnival midway blooms on the War Memorial ball fields, the Tilt-a-Whirl, the ring-toss booth, the cotton-candy machines, the works, all erected as if overnight by an O‘ahu company whose name is famous in the Islands—E.K. Fernandez.
Few thrill riders today know a thing about the actual E.K. Fernandez. People once called him the “Barnum of the Pacific,” but he was beyond compare, a Hawaiian original.
Edwin Kane “Eddie” Fernandez was born of ali‘i (royal) parents. On his first birthday, mid-1880s, King Kalakaua threw him a party that lasted a week. His mother was one of the few ladies allowed to attend Queen Lili‘uokalani during her months of house arrest in ‘Iolani Palace.
In fact, the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy cast a darkness over E.K.’s childhood. Two years after the heartbreaking events of 1893, E.K.’s father, Abraham, converted to the Mormon church—no doubt to distance himself from the Calvinist heritage of the overthrowers—then baptized the deposed queen into the same faith just a few years later. In 1903 the Fernandezes escorted Lili‘uokalani to Washington, D.C. On the way, they deposited twenty-year-old Eddie at Brigham Young University, Utah, that school’s first Native Hawaiian enrollee.
But darkness and piety were not for Eddie, not at the dawn of the twentieth century. Within two years he was back in the Islands with a motion picture camera—a revolutionary device invented by Frenchman Louis Lumiere just ten years before. By day he shot footage of Hawaiian scenes; by night he visited small towns and plantation camps, projecting his images onto bed sheets. People packed the shows. They called him the Motion Picture Kid (Keiki Ki‘i ‘Oni‘oni). He learned the guiding revelation of his life—that people will pay to be entertained.
In 1915 Maui staged its first county fair. For the occasion, E.K. delivered Hawai‘i’s first carousel, a steam-powered Flying Jenny Merry-Go-Round. Then he produced Honolulu’s first circus, featuring twenty performers and a 400-pound skating bear named Alice Teddy. In the ensuing years, he imported Hawai‘i’s first ice show, first bullfight, first boxing match, and first rodeo. He brought famed lion tamer Clyde Beatty and renowned circus clown Emmett Kelly. His shows traveled to Singapore, Shanghai, even India. In 1952, E.K.’s circus played in Tokyo for audiences of 45,000 each during fifty consecutive days.
By some accounts (and few exist) he was a regal figure who wore white suits and lei-wrapped hats, a big-idea man who spent fortunes and ignored the details. In 1927 he brought over a tightrope-walking sensation named Rose Dallas Allen. She was just fifteen, a cute girl from Illinois who traveled with her equally acrobatic sister and their protective parents. The crowds loved Rose, and so did E.K. He kept extending her contract—three weeks turned into a year, then when the family returned to the Mainland, E.K. pursued. In a 1997 interview given long after E.K. had died, eighty-six-year-old Rose recalled, “He followed me around and asked when I was going to marry him. I laughed at his proposal, and boy was he insulted.” He was pushing forty and she was a teen. But E.K. prevailed; they married and stayed together till his death in 1970.
The carnival world is full of tall tales. They say E.K.’s lions escaped in Hawi. but were lured back into their cages by the hot-dog vendors. They say a trained seal escaped into Hilo Bay, only to be found basking on O‘ahu just in time for the next performance. Some say E.K. was actually a son of King Kalakaua. He should have been. He brought the “Merrie Monarch’s” spirit into to the dawn of the Hawaiian Renaissance.