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How to get lei'd on your next O'Hare Airport layover

By Carl Kozlowski

JUNE 29, 1998:  The Kona Kai Room at Chicago's O'Hare Marriott fights the tides of time every Friday and Saturday Night. At the hotel chain's last Hawaiian lounge, visitors shimmy into a land of fire dancers, hula girls and water-gushing walls.

For Sonny Kuni, the friendly bear of a man who croons the tunes while the Barefoot Hawaiian dance troupe shakes it loose on the show floor, the point isn't whether the Hawaiian lounge scene is still hip. It's a fun way to keep his native culture alive while living far from home. "I've been playing music full-time for almost thirty years, but I never played Hawaiian music professionally until I left the islands," says Kuni. "I started playing it here, just two weeks after I moved to Chicago."

Kuni arrived six years ago, when his Chicago-born wife wanted to return home. Now his eight-year-old twin daughters sometimes dance in the show for the Kona Kai's eclectic audience of nostalgic seniors, families and young couples.

The hour-long dinner show blasts through a dozen numbers with a half-dozen costume changes, including a tribute to Britain in which the ladies wear Victorian-style dresses. Led by founder Gwen Kennedy, the Barefoot Hawaiians also perform elaborate twirls, shakes and flips with reeds, feathered maracas and what appear to be vases.

When fire dancer Leonard Mendiola presents a big finale with flaming batons that he flips way too close to his crotch, the audience can't help but gasp. Setting the floor on fire, he dances, leaps and even rolls across the flames.

"I think every generation will have a certain interest in the islands, because they have a mystique," Mendiola says. "There's a look on the audience's face that shows a real enjoyment in watching us perform. A lot of people want to go to Hawaii but haven't been there before. Going to Kona Kai may be the next best thing."

(Carl Kozlowski)

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