Mr. Coco Palms

It's been 19 years since the iconic resort closed, but Larry Rivera keeps the spirit of the place alive with performances at the lagoon, which means he's been playing there almost 60 years. The man who coined the phrase aloha starts with me spreads it every day. Amanda C. Gregg photo

Nineteen years after Coco Palms closed, Larry Rivera keeps memories of the iconic resort alive while creating new friends and memories, and always spreading the aloha

He’s coined some of the Islands’ most-recognized phrases, including “Aloha begins with me.”

Dubbed “Mr. Coco Palms” for his show that’s been running for 60-plus years at the historic hotel, even after its closure in 1992, composer and musician Larry Rivera is not only a living treasure, but someone who lives by example.

“I’ve been promoting the aloha spirit all my life,” he says.

The 81-year-old entertainer and Korean War veteran caught the attention of Elvis during his performances at Coco Palms Resort back in the day, but has always been part of something bigger than the music he’s created.

The Kapa’a High School graduate, who was born in Kekaha, represents an era for which many on Kaua’i, locals and visitors alike, nostalgically pine. It’s an era that Rivera, who earned a Hawai’i Music Awards Lifetime Achievement Award last year, works to keep alive.

“You know, there’s a story that comes with me,” Rivera says. “I’m not just singing a song.”

Recognized across the country for compositions including

Larry Rivera at Coco Palms Lagoon

Kamalani, recorded by the late Israel Kamakawiwo’ole and the Makaha Sons, Rivera also wrote Wai’ale’ale, The Whole World Looks to Hawai’i and Aloha is the Spirit of Kaua’i. He’s created such reciprocated warmth during his music tours in Japan, Canada and on the Mainland that he was even given a key to Fresno, Calif., by the late Mayor Ted C. Wills.

Having gotten his start at the Coco Palms Lodge in 1951, for decades Rivera’s “Love & Aloha” show (given the namesake for one of his most revered songs) and his late night show, “A Nite Cap with Larry Rivera,” were the ultimate in terms of local entertainment, and featured highprofile guests such as Rory Calhoun and Myron Floren of The Lawrence Welk Show.

Though Coco Palms has been shuttered since Sept. 11, 1992, thanks to Hurricane ‘Iniki, Rivera still sees and shows others what he considers the hotel’s heart and soul. Performing nearly every day of the week at multiple venues around the island, his lineup includes a truncated version of the performance at the historic remains of the hotel, in front of its lagoon.

Tourists visit the famous grounds for a glimpse of scenes shot from the film Blue Hawaii, and Rivera, dressed to the nines with a red lei and white suit, grabs his ukulele and gives them the rundown of what is a seemingly impossible task: A short and sweet summary of his and the hotel’s legacy. Offering a sampling of the tunes for which Elvis Presley gave hearty applause, onlookers who may not have had any idea who Rivera was before the tour began to line up to buy his CDs and take photos with him.

An artist’s rendering of the good old days at Coco Palms. Amanda C. Gregg photos

A long-standing pro in the entertainment business, Rivera rises to the challenge of offering a succinct context in the short amount of time, even in terms of his relationship with Elvis, adding in a bit of whimsy for good measure.

“When people say, “You knew Elvis, I say, ‘No, Elvis knew me,'” he says.

Keeping the tradition of Coco Palms alive isn’t just treating it like a relic, but creating new events and filling it with new life. Rivera still puts on weddings at the lagoon, themed around Elvis’s Blue Hawaii. The package includes a serenade aboard a double-hulled canoe set amid a surprisingly well-groomed landscape inside the hotel’s exterior walls.

“A lot has happened, since then, yes,” he says of the once trend-setting hotel built around regal coconut trees in the sacred and spectacular area that is Wailua. “But it is still beautiful along the lagoon. You can’t see it around the front, but it’s lovely.”

Though notoriety has followed Rivera for most of his life, he got a modest start at the hotel busing tables and washing dishes. Having fallen upon his musical talent almost accidentally while riding a horse making a clickety-clack sound in Waimea Canyon, Rivera says he was inspired by the rhythm of the sound of the hoofs.

One of Rivera’s eight record albums

“I didn’t know I was going to be an entertainer, but I heard the rhythm (of the horseshoes) and wrote this,” he says, bursting into the song, I’m Riding. It was seven years later that Rivera wrote, I Search For Love, when he met his wife, Gloria. The two have six children and 17 grandchildren, and will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary Jan. 22.

Elvis particularly liked I Search For Love, Rivera says, who met the king of rock ‘n’ roll in 1961 when he was onisland filming Blue Hawaii, and again when he came back for a second visit.

“(Elvis) would come to my shows at the Coco Palms and sit in the back with a lot of people who looked just like him, so people would get confused,” Rivera says. “He would sneak out and disappear. He was tricky like that. After I sang the Wedding Song he would be clapping, and then would give his white jacket to another guy and he would go out.”

In the early years, Rivera helped create the Coco Palms chorus, which included a chef, the wait staff and bellhops.

“Back then, the hotel supported the grove and we had a lot of culture in our shows,” Rivera says. “In fact, a lot of other hotels copied our ceremonies our pageants, our torch lighting. It was all the best in the world and no one else could copy it. I’d like to see it come back someday.”

It’s that kind of hope and memory that Rivera has been kindling over the past two decades, and which inspired one of his latest songs, Beautiful Coco Palms, featured on his latest CD, Full Moon Over Kaua’i. Having just returned from promoting his albums in Los Angeles and San Francisco and at the well-known Pono Hawaiian Grill in Santa Cruz, Rivera was met with diehard fans familiar with his Coco Palms heyday.

Rivera will tour the Mainland in 2012, which friend and fellow composer Ken Kriner says will include a major event in Las Vegas.

“Naturally, Larry will be the centerpiece of this Hawaiianstyle show,” Kriner says. “Perhaps even a taste of Coco Palms.”

Larry and wife Gloria celebrate their 57th anniversary next month

Living just a short drive up from the hotel in Wailua Homesteads, the Riveras have been spending much of December selling CDs and responding to fan mail, sending out Christmas cards to those who’ve sent correspondence.

“It takes some work,” Gloria Rivera says of the letter-writing and handling album sales. But it’s sharing that connection with Kaua’i with love that puts a smile on both of their faces.

“Whenever you leave Kaua’i, you take aloha with you and share it with others,” Larry Rivera says.

Wanna see him for yourself? Larry Rivera is on stage:

* Wednesdays from 7 to 9 at Café Portofino in Lihue

* First Friday of the month at 7 p.m. at Kukui Grove Center in Lihu’e (with his daughter and granddaughters)

* Fridays at 5 p.m. at Coconut Marketplace

* Saturdays from 1 to 2 p.m. at Kaua’i Museum

Rivera will travel to Las Vegas and California in May 2012 to perform his shows. For more information, email larryrivera@hawaiilink.net

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