The political turmoil and the abolition of Hawaii's monarchy in 1893 put a different spin on the promotion of the ukulele, by then regarded as Hawaii's native instrument. The group of businessmen that overthrew Queen Liliuokalani (1838-1917) looked at ways to attract visitors to the islands. Hawaiian dance, music, and the ukulele were employed to form an iconic image of Hawaii, a paradisiacal land where bewitching maidens in grass skirts draped in flower leis strummed ukuleles on moonlit sandy beaches. The ukulele became a popular and affordable souvenir sold in Hawaii for $5 to $20 to hundreds of visiting tourists as the Hawaiian Almanac and Annual reported in 1899.
Although the ukulele was introduced on the mainland as early as 1893 at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago by the Volcano Singers, a quartet of vocalists that performed at the Kilauea Cyclorama, the instrument didn't grab the attention of mainland firms and audiences until later. The ukulele began to get a foothold on the mainland once it began appearing in vaudeville shows on the west coast and grew in popularity as it began to be associated with youth culture, the beach, and summer vacations. At the turn of the century, Hawaiian musical groups began to frequently tour the west coast, appearing at Southern California amusement parks, society parties, and store openings as well as at local theaters. Some of the Hawaiian bands like Mekia Kealakai's (1867-1944) troupe could also be heard on the east coast, performing on the Keith Vaudeville circuit in addition to the usual venues in San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Interest in the ukulele was fueled by the production of Richard Walton Tully's (1877-1945) play The Bird of Paradise, which opened on Broadway in 1912 and became a sensation, touring North America, Europe, and Australia. The play introduced the entire country to the charms of the ukulele as it told the story of an ill-fated love between a Hawaiian princess and a Yankee adventurer. Featuring a quintet of Hawaiian musicians strumming ukuleles and guitars, the melodrama's popularity was such that national touring companies remained on the road for more than a decade. "How many incantatory ukuleles it set to strumming in the national moonlight will never, of course, be known, but for better or worse their source is definite," the New York Times observed some years later.
brochureIt wasn't until 1915, however, that the ukulele became a true national phenomenon. The Panama Pacific International Exhibition which opened in San Francisco in February 1915 offered Hawaii the opportunity to promote its products, land, and people. The Hawaiian Building with its hula dances and songs was one of the most popular attractions. Henry Kailimai's (1882-1948) performance of "On the Beach at Waikiki" and George E. K. Awai's (ca. 1891-1981) quintet ignited the Hawaiian craze and the ukulele became "the most popular instrument of the day ... Society fad of the hour," as one contemporary advertisement put it.