— by Kim Davenport
Beginning in the 1930s with Hollywood films like Waikiki Wedding and Her Jungle Love, and only growing with the success of South Pacific and the return of soldiers from World War II, a fascination with all things Hawaiian was in full swing throughout the United States by the late 1940s.
The most famous example of Hawaii-themed music to come out of Tacoma is undoubtedly the chart-topping 1969 recording of Hawaii Five-0 by The Ventures:
But that musical interlude aside [read more about The Ventures here, if you like], let’s get back to the real story for today – Tacoma’s Honolulu Conservatory of Music.
In 1922, an enterprising businessman named Harry G. Stanley adopted and marketed a method for playing steel guitar that was pioneered by Hawaiian guitarist Alex Hoapili. Stanley opened the first Honolulu Conservatory in Flint, Michigan in the late 1920s, and the second in Cleveland in 1930. Within just a few years, the Honolulu Conservatory name was appearing around the country. Individual franchisees operated schools which taught lessons in guitar and steel guitar, accordion, and ukelele, and also sold instruments and Hawaiian-themed sheet music.
Tacoma’s franchise was operated for decades by Karolyn & Floyd Piper, pictured at right. Karolyn was born Karolyn Kimmel in Fargo, North Dakota. When she fell in love with Hawaiian music in the 1920’s, she travelled to Omaha to take lessons at the Honolulu Conservatory franchise owned by Adalia and Charles Casper. Karolyn soon began teaching herself, door-to-door, and her enthusiasm captured the attention and then the heart of Floyd Piper, Adalia Casper’s son. The couple married and in 1943 joined the Caspers in Tacoma where they had opened another Honolulu Conservatory in the Bernice Building, 931 Broadway. The Pipers soon moved to a small house 617 North 2nd Street which served as both their home and the school. The Caspers, meanwhile, moved on to open a new Honolulu Conservatory in Seattle. Even after Floyd Piper passed away in 1973, Karolyn continued teaching at the same address for many years.
In its heyday in the 1950s, Tacoma’s Honolulu Conservatory franchise served hundreds of students each year, with ensembles performing in regular concerts and for public events. The school also sponsored a float in the Daffodil Parade for several years. It is clear from the number of professional photographs ordered by the Pipers from Richards Studio that they were not only proud of the work they were doing, but also skilled promoters of their business.
Last but not least – if you find an unusual guitar in your old Tacoma attic or basement, it may very well have been sold out of the Honolulu Conservatory studio at 617 North 2nd. While quite common at the time, some of their instruments would now be quite rare.
As a music teacher myself, I find myself in complete agreement with the slogans hung in their booth at the 1956 Greater Tacoma Home Show, pictured above.
“What is a home without music!”
“You’re never too old to learn”
All photographs courtesy Tacoma Public Library.