SEATTLE'S COLUMBIAN TRIO PLAYS HAWAIIAN MUSIC (1920s)

THE GREAT HAWAIIAN MUSIC CRAZE originally began sweeping over America in the wake of two early Worlds’ Fairs – Portland, Oregon’s Lewis and Clark Exposition of 1907, and then Seattle’s Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 – which both featured native Hawaiian musicians playing their exotic indigenous tunes. And then, thanks in good measure to Tacoma’s mega-successful pop songster Bing Crosby (1903-1977), Hawaiian-themed music became the biggest-selling genre of musical records in the Roaring ‘20s and well into the 1930s. And that demand for such 78rpm discs (and sheet music) was also matched by increased radio airplay of the music, and box office bonanza’s for vaudeville theaters that booked the growing legions of new Hawaiian-oriented bands.

Among the earliest such bands to pop up in Seattle was The Columbian Trio. Led by an authentic Hawaiian native, steel guitarist J. Nawhai, the ensemble also featured a Spanish-style guitarist (whose name is lost to the mists of time), but who appears in photographs to also have been Hawaiian. Then on ukulele, there was band-manager and music teacher, George M. MacKie, who although apparently not a Hawaiian, was also not a rookie. As early as June of 1918 he was a member of the Queen’s Hawaiians group who performed at the California Complete Small Homes Exposition in Los Angeles that very month.

But by 1920 MacKie (and his wife Florence) had settled in Seattle where they got a home (3608 Palatine Avenue N), and he also rented a downtown music studio (216 Epler Block Building, on 2nd Avenue, between Columbia and Marion Streets) where he offered musical instruction on the ukulele and Hawaiian steel guitar. Indeed, his business cards tried to allure new students with this invitation: “Learn to play ‘the most Weirdly Beautiful Music of the Dreamiest Island ever Anchored in any Ocean!’”

Meanwhile, MacKie helped form The Columbian Trio and they presumably performed around the area. In 1922 the couple – and his mother Mary MacKie, who’d moved in with them in 1921 – relocated several blocks over to a different home (3648 Phinney Avenue), so they had seemingly intended to stay here awhile. But that was not to be. Perhaps because the Epler Building was sold to the Bank of California, whose intent was to raze it to build a new bank, the MacKies hit the road.

The Columbian Trio showed up next in Denver, Colorado, where they scored a regular radio slot on KOA. But then they lost a member and went to a local music teacher to inquire if there might be somebody else around who could join them. That teacher pointed them towards one of her students, Don Wilson (who would later gain some fame as Jack Benny’s announcer). As Wilson would recall in a 1980 interview: “I joined them and we were busier than bird dogs. We made a lot more money in radio, even in those days, with the extracurricular things that we did, appearances of all kinds, including fill-ins at the Orpheum Theatre. Whenever an act couldn’t appear, the trio would be engaged to play a week here and a week there.”

The Columbian Trio also traveled the West Coast a bit, performing on stations including KFI in Los Angeles, and KGO in Oakland. But somewhere along the way the band was saddled with a corporate sponsor the Piggly Wiggly self-service supermarket chain – and they agreed to change their name to the somewhat less-than-dignified “Piggly Wiggly Hawaiian Trio.” It remains unclear exactly where and how that regrettable shift took place. In Denver? Or perhaps it was back in Seattle where in 1921 Boulder, Colorado’s William Louis Avery had arrived to open up a Piggly Wiggly franchise store downtown (408 Occidental Avenue)? What is known is that by about 1923 the MacKies had resettled in Los Angeles (at 121 S Flower Street), and George reformed his Queen's Hawaiians group with Lani McIntyre (Spanish guitar) – and Sol Ho’opi’i (steel guitar) who would soon go on the become the world's most famous Hawaiian musician.

One last meager clue uncovered about all this is that by 1925 Mary MacKie had acquired her own home in Seattle (1717 W 58th Street).