News & Notes

The Perfect Hawaiian Lei: Part 1 (The Search)

before    leis

My search for the perfect lei began the day I purchased a beautiful store display of the United Airlines Hawaiian Menehune Girl. My curator at the SFO Museum and I agreed that she would be one of the stars in the display case dedicated to “Airline and Travel Characters” in my upcoming exhibition at the airport’s International Terminal. Travel agency displays, as you can imagine, (before the days of Travelocity and Priceline) were placed in sun-drenched storefront windows. Remarkably, this figure was in great shape except for one detail––it was missing a vintage Hawaiian lei around its neck. So I needed to add an era-appropriate plastic lei. Who knew that lei technology had advanced so much since 1975? To begin, I sought out my present day “experts”: my staff, Amazon, a very cool couple I know, and Ebay.

Michaels: On the recommendation of my employees, this arts and crafts big-box chain store was the first place I looked. Apparently they have been to many Hawaiian-themed lei-making parties for their kids. But Michaels, although helpful, was a disappointment. Apparently leis are “seasonal” items and September meant a store brimming with Halloween stuff. Menehune [pronounced meh-neh-HOO-neh] are said to be a people, diminutive in size, who live in the deep forests and hidden valleys of the Hawaiian Islands far from the eyes of normal humans. I admit a nice necklace of white skeletons would have looked cool, but I needed the real thing. The Menehune’s favorite food is Mai’a (bananas) and fish. Cannibals they were not.

Amazon: Of course leis should be made of real flowers, but fake leis have progressed from thick plastic to inexpensive millimeter-thin frilly plastic, to currently in-vogue lifelike silk flowers. Amazon specialized in the latter two. So for $22 you can get a 50 “Mega Silk Lei Assortment of Tropical Hawaiian Luau Party Favors.” Not for me, but for your next Tiki party, knock yourself out.

Caroline’s Closet: Lately, whether it be lei or cat culture questions, my “go-to” couple is Christine and Greg. They are knowledgeable about all things Hawaiian. They perform in a band featuring ukeleles and are connoisseurs of Island cuisine and culture. Christine’s great suggestion was a South Dakota website, Caroline’s Closet, that “specializes in the production and making of accessories for the 18 inch dolls.” Lo and behold, Caroline’s did sell a beautiful purple and white silk lei. A contender.

Ebay: United Airlines apparently didn’t stop at Menehune store displays to promote their Hawaiian Island routes. There on Ebay was a Jim Beam Bourbon Whiskey Menehune Man decanter, given away as a gift at the airline’s sponsored 1975 Hawaiian Open golf tournament. BUT––around its neck was a miniature vintage pink plastic lei! One week later and $40 lighter it was mine. It was the winner.

Mahalo nui loa, Ebay! (Thank you very much, Ebay).

The Perfect Hawaiian Lei: Part 2 (The Menehunenecktomy)


A lei is a necklace of fresh flowers, leaves, shells or feathers given as a symbol of affection. Miss Menehune has two staples embedded into each side of her thick composition plastic neck that affix in place a tight loop of thread. They look Frankensteinian but hard to see. That’s where the ends of the lei needed to go. Luckily, I had a 5-0 Nylon suture, a needle holder, scissors and jewelers’ forceps from my other line of work. Ten minutes later and a few properly placed suture knots she was good as new. I enjoyed the challenge and process in restoring this store display.