Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Ed Wood Wednesdays, week 193: The mystery of Henry Kekoanui (UPDATED!)

This actor appeared in Ed Wood's The Sinister Urge and nothing else that we know of.

Do you know what an artesian well is? It's a naturally-occurring site where pressurized water rises to the surface of its own accord, without human intervention. In other words, it's a well you don't have to pump. Rudolph Grey's book Nightmare of Ecstasy: The Life and Art of Edward D. Wood, Jr. (1992) is a lot like that—the literary equivalent of an artesian well. Turn to just about any page in it, and interesting little details will bubble to the surface on their own. I've had my copy for about 30 years, and I'm still finding new things in it.

There's an entire section in the book, for instance, about the making of The Sinister Urge (1960). This was Ed Wood's final "mainstream" film as a writer-director before he descended permanently into the world of softcore and hardcore pornography. Since Sinister deals with the so-called "smut racket" and even includes a flash of nudity, it's tempting to think of it as a transitional film in Eddie's career, i.e. a signpost to where his career was heading.

On page 101 of Nightmare of Ecstasy, you'll find a small gallery of images—Grey fancifully calls it a "quartet"—from The Sinister Urge. What caught my attention recently was the photo in the upper left-hand corner, a publicity still of someone identified as Henry Kekoanui. It's a striking image. The dark-haired, mustachioed man is shirtless and has an intense look in his eyes, like he's about to strike. Imagine Gomez Addams as a 1950s bad guy wrestler. Henry's arms and upper body are muscular, but his midsection is a bit paunchy. He's being photographed in some strange, eerie void where a dramatic shadow looms over him. And he seems to be carrying something, perhaps a garment, in his left hand.

An image of Henry Kekoanui from Nightmare of Ecstasy.

I've sat through The Sinister Urge a few times over the years, usually while researching one of these articles, but I'd never given much thought to this supporting character. How had I failed to notice this unusual-looking man? Unfortunately, Nightmare of Ecstasy contains no further information about Henry Kekoanui. In the filmography section, he is listed among the actors in The Sinister Urge, but his character is unidentified. The Internet Movie Database simply calls his character "Dark Stud." It is the actor's only documented film appearance.

Henry in The Sinister Urge.
First things first, let's find Henry's shining moments onscreen. In case you've forgotten, The Sinister Urge revolves around a pair of smut peddlers, Johnny (Carl Anthony) and Gloria (Jean Fontaine), and their multimedia porn empire. The police, led by Lt. Matt Carson (Kenne Duncan) and Sgt. Randy Stone (Duke Moore), are investigating the dirty pictures racket, which they believe to be a serious threat to public safety. Lending the situation extra urgency is the fact that Dirk (Dino Fantini), a greaser thug employed by Johnny and Gloria, has been driven mad by exposure to porn and is killing young women.

Early in the film, Johnny visits a kindly old photographer named Jaffee (Harry Keaton aka Keatan), who is taking some rather tame photos of women in bathing suits. This seemingly harmless activity, however, is a front for something much more sinister: a locked storage room full of pornographic films. Johnny and Jaffee briefly discuss the delivery of said films. After Johnny departs, Jaffee impatiently beckons a listless-looking female model to have her picture taken in front of a painted backdrop of a tree branch. "Come on," he says, "I'm not paying you for sitting around!" So she gets up from her chair and walks over to him, while another young woman wearing a towel stays behind.

That's when our man first appears! Henry Kekoanui strides confidently into the frame, dressed just as he is in the publicity still, i.e. shirtless with black pants. He sits down in the recently-vacated chair, folds his hands over his belly, and glares lasciviously up at the woman in the towel. While Jaffee takes photos of three bathing beauties, Henry begins to stare at them with a big Cheshire cat grin on his face. A few seconds later, there are strange sounds coming from a corner of the studio. The woman in the towel screams and then runs to investigate. 

Henry, apparently unconcerned, doesn't even get up from his chair at first. It turns out that the cops, led by Matt and Randy, are raiding the place. They seize the films and arrest Jaffee and several of the models. This is what finally grabs Henry's attention. Our dark stud looks on with concern, then rises from his chair and makes a quick exit. 

Henry Kekoanui, the dark stud, shows some concern for his coworkers in The Sinister Urge.

I thought this would be our hero's last appearance in The Sinister Urge, but I was wrong! About half an hour into the running time, Gloria and Johnny screen a bondage flick they produced and now plan to distribute. The star of this movie-within-a-movie is our own Henry Kekoanui, still shirtless and wearing only black pants. He stands in the middle of a sparsely-furnished apartment, wielding a whip. His costars are two young brunettes in filmy negligees. One woman sits on the floor while the other grapples with Henry. He pushes this damsel away, and she lands on a nearby couch.

Henry, it must be noted, does not use the whip as a weapon but only as a prop. In fact, he coils it up in his hand like you would a garden hose or an extension cord. After a few seconds, the recently-shoved woman gets up from the couch and begins to caress Henry and tousle his hair. The other woman then rises from the floor and begins to caress him also. He hugs them both tightly and smiles. The end. Gloria, lounging on a couch and smoking a cigarette from a holder, seems to enjoy the film. Johnny, however, watches all of this with a nauseated expression, a la Alex (Malcolm McDowell) in A Clockwork Orange (1971). In fact, this is the scene that provokes Johnny's most famous line in the film: "I look at this slush and try to remember, I used to make good movies!"

Henry Kekoanui and two costars in The Sinister Urge.

Believe it or not, there's still more of Henry in this movie! 

About two-thirds of the way through The Sinister Urge, there's an extended sequence in which Johnny "discovers" a young wannabe starlet named Mary (Jeanne Willardson), lends her money, and recruits her to be in his pornographic productions. After being berated and humiliated by Gloria, poor Mary has to pose for Jaffee in his rundown studio while sleazy sax music blares on the soundtrack. Mary is now wearing a see-through negligee (classic Ed Wood!) and stands in front of that same painted backdrop we saw earlier. Henry waits in the wings, glowering intensely. He wears what looks like a black bathrobe.

After conferring with Johnny for a moment, Jaffee directs Mary to strike a statuesque pose with her arm extended. We then see her shadow on the wall, and it's recognizable as the shadow from the publicity still in Nightmare of Ecstasy. Sure enough, Henry creeps into the frame while removing his own robe. (That was the garment we saw him holding in the photo.) Now shirtless, he rips the negligee off Mary, apparently leaving her nude. I say "apparently" because Mary is only seen in shadow. After this, The Sinister Urge starts hurtling toward its violent, action-packed climax, and Henry is not seen again.

Henry, the dark stud, participates in the degradation of sweet, misguided Mary in The Sinister Urge.

So after The Sinister Urge, what happened to Henry Kekoanui? For that matter, what had he done before working with Ed Wood? After all, his life didn't begin and end with this one movie. He must have left some public record behind. Based on his last name, I figured that Henry was a Hawaiian-born actor who relocated to California for career reasons, rather like wrestler Lee Kolima, whom I profiled a few months ago. I also figured Henry to be roughly 30 years old in The Sinister Urge, making his birth year around 1930. That was pretty much all I had to go on.

Fortunately, the great Philip R. Frey, creator of The Hunt for Edward D. Wood, Jr., came to my rescue and sent me some newspaper clippings with some possible clues about our mysterious "dark stud." He sent me every article he could find that mentioned someone named Henry Kekoanui, ranging from 1921 to 2015. Rather than going through them one by one—there are simply too many for that to be practical—I will let you peruse them at your leisure here and here

Many, perhaps most, of these articles have nothing to do with the actor seen in The Sinister Urge. They just mention people who happen to share his name. Individually, the articles come from these sources:
So what have we learned here? Well, for one thing, the name Henry Kekoanui is way more common than I had previously estimated. These men lived, died, married, divorced, and sang at school functions, not necessarily in that order. Were any of them in Ed Wood's The Sinister Urge? I have no idea. But, hopefully, I've made you think twice about a relatively minor yet far from insignificant player in the Ed Wood saga. Henry, wherever you are, I salute you.

UPDATE: Just as I suspected, the publication of this article inspired some of my regular readers to do their own investigations into Henry Kekoanui's storied past. Mere hours after I posted it, Shawn D. Langrick sent me this message:
Our boy Henry was also known as "Miki Lani." He had a music group in Southern California and released one single: "From Hawaii To You," which has a copyright assigned to "Miki Lani, pseud. of Henry K. Kekoanui." Looks like he was active in California from around 1967 to the mid-1970s, then moved to Texas where he again performed as Miki Lani from at least 1976 onward. The last mention I've found of him is  from 1990 in a local theater production. I believe his wife died in 2022, and it looks like Henry may still be alive in Springfield, MO. If he is, he'll be 91. He also has two kids, one of whom seems to have followed in Henry's musical shadow. 
Miki Lani performed in1969 at a club called the Huddle and in 1971 at the Sportsman, both in California. He also performed in 1978 at Joe T. Garcia's in Fort Worth. The move to Texas for "Miki Lani" lines up with the move by Henry K Kekoanui as well. I've also found one article that puts him in Reno in February 1976, performing at Jessie Beck's Riverside in a Tahitian-themed show and pegs him as the "featured vocalist and an accomplished recording artist in Tahiti and Vetea ." The article refers to him as "Tahiti's answer to Steve Reeves" and goes on to say he "does most of the specialty dances for the group."
Here is a picture of a mustache-less Henry/Miki that Shawn sent me:

Henry Kekoanui performing as Miki Lani.

And here's a picture of the one 45 he released, along with some copyright info regarding the composer's name:

Henry's shining moment on wax.

If you'll remember, several of the articles that Philip R. Frey sent me mentioned singing, guitar playing, and public performances. Here is a gallery of images that Shawn sent me related to Henry/Miki's musical career. I'm sure you will enjoy it.

A very special thank you to Philip R. Frey and Shawn D. Langrick for their help in researching this article!