Honolulu Hale’s Shaka Santa and Mele Claus, the products of several talents spending days on end carving round bellies and relaxed limbs, look like they could spring to life at any moment—like while everyone is sleeping, they get right down to the holiday’s work. But Mike Smith, former City and County of Honolulu Department of Parks and Recreation’s arts and crafts specialist, and a member of the team that constructed the two massive sculptures, says this is what they’re actually up to: “Shaka and Mele are done with their work in preparing for the season of giving, and are taking time off to relax here in Hawai‘i, where you can kinda just hang out, go to the beach, get a tan—you know, just hang loose.”
Perched at Honolulu Hale each Christmas, Shaka Santa and Mele Claus greet thousands of visitors as they come to see the Honolulu City Lights, an annual celebration of the season in Hawai‘i, adopted by ex-mayor Frank Fasi in 1985. The festive pair is joined by Christmas cheer in the form of a 50-foot Norfolk pine illuminated by ornaments, an electric light parade, a wreath display, and a whole cadre of Santa’s pals, including Rudolph and toy bears. Santa is bare-chested and throws the shaka, and Mele Claus has tucked up her aloha print mu‘umu‘u to dip her toes in the fountain water.
Shaka Santa and Mele Clause at Honolulu Hale in 2010, the year Smith retired. Photo via Flickr/billsophoto
While they look timeless, Mr. and Mrs. Claus are more than two decades old—Shaka Santa is 26, Mele Clause, 21. How did this team come up with the ideas and then construct these massive foam sculptures that have stood the test of time? How did they chisel Santa’s fingers to form a perfect shaka gesture, and Mele’s mu‘umu‘u to appear to flow so gracefully? According to Smith, it took the mutual collaboration of a close-knit crew with some expertise on constructing large-scale art installations.
“It was my first year in the DPR that I met Carol Costa, the mastermind coordinator of Honolulu City Lights,” he recalls. “She introduced me to three very talented individuals that were key to the development of the Shaka Santa and Mele: Owen Ho, formerly with Duty Free; Andrew Miyamoto, freelance artist; and Kurt Nelson, owner of his own commercial production company specializing in producing props and effects for theater, stage, TV, and film.”
Ho developed the idea of Shaka Santa, Miyamoto created the image, and Nelson carved the massive character out of Styrofoam starting in late summer of 1989; Smith helped Nelson coat the foam sculpture with cement, polymer, and fiberglass adhesive to make it last. This all took place in an old warehouse in Campbell Industrial Park, where they even had a mockup of the Honolulu Hale water fountain. The 2-ton, 21-foot-tall Santa now sits on the edge of real Honolulu Hale fountain.
The making of Mele Claus.
Five years later, Mele Claus, another of Ho’s ideas, was sculpted in an old warehouse in Pearl City. “[Nelson] and I both used reciprocating saws to carve details on the figures,” Smith says. “We used hot wire to make big cuts, the saw for roughing out extremities, and plastic box knives for detail work. They were crude tools, but incredibly easy to work and replace as needed throughout the process. Mele was my first large-scale piece, and I was freaking out during the whole process. But it was all really exciting.” Smith also made the popular display’s polar bear snow globe, toy bears, elves, and more.
Smith, now 63, was born in Tokyo, and moved to Hawai‘i in 1963. He got his start in the arts while volunteering for the Honolulu Theatre for Youth in the early 1970s. After graduating with a bachelor of fine arts and secondary art education from the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, he worked a series of odd jobs before landing the arts and crafts specialist position with the DPR. Smith tirelessly prepared the exhibits each year, making sure the stage was set for the season, before retiring from the DPR in 2010. These days he visits his old friends Rudolph, the elves, the toy bears, the gnomes, and of course, Santa and his lady, with that same aloha spirit. “It was very challenging, but I think we all did it to see the smiles people—especially children—would have when stopping by to view the exhibit throughout the days and nights of December,” he says. “I know that’s why I did it.”
Kurt Nelson, left, and Mike Smith visit young Shaka Santa.
Shaka Santa, Mele Claus, and their assortment of friends are now on display as part of the annual Honolulu City Lights at Honolulu Hale, up now through early January 2016.