‘California Hotel: Hawaii’s Home Away From Home’ Opens at JANM

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The Japanese American National Museum installed a unique display, “The California Hotel: Hawaii’s Home Away from Home,” which explains the remarkable relationship between Hawaiians and the Las Vegas casino, on May 28.

The display was developed by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii, which also published a book, “California Hotel and Casino: Hawaii’s Home Away From Home,” which is available for purchase.

The exhibit outlines, and the book details, the evolution of the California Hotel and Casino under its original owner, Sam Boyd, as it looked for a new audience to attract to its facility in downtown Las Vegas in the 1970s and 1980s. Boyd, who had lived in Hawaii, decided that bringing groups of people from the islands might provide his casino with a new audience that was being ignored by the rest of Las Vegas.

To accomplish this goal, Boyd provided rooms and meals for low or even no cost, changed the menu of his restaurants to suit Hawaiian taste (including hiring a head chef from the islands), and sent his marketing executive, John Blink, on frequent trips to Hawaii to work with the local travel agents.

Over the course of time, Boyd was able to attract more and more visitors from Hawaii until the hotel was completely filled from this one geographic area. According to Blink, “The folks we’d get were mostly Japanese Americans (80 percent at one point). The next largest group was Filipinos, many of whom had relatives in Los Angeles, which had a huge Filipino community.”

At one point in the 1980s, the California Hotel had created such a large demand that it could no longer handle all the people from Hawaii, so the facility was expanded.

It turned out that the gamblers from Hawaii were ideal. Blink wrote that “the average Las Vegas tourist (in 1985) was spending $300 or less in gaming for the whole visit, which was probably about two and a half days. The average Hawaii gambler, however, was spending $350 on gaming per day and staying three to four days.”

Blink noted that most Hawaii gamblers were not reckless, however. “They knew precisely how much money they came with and what they were going to spend,” he explained. “They knew pretty much, based on mathematical examples on craps and blackjack, just what the odds were. If you want to make it entertaining, make it enjoyable without getting hurt financially, number one, you have to be a good money manager.”

Of the Japanese Americans, Blink realized they “were steadier gamblers. Anywhere else, their behavior was fairly moderate, reserved, not given to excess. But when it came to gambling, it was like you changed their whole cultural background overnight. They loved to gamble. They gambled longer than any other ethnic group.”

Professor Dennis Ogawa of University of Hawaii, who co-wrote the book with Blink and Mike Gordon, summed up the exhibit: “The California Hotel is an amazing phenomenon, thriving against the odds and traditional market beliefs. Instead of seeking out only the high rollers, it caters to the average Hawaii resident, one who values the aloha spirit and the down-to-earth culture of the Islands. A stay there is like being at home, complete with rice, oxtail soup, and saimin noodles at any hour of the day.

“Above all, the success of the California Hotel is based not only on a gambling casino but on recognition of Hawaii’s people and local culture. It is a story worth telling.”

The display will be on view through Aug. 28. JANM is located at 369 E. 1st St. (at Central) in Little Tokyo. For more information, call (213) 625-0414 or visit www.janm.org.

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