Phil Arnone, a prolific and passionate television producer-director, was the dean of island documentaries whose stories gloriously reflected the heart, pulse and temperature of Hawaii life.
Arnone died of cancer at his Portlock home, on Feb. 12, at age 86. His passing has triggered a wave of responses and accolades from colleagues affirming his legacy as the master of the broadcasting universe.
His versatility and viability created a panorama of varied television programming that included game shows like “Bingo,” newscasts with Bob Sevey, children’s funfests like “Checkers and Pogo,” musical sessions like “Island Music, Island Hearts,” the “Hawaiian Moving Company” dance show that transitioned into a TV magazine program, and the benchmark local comedy hits like “All in the Ohana” and the hilarious comedy specials like “Rap’s Hawaii.
But his signature creations were the documentaries/biographies of some of Hawaii’s top entertainers, from Don Ho to The Brothers Cazimero, from Jim Nabors to Jimmy Borges, that defined the cultural arc that celebrated the personalities and achievements of Hawaii’s treasured performers.
And most importantly, Arnone displayed his passion in his work style that demonstrated his stamp of approval of the islands he loved.
One of his early colleagues, inspired by his mentor, dubbed Arnone the Greatest of All Time (GOAT). Clearly, a documentary of his profiles and creativity should be produced by his anchor station, KGMB (now part of the Hawaii News Now combo that includes KHNL and KFVE) as a tribute he merits. But who’d do it? Arnone was the best of this genre. Even Andy Bumatai, who starred in “Ohana,” accurately declared, “Many are wondering why not one is planning an elaborate documentary on the contributions of Phil Arnone to Hawai’i television now that he is no longer with us. I think it’s because to pull it off, you’d need Phil Arnone.”
Thus, the best-to-date profile of Arnone is Leslie Wilcox’s earlier “Long Story Short” via PBS here.
His death marks the end of an era.
Though he was widely respected in the broadcasting world, however, it’s likely that most TV viewers may not know his name unless they watched the end-roll credits in his stellar shows Arnone produced and directed, a body of works that was unbeatable, showcasing his consummate artistry.
Larry Fleece, who launched a productive and solid career himself in broadcasting, was the one who called his mentor Arnone “a consummate professional, the undisputed GOAT of TV in the Islands.” With no TV training, Fleece worked alongside Arnone and ultimately learned his craft from the GOAT. Fleece also became one of Arnone’s dependable and prolific partners in their collaborative filmed stories.
Michelle Honda, Arnone’s wife of more than three decades, called him a “tiger in his younger years” because of his high expectations from his team. “He was creative with high standards,” she said. “Some people feared him, but he was trying to bring out the best of everyone.” She said she met Arnone during his “Bingo” shoot, though she admitted she was eager to meet Kirk Matthews (co-host of the show). But she wound up marrying Arnone.
Dennis Mahaffay, a longtime career ally and competitor in TV film work, met Arnone in the 1970s when he was directing a segment for KHON-TV featuring budding magician David Copperfield at the Pagoda Hotel.
“Even as competitors, I had the greatest respect for the level of quality in the programs he was doing for KGMB-TV,” said Mahaffay. “It was not until 1983 that I joined Phil at KGMB as his associate program director that I discovered that Phil had an intense dedication to quality and felt a responsibility to KGMB-TV and the people of Hawaii to produce nothing but the best programming possible.”
Mahaffay admitted that Arnone was a task master, “a consummate collaborator, but also a mentor and an inspiration; he was the personification of television excellence in Hawaii for decades. I feel fortunate to have worked with him and to have had the close friendship we developed after we both left KGMB-TV. His passing leaves a gaping hole in my heart.”
John Wray, a new hire at KGMB back in the day, said Arnone was a visionary. “Phil envisioned that TV viewers would see and learn about people for whom they might never have the chance,” said Wray, listing a roster that earned camera time in Arnone-directed profiles, including Duke Kahanamoku, Dick Jensen, Andy Bumatai, Dave Shoji, The Brothers Cazimero, and Tom Moffatt.
“It’s difficult now, to imagine Hawaii without Phil Arnone,” said Fleece, who initially was a copy writer for ads for KGMB-TV and sister radio stations KGMB-AM and FM (now KSSK). “This year (2023) marks 50 years since I first worked with him.”
Arnone tapped and trusted Fleece to help write, produce and direct KGMB products, including “All in the Ohana” (the rare, scripted comedy show which starred Andy Bumatai and Linda Coble), and “Rap’s Hawaii” (with the cherished characters from Rap Reiplinger’s family of comedic characters, like Aunty Marialani and her cooking show).
“Phil helped me understand the importance of ‘getting it right,’” said Bumatai. “Now, his idea of ‘right’ was on a level many couldn’t understand during the heat of ‘shoot’ and had trouble understanding his, shall we say, insistence.”
But Bumatai quickly found his bearings. “I’ll never forget the big sign on his desk (at the original KGMB studio on Kapiolani Boulevard) that said ‘Warm and friendly Phil Arnone,’” said Bumatai. “To me, that was his gift, that ability to see the big picture and visualize the end result.”
He added, “When we did ‘All In The ‘Ohana,’ he put Larry Fleece in the project because he saw not only the natural fit but also that, at the tender age of 25, I needed a babysitter.”
Jon de Mello, veteran talent manager, composer, and recording producer, said “Phil had the magic touch. He made it all work, and he was open, he listened, and he had a grand sense of humor. I remember, back in the fun days, we had a chit-chat about John Williams (the composer and conductor of many film soundtracks, including all “Star-Wars” films and other touchstones as “ET”), and he was hired by TV (ABC) for the newscasts and I told him, I want to do what Williams did, and thanks to Phil, I did a 28-second piece to bumper out of commercials, for about five or six years.”
DeMello also said TV docs by Arnone featuring clients The Brothers Caz and Israel Kamakawiwo‘ole “were well-scripted and organized. As a letter in the paper said, he was Mr. Television.”
Karen Keawehawaii, the witty and fun Hawaiian songbird, recalled she was nervous and at a loss of words when she was tapped to co-host with Kirk Matthews, a Hawaii TV version of “Bingo.” Mahaffay had recommended her as a prospect and she was gratified and relieved with the quick friendship that emerged with Arnone and crew.
“They talked to me, and included me in the dialogue, and we became immediate friends,” said Keawehawaii. “Phil never made me feel inadequate and we always laughed.”
Working alongside Arnone, even Fleece was initially intimidated because “Phil was a force to be feared. (He was) a tough taskmaster, ruling both the programming department and the technical side of the news department with a cast-iron hand, challenging all around him to be better, to be the best,” said Fleece. “Walking near Phil in the halls of KGMB, I learned to give him wide berth. Learned, out of simple self-preservation, not to poke the bear.”
While Fleece attended Stanford and UCLA, he had no formal education in TV until he attended what he called “the University of Phil Arnone.”
Though Fleece’s credit lists of Mainland endeavors include such high-visibility and rewarding shows like “Entertainment Tonight,” “Extra,” “Lifetime” Television, he admitted, ”I recognize the best job I ever had was in the programming department at KGMB, working for Phil Arnone,” he said. “Yes, we made it up as we went, and yes, we worked hard. But for me, Iknow it was all out of a simple abiding desire to make Phil proud. I hope I did.”
For Cha Thompson, the Tihati Productions co-founder, Arnone was a walking companion in the Portlock area. “The handsome guy who was ‘health walking’ past my house one day learned he was also a neighbor one road up, soit became a competition,” said Thompson. “I’d walk past his house to show I, too, was diligent in my health regimen, and warned him he could not possibly beat the Queen of Kalihi (her title, because she has roots there).
The walks were talk-story-time.” She asked if he might consider a documentary on Tihati’s 50th anniversary two years ago, but Arnone had to bow out because of his failing health. Of course I told him ‘aole pilikia (not to worry).
Jan Dawson, a former KGMB staffer, was station owner Cec Heftel’s secretary back in the 1970s, and moved into programming when he ran for the U.S. House.
“I learned so much working for Phil,” said Dawson. “Phil and Bob Sevey (the prevailing news anchor at the time) were great friends. Phil was very good at recognizing the potential of his staff; the talented programming team worked on many of the best programs ever produced here. He nurtured people and gave constructive criticism.”
She also shared anecdotal facts about Arnone, like “he wrote cue cards for Elvis Presley’s “Aloha From Hawaii” satellite special” from the Neal Blaisdell Center Arena, and the fact that he appeared in several “Hawaii Five-0” series as well as Brian Keith’s “Little People” series. Arnone also appeared as actor in the original “Hawaii Five-0” and “Magnum P.I.”
“Phil was definitely the man in charge and a daunting figure,” said Robert Pennybacker, now a PBS Hawaii producer, who became Arnone’s scriptwriter for many KGMB shows. Pennybacker was hired as an assistant director in 1981, working initially under John Wray, but quickly realized Arnone’s “ high bar for everything that aired on KGMB and everything that did had to pass muster with him first. I remember having to go into his office with tape in hand to show him my latest promo, and it definitely felt like going to the principal’s office. To his credit, his criticism was always constructive, and if he felt you could do better he would actually delay your spot going on the air until you could revise it, which was a real pain for the traffic department (but he didn’t care.) Nothing went on the air until it met his standard. This type of person no longer exists at television stations.”
Pennybacker joined KGMB near the tail-end of the station’s legendary dominance from 1966—1986. “It definitely felt like the golden age of television for me,” he said “ We were like a Hawaii-based movie studio cranking out music specials, comedy specials, documentaries, news specials, same-day coverage of the Honolulu Marathon, not to mention Hawaii’s only weekly magazine show (“Hawaiian Moving Company”). No other station was doing local programming to this extent. There was so much work to do that I was eventually assigned to direct some of the specials.”
Pennybacker had vivid memories of a TV adaptation of a play called “Sparks” by the late Tremaine Tamayose. “By local TV standards it was a pretty expensive show to produce, with a large cast and a full studio crew working many hours,” said Pennybacker. “One of the crucial scenes near the end of the play just wasn’t working. requiring a re-shoot which meant an extra full day with cast and crew.”
Without hesitation, and without even looking at the budget sheet, “he told me if an extra day will make it a better show, then do it. That dedication to excellence has stayed with me through my career over some 40 years. That was Phil’s influence on me, and on hundreds of television professionals that he has worked with.”
In the late 1980s, Arnone left KGMB for a brief stint at KTVU in Oakland, Calif., to do special projects. “That station is in one of the top television markets in the country—the Bay Area—so Phil was in the big leagues and continued to create shows that met his uncompromising standard of excellence,” said Pennybacker. His return home in the early 2000s was supposed to be his “retirement” but he resumed his productive career to produce between 15 and 18 specials for KGMB as a free-lancer.
“Phil also had a knack for getting people to open up during their on-camera interviews, especially the relatives and close friends of the subjects of our shows who had never before talked about them on camera,” said Pennybacker. “He gained the trust of the very private and elusive Eddie Aikau family. To this date I think we produced the only documentary on Eddie that had the consent and cooperation of all of his siblings, as well as Nainoa Thompson. I really feel we were documenting the history of modern-day Hawaii in these shows and they are certainly up there with the top highlights of my career.”
Pennybacker also shared an intimate little-known secret about Arnone, who learned to play guitar and in the last few years of his life, the TV veteran collaborated with one of his chief allies, to vocalize together, at Arnone’s home, mostly for recreational fun. “I am primarily a jazz singer, but he introduced me to the songs of the great American folk-rock composers (Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, John Prine, Steve Goodman, Gordon Lightfoot.) Phil had a beautiful, melodic voice (almost a tenor); he could reach some of the high notes that I could not. Our voices blended very well. If was a non-work hobby apart from their work chores. “I often joked about us playing at public venue like Blue Note Hawaii. Wish we had,” said Pennybacker.
Besides wife Michelle, Arnone is survived by her daughters Ola Reynolds and Kai Dickerson and his daughter, Michele Pauly, and son. Tony Arnone.
Services are pending…
And that’s Show Biz. …
2 Replies to “ARNONE, ‘GOAT’ OF TV BROADCASTERS”
Terrific tribute, Wayne. One of a kind; grateful to have known and worked with Phil.
I’ll forever love Phil for the sweet TV special he did on Tom. Hugs and aloha to his ohana, and to you, Wayne, for this beautiful post.