Christopher B. Hemmeter, 64; His Opulent Resorts Transformed Hawaii Tourism Business

Times Staff Writer

Christopher B. Hemmeter, who transformed Hawaii tourism in the 1980s with his development of lavish mega-resorts but lost most of his fortune in the 1990s when he gambled on a grandiose but ill-fated New Orleans casino project, died Thursday at his Brentwood home. He was 64.

The causes of death were Parkinson's disease and liver cancer, said his son Mark.

Hemmeter's name became synonymous with opulence when he opened several "destination resorts" in Hawaii in the 1980s. They boasted exotic animals, gondolas, lake-sized swimming pools, Clydesdale-drawn carriages, expensive Asian artworks and acres of brass and marble.

Although some locals complained that his properties were not environmentally friendly, the resorts created thousands of jobs and attracted affluent Japanese tourists, who helped fuel an economic boom in the islands.

"He totally revolutionized the hotel industry here in Hawaii," Larry Johnson, retired chief executive of the Bank of Hawaii, said Friday. "Until he started to build them, hotels were pretty generic -- the rooms and lobbies all kind of looked alike.

"He had waterfalls and birds and animals and unusual art," Johnson said. "Coming to one of Hemmeter's hotels, you didn't just get a hotel but an experience."

Among the splashiest of his five Hawaiian resorts were the Westin Kauai and the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, each of which cost more than $300 million to build. He also developed the Hyatt Regency Waikiki, the Westin Maui and the Hyatt Regency Maui.

Hemmeter left Hawaii in 1990 to pursue development projects on the mainland, focusing on casinos, which he saw as the next big wave in tourism. However, his grand scheme for a supersize casino in New Orleans failed, a bittersweet experience that he often described as his greatest triumph and defeat.

Hemmeter was born in Washington, D.C., but grew up in the Bay Area community of Los Altos. His father, George, held more than 30 patents for inventions, such as a self-balancing washing machine, but his fortunes rose and fell over the years because of unscrupulous business partners.

Chris Hemmeter remembered living in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright one year and surviving on welfare two years later.

"I think that's why I never feared failure -- because it doesn't matter to me," he told New Orleans Magazine in 1993. "I'd already seen the extremes of life during my early upbringing."

His family favored camping vacations, he said, so he had never stayed in a hotel when he decided to major in hotel management at Cornell University. After graduating in 1962, he headed to Hawaii with little money to become an assistant manager at the venerable Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu.

He quit after barely a year, astonishing his boss when he announced that he would rather own a hotel than work for one.

He began his entrepreneurial career in 1963, when he formed a company to operate restaurants in Waikiki's Ilikai hotel. By 1965 he was resuscitating the Don the Beachcomber restaurant chain, selling it to a Boston-based travel company a few years later for a $5-million profit, which he took in the form of stock.

Hemmeter lost the $5 million when the Boston company collapsed in 1971, but he quickly invested what remained of his savings in another restaurant venture that he later sold for cash. With the proceeds from that deal he developed a chain of gift shops on the islands, which helped him build his first major property, the King's Alley retail complex in Waikiki.

In 1974, with considerable panache but relatively little cash of his own, he embarked on his first resort project as a partner with Hyatt Regency, persuading a group of 16 bankers to lend him $75 million, then reportedly the largest construction loan in Hawaiian history. The result was the 1,200-room Hyatt Regency Waikiki at Hemmeter Center.

During the 1980s he built four huge resorts on the other islands, each of which added to his reputation as a developer who turned outsize fantasies into reality.

On the Big Island of Hawaii he turned acres of black lava into the Hyatt Regency Waikoloa, an oasis that offered a private railway; a grotto for swimming with dolphins; a man-made jungle stocked with flamingos and peacocks; statues of Buddhas, nymphs and dragons; and rooms that began at $215 a night.

"What we have here is another Anaheim," then-Times travel editor Jerry Hulse, now deceased, wrote in 1990. "All that's missing is Sleeping Beauty's Castle, a paddle wheeler and the Matterhorn."

The resort had nine restaurants, 13 cocktail lounges and columns that reached five stories high. "Julius Caesar never saw anything like it," Hemmeter himself once boasted.

The Westin Kauai, which he completed in 1987, was just as outlandish. Little about it was Hawaiian. Hemmeter built high-end boutiques, mahogany launches that cruised a network of canals and lagoons, and a two-acre reflecting pool with a fountain rivaling those at Versailles.

Charging from the Kauai pool were eight life-sized horses handcrafted in China from a solid piece of marble. The resort had two championship golf courses, imported Clydesdales that hauled guests about in carriages, and 2,200 workers, making it the single largest employer on Kauai.

Hemmeter made the initial sketches of his hotels himself, incorporating ideas he had picked up from his travels around the world.

"He had great taste and attention to detail," said Peter Ueberroth, the former travel executive, president of the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and recent gubernatorial candidate, who knew Hemmeter for 30 years.

By the time Hemmeter had the projects on Hawaii and Kauai underway, he was being hailed as the Horatio Alger of the islands, who, according to a travel industry publication, had done "more to stimulate growth and interest in Hawaii than any single individual in recent memory."

In 1988, Forbes magazine listed him as the 389th wealthiest person in America, with $225 million in assets. He had his own jet and entertained former Presidents Carter and Reagan at his sumptuous homes in Hawaii. Over the years, he also designed the Carter Presidential Library in Atlanta and was president of the World Football League.

Hemmeter left Hawaii after losing a bid to redevelop a choice stretch of Honolulu waterfront. He moved stateside, where he immediately began to develop casinos, opening two in Colorado called Bullwhackers.

His attempt to enter the casino business in New Orleans became what one associate called his Waterloo. He opened two riverboat casinos there before successfully promoting a $1-billion riverfront development, the centerpiece of which was to be the world's largest casino. The city awarded him the lease in early 1993, but gave the gaming license to Harrah's, the Las Vegas-based entertainment company.

After much politicking, Hemmeter and Harrah's became partners in the venture. But it generated only a fraction of the hoped-for revenues, and six months after its opening in 1995, Harrah's closed the operation and placed it in bankruptcy. (The company eventually opened a scaled-down business, Harrah's New Orleans Casino, in 1999.)

Hemmeter filed for personal bankruptcy in 1997, telling The Times that he had plummeted "from a net worth of $750 million down to zero in a matter of months." Court documents showed that he had about $720,000 in assets and $87 million in liabilities.

He was diagnosed with Parkinson's about five years ago but continued to work on various projects, the last of which was a chain of restaurants called Saddle Ranch, which has two locations in Los Angeles, including one at Universal Studios. He learned in March that he had cancer and hoped for a liver transplant to extend his life.

Hemmeter celebrated his 64th birthday in October with a "reverse surprise party" at the home of friends in Honolulu. The guests expected to hear from him via video hookup, but he appeared in person, surprising them instead.

In addition to his wife of 25 years, Patsy, of Brentwood, he is survived by children Mark of Boulder, Colo.; Christopher Jr. and Katie of San Francisco; Kelley, Shane and Holli of Los Angeles; and Brendan of Columbus, Ohio. Other survivors are a brother, Mead, of Las Vegas; a sister, Sally, of Honolulu; and six grandchildren.

Funeral services will be private.

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