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How the father of surfing became an idol -- first in Hawaii, then around the world

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku is pictured with his surfboard. An upcoming exhibit at the Bishop Museum honors the this gold-medal-winning Olympic athlete, actor and goodwill ambassador.

(Bishop Museum Archives)

Duke Paoa Kahanamoku may be known as a legendary surfer, but museum-goers are about to learn much more about one of Hawaii’s most famous sons.

A statue of Duke Kahanamoku introduces visitors to Waikiki Beach to his legendary prowess as a surfer. (Tor Johnson/Hawaii Tourism Authority)

Kahanamoku’s legacy will be recalled in an exhibit Aug. 9-Nov. 30 at Honolulu’s Bishop Museum. Visitors will learn that his talents went well beyond his athleticism.

Kahanamoku was born Aug. 26, 1890, and grew up in Waikiki. He was a prodigious swimmer who won five Olympic medals, beginning in the 1912 Games. He was one of the original Waikiki Beach Boys.

Many consider him the father of modern surfing. He’s fondly remembered in a statue along Waikiki Beach, standing beside a surfboard.

Kahanamoku’s rugged, exotic looks earned him roles in a dozen Hollywood movies starting in 1925. Among the titles: "Isle of Sunken Gold," "Lord Jim," "Hula," "Woman Wise," "The Rescue," "Girl of the Port," and "Isle of Escape."

He also had a role in the 1955 movie "Mister Roberts," playing Chief Duke Kahanamoko. The comedy starred Henry Fonda, Jack Lemmon, James Cagney, William Powell and Ward Bond.

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During his years as an actor, Duke Kahanamoku played alongside many early leading ladies, including Anita Stewart. (Bishop Museum Archives)

Kahanamoku died of a heart attack on Jan. 22, 1968.

Besides a wealth of artifacts, including his 10-foot redwood surfboard, his many sporting trophies and his ukulele, the exhibit will also engage visitors with modern technology.

Duke Kahanamoku, a longtime ambassador of aloha, entertains United Airlines flight attendants in 1957, strumming his ukulele. (Bishop Museum Archives)

Using a 3-D video game, guests reenact a legendary 1917 feat in which Kahanamoku rode atop a towering Waikiki wave on a finless surfboard for more than a mile.

Visitors can also try to replicate his 1920 Olympic record in the men’s 100-meter freestyle. The “Race Duke” attraction uses a table-top, upper-body pedal exerciser to simulate swimming.

In his mid-40s, Kahanamoku briefly operated two gas stations before being elected sheriff of Honolulu County in 1935. He served until the position was abolished after Hawaii became a state in 1959. He was then appointed its goodwill ambassador.

“Aloha,” he once said, “is my creed.”

The Bishop Museum is open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily except Tuesdays. Admission is $19.95 for adults, $16.95 for seniors (65 plus) and $14.95 for youth (4-12).

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