Dionisio "Danny" Tejero was just 19 and fresh from the Philippines when he took a job at hotelier Conrad Hilton’s newly purchased Hilton Hawaiian Village.
The year was 1961, and it was Tejero’s start in the United States and Hilton’s start in Hawaii. Hilton’s decision to purchase what was then the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Hotel for $21.5 million, a staggering amount at the time, ushered in the era of megaresorts in Hawaii that has continued through today.
The opening of the Hilton Hawaiian Village 50 years ago gave the Hilton name a foothold in the isles, opening up opportunities to work in tourism for Tejero and the 6,400 employees now spread across the chain’s seven properties on Oahu, Maui and the Big Island.
"I still like it," said Tejero, who has moved up to room service from the $1.53-per-hour banquet job that began his career. "I’m so happy whenever the guests say what a beautiful place to stay and work."
Tejero and Nancy Festerling, who just marked her 46th working year at the village, are both caretakers of the property’s past and of its future. Neither has immediate retirement plans.
"I remember visiting it in 1965 as a senior in high school for the premiere of ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ at the dome," Festerling said. "It was the place to be, and I fell in love with it."
By 1968, Hilton had grown the village to four towers. Within the next two years the Mid-Pacific Conference Center, the largest meeting and convention facility in the Pacific, and the Rainbow Bazaar, with its 40 shops and restaurants, were opened.
The Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome, which Festerling recalls fondly, came down in 1999 to be replaced in 2001 by the 453-room, 35-story Kalia Tower. The 38-story Grand Waikikian Tower, a Hilton Grand Vacations Club time-share property, was added to the Village in 2008.
The Village now comprises 3,627 guest rooms, suites and time-share units, said Jerry Gibson, area vice president for Hilton Hawaii.
Gibson compared the resort, which is Hawaii’s largest hotel and Hilton’s largest hotel worldwide, to the famed Brooklyn Bridge.
"There’s always something happening here and something under renovation or improvement," he said. "We continue to plan new ways to improve the Hawaii experience and contribute to the vitality of Waikiki and our local community."
The Rainbow Tower, which opened in 1968 and includes a mosaic made from 16,000 ceramic tiles, is getting a $45 million overhaul, Gibson said.
"We hope to have it ready for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation," he said, adding that every president in the past 50 years before President Barack Obama has visited the hotel.
Festerling, who has a picture of herself with Conrad Hilton and his son Barron from the night of the Rainbow Tower’s opening, said it attracted many celebrities.
"Everyone who was anyone was there," she said.
Next year renovations will begin on the Kalia Tower and the Alii Tower, which replaced Kaiser’s Ocean Tower, Gibson said.
A multimillion-dollar master plan over the next seven years will expand restaurant and retail, improve check-in, add more pools and construct two new time-share towers, which will add approximately 500 more units, he said.
"We’re adding to our amazing history," Gibson said.
Don Ho spent a lot of his life entertaining at the village, and Tom Selleck and Charo lived there, he said. Famous visitors also have included Elvis Presley, Jack Lord, Ray Charles, Britney Spears, Vanna White and Michael Jackson.
Before the Hilton flag, the hotel was known as the location where Harry Yee invented the Blue Hawaii cocktail in 1957 and where the television show "Hawaiian Eye," which debuted in 1959, was based. During a recent University of Hawaii Travel Industry Management School event, Gov. Neil Abercrombie said watching the show from Buffalo, N.Y., made him crave Hawaii.
"It called to me from my cold room," he said. "Hawaii has called to the world since then."
Daniel K. Hilton, Conrad Hilton’s grandson, who grew up in California, said his visits to the village made him fall in love with Hawaii.
"Every summer school vacation I begged my mom to take us to Hawaii," he said.
Like Tejero, Hilton got his first job experience at the village. At 16 he took a summer job crewing on the Rainbow II catamaran.
"I was green, literally green with land legs, not sea legs," he said. "I was not used to working or sailing on a boat. I was asked to clean the latrine and vomited several times."
Determined to prove to local crew members that he was not a "spoiled haole rich kid," Hilton said, he stuck it out and, in doing so, learned much about the aloha spirit.
"My experience at the Hilton Hawaiian Village created my admiration for Hawaii, its culture and its people."