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Trio of tomes is sure to please history buffs

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"Theatres of Hawai‘i," by Lowell Angell (Arcadia, $21.99)

Another title in Arcadia’s sepia-cover picture-book series, this one is a winner, thanks to author Angell’s obsessive scholarship and sheer love for the subject. Theaters first opened their doors in Hawaii in 1847 and have played a primary role in island culture ever since, presenting plays, musicals, movies, vaudeville, lectures, sermons and high school graduations.

They range from simple outdoor projection booths to grand Art Deco landmarks like the Hawaii Theatre in Chinatown.

Angell writes with great precision. The book’s organization is well mapped, including a case study of the beautiful Waikiki Theatre, and there are signs of cheeky humor and empathy for Hawaii’s theater employees as well.

The pictures, mostly from the author’s own collection, are well chosen and reproduced crisply. There is plenty of period detail to pore over.

If there’s an oversight, it’s that the chains of military theaters are somewhat slighted. The meat of "Theatres of Hawai‘i," though, is the theaters that once stood in neighborhoods and commercial zones, now long gone, golden palaces of projected imagination and wonder, reduced to parking lots, warehouses and strip malls. The Royal, the Kuhio, the Varsity, the Hilo, the Toyo, others, all gone.

Before the film began in the Waikiki Theatre, clouds would play overhead on the azure vault of a ceiling, the horizon composed of a re-created jungle, as Bob Alder or Johnny DeMello played the pipe organ. As the lights went down and the movie began, stars twinkled overhead. It’s not really an experience available on Blu-ray.

"Ukulele: The World’s Friendliest Instrument," by Daniel Dixon with Dixie Dixon and Jayne McKay (Gibbs Smith, $15.99)

This is a package history of the instrument indelibly linked to Hawaii, although uke ancestors were probably created by Portuguese sailors who settled in the islands. The author is clearly an enthusiast — his passion for the subject comes across in the pages whether he’s discussing the history of the instrument, its place in popular culture, luthering, or the unique species of humans who can’t help collecting ukulele. The tinkling sound of an ukulele simply makes people smile. This book pretty much does the same.

Dixon credits the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915 with giving the little guitar-lette a major boost on the mainland, coupled with the rise of Tin Pan Alley songs and a new, mobile generation of Americans who took their instruments with them on the road.

The author also explain how an ukulele is made, although there’s not enough information here to make one yourself. But why bother? Ukulele can be found in swap meets and garages sales everywhere. It is probably the most ubiquitous instrument in America.

Modern ukulele masters like Jake Shimabukuro are also covered, as well as tuning and chording charts. Just in case you’ve forgotten: My Dog Has Fleas.

This is a pleasant companion for the ukulele buff, giving just enough information and nostalgia to be enjoyable without devolving into something scholarly.

"The Company We Kept: Tribes of No Continuing Place," by Frances Viglielmo (CreateSpace, $15)

Viglielmo, a champion of underdogs and the downtrodden in Honolulu, was raised in the bizarre cross-cultural smelter of American and Latin interests called Panama. She attended both American and Spanish schools, which probably accounts for her broad view on American politics.

Drawing on that experience, Viglielmo has written a novel about life in the Canal Zone — she calls the inhabitants "Zonians" — set mostly in the years after World War II, a period in which the American military was winding down its wartime presence in the zone and Panamanian nationalism was beginning to be felt.

It is based on an apparently true tale of a white woman who accused a Panamanian of rape and then retracted the allegation, but not before the damage was done — yes, it has resonances of the Honolulu Massie case — and the spillover effect it has culturally on Zonian women athletes who wish to compete in the 1948 Olympics. American or Panama teams?

This interesting material is somewhat undercut by Viglielmo’s writerly approach to telling the story. The seams show, as if she’s trying too hard to impress a coach. The book also has passages of "magical realism" rather like Marquez. Still, it’s an interesting tale of a largely forgotten corner of the world and of a time that has passed.

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