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Hawaii veteran of theater, TV lived life on stage

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    Wisa D’Orso, an accomplished dancer and actor, died Monday at age 84. D’Orso portrays Clairee Belcher in “Steel Magnolias” at Diamond Head Theatre.

Wisa D’Orso, a veteran of theater, television and nightclubs, and a luminary off and on stage, died Monday in Waimanalo. She was 84.

Born Eloise Orso on Kauai, she was a Papakolea- reared choreographer, dancer and teacher who met her husband, the late actor-director Jim Hutchison, while dancing on CBS’s “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1957.

“We were supposed to be kissing, and I wouldn’t kiss,” she said in a 1973 Honolulu Advertiser interview. “From then on, a romance bloomed. We were married in New York.”

D’Orso created her stage name because colleagues commonly called her Eloisa; she became Wisa and added a D fronting Orso.

Daughter Tita said of her mom: “She was hilarious; she had a sense of humor. The fact that she was warm and honest, she was never untrue to herself.”

Son Kurt said his lasting memory of Wisa was when Jim, her husband, was in the hospital, awaiting her arrival. “Dad saved up his last bit of energy — he was on his way out, with low battery — but he saved up this energy till she was there. They hugged; they kissed; and that was all (the energy) he had left. It was 30 years ago, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget,” he said.

Early on, D’Orso was an accomplished dancer, studying with Dorothy Hellis Moots, Josephine Flanders and Jean Burkhalter; the Flanders Dance School arranged a Richard Smart scholarship at New York City’s Ballet Arts School in New York so D’Orso could set her sights on becoming a prima ballerina.

However, a torn knee ligament brought her back to Hawaii and closed her chapter on ballet. She detoured to a different kind of dancing, water ballet, and became a swimmer-dancer in Esther Williams’ Aquacade Show in London.

D’Orso appeared on numerous prime time variety shows including Steve Allen, Perry Como, Sid Caesar, Garry Moore, Andy Williams, Dean Martin and “Your Hit Parade.”

In the 1960s, D’Orso choreographed summer musicals produced by Herb Rogers, including “Gypsy,” “The King and I,” “Bye Bye Birdie,” “South Pacific” and “West Side Story” at the Blaisdell Concert Hall. She also appeared as Rose in “Birdie” and Anita in “West Side Story.”

When comedian Frank DeLima starred in a localized version of the holiday favorite, “A Hawaiian Christmas Carol,” D’Orso served as a coach to DeLima, to run lines for his Scrooge.

“I met Wisa at Zippy’s one year, when she and I appeared in the same commercial,” DeLima recalled. “So when I did the first of seven Scrooge shows at Diamond Head Theatre, she helped me memorize my lines. That’s how we got close. She refreshed me, year after year.”

Hutchison, who died in 2009, directed and “one year, Wisa danced as the Energizer Bunny in the show,” said DeLima.

In the 1970s, D’Orso launched a series of cabaret shows in Honolulu night spots.

“I would rather be known as a singer who moves rather than a dancer who sings,” she said in an interview.

One of D’Orso’s last stage performances was as Carlotta Campion in Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” in 2003 at Diamond Head Theatre. “It’s my life,” she said of the character and its theme of old friendships, aging and recollections in a crumbling old theater. Her big solo, “I’m Still Here,” was a showstopper, indicative of her inherent theatrical roots.

In recent weeks, D’Orso had eating and drinking issues, affecting her general health.

She died peacefully, under hospice care, with her two children and hanai daughter, Leeanne Upton, at her side.

A private family service will be held this week; a public celebration of life will be announced later.

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