Two years ago, TV producer Emme Tomimbang started tracking entertainer Willie K’s battle with an aggressive form of lung cancer, filming segments while he was hospitalized as well as on the performance stage.
The special, “Willie K — Life on Stage Four,” unveils at 8 p.m. Thanksgiving evening on KGMB.
It will mark the 25th anniversary of Tomimbang’s “Emme’s Island Moments” platform, and a reboot of her career after a hiatus of half a decade. Her frequent takes on the life and times of various personalities and projects have distinguished her television profile in Hawaii over the decades.
The documentary also will put into perspective how Willie’s cancer challenge — he’s admitted he’s a stage 4 patient — simultaneously jump-started Tomimbang’s return to prime-time television, and how his courage and artistry have been an inspiration to his colleagues and his followers.
“During Willie’s cancer journey, he would tell me of the progress and what he learned about health, wellness and family love,” said Tomimbang. “And how his music helped him to move forward with the support and cheerleading of his audiences here and on the mainland.”
Their enduring friendship dates back to 1993, when she was a KHON-TV broadcaster and he already had earned his stripes as a do-it-all entertainer.
“He made me ride down Tantalus on his motorbike first,” Tomimbang recalled about her initial interview process. “He wore jeans and a T-shirt, with a red bandana.”
During her heyday of holiday telecasts, Willie would perform his iconic “O Holy Night,” always a showstopper. He told Tomimbang’s husband, the late justice Jim Burns, “Only your Filipino wife can make me wear a tuxedo and shiny bright shoes. I don’t wear shoes!”
Over nearly three decades, Willie and Burns golfed together at Waialae Country Club, and Willie frequently entertained there. Burns performed the marriage rites when Willie and wife, Debbie, were married. The Willie K show also will be a reflection on Tomimbang’s own medical issues, which included a ruptured brain aneurysm in 2011, as well as on the year that Tomimbang became a caregiver for her husband. Burns had been diagnosed with stage 4 throat cancer and was a longtime fan of Willie’s. Burns cared for her when she was in need. They had been married for 30 years; Burns died in 2017 and not surprisingly, Willie was there to sing at every milestone — his retirement party, the celebration of life after his passing, and also at Punchbowl, where he was interred on what would have been his 80th birthday.
Of the Willie project, Tomimbang noted: “He told me about his cancer shortly after Jim died; I was devastated. But I’ve been following him (Willie) when I can, shooting interviews when I had enough energy. That’s my biggest issue now — energy is day to day.”
It was Willie who put the stage 4 reference in the doc’s title. “It pertains to life on many stages, but he is now on stage 4. There is no stage 5,” said Tomimbang.
In a twist of irony, Willie and Tomimbang acknowledged their respective health issues and have connected the dots in a journey of mutual challenges. “Sick or no sick, we really don’t know how much time we have,” Willie told Tomimbang. “So you have to own the moment that’s right in front of you.”
Tomimbang confessed, “Shortly after that, I did get ‘a nudge from the judge,’ ” she said of subliminal thumbs-up from her husband. “And Willie told me, ‘Get out of bed, do my story and come back to television. Jim would want that.’ ”
That, she said, “moved me like never before in everything I’ve ever done.”
Tomimbang tracked Willie in shows on Maui, at Blue Note Hawaii and even a recent concert in California.
Robert Pennybacker, a frequent collaborator with Tomimbang, assisted her in this latest production. Besides the KGMB premiere, it will also air at 7 p.m. Dec. 4 on KHNL, and at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 and Jan. 6 on KFVE.
“The topic (cancer) is painful,” Tomimbang said, “in more ways than one.”
She revealed, “Pennybacker has had cancer twice; my editor, Daniel Bernardoni, lost his dad and had to travel back to Switzerland; my Maui cameraman, Bob Stone, who shot many of Willie’s interviews, sadly passed away from cancer last September. And, of course, I lost my Jim to the effects of post-cancer. So my entire team has experienced cancer — healing and death, in some way. We were given a special lens as we put Willie’s story together. This was by far the hardest show I have had to put together. And I feel truly blessed.”
Pennybacker also applauded Willie’s stance. “He is teaching all of us to have an attitude of gratitude, and for those affected with cancer, ‘the art of living your dying,’ ” he said.
Ultimately, the documentary might be deemed a work in progress, since Willie — still undergoing medical care — continues to pump up his music at his monthly gig at the Blue Note and also will be among the headliners at Tihati Productions’ 50th anniversary gala Dec. 14 at the Sheraton Waikiki’s Hawaii Ballroom, his only Oahu appearances through the end of this year. …
So “The Illusionists,” the ensemble of six tricksters, magicians and daredevils, appeared and disappeared in a wink and a blink. Just like magic!
The short run, at Blaisdell Concert Hall, didn’t mean there was shortage of talent.
>> Paul Dabek, the Trickster, was virtually an emcee, with cordiality and precision in securing audience participation folks.
>> Raymond Crowe, the Unusualist, was astonishing with his hand shadow puppetry flashed on a huge screen, and also a mesmerizing mime.
>> Jonathan Goodwin, the Daredevil, hung upside down in a straight jacket while a buzz saw whirled menacingly; truly, an escape artist extraordinaire.
>> An Ha Lim, the Manipulator, was a master of close-up magic and card wizardry. …
And that’s “Show Biz.”
Wayne Harada is a veteran entertainment columnist. Reach him at 266-0926 or firstname.lastname@example.org.