As the double-hulled canoe glides over the lagoon at Coco Palms on a sunny Thursday morning, Larry Rivera stands, sings and plays his ukelele. First, he performs the Hawaiian Wedding Song.
Then, one that he wrote, “Beautiful Coco Palms.”
This song, you can tell, he loves.
“Beautiful Coco Palms, shining in the sun.
Beautiful Coco Palms, where my heart belongs.
Beautiful Coco Palms, it’s so heavenly.
Beautiful Coco Palms, where I want to be.”
When he finishes, Rivera smiles, and remembers.
In those moments, the 87-year-old Rivera is transported back in time, when he was a young man at Coco Palms about 60 years ago. He performed for crowds in the hundreds and was, he says, even joined on stage by Elvis Presley, who sang background vocals for him.
“People say, ‘You knew Elvis?’ I say, ‘Elvis knew me. Elvis sang with me,’” Rivera said laughing.
On this day, Rivera is filled with joy. He wants to talk story. And he has lots of stories to tell about Coco Palms, perhaps Kauai’s most famous piece of property. It’s the iconic resort owned by Grace Guslander and where, in its glory days, Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra stayed and a famous movie scene was filmed.
Rivera worked there for more than six decades. He was a dishwater, bellhop, waiter, bus boy, bartender, front desk clerk and lounge entertainer.
Later, he operated Blue Hawaii Weddings and Renewal Vows on the lagoon — the same place where the wedding scene in the Elvis movie, “Blue Hawaii” was shot in 1961.
With two paddlers powering the vessel, Rivera has led hundreds of couples in commiting to each other.
While it’s been several years since the certified minister sang and guided couples in exchanging words of love on the lagoon, but he’s back.
With the launch and blessing of the restored canoe and its platform on Thursday before a small gathering of friends and family, Rivera is once again singing and marrying couples at Coco Palms, where he says he belongs.
“You can feel the culture, the aloha spirit,” he said.
His nephew, Paul Rivera, earlier this year patched and painted the canoes, about 15 feet long and weighing about 125 pounds each, attached by the platform.
“I decided to help uncle get it back together, Paul Rivera said.
“I feel proud of myself. I’m glad it floats,” he said shortly after returning from being one of the paddlers on the brown canoe with yellow trim on its maiden voyage.
Rivera nodded in agreement.
“Paul did a remarkable job of restoring the canoe to its beauty with countless hours of labor,” he said.
Paul Rivera recently returned to Kauai after living in Beaver Creek, Ore., where he built houses. He was happy to do what he could for his Uncle Larry. Growing up, Paul Rivera said he played and worked with him.
“I have good memories here,” he said.
After Hurricane Iniki in 1992, Rivera picked up the pieces of the canoe and put it together.
“Nobody wanted it,” he said.
His wife Gloria decorated it with flowers and they used it for Blue Hawaii weddings and vows, based on the movie.
“We’ve been doing weddings forever, until the place was closed,” he said.
Over the years, the canoe fell into disrepair again and sank in the lagoon. But it was retrieved and restored.
Tyson Hawelu, a second paddler for the canoe Thursday, works in maintenance for the Coco Palms Hui, which is planning to develop the site that has sat shuttered for nearly 26 years since it was damaged by Iniki.
“Uncle Larry is such a legend, such a nice guy,” Hawelu said. “Anyway I can help him out, it’s a good day.”
Tyler Greene, a partner of Coco Palms Hui, joined Rivera on the canoe’s first trip out on the still-scenic and even spellbinding lagoon, singing along with him for a short stretch..
“When I look at Uncle Larry, there’s one thing that comes to mind,” he said. “And what we saw here today with this intimate gathering, if there’s one person in the world who embodies the heart and soul of Coco Palms, it’s Uncle Larry. I think it’s apparent today, just the feelings that exist here.”
It was Grace Guslander who pioneered Coco Palms and brought it to life, Greene said.
“But I think Uncle Larry really needs to be credited for driving that forward into the future and maintaining it,” he said.
During a brief celebration with cider and cookies after the voyage, Rivera talked story about how he taught Bing Crosby to sing at Coco Palms.
“He paid me $100,” Rivera said.
He said Elvis was in the crowd one time listening to him sing at Coco Palms.
“When I finished the song, he would stand up and go, ‘Yeah yeah, yeah.’ He wanted to buy one of my songs and offered me $500, but I didn’t know how to copyright or sell a song, so we got together and became good friends,” Larry said.
Everyone at Coco Palms, he said, was part of a special family. Many friendship and relationships were formed there that lasted lifetimes.
It’s why the man known as Mr. Coco Palms is happy to be back, again, ready to perform Blue Hawaii weddings and vow renewals.
Rivera still performs regularly at the Coconut MarketPlace, Garden Island Grille in Koloa and Cafe Portofino. He is a man of great energy, passion and enthusiasm.
“I love to sing,” he said. “I love to see people smile.”
Greene said he’s pleased to have Larry singing and performing weddings again at Coco Palms.
“It’s no secret that Coco Palms has had it challenges, but this is just one more testament how important this property is to the folks here on Kauai and for me it’s one more testament that Coco Palms is in the process of being reborn. Despite our delays and despite the things we have had to overcome, it’s just one more step in the journey,” he said.
“So I just want to thank Uncle Larry for everything he’s done. Not just today, not just since I’ve known here, but for the last 50 years and how he’s poured his heart and soul into this wonderful place and he’s made it into what it is today and what it will be when it opens.”