A small, red-lettered sign leads guests into a driveway where a single lantern stands, illuminating a charming pale-pink house with a white fence. Stairs traverse a wide, high-ceilinged space. Chairs face a stage where countless artists have performed since 1991. If it weren’t for the regular gatherings of bohemians–gypsies, jazz musicians, improv comedians–the modest house could be any European country abode. Except it’s here on Oahu, hidden away between 15th and 16th Avenues in Kaimuki: Ward’s Rafters, an underground venue that’s part old-fashioned, part hipster and entirely one-of-a-kind.
Living downstairs on the first floor is Jacqueline “Jackie” Ward, owner and master organizer of its events. She is 92 years old and weighs 90 lbs. She views the world with vast wisdom, a healthy dose of humor, a touch of irony. She walks around in a bright green and yellow dress with more sprite and grace than people half her age. She can’t see out of her left eye, and she can’t say anything without a smile.
Born in New York into a Russian-German Jewish family, Ward began travelling in second grade, living everywhere from Los Angeles to the former Czechoslovakia. “I don’t really feel I belong to any one culture or place. I’m a world citizen,” she states. In fact, she’s not a believer in any labels whatsoever. “I feel I am a human. A Homo sapien,” she says dryly. “All of us are on this tiny little planet and we are ‘different’ in this place and that place… We’re so primitive in the evolutionary sense. We fight each other because this tribe or that tribe wears a different color ribbon.”
From the late ‘30s through early ‘40s, Ward was a dedicated modern dance student in LA, training every day to hone her skills. She also worked as a background dancer for Hollywood films. “It didn’t mean anything artistically,” she says, “but it was wonderful exposure.” Because she was unable to pay for dance lessons, she also worked in a defense machine shop in the mornings. One day, a piece of metal hit her left eye during her shift and by the time the doctors operated, the inflamation was too severe. The accident destroyed not only her sight in one eye, but also plans for her career. “That changed the whole course of my life,” she says, “Maybe that was a good thing.”
She moved to New York for a cornea transplant, where she met her future husband Herb, a bass player in a jazz band. Later, they moved to Europe with their son Larry, where they lived for five years. After their second son Norman was born at the turn of the 1950s, they were forced to leave Europe due to their left-wing politics. “[Americans] caught up with us during the McCarthy period. We’d signed peace petitions, marched in peace parades,” she says with a smile. “They were chasing us around. Like many Americans, though, I was very naïve and had no idea of the reality of socialism and communism.”
Ward moved to Hawaii after her husband got a job in the Honolulu Symphony in 1965. She began Ward’s Rafters in the ‘90s after being fired from her job organizing Renaissance fairs and recreation events at parks. “I got busy with the [Honolulu] Zoo, Kapiolani Park…all kinds of places around town where people could gather on evenings and weekends. I lasted for about five or so years until [the civil service department] didn’t want to be bothered with me anymore,” she says. However, she still yearned to be involved in the art community. With her husband Herb, she realized, “We don’t have to have thousands of people. Just a hundred would be fine in our own place.”
The events became an underground phenomenon. Ward’s exclusive email list has 4,000-plus names, yet audiences are usually strangers or friends of friends. Even though she does no publicity, because of the residential neighborhood, word gets around. Interested patrons simply call or sign the on-site guestbook to be welcomed into Ward’s inner circle, ranging from slam poets to Celtic dancers. “I just hug and kiss everybody who comes in,” she says.
Today, Ward merely answers the phone and events come together. The Friday and Saturday music schedule is loose, planned merely two or three weeks in advance and catered to audiences from the young to the elderly. Every Sunday is devoted to live jazz from 3–6pm.
After Herb died in ‘94, she decided to continue booking events with the help of her son Larry. “People have met here, got married, had kids, got divorced, changed jobs,” she says of Rafter’s ongoing community. Looking back on her life, she sums it all up with a smile. “I feel happy to be a human being, and I know I have a good place among the people I know. I feel I’m happy anywhere in the world.”