Interview with Donna Butterworth (Elvis' co-star 'Paradise Hawaiian Style)

By: Joe Krein
Source: Elvis 2001
November 18, 2022

Interview with Donna Butterworth who played Jan Kohana in Paradise Hawaiian Style. Donna also appeared in the 1965 film 'The Family Jewels' with Jerry Lewis and received Golden Globe nomination for her role.

She made only three films before leaving the movie business.

Elvis Presley MP3 Audio Interview with Donna Butterworth (14:58)

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Above - Listen to the interview with Donne Butterworth by Joe Krein.

Joe Krein: Can you tell me a little about yourself where you were born and raised?

Donna Butterworth: Most people think I was born in Hawaii but I wasn't I was born in Pennsylvania. I lived there until I was three years old, then we moved to Hawaii. My dad was in the big construction boom that was happening in Hawaii so he moved us all to a Wahoo and I was raised there and shortly after I learned how to play the Ukulele. That's kind of how my musical career started. Hawaii was a great place to be raised and I am still here today. Hawaii really is paradise, it's getting a little more crowded, it's not like it was in the old days. But it's still really paradise.

I know Elvis loved Hawaii.

Oh yes really loved Hawaii, when we were doing Paradise Hawaiian Style together he absolutely loved Hawaii. I think that where he was relaxed. He was happy he liked the sun on his skin, he liked the water and he was always in a really great mood when we were in Hawaii.

When did you decide that you wanted to go into acting? you started when you were very young.

Right, actually like I said started playing Hawaiian music I guess when I was about three years old. I was lucky enough to be taught by one of the great Hawaiian composers John Alneeta and so pretty soon I was doing little concerts around the island. I was performing with Don Ho back in the sixties. then I was invited to perform at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. On my opening night the producer of the Andy Williams Show was there and he wanted to be my manager. So I did the Andy Williams Show and then I got to act with Jerry Lewis. My biggest dream was to meet Elvis, and at that time Paradise Hawaiian Style was in the works and since I had already done a few things professionally. I was delighted to find out that they wanted me in the film. They were doing a lot of the filming practically in my back yard so that was great.

So can you tell me about the first time that you met Elvis?

Well actually it's kind of a funny story, we were out on Maka Pu'u Point which is a beautiful point on Oahu that you have to go through a government road to get at. That's where the crash scene was, that was actually the first day of filming for me with Elvis. I had to run up in his arms and say 'Uncle Rick Uncle Rick!' and explain what happened with the crash. You know I had just met him a half hour before kind of shyly but when they said action and I had to run up into his arms and look straight into his beautiful face I just went blank, and I couldn't say my words and everybody started laughing. The director said cut! When I got three inches from his face, I couldn't believe I was actually in his arms looking at him I just froze. I was just thrilled to be looking at him. So I then composed myself, and I got it on the 2nd take. That was pretty much my first close up meeting with Elvis.

Elvis Presley and Donna Butterworth
Elvis Presley and Donna Butterworth.

The producer was probably saying, oh no she's an Elvis fan.

Well of course I think everyone knew that going in but that's why I think it was so funny when everyone laughed because when I got straight up to him I was just so enamored I just couldn't talk. (laughing)

So how was it working with Elvis? Besides that first time. How do you think he was as an actor.

I know you were very young.

Right, I was ten but I was a pretty smart ten. I knew what was going on and I had done that movie with Jerry Lewis and I was familiar with the process. Elvis was a fabulous professional but he was also a fabulous human being. because he was so comfortable with everyone. He always tried to have a lot of fun on the set. So the four months that we all were together in Hawaii and of course at Paramount Studios in Hollywood. He was just a great guy to be around. He took time out for me and the lighting technician if he talked to him.

He was just a real human being and a great guy to be around.

So you were able to sit down and have a one on one with Elvis and just talk about other things?

Well sure there was a funny story that Bill Brown who writes for a magazine in England. I told him this story it will be released soon. He asked me the same question. You know I had already met Priscilla and I liked her but you know was only ten. He was going around kissing all these women in the movies and I didn't really get how that worked. So he had me to lunch, they picked me up in his extended golf cart. They extended it so all his bodyguards could ride with him. He picked me up and took me to his dressing room, he had cheeseburgers and I had tacos from Del Taco because that was my favorite. He sat there for an hour explaining to me the difference between love and being in love. He explained it in a very loving way. God wants us to love all his brothers and sisters. We are making a movie that's apart of the storyline, but of course you can only be in love with only one person and that is Priscilla. So here is the king of rock and roll sitting down with cheeseburgers and tacos. Taking time out in his enormous life to explain it to ten year old me. So I have great memories of Elvis, he was a great guy.

Donna Butterworth and Elvis Presley
Donna Butterworth and Elvis Presley.

How was Priscilla?

Priscilla was lovely but she was so very young, and she looked just like a little china doll with her hair and the makeup. She was very quiet, but she did come on the set a couple of times, and she was just there. But she was lovely and very friendly. She was more private, she wasn't a loud person at all.

I'm sure it was still very new to her.

Yeah it seemed like it, you could tell that she was in awe of the process. Making movies is such a neat thing. I could see that she was interested in that and she would just be on the sideline watching everything. She would talk to people if they talked to her, she was classy and quiet but a lovely person.

Was his father Vernon on the set?

Oh yeah he was around and his girlfriend Dee she was there.

They were all in Hawaii with us and he was on the set. I saw Vernon a lot.

Is there something that happened on the set that you will always remember?

Something funny that happened?

Well there was one part where Elvis got to laughing and he couldn't stop for four hours. It was just hilarious, he was doing the scene with the helicopter and Julie Parrish. They had all the dogs in the helicopter. That was a hard scene to do, poor Julie she really got scratched up something awful. So there doing that scene on the interior at Paramount studio and it was a frustrating scene because the dogs did not always cooperate. It was just a hard shoot. Elvis was just in a good mood anyway, but our director accidentally called the poodles a foodle. Elvis just lost it, Mickey Moore who was directing it was being so serious,that when he called that dog a foodle Elvis just lost it. I have never seen a man laugh so hard and so long. Then everybody else started laughing. It was a very silly thing, but it made Elvis laugh so I will never forget it.

He had such an infectious laugh and he loved to laugh. So when Elvis got on to something and started to laugh that's it. That was just so fun.

How was it working with Julie Parrish?

All those girls in that film were just lovely people, you know everyone had fun doing it except for that, she got some bad welts from those dogs. In other words you have to take the good with the bad. That's a part of the business we are in. But she took it with great stride, she was a lovely and a professional person. You know a lot of people got to fly to Hawaii and it's a whole different scene, it's such a lovely laid back paradise. It puts people in a good mood anyway, all in all it was a great shoot.

So when did the movie wrap up?

I'm trying to think, I know that we started in the summer. We did it in '64 I believe and it wrapped right after Christmas. So I think it came out in 1966. So we had a good four months together, you know it was a great experience.

Elvis liked to do a lot of pranks, did he pull any while he was on the set?

Yeah him and his boys were always doing something. They were always running around or someone was trying to catch somebody. They were laughing about something. Yeah they all had something going on. I remember when we were on the beach, we were doing a scene where he lost the key to the helicopter. Elvis always liked to have his cooler full of cokes and ice cubes up to the top. If he went over to have one it was up to somebody to replace it for him. If someone didn't he would get irritated. So one time Elvis went over to get a coke and all the cokes were gone. Plus all the ice was gone. Everybody was watching for his reaction, but he knew which one of his boys did it so then he chased him all over the beach. Just kid stuff, but they were always having a ball.

So the movie has ended, how do you say goodbye to Elvis?

Well it's not easy but you realize that everything like that comes to an end. I remember my mother and I was just getting out of my dressing room. We were getting ready to go and take our limo back to the hotel and then a plane back to Hawaii. He stepped out of his dressing room in black pants and a black shirt and black shoes. Joe Esposito and Jerry Schilling were waiting for him in his white Rolls Royce. He came up to my mother and gave her a wonderful kiss and a hug. hr then said how nice it was to work with us. then he gave me a huge hug and kiss. He said what a great time he had working with me and he hoped to see me again.

I said I hoped the same. It was a very sincere heartfelt goodbye. Then he drove away and we drove away and that was that.

Now did you go to the premiere of the show? And did Elvis?

Well there wasn't really a premier per say. There was one here in Hawaii because it was a big deal that I was in it. I had already had a following here because I started performing around here at such a young age. So we had a big premiere in Hawaii but not a Hollywood one. Back then they did not always do that. They would just have it open everywhere on the same day. They would have TV promotions. but there wasn't really a premier per say.

Did you stay in touch with Elvis?

No I never really did, I went to see him while he was in concert in Hawaii, it was the one he did by satellite.

Oh you were there!

Right, I saw Colonel Parker walking around and I almost went up to him. I wanted to say gee I would love to see Elvis, but it just didn't seem right. It just didn't seem appropriate at the moment. I've regretted it ever since! Of course four years after that we lost him.

So how did you hear that Elvis died?

I was in my apartment, I remember this vividly I had the radio on. So it came over the radio and my first instinct was to run to my closet and grab my scrapbook and opened it to the page where he and I were together. Then I just cried, everybody I guess did. That was a stunning horrible day. It was quite shocking, I knew he was having problems but nobody knew the extent.

Elvis Presley News Donna Butterworth dies at 62

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