Third in a series
LAIE, Hawaii — T. David Hannemann was living in Southern California in 1962 when he became involved in a new project in Hawaii: the Polynesian Cultural Center.
Helping students at the Church College of Hawaii cover school expenses by attracting paying tourists to a world-class theme park was one of the PCC's prime objectives.
Hannemann's charge was to coordinate training for the new center's staff. "I didn't know what to do. So I called Disneyland," he said, pausing with a facial expression that seemed to say, "How about that?"
But what would an entertainment giant like Disney think of such a request? Hannemann said he was more than a little surprised when the response was "come on over."
He said he received VIP treatment from the Disney front office, then headed for Oahu with marketing information in his head and Disneyland's training manuals under his arm.
The press on Oahu was not as impressed with the new venture, predicting the PCC would "flop" because it was too far from the tourist hub in Honolulu.
But the small mostly Mormon town of Laie, the new PCC's home, had for years been drawing paying tourists by the bus load from Honolulu to a beach-side fishing festival and luau called the Hukilau. And students at the church college, now BYU-Hawaii, had been staging a "Polynesian Panorama" culture show for tourists both in Laie and Honolulu.
David O. McKay, president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, authorized construction of the PCC as a nonprofit venture in 1962. The church brought in more than 100 labor missionaries and other church-member craftsmen to design and build authentic island villages on a 16-acre site adjacent to the church college. "We had no problem getting artisans from Tonga and Samoa. It was harder to get Fijians, because the church was not as strong there," said Hannemann, now the PCC's historian.
The project had a grand scale and some initial challenges. The PCC opened its gates in October 1963. In 1964, just before Christmas, the PCC's business office announced it couldn't make payroll. The center covered the shortfall with a loan. "All of the designers and the PCC board said they would stay on" through the tough time, Hannemann said.
The PCC was the embodiment of the prophecies of Mormon apostles dating back to the late 1800s, a part of the center's history most dear to Hannemann. According to the PCC, Matthew Cowley, a missionary to New Zealand who would later become an apostle, delivered a speech in Honolulu in which he said he hoped "to see the day when my Maori people down there in New Zealand will have a little village there at Laie with a beautiful carved house ... the Tongans will have a village, too, and the Tahitians and Samoans and all those islanders of the sea."
When the PCC first opened, it could only draw a big enough crowd to fill its 750-seat amphitheater on Saturdays. Then came promotional appearances at the Hollywood Bowl and "The Ed Sullivan Show." Elvis Presley filmed part of "Paradise, Hawaiian Style" at the PCC in 1966.
By October 1967, business was growing fast enough that Honolulu Magazine would write a story calling the PCC "The flop that flipped." The PCC's visitor count reached 1 million by 1968, 13.2 million by 1983 and 30.5 million by the PCC's 40th anniversary in 2003. The PCC has been Hawaii's top-paid visitor attraction since 1977.
Now the PCC occupies 42 acres and employs about 1,000 people, including more than 750 students from 70 countries and nearly every state. "That's $171 million in wages to students (since 1963) that pays for their education that doesn't come out of tithing," said Bobby Akoi, the PCC's protocol director.
"The center has also been a marvelous missionary tool for the church," said Von D. Orgill, the PCC's president and CEO. "Since 1990, 900,000 PCC guests have visited the temple visitors center" that is less than a mile away.
Students trained to perform at the PCC also return to their island homes ready to contribute after graduating from BYU-Hawaii. "Depending on where they're from, the need for them at home is very strong and they have leadership positions (in the church) almost immediately," Orgill said.
Phasing out the Hukilau
The opening of the Polynesian Cultural Center would be the beginning of the end of Laie's famous Hukilau.
The Hukilau was a luau and fishing activity that was launched in 1948 by the Laie Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Church members organized and staffed the Hukilau and used the money received from tourists to rebuild a chapel that had burned to the ground years earlier.
The Hukilau, staged several times a month, was a significant contributor to the concept that would become the PCC. But the transition from one to the other was anything but a handoff. The PCC opened its gates in 1963; the Hukilau would continue for some time, finally fading from existence in 1971.
"The transition took longer than what they wanted because people in the community still wanted the Hukilau," said Kela Miller, who grew up dancing at the Hukilau and would be among the entertainers who would migrate to the PCC.
Hotels in Honolulu were used to shipping bus excursions to Laie so their guests to could participate in the Hukilau. With the PCC operating, "All of the PCC's dancers were already at the Hukilau. The transition was letting (tourists) know about the Polynesian Cultural Center," Miller said.
The word "hukilau" literally describes pulling fishing nets in from the ocean; and the fishing activity was at the Hukilau's origins.
But the fishing changed over the years. "The fish were sparse and the number of people (at the Hukilau) was not what it was," said Cy Bridges, the PCC's cultural director. "The originals, who were staunch supporters of the Hukilau, were getting much older, retiring. Many of them also worked at the cultural center so they had other jobs."
Next week: Kids who chased each other around their village in Tonga are now college students in Hawaii playing the leads in the Polynesian Cultural Center’s new night show, “Ha: Breath of Life.” The show’s writers worked with a few questions in mind: What do we want visitors to take away? What will make them want to come back?