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The '70s: Viva la Cultural Revolution!

Dozens of great cultural organizations are celebrating 30th anniversaries in Hawaii. What was in the air when they were launched?


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 Ballet Hawaii (1976)

Photo courtesy of Ballet Hawaii

The Honolulu City Ballet, circa 1978, at a rehearsal in the old Kakaako fire station.

Honoluluans felt a hunger for arts and culture at all levels of society in the 1970s, even at the mayor’s office. Robert Sandla was part of Mayor Frank Fasi’s administration in 1976. Fasi, he said, announced to him one day that he wanted to form a professional ballet company as part of his city administration. Fasi’s decision was inspired by his daughter, dancer Gioia, and his belief that no city can be complete without dance.

Fasi’s administration created the Honolulu City Ballet in 1976 under the Department of Parks and Recreation, using federal grants provided under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), a 1973 law meant to train workers for public-service jobs.

Jim Hutchison remembers, “I was the first person Fasi hired [for the ballet].” Hutchison, still a prominent actor, director and choreographer in Hawaii, had a rich dancing background from New York, and “City Hall people needed a dance person. We cooperated with the Los Angeles Ballet and brought in about half of our company from L.A.”

There was never enough funding to cover every expense, requiring some imaginative budget justifications. “I once presented them with a bill for 94 pairs of toe shoes,” recalls Hutchison. “City beautification, maybe?”

Ballet Hawaii began as Friends of the Ballet, a support group for the Honolulu City Ballet, to solve those budget crunches. Ballet Hawaii’s current artistic director, Pamela Taylor-Tongg, says with a laugh that, “We started the school to pay the rent.” In 1976, even locating and renting studio space was a major concern.

The federal government phased out CETA in 1982, the Honolulu City Ballet closed soon after. But Friends of the Ballet continues as Ballet Hawaii.

Hutchison likes what he sees today. “They’re still doing Swan Lake, the classics, but ballet’s developing an edginess, looking ahead as well as at the past. Pamela is providing excellent training at her school, and many Ballet Hawai‘i dancers are going on to become great successes outside of Hawaii.”

Judy Muncaster, now Ballet Hawaii’s director of development, worked with the Honolulu Symphony in the ’70s. She posed another possible reason arts organizations were forming and thriving then.

“Large national trusts and foundations had money to spend, and Hawaii’s ‘Big 5’ donated funding. The city administration helped, too, but by the ’80s, when Pamela arrived, many of these resources had dried up.”

What began as a school with a few students serves more than 300 students in the Islands today. The school established “to pay the rent” brings in top professionals to motivate and teach those students and to perform in Ballet Hawaii’s world-class productions, fulfilling their stated mission of “enriching Hawaii’s cultural environment by teaching, promoting and producing dance.”


Historic Hawaii Foundation (1974)

Photos courtesy of Historic Hawaii Foundation

The Royal Brewery, shown in 1984, narrowly escaped demolition. The Princess Theatre, shown top right, was less lucky—it was razed in 1968.

Curiously, while Fasi’s interest in ballet helped to start one of Hawaii’s ongoing arts groups, his trigger-happy way with bulldozers helped galvanize the early efforts of another new-in-the-1970s cultural group—the Historic Hawaii Foundation.

Helen Cole, now 93, was one of those far-sighted leaders. She remembers when she and Charles Black, both advisers to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, decided to form a group in Hawaii. They sought advice when at a Trust meeting in Washington, D.C.

“We came back to Hawaii with practical advice, with a model [Historic Denver, Inc.] to follow, and a promise of staff and sponsorship for preservation workshops held on all the islands. We were heartened by what happened—about 175 people came to the Royal Hawaiian Hotel for the meetings in 1975, and many from that group became charter members of what we called the Historic Hawaii Foundation.”

From the beginning, the HHF drew supporters from throughout the state. Cole credits Una Walker with keeping the group alive during its early years. The wife of Henry Walker, she shared her spacious Nu‘uanu home with the group.

“Una was a grand old lady,” Cole recalls. “She not only turned over upstairs rooms for office space for years, she also fixed delicious lunches for our volunteers.”

Cole lists others who played central roles in the HHF’s success, including former governor Bill Quinn, then remembers the firemen. The firemen?

Yes, firemen.

“Mayor Fasi decided that the old Royal Brewery building in Kakaako [built in 1900] should be knocked down,” remembers Cole. “We were determined that it wouldn’t be. Knowing that the mayor moved quickly when he’d made up his mind, firemen in the nearby station set up a 24-hour watch for us. We won.”

Kiersten Faulkner, current executive director of the Historic Hawaii Foundation, notes that, “In the ’70s, people were watching their treasures disappear. Buildings, such as the old Princess Theater and the Royal Brewery were being demolished, history was vanishing. It was a decade of wake-up calls. Do something now or these will be lost.”


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Honolulu Magazine June 2018
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