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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?

E. Shan Correa
Amazing, unprecedented things were happening in the Islands in the 1970s. Little more than a decade since the first jet landed here in 1959, it seemed the world was coming to Hawaii as Hawaii was beaming itself out to the world. If you lived here 30 years ago, some of these happenings should rekindle your memories:

The Revolutionaries


These are some of the major Hawaii Community groups forged during the turbulent 1970s:

1970: Hawaii State Theatre Council
1970: Moanalua Gargens Foundation
1971: Manoa Valley Theatre (as HPAC in 1969)
1972: Japan-America Institute of Management Science
1973: Hawaii Community Concert Band
1973: Polynesian Voyaging Society
1974: Historic Hawaii Foundation
1974: Pacific Handcrafters Guild
1976: Ballet Hawaii
1976: Hawaii Island Public Radio (KHPR)
1977: Na Hoku Hanohano Awards
1978: Bamboo Ridge Press
1978: Institute for Human Services
1978: Iolani Palace (opens as a museum)
While all this was going on locally, writer Tom Wolfe had dubbed the ’70s the “Me Generation.” The social activism of the ’60s was out, doing stuff that “just felt good” was in for those egocentric ’70s kids. Trust yourself, not your religion, family or institutions of any kind. Alienation was totally cool. That and sex, discos, crazy clothes and psychedelic colors.

Hawaii had its share of disco and bell bottoms. But there was as much “we” going on as “me.” Activist groups such as Kokua Kalama and Save Our Surf were just a few of the organizations formed in the early ’70s that would shape Hawaii’s future for the better.

These were hardly the only groups to get going back then. Over the past few years, we’ve noticed that a slew of community organizations (at least 15 at last count, see sidebar at right) were celebrating their 30th anniversaries. Since founders and leaders of these arts, consumer, preservation and cultural groups are still around today, we turned to them for an explanation, asking: “What was in the air?”

No matter what roles the groups play in society, each seemed to have been formed to answer one of two problems in the Hawaii of the 1970s:  Things we treasured in Hawaii were being lost forever, and someone had to protect them. Things we loved were not available in the Islands, and someone had to bring them.


Photo courtesy of KHPR


Top:  Egg cartons cushioned KHPR’s first studio, where Cliff Eblen and Bob Miller broadcast.

Bottom:  They couldn’t do this with an iPod … KHPR celebrates its second birthday with a “boombox parade” around Ala Moana Beach Park.

Hawaii Public Radio (Hawaii Islands Public Radio, 1976; HPR, 1981)

Today, Hawaii Public Radio is such a familiar cultural institution, supported by nearly 12,000 members, it’s hard to remember a time when it didn’t exist. But Cliff Eblen, Hawaii Public Radio’s first president and manager, remembers the enormous struggle he and others faced in getting the radio station started.

After leaving Wisconsin for Hawaii in 1966, the already experienced broadcaster found “26 radio stations. Not one with decent programming!”

A group of people who felt the same decided to launch a station to carry National Public Radio’s programming. In 1976, they incorporated, calling themselves Hawaii Islands Public Radio. “We were an enthusiastic bunch,” says Eblen. “Plenty of enthusiasm … not much accomplished.”

Their cause didn’t solidify until business and cultural leaders joined the board. Businessman John Henry Felix was named board chairman, and organized fundraising began. Felix recruited Eblen, who, in 1981, flipped a switch in a jury-rigged studio on the University of Hawaii’s Manoa campus and Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” streamed out on Hawaii Public Radio’s first broadcast.

The photo above shows Eblen and fellow HPR pioneer Bob Miller broadcasting from a tiny studio that UH president Fujio Matsuda found for them in a rundown gym workout room.

Eblen says, “Those were real egg cartons on the walls. We scrounged them from restaurants and nailed them up for acoustic dampening. Everything was scrounged from someone.”

Attorney Carol Eblen, Cliff Eblen’s wife, remembers HPR’s early days well, as she was much involved. It was a hard-scrabble time, when a technician for the station, Craig Miller, had to climb up Wiliwilinui Ridge to get to the transmitter tower; when their newsman, Tom Armbruster, covered a story by pedaling to it on his “Newsbike.”

Every penny counted. “We never knew if we’d make our payroll,” Cliff says. “One month we were short, and on payday, attorney Jim Paul walked in with a check for the exact amount we needed. It was like that. When we needed a new staff member, the perfect person showed up. When we thought we couldn’t continue, another music lover came through with the money we needed, and, well ... here we are.”

 
 

Polynesian Voyaging Society (1973)


Photo by Monte Costa

The 1975-built Hokulea was the first voyaging canoe crafted in Hawaii in more than 600 years. It’s shown here off the north coast of Molokai in 1997.

By the 1970s, most things Hawaiian—language, chants, music, dance, good health, history, pride—had become endangered species. But a movement was afoot early in that decade that was so epoch-making, it is now called the Hawaiian Renaissance.

The decade of the ’70s restored the views of Hawaiian culture from a Hollywood version to one that respected the Hawaiians’ true cultural identity. In music, musicians Gabby Pahinui and Keola and Kapono Beamer restored Hawaiian pride through slack key music. In politics, the Protect Kahoolawe Ohana (PKO) fought to save the island from U.S. Navy bombing practice. Two of the group’s leaders, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, even died in a 1977 attempt to occupy the island as a protest, though PKO would prevail.

Meanwhile, another organization formed to speak for the ancient Hawaiian ways—the Polynesian Voyaging Society, which aimed to rediscover centuries-old navigation sciences.

When anthropologist Ben Finney came to Hawaii as a graduate student in 1958, the prevailing scholarship held that ancient voyagers had discovered islands in the huge Polynesian triangle by accident. Finney, however, believed that the early Polynesians had both the navigational skills and the canoes needed to accomplish that amazing feat.

He built a boat, the Nalehia, to test some of his theories, but, “What was needed was a new canoe to sail to Tahiti using the ancient voyagers’ traditional wayfinding. It had to be a community project,” Finney says.

Herb Kane, the artist, and Tommy Holmes joined Finney in starting the Polynesian Voyaging Society as a nonprofit corporation that would allow them to pass along knowledge to future students.

By 1975, the voyaging canoe replica was completed, and in 1976, the Hokulea, captained by Niihau native Kawika Kapahulehua and navigated by Micronesian wayfinder Mau Piailug, sailed the 2,400 nautical miles to Tahiti without using instruments. The Hokulea became a symbol of the Hawaiians’ abilities and strengths.

That voyage not only made history, but also created the opportunity for a new generation of traditional navigators to come into their own, such as Nainoa Thompson, who learned, as Thompson calls them, “the fundamentals of the skies” from Piailug and another teacher, Will Kyselka.
The Polynesian Voyaging Society, its navigators and supporters, the boat Hokulea, the canoe’s continuing voyages and the society’s education programs are still fostering dreams and building pride 34 years after three men got together to “build a boat.”

 

Iolani Palace (Opened as a public museum in 1978)


Photos courtesy of Friends of Iolani

A 1976 shot (right) shows that Iolani Palace was in shambles before it was renovated and reopened as a museum. Left: Palace docents are trained.


In the ’70s, Iolani Palace was at a crossroads. The Hawaii State Legislature had moved out of the palace in 1969, in favor of the newly completed State Capitol Building, and the palace, unoccupied, had yet to find a new purpose. Alice Guild, board president of the Friends of Iolani Palace, recalls that, “Some legislators complained that the Palace blocked their ocean view.”

Historian Rhoda Hackler and Zita Cup Choy, one of the earliest palace docents, report that the building then was deteriorating and abused. In fact, it would take eight years to get the palace ready for its new life as a public museum.

“Liliuokalani Kawananakoa Morris founded the Friends of Iolani Palace to restore the palace and preserve the history of the Hawaiian monarchy,” Guild says.

The Friends hired one of America’s leading historical architects, Charles Peterson, to prepare plans for the restoration, while the Friends of
Iolani Palace supervised the years of restoration work. A noted architect, Geoffrey Fairfax, guided the physical restoration of the building.

Guild had proposed a prodigious research project to guide the restoration, for which the Junior League of Hawaii volunteered for with great enthusiasm, if little expertise.

“We had no idea how to research,” Guild recalls. “Even then, though, when someone was needed, a person with exactly the right skills materialized. Just when I was wondering what we had done taking on this project, Rhoda Hackler introduced herself and said, ‘I might be able to help. I have some background in research.’

“She’d transferred from the Mainland and was everything we could have dreamed of. Soon, she was leading us over to the State Archives building.”

Today, the Friends’ volunteers continue to search for, acquire and conserve the original palace furnishings and artifacts, all of which were auctioned off after the overthrow of the monarchy. To date, more than 4,700 artifacts have been returned to the palace because of their worldwide searches.

 
 

 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.”

 

 
Of the HHF founders, Faulkner said, “They were far-sighted enough to not take things for granted. They wanted to enjoy the fruits of their own labors, but also to offer something to future generations.”

The HHF still preserves historic buildings, archaeological sites, objects and cultural traditions in Hawai‘i. Today, 25 trustees and more than 2,500 members and volunteers work to preserve Hawaii’s treasures. It has strong educational programs aimed at instilling “a preservation ethic” in Hawaii’s youngsters.

Much that is special about Hawaii today began with people banding together and working to make worthwhile things happen back in the ’70s. Groups rescued and restored buildings and cultural treasures, assured that Hawai‘i had access to rich art, music and dance of all types, fostered cultural pride, and introduced a more realistic view of Hawaii’s people and places to the world. All of this was accomplished during a decade remembered primarily for its self-absorption.

In a time when much about life in the Islands was changing, some people here found a way to build things that would last.

E. Shan Correa’s last piece for HONOLULU was about the Honolulu Symphony, in our October 2007 issue.