O‘ahu in 1967: The Polynesian Cultural Center Was Once Considered Outlandish
But since it opened in 1963, some 38 million people have visited.
The photo caption to the largest image of student-entertainers reads: “They preserve the old life with the help of computers and a time clock.” In the breezy, frequently sexist and often ethnically insensitive style of HONOLULU Magazine in the ’60s, then-editor David Eyre told the story of the Polynesian Cultural Center’s remarkable success. Eyre recounts that many in the community originally scoffed at the idea of the center. It featured Polynesian villages and entertainment and was run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as the Mormon church, designed to draw tourist interest to help support the neighboring Church College.
The Flop That Flipped
This month marks the fourth anniversary of the Polynesian Cultural Center at Laie, a unique and ambitious church project that got off to a stumbling start, slowly picked up momentum and today can only be described as boffo—a word in the lexicon of Variety that means wham-my-SRO-zowie-hooray!
Profits from the center will eventually go directly to the Church College of Hawaii which nestles nearby. Established in 1954 the college today has an enrollment of 1120 students. Of this number 80% are from Hawaii and the Mainland, 20% come from Samoa, New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti and Tonga.
The center evolved most naturally within the orbit of the Mormons who started proselytizing in the South Pacific more than 100 years ago. The Mormons recognize the Polynesians as a branch of the House of Israel, which, in church theology, is a fact of great importance. Mormon missionaries lived in Polynesian houses, spoke the local language and learned the island folkways. “They loved the Polynesian character for its kindness, its instinctive religious feeling and its gay zest for life,” said David W. Cummings, a publicist for the center.
The Mormons watched their dances, heard their songs, listened to the lore of the land and, as they observed these people, they were both enchanted and grieved—grieved because they were convinced that they were witnessing a vanishing culture. In fact they became convinced that the culture would vanish entirely unless something was done about it.
Construction on six Polynesian villages on 16 acres began in April 1962 and the gates opened in October 1963. A core of volunteers, called labor missionaries, came from all parts of the Pacific and the Mainland to aid in the construction but, despite low labor costs, the church had to put up $1.5 million for materials.
The Mormons were forced to put up another $1.1 million before the center finally showed in the black. The first two years were very difficult and the doubters of the tourist industry nodded knowingly and said “we coulda told you so—40 miles from Waikiki—a dull little town—lots of wind and rain—tapa making (So what? Who Cares?) and that nicey-nice night show where the Tahitian girls are fully clothed from neck to navel to knee. It’ll never sell!”
Today the Polynesian Cultural Center is going strong, as is Brigham Young University-Hawai‘i, renamed in 1974. The center says current student entertainers often receive college scholarship support as well as pay that starts at minimum wage and goes up. The ticket price now for an all-included trip with transportation, lū‘au and show is closer to $150 apiece for adults.
Find more photos from Honolulu’s past every Thursday on Instagram: @honolulumag.