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The allure of old Polynesia lingers among the Pacific island people who demonstrate their traditional arts and crafts and perform their lively songs and dances at the Polynesian Cultural Center.
As early as 1844, missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (popularly called the Mormons) were working among the Polynesians in Tahiti and surrounding islands.
Missionaries arrived in the Sandwich Islands (Hawai’i) in 1850. By 1865, the LDS Church had purchased the 6,000-acre plantation that encompasses all of Laie.
The LDS Temple in Laie — started in 1915 and dedicated on Thanksgiving Day 1919 — attracted more islanders from throughout the South Pacific. By the 1920s, LDS Church missionaries had carried their Christian teachings to all the major island groups of Polynesia, by living among the people and speaking their languages.
In 1921, Laie had become very cosmopolitan — so much so that David O. McKay, a young Church leader on a world tour of Church missions, was deeply stirred as he watched school children of many races pledging allegiance to the American flag. That incident is depicted today in a beautiful mosaic mural hanging above the entrance to the McKay Foyer, a BYU-Hawai’i building named in McKay’s honor.
McKay envisioned that a school of higher learning would be built in the small community to go along with the recently completed Temple, making Laie the educational and spiritual center of the LDS Church in the Pacific. Beginning in 1955, under the direction of experienced contractors and craftsmen, “labor missionaries” built the school McKay had foreseen decades before, the Church College of Hawai’i. At the groundbreaking ceremony for the college, McKay predicted its students would literally influence millions of people in the years ahead. In 1974, Church College became a branch campus of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Today, BYU-Hawai’i is a four-year liberal arts school with about 2,400 undergraduate students. It is part of the LDS Church Educational System that includes BYU Provo and BYU-Idaho.
About the time of McKay’s visit to Laie in 1921, Matthew Cowley was finishing his first round of missionary service in New Zealand. There, he developed a deep love for the Maori people and other Polynesians. In time, he also became another important LDS leader who was concerned with the erosion of traditional island cultures. In a speech Cowley delivered in Honolulu, 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.”
The potential of such a concept was well established in the late 1940s when the Church members in Laie started a hukilau — a fishing festival with a luau feast and Polynesian entertainment — as a fund-raising event. From the beginning, it proved immensely popular and provided the inspiration for the well-known Hukilau Song that begins: “Oh we’re going to a hukilau…where the laulau is the kaukau at the big luau.” Busloads of visitors drove to Laie throughout the 1950’s; and by the end of that decade, Polynesian students at Church College of Hawai’i had started up Polynesian Panorama — a production of authentic South Pacific island songs and dances. They eventually played to standing-room-only crowds in Waikiki.
Cowley did not live to see his dream fulfilled but the vision had been planted in the hearts of others who nurtured and shaped it into reality. In early 1962, President McKay authorized construction of the Polynesian Cultural Center. He knew the completed project would provide much-needed and meaningful employment for the struggling students in then-rural Laie, as well as add an important dimension to their studies.
Over 100 “labor missionaries” again volunteered to help build the Polynesian Cultural Center’s original 39 structures on a 12-acre site that had previously been planted in taro, the native root used to make the Hawaiian staple food poi. Skilled artisans and original materials from the South Pacific were imported to ensure the authenticity of the village houses.
The Polynesian Cultural Center opened to the public on Oct. 12, 1963.
In the earliest years, Saturday was the only night villagers at the Polynesian Cultural Center could draw a big enough crowd to fill the 600-seat amphitheater. Following the tremendous boom in Hawai’i tourism industry, however, and promotional appearances at the Hollywood Bowl and on TV’s Ed Sullivan Show, the Center began to thrive. By the late 1960s, the amphitheater had been expanded to almost 1,300 seats. Villagers staged the evening show every night (except Sundays) and sometimes twice a night to accommodate peak-season crowds.
A major expansion in 1975 relocated and enlarged the Hawaiian village and added a Marquesan tohua or ceremonial compound. The following year a new amphitheater, which now seats almost 2,800 guests, was opened and several other buildings were added to the grounds, including the 1,000-seat Gateway Restaurant in 1979.
Many other additions followed in the 1980s: an 1850s-era Christian missionary compound (now called the Hawaiian Mission Settlement); a 70-foot bure kalou, or Fijian “spirit house” whose jutting roof dominates the northern end of the Center; the Migrations Museum; Yoshimura Store, a 1920’s-style shop that serves island treats; and totally re-landscaped villages.
The 1990s saw a new wave of important PCC products, all intended to ensure that each return visit is a totally new experience: In 1995, the Center introduced a new and exciting night show, Horizons, Where the Sea Meets the Sky; a breathtaking IMAX™ film, The Living Sea; and Treasures of Polynesia, a $1.4 million shopping plaza featuring a large collection of authentic island merchandise. In 1996, the Center created the Ali’i Luau, which takes guests on a nostalgic trip through Polynesia with popular hapa-haole hula music while they enjoy traditional Hawaiian luau food and entertainment. The luau was awarded the Hawai’i Visitors & Convention Bureau’s “Keep It Hawai’i” Award for the most authentic Hawaiian luau. In 1997, the Center was also awarded the ‘Oihana Maika’i Award by the State of Hawai’i for excellence in service and productivity.
The turn of the millennium has brought more changes to the Center including the addition of the IMAX™ film Dolphins, improvements to the front entrance, modifications to the retail sales areas to create a more authentic shopping experience and more. The Aloha Theater was renovated to handle special group functions of 1,000 or more. In response to visitor satisfaction surveys, cultural presentations were lengthened to an hour each to give the visitors more to experience. And, to give them more time to experience it all, the PCC introduced its “Free within Three” campaign that lets a guest purchase a ticket for a package and then come back again for two additional days to fit in all that they may have missed the first day. The year 2001 brought the start of many changes to the face of the Center, with more than one million dollars in improvements to the front entrance landscaping.
As the PCC celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2003, even more changes took place to enhance the beauty, culture and learning guests of all ages and backgrounds enjoy. A new front entrance now features mini-museum displays of artifacts from each of the islands represented at the Center, as well as hand-carved replicas of the various voyaging canoes used throughout Polynesia. An exhibit featuring moai statues of Rapa Nui or Easter Island — created onsite by artisans from Rapa Nui — has opened to round out representation of the Polynesian Triangle; the all-new Hale Aloha venue now houses the award-winning Ali’i Luau, as does the all-new Hale Kuai and Hale ‘Ohana, with a fun show featuring songs and dances that take guests on a journey around the Hawaiian Islands and into the heart of Hawai’i’s people.
The Polynesian Cultural Center has concentrated this spirit in a beautiful North Shore setting and consequently become world-renowned as a special place of enchantment, entertainment and education.