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Alumni recall memories, celebrate anniversary of Polynesian Cultural Center

Published: Thursday, Aug. 29 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

Since it was founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center has grown to entertain more than 37 million visitors and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii. The PCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September. (Skylar Nielsen) Since it was founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center has grown to entertain more than 37 million visitors and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii. The PCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September. (Skylar Nielsen)

Tema Hunkin figures she owes the Polynesian Cultural Center her life.

“If it wasn’t for that place, my parents wouldn’t have met and joined the LDS Church,” she said with emotion in her voice. “That place is really special. It transforms lives.”

Hunkin is one of countless alums who continue to relish fond memories of working or performing at the “PCC” in Laie, located on the northern shore of Oahu, Hawaii. Many, including Hunkin, plan to return the first week of September to celebrate the center’s 50th anniversary.

What began as a way to help students earn money and preserve the culture of the Pacific Islands has grown into a rich legacy and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii.

"Ha: Breath of Life" is performed at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley Thursday, July 25, 2013. Hawaii's Polynesian Cultural Center marks its 50th anniversary with several special events in Utah this month. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

“It’s one part of the Lord’s vineyard that really has influence in the world,” Hunkin said. “The miracles that have happened in that small but significant town of Laie, it’s remarkable.”

A rich history

A timeline on pcc50.com highlights the key events that led up to the construction of the Polynesian Cultural Center.

Elder Matthew Cowley of the Quorum of the Twelve first shared the idea for a Polynesian village while speaking at the Oahu Stake Conference in March 1951.

Three years later, the First Presidency announced the establishment of The Church College of Hawaii, a two-year college.

Polynesian Cultural Center, Nov. 2010 (Gerry Avant, Deseret News Archives) Polynesian Cultural Center, Nov. 2010 (Gerry Avant, Deseret News Archives)

In the late 1950s, Elder Cowley’s idea began to take shape. Groups of local youths and students were organized to perform traditional dances for tourists in an effort to stimulate the economy and allow students to earn money. Initially these performances drew small crowds. But by the early 1960s, the groups were entertaining sellout crowds.

LDS Church President David O. McKay approved funding and plans for the “Polynesian Village” in 1961. Labor missionaries began construction on the 12-acre property the following year.

President Hugh B. Brown of the First Presidency dedicated the Polynesian Cultural Center on Oct. 12, 1963.

With time the center began to thrive. A major expansion took place in 1974.

Over the years, stars including Elvis Presley, Lee Majors and others produced films and TV shows at the center.

Since it was founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center has grown to entertain more than 37 million visitors and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii. The PCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September. (Skylar Nielsen) Since it was founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center has grown to entertain more than 37 million visitors and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii. The PCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September. (Skylar Nielsen)

More additions were made. Ground was broken for a new large-format theater in 1989. The Hukilau Theater, the first of its kind in Hawaii, was dedicated in 1991 by President Thomas S. Monson, then a member of the First Presidency.

In 1997, the center opened its $4 million, 16,000-square-foot food preparation and distribution center. Attendance at the PCC surpassed 25 million the same year.

In 2003, the center completed a $2.4 million renovation project that included the addition of new museum displays, landscaping and other various needs.

In 2010, President Monson and President Henry B. Eyring, first counselor in the First Presidency, visited the center while in town to rededicate the Laie Hawaii Temple.

A year later, the PCC announced intentions to spend $38 million over a five-year period to enhance and upgrade facilities and programs, including a makeover of the Gateway Restaurant, an expanded shopping plaza and changes to the Hukilau Theater.

William Tenney met his future wife, Mechelle, while they both danced at the Polynesian Cultural Center in the early 1990s. This is a photo of them before a performance in South Korea during that time. (Provided by William Tenney) William Tenney met his future wife, Mechelle, while they both danced at the Polynesian Cultural Center in the early 1990s. This is a photo of them before a performance in South Korea during that time. (Provided by William Tenney)

When visiting the Laie Stake Conference in 1981, President Gordon B. Hinckley said, “I never come to Laie that I don’t have a feeling that this place occupies some peculiar position in the plan of the Lord.”

President Hinckley later said: “The marvelous thing is that this place is unique in all the world. We don’t have anyplace else what we have in Laie, where we have the beautiful temple, which is the crown jewel of this complex, and this magnificent school (BYU-Hawaii) … and this wonderful facility, the Polynesian Cultural Center, dedicated to the preservation of the native arts and crafts of the peoples of the Pacific. I repeat, it’s unique in all the world. … This is the only place in the world where we have this kind of triad.”

Memories and blessings

Hunkin started out as a PCC tour guide in the early 1990s. She served an LDS mission and returned to work there until she graduated in 1998.

"Ha: Breath of Life" is performed at the Utah Cultural Celebration Center in West Valley Thursday, July 25, 2013. Hawaii's Polynesian Cultural Center marks its 50th anniversary with several special events in Utah this month. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

“It was such a learning experience,” she said.

Like Hunkin, many others have worked at the PCC while gaining an education at BYU-Hawaii. William Tenney started as a dancer before moving up to assistant stage manager in the mid- to late 1980s. After serving an LDS mission, he became a group manager and director. It’s also how he met his wife, Mechelle, who was also a dancer.

“She was from New Zealand and I was from Samoa,” Tenney said. “We traveled to China and South Korea. Those are some of my great memories. It was a great experience.”

Tenney said the lessons he learned while working at the center have remained with him.

“The PCC has taught me to love, appreciate and respect the other cultures of the Pacific,” he said. “It’s also strengthened my knowledge that we are all sons and daughters of God, and we should have brotherly love.”

Since it was founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center has grown to entertain more than 37 million visitors and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii. The PCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September. (Skylar Nielsen) Since it was founded in 1963, the Polynesian Cultural Center has grown to entertain more than 37 million visitors and is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Hawaii. The PCC will celebrate its 50th anniversary in September. (Skylar Nielsen)

Another alum, Sina Suesue, was a front gate greeter and later a dancer in the 1980s. She appreciated the pre-performance devotionals and spiritual atmosphere and will never forget the night they danced for President Spencer W. Kimball, president of the LDS Church at that time.

“It was always the best show. The supervisors would tell us, 'The prophet is here; put on your best,'” she said. “It was different. There was a spiritual feeling there as much as it was entertainment. He later thanked us and said, ‘What a beautiful sight you are.’”

Suesue said work at the PCC was never actually work.

“For those of us who were there, we were all close friends. When we have reunions, it’s great to remember the memories and good feelings. The friendships are everlasting,” she said. “I’m looking forward to sitting down and having an all-nighter to reminisce on the good times.”

Long before becoming chief operating officer at the PCC, Logo Apelu was a dishwasher at the center in the 1970s.

“I was excited to have my first job. It was very rewarding,” Apelu said. “I learned so much from that job, especially hard work and organizational skills.”

From that first job Apelu climbed the ladder up to vice president of operations before he was named the chief officer last spring.

He is excited to celebrate the golden anniversary because the PCC has impacted so many lives.

“The center has blessed the lives of a lot of students all over the world, especially from the Pacific, to prepare themselves mentally, physically and spiritually to become leaders. The center has assisted all of us to financially gain our education. To be part of the celebration is amazing.”

When the celebration begins, Hunkin hopes the whole church will appreciate it, not just the alumni.

“It’s a great time for alumni. It’s a time to be together and celebrate our experiences in helping to build the kingdom,” she said. “But it’s also for the whole church to celebrate. The missionary work that goes on in that little town is amazing. The spirit at the PCC is a symbol that the Lord knows his children and he has his own strategies for doing missionary work. I hope that perspective is also celebrated. It will be a great occasion.”

For more information on the PCC and the anniversary, visit www.pcc50.com.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com Twitter: tbtoone

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