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Scott Lloyd, Deseret News
Dancers perform in the Tongan segment of the Polynesian Cultural Center's 50th anniversary program, featuring alumni from 1963 to 1987, the first 25 years of the center's existence.

LAIE, Hawaii — For 50 years, the Polynesian Cultural Center has been a must-see attraction for visitors to Oahu’s famous north shore, a 42-acre museum of spectacle, music and dance highlighting the lifestyle and culture of six Pacific island nations.

In that time, it has entertained more than 37 million tourists while providing scholarship and employment opportunities for thousands of students attending the adjacent Brigham Young University-Hawaii.

Both are owned and operated by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and, together with the church’s gleaming temple in Laie, fulfill the 1921 vision of former church President David O. McKay that the then small town would become the educational center of the church for the Pacific islands.

Thousands of alumni from the cultural center and the university have converged here this week to celebrate the center’s golden anniversary. Many have donned the costumes and relearned some of the routines they performed when they were students here.

“We’re really fortunate to have some of our alumni from the very beginning still able to join us,” said center President P. Alfred Grace.

“In fact, over this week we’ve had individuals over 90 years of age take the stage to perform for us. For many of them, this is their swan song. And they’ve really come home to a place that in their hearts and in their minds reminds them of some of the best times in their lives, a care-free time, a time when they were able to meet new and different people from around the world, a time when they met their eternal companions, a time when they started their families together, gained an education and were able to begin their lives together.”

Grace, who hails from New Zealand, is a product of the cultural center, where he began as a dancer in 1983. After graduating from the university, he rose through the ranks of sales executive, senior vice president and chief operating officer. He assumed the role of president and CEO in February.

Polished and gregarious in bearing, he readily states he was not always that way.

“Back in 1983, you couldn’t get boo out of me,” he said. “But when you work at a place like the Polynesian Cultural Center, you can’t stay shy for long.”

Maryella Barber Scharnhorst also experienced that growth and expansiveness from her experience at the cultural center, where she began in 1986 with her twin sister Connie Barber Burke.

“We’re Maori, which is the native indigenous people of New Zealand,” she said. “We’re quite a close-knit community, very culturally minded stick together. We didn’t really reach out. And coming here, we had no choice but to. We realized what we missed out on, getting to know such beautiful people. And from that, we’ve gained lifelong relationships.”

In fact the cultural center alumni regard one another as extended family, a sense that was pervasive Friday night during more than four hours of programming in the center’s Pacific Theater, two hours for the “Golden Alumni Show” featuring performers from 1963 to 1987, and the “Silver Alumni Show” put on by alumni from 1988 to the present.

“We have people that haven’t put on a dance costume for 40 years,” Grace said prior to the evening performance. “They put the costume on and their mind goes back to that day. They just forget that they don’t have the same body. And so they’re out there dancing like it was 40 years ago, loving the opportunity to do what gave them so much joy.”

With some of the performers, the athleticism they exhibited belied their age, as in the Samoan fire dance, for example. The show featured segments from each of the six island nations featured at the center: Fiji, Tahiti, Hawaii, Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand.

More than 4,000 cultural center alumni and guests obtained tickets for the two shows.

Other activities in connection with the celebration continue through the weekend, with an anniversary parade through Laie, a luau and performance of the center’s signature evening show, “Ha: The Breath of Life.”

On Sunday, Elder Russell M. Nelson of the LDS Quorum of the Twelve, who attended the Friday Golden Anniversary Show, will dedicate the new Heber J. Grant Building on the BYU-Hawaii campus and will deliver a satellite-televised Church Educational System devotional address from the university campus.

For more information, please visit www.polynesia.com.