Some help with the Aborigines

In the early 1990s the management team at the Polynesian Cultural Center was trying to develop a series of “special events” to help overcome one of the periodic downturns in the visitor industry: The idea being to offer something new or different that would encourage people to visit, including some of those who have been before. Interestingly, the PCC’s Haunted Lagoon spooky canoe ride in October 2008 and the current A Gift for Sadie Christmas canoe ride are recent examples.

But I’m thinking of our earlier efforts, some of which are still going strong — the Samoan World Fire Knife Dance competition being the best example. Others were one-time hits…

For example, we brought a group of Fijian fire walkers who put on their demonstration in the Hale Aloha (before it was converted into the luau theater). I remember there was some media coverage of that one that questioned if the lava rocks were even hot, because of the porous and heat-dispersing nature. I can tell you after the show the rocks were still plenty hot. Of course, it helps if, like those Fijians, you’ve been walking barefoot all your life: The soles of their feet were tougher than my shoes.

But it’s a performing group of Australian Aborigines who really stick in my mind, because of the challenge we had of getting them through Immigration. It turns out there are visas for cultural exchanges, but there are also some strict requirements. One that gave us a challenge was to get a waiver from the appropriate labor union that we were not displacing any U.S. workers by bringing in this group from Northern Australia.

I was tasked with helping resolve this, not only because I was part of the marketing team, but also had some research experience from journalism and had actually worked for several labor unions for a couple of years. Let me also say here that lots of people at PCC worked on this project, Reg Schwenke and Pulefano Galea’i in particular stick out in my mind.

So, the first step was to try to identify which labor union had jurisdiction. In each attempt I had to explained that the PCC was trying to bring a performing Aboriginal group on a short cultural exchange: That took a while, and it turned out none of the local organizations were it. It took longer to start calling national labor organizations on the mainland. Some of them weren’t very friendly.

With discouragement setting in as the final deadline for getting this permission, booking the tickets, and getting the group here on time drew close, I got hold a man named Wade Alexander, the main guy in a theatrical workers union in New York City. As I started to explain what we were trying to do he said, hold it:

It turned out Mr. Alexander was originally from Australia and knew all about Aborigines. He was delighted that the PCC was going to bring some of them to Hawaii to perform, and he immediately faxed the permission form to us.

The group came and performed to mixed reviews, as I recall. It certainly wasn’t one of our best special events, but I’ll never forget the minor miracle of getting them here. Reg Schwenke’s connections with the Immigration Service also helped tremendously. That event was special in many ways for those of us behind the scenes, too.

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