Belated Aloha to Auntie Kau'i (1932 -2020)by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I've written several books over the years about hidden treasures at Walt Disney World, including my most recent book Hidden Treasures of Walt Disney World Resort Hotels. That book includes an entire chapter devoted to the Polynesian Village Resort where I spotlight some of the detailing and storytelling that make it such a memorable experience.
I talk about the back story of the Bou-Tiki shop about how a group of mischievous tikis (all hand-carved in Bali) awake from their daily slumber to cause chaos in the shop at night. Caught unexpectedly by the morning sunlight they are frozen in their playful acts, including one who has a finger to its mouth to encourage guests not to reveal their secret to the shop operators.
I also go into some detail about the Kukui Nut Tree out behind the Great Ceremonial House that was planted by a guest in April 1997. It has survived a lightning strike, almost being uprooted in a hurricane and being frozen in an unseasonable Florida cold snap. It is the only one in Florida and it came from Hawaii where since 1959 it has been the official state tree. The kukui nut can be used for many things from toys to shampoo to medicine to providing light when it is burned. A lei of black kukui nuts symbolizes leadership and was considered highly prestigious and sacred and were only worn by the reigning kings of Hawaii because the leis would not disintegrate over time like a flower lei.
I also point out that when we look at hidden treasures we should not just think about things but people. I think many of us can think of cast members who were real treasures in making our memories magical during a visit to the parks. Some of them truly enriched the experience for us and we often take for granted their back stories before they encountered us.
I have not been back to the WDW parks since they closed last year and unfortunately, many of my friends who worked for WDW were furloughed and later laid off and not asked to return. All of that meant that I am not up-to-date on what was happening on property. After all, not much of importance was probably happening.
I guess that was the reason that I missed the fact that a true hidden treasure at the Polynesian Village resort had passed away.
Kau'ihealani Mahikoa Brandt, who was born March 13, 1932, died on January 9, 2020 at the age of 88, and I just recently found out about it. So that is the reason for this belated aloha remembrance.
She was an artist, a performer, a teacher, a wife, a mother and an inspiration to everyone she met. She was passionate about sharing her Hawaiian culture and the culture of Polynesia.
I talked with her briefly several times over the years but finally sat down for two hours to talk with her in January 2017, hoping to get some insights into the early days at Walt Disney World.
Unfortunately, the friends I was with had little interest in listening to her for even a few minutes and rushed off to whatever it was they wanted to do. Over the years, those who did stop to listen to her were rewarded with kindness and warmth. For me it was a mesmerizing experience.
Cast members periodically came by to make sure she was OK and I was not bothering her. She assured them with a quiet smile that she was fine and enjoying talking to me.
One of the amazing things I learned was that as a child she was living near Pearl Harbor when the infamous Japanese attack on U.S. ships happened on December 7, 1941. She still clearly remembered, as a child, going up onto the roof of her house with her brother to watch what was happening and having her mother yell at her to come inside where it was safer. She also remembered the challenges that took place on the island after the war began including some of her friends being taken away but preferred to talk about happier times.
As we talked, she sat and did as she had for so many years, she carefully wove flowers and Ti Leaves together, creating traditional circlet Leis that were sold or sometimes given on special occasions, like to newlyweds. I was amazed at how the aged hands moved with such swiftness and flexibility as if by instinct.
Kau'i Brandt was born during a Hawaiian thunder and lightning storm in 1932 and was named "Kau'ihealani," which means "thundering voice of heaven." She used the shortened version "Kau'i," but most Disney fans knew her as "Auntie Kau'i," who for years was a fixture at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.
Kau'i's route to Walt Disney World was an interesting one. Her Hawaiian grandmother showed her the stories of Polynesia told through hulas before she was able to speak. By the time she was 7 years old, Kau'i was telling the stories herself at luaus.
She grew up during a time when speaking Hawaiian was forbidden and kahiko-style (traditional) hula was taught only in secret. At the time, hula was considered vulgar because of the swaying hips and so was often used for comedic purposes with performers in cellophane skirts.
"The legends and history of Polynesia have always been passed from one generation to the next in the form of 'meles' or chants accompanied by the acting out of the story through expression of the body," she stated in an interview from 1972 while working at Walt Disney World.
"There are literally hundreds of hulas, which is not hard to understand if you consider the hula as a form of storytelling, because there are hundreds of stories. At the coronation of King Kalakua in 1873, 262 types of hulas were danced in joyful celebration.
"I began to take a serious interest in the poetry of Polynesia almost twenty years ago. The authentic dances of the islands are really so much more exciting than some of the commercial things you see in Hollywood films and nightclubs
"I studied the dances of Samoa, Tahiti, Tonga, Hawaii and the Maori dances of New Zealand. My teachers were always from the islands where the dances are still performed and knew the legends and traditions told in each dance. I taught and I learned. Many of my teachers were from the Mormon Church College on the island of Oahu in Hawaii."
The Mormon Church College was unique in that its teachers actively sought out students from all the islands of Polynesia and offered them scholarships. These young Samoans, Tongans and Maoris, many of whom had never lived anywhere else except their native islands, were given the opportunity to work at the Mormon-sponsored Polynesian Cultural Center.
Kau'i was approached three different times in the 1960s by Disney representatives (including once by Walt himself) to relocate to Southern California to perform at the Tahitian Terrace at Disneyland, but each time she refused, fearing that once she left she might never come back.
Tapping into the same love for South Seas culture that inspired the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Tahitian Terrace restaurant in Disneyland's Adventureland opened in 1962. It simply reformatted and expanded part of the Plaza Pavilion restaurant that already had a Hawaiian themed patio facing toward the Jungle Cruise attraction known as the Pavilion Lanai. Until the opening of the Blue Bayou restaurant, the Tahitian Terrace was considered the fanciest dining location at Disneyland. It was primarily just open during the summer and during busy seasons for lunch and dinner. The food and entertainment reflected the islands of Polynesia like Tahiti, Samoa, and Hawaii.
It was an outdoor seating area with tables and chairs and a higher level with a roof all facing the stage and served by waiters and waitresses. Unlike other restaurants, there were set times to dine because of the show. It was an approximate 30-minute experience with a live band providing the appropriate Polynesian rhythms. Originally it was sponsored by Stouffer's but was later taken over by Kikkoman.
From the back of the menu:
"Walt Disney has opened wide the portals to an enchanting island world across the blue Pacific…a world of romance, beauty, and exciting entertainment!
"Nestled beneath the tumbling waterfall is a matchless stage setting…a stage whose 'curtain' is a cascade of water, and whose 'footlights' are a leaping flame of fire burning on the water itself! For your summer evening entertainment, the falls magically draw aside . . . and out from behind the waters, sarong-clad natives appear to perform the swaying rhythms and amazing rituals of the islands . . . the hypnotic bare-foot fire walk and thrilling fire-knife dance, and the traditional grass-skirted hula of Samoa, Tahiti and Hawaii."
Men were brought up from the audience to have a hula lesson. All the guests were given complimentary artificial leis.
At the time, the menu was considered exotic for typical American tastes with Barbecued Pineapple Ribs, Skewered Chicken (with soy sauce), broiled teriyaki steak, coconut shrimp and coconut pineapple ice cream although the highlight for many was the (non-alcoholic) Planters Punch Tahitian, a blend of all the exotic fresh fruits of the Islands in a tall frosted cylindrical glass with faux flower memento.
It was replaced by the Aladdin's Oasis dinner show that only lasted two years. The area was revamped in December 2018 as the Tropical Hideaway, a new quick-service location featuring exotic food offerings.
Finally in 1971, though, Kau'i agreed to move to California for only eight months to perform in the show at Disneyland's Tahitian Terrace because it would allow her to bring along some of her talented students.
As Kau'i told me when I interviewed her in January 2017, "When Pono (Kau'i's husband) and I learned that the Disney organization was looking for a company of Polynesian artist to perform at Walt Disney World in 1971, we decided to put together an entire show ourselves that would be both authentic and exciting."
The couple then moved to Florida to open the Kau'i-Pono Polynesian Revue at the Polynesian Village Resort, with Kau'i as the master of ceremonies for the show.
The Grand Opening celebration for the Polynesian Village Resort on October 24, 1971, featured a spectacular night-time luau and show on the shore of the Seven Seas Lagoon for more than a thousand media and celebrity guests.
The show was performed on the beach in approximately the same location where the Luau Cove is today. However, the performers arrived in war canoes from the islands in the Seven Seas Lagoon at the beginning of the show.
In 1972, the Kau'i-Pono company had 28 young dancers and musicians and more than 100 dances in their repertory. At that time, the company appeared three times nightly in the Papeete Bay Verandah restaurant and at the evening luaus on the beach. Part of the group performed during the summer season and Christmas holidays at Disneyland. The luau was important from an operational standpoint because the restaurants got overwhelmed at the resort so having another location provided the opportunity for more guests to enjoy the Polynesian hospitality.
The Luau Cove structure with a canopy (in case of rain) was built in May 1972. It seated 550 guests and had a portable kitchen brought from the resort's Great Ceremonial House.
As mentioned, by using the outside facilities, it helped alleviate the food service challenges inside the resort. Luau Cove is the name of the structure not the actual cove.
In those early years at the resort, the lead dancer was Lauwaeomakana, who not only performed dances of Tahiti and Hawaii, but was one of the few women capable of doing the dangerous and difficult Samoan Knife Dance. Long hours were spent rehearsing for the entire company in order to build strength and flexibility for the energetic dances as well as learning new dances. Kau'i told me:
"It was natural that we would select some of our young dancers and musicians from among the students at Church College. We wanted the best performers, of course, but we also wanted eager, happy, young people who would best express the spirit of aloha – generosity, joy, and good will toward everyone.
"I believe our group of artists was unique among most Polynesian companies. Each performer is familiar not only with the culture and tradition of his own islands but with the other islands of the South Seas as well. We learned from each other, and, because of our enthusiasm and pride in our heritage, we hoped to give our audiences at Walt Disney World and Disneyland the very best of Polynesia.
"Hours were spent making authentic costumes, but no one complained. For example, our ti-leaf skirts had to be replaced with new ti leaves from Hawaii every two weeks. It takes 50 leaves and one person two hours to make one skirt.
"The men string kukui nuts for necklaces which were replaced regularly. Hundreds of shells must be sewn on skirts and elaborate headdresses. But always, there is 'aloha nui', big aloha."
Even after she left the Polynesian's luau show, Kau'i remained as a cultural representative at the resort for decades. Anyone who has met her in person discovered that she was warm and happy and ageless. She would sit in the lobby and create authentic leis from real flowers to give to couples celebrating honeymoons or anniversaries, among other things. She occasionally gave children Hawaiian cookies and hula lessons.
While she remained at Walt Disney World, she did return occasionally to Hawaii. On April 20, 2007, she returned briefly to receive the prestigious Duke's Ho'okahiko award presented by Duke's Waikiki restaurant to an individual who exemplifies the finest traditions of Hawaii. She was able to spend time reuniting with people she had not seen in 50 years.
"I can't express how much it meant to me. It was fabulous," she recalled once she had settled back in at the Polynesian Village Resort. "To be over there and receive the award was really special. It is supposed to be about spreading the culture and I didn't think I was doing anything but teaching aloha. I think I have the greatest job on Earth. It is a lot of sharing, and that is what it is about."
Another Disney cast member, Rose Monahan, accompanied the elderly treasure. Monahan danced with Kau'i at the nonprofit organization Kau'i started called "Na'o piopio I Orlando" (Children of Orlando) that teaches children for free how to dance the hula and raises money for competitions and costumes.
Monahan stated, "She is an inspiration to everyone. She is truly the definition of aloha, and when you meet her, you fall in love with her. She is welcoming to everyone and teaches everyone to love one another."
Another cultural representative at the Polynesian resort who had known Kau'i for more than 40 years, Ku'ulei Johnson, also showed up for the ceremony with a framed painting of the resort filled with signatures from cast members. Johnson told Eyes and Ears newspaper in May 2007: "[Kau'i] received this award for perpetuating the Hawaiian culture. She brings what the Polynesian truly represents, the spirit of aloha. We are all born with aloha. Some have to dig a little harder for it, but she exudes it. I am fortunate to work with her five days a week. She reminds me of what our culture really is."
Today, Disney's Spirit of Aloha Dinner Show at the Polynesian Village Resort is much different than Kau'i's original show, but the spirit of aloha is still the same.
"Guests ask us if we miss our islands, if we ever get homesick for our flowers, waterfalls, mountains and rolling waves," Kau'i said. "I tell them that we bring the islands with us in our songs, in our dances and especially in our spirit of aloha — the gift of the islands to all who enjoy life."
After my friends returned and I had to leave, she insisted that she give me one of the leis she had made. She told me it would bring me luck and that I would carry the spirit of the islands with me. I was speechless other than to thank her profusely.
To my friends, the gift meant nothing. They had seen other instances of generosity on WDW property by other cast members and had come to take it for granted. To me, it meant everything which is one of the reasons I wanted to write this column so that people might remember her.
The day after she passed, Walt Disney World Resort President Josh D'Amaro visited the Polynesian Village Resort with Thomas Mazloum, senior vice president of Resorts and Transportation. Together with cast members of Disney's Polynesian Village Resort, they gathered at sunset to remember their longtime friend in Hawaiian and English and song.
Without people like Auntie Kau'i, many valued Polynesian traditions would be lost or misinterpreted. How many guests took the quiet ageless woman sitting at a table in the lobby for granted as they rushed to the monorail or to a restaurant? She was a true hidden treasure and I am sorry that I only just discovered that she died over a year ago.