Ralph Barney, PCC’s first public relations manager

Based on a December 16, 2022, telephone interview with Mike Foley

There’s some question as to who was the Polynesian Cultural Center’s first publicist or public relations manager. Some say it was one of the labor missionaries who had been an advertising copywriter, others that the early PCC brought in a guy from Hollywood, but Ralph D. Barney, 91 at the time of this interview and living in Orem, Utah, thought it was him.

Barney was a Korean conflict vet and a graduate student at BYU (in Provo, Utah) in early 1961, with 14 inches of snow on the ground, when Church College of Hawaii hired him to teach journalism and other courses that Fall. He had formerly served as a U.S. Navy journalist and public information officer aboard the heavy cruiser USS St. Paul Minneapolis (CA-73).

After he and his family arrived in Laie later that year, he taught journalism and was the faculty advisor to the student newspaper, Ke Alaka’i (which BYU–Hawaii still publishes). He didn’t know anything about a labor missionary/writer, but he remembered the PCC brought in a promoter from Hollywood.

Ralph Barney
Barney… tall, lean. likeable
David W Cummings
Cummings on his PCC labor mission (copied from The Building Missionaries in Hawaii 1960 to 1963).

David Cummings had been an advertising executive and copywriter for a company in Los Angeles who did creative work for Matson, which still handles shipping cargo to Hawaii, but in the decades before the Center opened also operated cruise ships to Hawaii and the South Pacific. Cummings and his wife eventually moved to Honolulu, where he was called as a labor missionary and primarily wrote a magazine-length promotional booklet on the PCC, A Day in Polynesia, that was used in the early years.

“The Polynesian Cultural Center was under construction that first year,” Barney recalled. “Interestingly, the CCH faculty lunchroom was abuzz about how teachers would run the Center.”

This seemed reasonable at the time, since several CCH faculty members already or soon had early roles with what everyone was calling the Polynesian Village.

In particular, art professor Wylie Swapp applied his interests in dance and music, plus experiences gathered from living in Hawaii after seeing aerial combat in World War II in Europe, and an extended honeymoon cruise throughout the South Pacific, to help form and choreograph Hālau ‘Imi No’eau students.

Swapp started the hālau with about 75 island and community students during the 1958–’59 school year. CCH soon hired additional cultural leaders to assist, including Huihi Hemmingson from New Zealand, Christina Nauahi of Hawaii, Feagaimaali’i Galea’i — a Samoan who had moved to Laie following WWII and the father of several Galea’i children who have also been prominent in the history of the PCC, and Nenesi “Nancy” Fine — a mature Tongan student.

Some of the community members had already been involved with the Laie Ward Hukilau event that by then had been running for over a decade; and that same school year, small groups of the CCH hālau began performing on Monday nights on a small stage at the International Market Place in Waikiki.

In April 1960, Swapp and the CCH students put on their first large-scale production, Polynesian Panorama, at the Kaiser Hawaiian Village Dome (now the Hilton Hawaiian Village) in Waikiki. That first show only drew modest crowds, but it received favorable newspaper reviews and the support of many Hawaiian performers at the time. By a year later, Polynesian Panorama was drawing sellout crowds.

During the 1959–’60 CCH school year, social sciences professor Jerry K. Loveland had been appointed as the first director of the Institute for Polynesian Studies as an adjunct activity or “academic arm” eventually funded by the Cultural Center. Barney remembered Loveland “saw himself as an administrator for the Center.” He added CCH art professor LaMoyne Garside sometimesaccompanied Loveland on South Pacific field trips and produced a series of beautiful PCC and Pacific island paintings.

But even before PCC opened, Church leadership started putting professional consulting and management teams in place to prepare for the Center’s opening ceremonies on October 12, 1963.

For example, Wendell Mendenhal and Edward LaVaun Clissold flew to Los Angeles and initially “drafted” former CBS TV executive and producer Michel “Mike” Grilikhes and his actress-wife Laraine Day to help work with the Te Aroha Nui o Te Iwi Maori group comprised primarily of labor missionaries in New Zealand. Grilikhes would soon add some of his own associates from Hollywood to the team, including Faulkner and choreographer Jack Regas (along with his wife, Kit Regas).

“Uncle” Tausilinu‘u David Hannemann, who is often cited as the Center’s first full-time paid employee, started in August that year as an “activities manager.” It’s believed Professor Swapp had already been hired part-time, as was Professor Loveland, along with their full-time teaching and other responsibilities at CCH, to continue working with the student dancers and the Polynesian Institute, respectively. Other full-time workers were soon added to the staff — some from the ranks of the labor missionaries.

The PCC officially opens: Barney reported the Center had a “fantastically successful opening week that created a big splash.” He pointed VIPs from Utah, Hawaii and the South Pacific heavily bolstered the event, along with the large “Maori group from New Zealand and, I think, a Fijian group also came up.”

“Jerry Loveland was confident that the ‘splash’ would see the Cultural Center immediately successful and ongoing without promotion or marketing,” Barney said. “Sadly, the Center experienced probably a 90 percent drop off in the succeeding weeks after the opening.”

He also said not long after, in his capacity as Laie Stake Mutual Superintendent, President Clissold “came to me with the proposition that I was to be released if I accepted the Church calling to handle public relations for Cultural Center.”

He does not remember anyone else previously having that responsibility. “The ‘job’ carried a stipend of $100 a month.”

“I was in seventh heaven, and gained a lot of practical experience,” Barney continued, “but I soon detected I was overwhelmed by problems. They [the leadership] had bought into the idea that the Center didn’t need any promotion.”

“In the absence of bus traffic, PR was critical to the success of the Cultural Center, but the buses were going right on by. Working part-time, I didn’t make it to Honolulu very often, and concentrated on groups in Hawaii and the military to help boost attendance.”

“We estimated we needed about 1,000 people [i.e., customers] to be marginally successful, and we were getting about 200 or 300. President Clissold anticipated closing the Center during the week and opening only on Fridays and Saturdays. Those were our dire circumstances. My paltry contributions probably didn’t increase the patronage by much.”

By the end November 1963    …, Center leaders named Tod Faulkner, a senior partner with United Public Relations in Beverly Hills, California, as advertising and public relations director. He had previously been promoting the Te Arohanui tour on the U.S. mainland.

Barney remembers working a little with Faulkner, but thought of him as more of a promoter than a practitioner who, for example, tried to invite influential people to the PCC rather than submit press releases and articles to the media.

However, Barney said a “flood” of visitors started coming the next summer, with the influence and help of PCC Director Mike Grilikhes, a CBS TV network executive, and several of his imports from Hollywood.

He added that Grilikhes started focusing on increasing bus traffic. “Some of the bus companies told him they would come to the Cultural Center if they could cut out the Temple tours. The Church wasn’t willing to do that, obviously.”

Barney also explained that circle-island Oahu bus tours had been a staple in the industry for years, “and suddenly Sea Life Park and the Polynesian Cultural Center were demanding tours.”

He said he didn’t know what kind of incentives Grilikhes ended up offering the bus companies, “but suddenly, they started coming, and immediately the Cultural Center was profitable.”

With Todd Faulkner from Hollywood also helping promote the Center in 1964, “I was a ‘fifth wheel,’” Barney said, and he stopped his PR side-job that Fall; but he shared an interesting side-story about one of his last assignments before leaving:

The kamaki conflict: Before he returned to his regular teaching duties at CCH, Barney recalls he was given a rather unique PR assignment to accompany a busload of PCC employees who’d been hired as extras in the Otto Preminger movie, In Harm’s Way, that the famous director was filming in Hawaii the year before. The Pearl Harbor/WWII film, which came out in 1965, starred John Wayne, Kirk Douglas, Burgess Meredith, and Patricia Neal (among other well-known “stars.”)

He recalled the PCC people were supposed to act for a day in a scene being filmed on a blocked street in the Chinatown section of Honolulu. “Dirt was even laid on the street,” he said.

“When Otto Preminger, who was sitting in a cherry-picker [truck] high above the street ready — he didn’t talk to anybody else — told his assistant they were to tell the Polynesians to remove their shirts.”

“Bless his heart, Brother Tapu from Tahiti said no because of their temple garments. When the assistant relayed the ‘no,’ Otto Preminger was agitated and said, ‘Nobody tells me no.’ I think this happened four times, with Brother Tapu saying no.”

“When Preminger looked reluctant to talk to the Polynesians, they all looked toward me, and I said, ‘It’s a religion thing.’ The assistant had not related that, and Preminger said, ‘The movie’s more important than any religion.’ So, I was charged with persuading Brother Tapu, but I despaired of changing his mind.”

“I went looking for a public telephone I could use,” Barney continued, which turned out to be three or four blocks away. “I called President Clissold at his business office, but finally caught him at his home in Honolulu.”

“Meanwhile, this whole time I was calling Clissold, Otto Preminger was ranting. I went back and brought Brother Tapu to the telephone, so President Clissold could assure him it was okay to roll down their temple garments in this instance.”

When Barney and Tapu got back to the “set,” the PCC people got on the bus to roll down their kamaki, and finally, they were ready. “All this time, however, Otto Preminger was incensed and addressed all of us directly, skipping the assistant; but I actually admired Brother Tapu.”

“I later found out quite a few of the actors in the movie had taken passage on my old Navy ship, from Portland, Oregon, to Honolulu while filming at sea.”

Apparently, that was Barney’s last assignment for PCC; and unlike many practitioners, Barney said his PR work for the Center did not involve writing press releases or feature stories, but he enjoyed some of the things he learned from working with professionals like Faulkner.

“All in all, I was gratified by my experience in Hawaii. I sometimes regret leaving, but I didn’t see any future there for me.”

[Barney left Laie in 1970 to finish his doctorate degree in Missouri. On the way back to Hawaii, he stopped in Provo and got hired there. He was later associated with the East-West Center in Honolulu, did fieldwork at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, set up several journalism organizations such as the Pacific Islands News Association, and eventually returned to Provo where he primarily taught journalism ethics. He retired from BYU in 1996.

Unfortunately, Ralph Barney passed away in Provo, Utah, on February 19, 2023. This was undoubtedly the last interview he was involved with as a “communications guy.”]