Walt Disney World Chronicles: Auntie Kau'i

by Jim Korkis
Disney Historian

Feature Article

This article appeared in the July 4, 2017 Issue #928 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.


Kau'i Brandt was born during a Hawaiian thunder and lightning storm in 1932 and was named "Kauihealani," which means "thundering voice of heaven." She uses the shortened version "Kau'i," but you might know her as "Aunti Kau'i," who for years has been a mainstay at Disney's Polynesian Village Resort.

Kau'i's route to Walt Disney World is 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 20 years ago," Kau'i explained at the time. "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 to relocate to Southern California, but each time she refused, fearing that once she left she might never come back. In 1971, though, Kau'i moved to California for eight months to perform in the Polynesian show at Disneyland's Tahitian Terrace.

"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 a show 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.

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 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. 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.

"It was natural that we would select some of our young dancers and musicians from among the students at Church College," said Kau'i later. "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 is 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 have learned from each other, and, because of our enthusiasm and pride in our heritage, we hope to give our audiences at Walt Disney World and Disneyland the very best of Polynesia."

"Hours are spent making authentic costumes, but no one complains," said Kau'i. "For example, our ti-leaf skirts must 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 must be 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 knows that she is 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. "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 tells the story of Auntie Wini, who is hosting a fun-filled luau to say goodbye to one of the local girls headed to the "mainland" for college. Guests are invited to join the festivities, including an all-you-can-eat buffet in the open-air but covered theater in Luau Cove. While the show is different than Kau'i's original luau, 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 once 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."

Without people like Auntie Kau'i, many valued Hawaiian traditions would be lost or misinterpreted.

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Auntie Kau'i at the Polynesian

Other features from the Walt Disney World Chronicles series by Jim Korkis can be found in the AllEars® Archives.

Jim Korkis

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Disney Historian and regular AllEars® Columnist Jim Korkis has written hundreds of articles about all things Disney for more than three decades. As a former Walt Disney World cast member, Korkis has used his skills and historical knowledge with Disney Entertainment, Imagineering, Disney Design Group, Yellow Shoes Marketing, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Feature Animation Florida, Disney Institute, WDW Travel Company, Disney Vacation Club and many other departments.

He is the author of several books, including his newest, Secret Stories of Disneyland, available in both paperback and Kindle versions.


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.