A Whole New Lu‘au

The next generation at Tihati Productions is reinventing one of Hawai‘i’s signature visitor experiences
Story by Constance Hale. Photos by Monte Costa.

Accompanied by the clattering of wooden drums, a screeching man in a skimpy lavalava runs onto the stage carrying two spears that have been set ablaze. He twirls the burning torches, throws them into the air, balances them on his feet, draws them across his bare skin and lowers them to his mouth, daring to eat and breathe fire.

He is Pogi Tevaga, star fire-knife dancer at ‘Aha ‘Aina, the weekly oceanfront lū‘au at Waikīkī’s Royal Hawaiian hotel, an event billed as a “culinary and sensory celebration commemorating Hawaiian culture.”

Never mind that it was Sāmoans, not Hawaiians, who developed fire-knife dancing. The hair-raising, flame-filled spectacle has long been a staple of the commercial Hawaiian lū‘au. For Tihati Productions, the forty-eight-year-old entertainment company behind ‘Aha ‘Aina, the fire-knife dance is an integral part of the show.

But ‘Aha ‘Aina hints that Tihati is up to something different, something more than vintage tourist fare. There is the name itself, which uses the traditional Hawaiian term, ‘aha ‘āina, for a celebratory feast. (The word lū‘au originally referred to the tender leaf tops of the taro plant, which are cooked alongside a pig at a feast. It wasn’t until Hawai‘i newspapers began referring to ‘aha ‘āina as “luaus” in the mid-nineteenth century that the word took on this new meaning.)

With eleven themed lū‘au at hotels on four islands, plus several specialty events each week, Tihati Productions is the largest producer of commercial lū‘au in the business. Above, the lū‘au at Aulani.

There is also a pre-show emphasis on exposing guests to Native Hawaiian skills, such as poi pounding and kapa (bark cloth) making. And there is the entertainment program itself, which aims to put Waikīkī in its historical and cultural context, with characters like a supernatural rooster, chiefs in feathered helmets, a Hawaiian Kingdom honor guard, Queen Lili‘uokalani in satin finery and a hula dancer wearing a turquoise velvet gown and gardenias in her hair. This is a far cry from the old Polynesian dance revues that once passed as “authentic” Hawaiian lū‘au.

Though Tihati Productions has a firmly established place in Hawai‘i’s visitor industry, it is hardly resting on its laurels. Founded in 1969 by high-school sweet-hearts Jack and Cha Thompson, the family-owned company is now being steered by the second generation. And while the Thompson kids aren’t abandoning the pan-Polynesian style their parents brought to the business, they are deepening the Hawaiian history part of the program and bringing a twenty-first-century sensibility to the lū‘au business.

With ‘Aha ‘Aina included, Tihati produces eleven themed lū‘au on four Hawaiian islands. It has staged productions overseas, at the Miss Universe Pageant, aboard the floating cities of the Norwegian Cruise Line, in Las Vegas and at President Barack Obama’s White House. It entertains shoppers at Waikīkī’s International Market Place, and it produces corporate events, themed nights, weddings and private parties. It has more than nine hundred employees, including singers, dancers, stagehands and warehouse workers. Altogether they put on about fifty shows a week. Tihati’s primacy in the lū‘au business belies its origins as a somewhat raggedy Polynesian dance troupe put together by, as Cha Thompson says, two “lōlōs [crazy kids] from Farrington.”

Founded in the late 1960s by Jack and Cha Thompson, Tihati is now headed by two of the Thompson’s children, Afatia Thompson and Misty Thompson-Tufono. Tihati’s more than nine hundred employees are regarded as part of a very large extended family. Pogi Tevaga, star fireknife dancer at the ‘Aha ‘Aina lū‘au, says the Thompsons “treat me like a son.”

In 1963 Charlene “Cha” Ortiz was a junior at Farrington High School, living with her single mother and five siblings in a public housing project in Kalihi. The neighborhood was tough, but it also drew some renowned hula teachers who wanted to work with kids like her. Cha had beauty, talent and personality. Hula gave her discipline and confidence. All of these brought her to the attention of senior Jack Thompson, a strapping football player who had arrived in Hawai‘i at age seven from Swain’s Island in American Sāmoa.

After graduation, Cha worked in medical records at The Queen’s Hospital by day and danced in Waikīkī by night. Jack worked for Hawaiian Airlines as a baggage handler, and he escorted Cha to and from her gigs. Her big break came when Elaine Frisbie hired her for Puka Puka Otea, the Polynesian show at the Queen’s Surf restaurant on Waikīkī beach. Cha learned Tahitian dance and became the lead dancer. “We did three shows a night—9:30, 11:30 and 1:30,” Cha remembers. “Jack would wait for me outside until 3 a.m. He thought to himself, ‘I should do something.’ So he started twirling [fire].” Cha had her doubts about Jack’s new pursuit. “I thought he was too handsome to be a fire-knife dancer,” she says. “He was so proper —he tucked his shirts in!”

The two married in 1966 and launched their own troupe. “We started with small shows,” Cha says. “Grab the relatives and go. Four hulas and one quick Tahitian number.”

They got their first big contract at the Beachcomber Hotel. The show included a group of classic Hawaiian musicians in white shirts and pants with red satin sashes and red carnation lei, as well as four bare-chested Sāmoan dancers. The dancers were often members of the rapidly growing Thompson family; Jack and Cha ultimately had four offspring (Eli, Ruana, Misty and Afatia) and eight hānai, or adopted, children.

Jack and Cha helped popularize the Polynesian revue, presenting dances from Tahiti, Sāmoa, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand), Rarotonga and Hawai‘i. Above, a hula performance at the Waikiki Starlight lū‘au.

Cha had a flair for choreography and costuming. Jack proved himself a showman with a keen ear for music and an eye for production values. Together they popularized the Polynesian revue, mastering a variety of dances from different islands, conceiving costumes and developing Las Vegas-worthy lighting. They also sharpened their marketing skills and became adept at managing not just young performers but also veteran stage presences, food-and-beverage managers, ticketing agents and the like. Gradually they built the company into an institution. “They will be the first to say the Lord has blessed them,” says their daughter Misty Thompson-Tufono. “But they were in the right place at the right time—and in the right industry.”

In 2007 Jack and Cha Thompson stepped away from direct management of Tihati, naming Misty as the company’s vice president and her brother Afatia as its president. Misty graduated from Kamehameha Schools and majored in journalism at Colorado State University before moving back to Hawai‘i to answer phones for her parents. She eventually parlayed her training in journalism into a knack for digging into the places and personalities of Hawai‘i’s past, researching locations, scripting the narratives and writing the lyrics for Tihati’s shows. Afatia played football for Punahou School and the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. He majored in speech, minored in business and won a Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award for a rhythm and blues album. He, too, returned to the family fold after college, working in the warehouse, making sales calls and teaching himself to spin fire. Today he oversees fire-knife dance competitions and—with knowledge gained from frequent family “research” trips—arranges the music for the shows, which is drawn from the traditions of Hawai‘i, Tahiti, Sāmoa, Fiji, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rarotonga.

Tihati’s company culture is strongly influenced by fa‘a Sāmoa, the customary code governing conduct and relationships in Sāmoan society. Above, dancers wait to go onstage at the Royal Hawaiian hotel.

Misty and Afatia are navigating the tension between preservation and innovation, aesthetics and showbiz, cultural prerogatives and business imperatives. “We want to present these different cultures well to our audiences and not just sell out for the laugh or the ‘wow’ factor,” says Misty. “And we want to make our teachers, our kūpuna [elders], proud.” At the same time, she makes one thing clear: “We are not a hālau [hula school]. This is not a hula competition. It’s a commercial lū‘au!”

The hand of the siblings is best seen in Tihati’s “hybrid” shows, which blend the hallmarks of the vintage commercial lū‘au, such as the blowing of the conch shell and the fire-knife dance, with more progressive elements. Set on the oceanfront lawn of the Royal Hawaiian Hotel, along Waikīkī beach, Aha ‘Aina is one such hybrid. The story starts with the phantom rooster, Ka‘auhelemoa, who is said to have inspired the planting of an extensive coconut grove in Waikīkī after ferociously scratching the ground there. It moves through vignettes about the Hawaiian Kingdom and features dance tributes to twentieth-century beach boys, World War II-era US sailors and the Andrews Sisters, among others. There’s also a bracing‘ūkulele solo by the very contemporary Taimane Gardner, a lithe woman in a slinky gown.

These segments reflect the Native Hawaiian tradition of mele pana, or songs praising places. A segment about Kimo and Kinau Wilder, denizens of Waikīkī in the 1920s, is timed with the arrival of dusk. In their wake, Nā Hōkū Hanohano Award winner Kala Chang sings “My Sweet Gardenia Lei” while Hulali Recca, daughter of a longtime Tihati emcee, dances beautifully and the fading light turns Diamond Head into a tuff cone silhouette.

Fa‘a Sāmoa hinges upon respecting elders, serving the community, extending hospitality and caring for the environment. “Our parents ran the business the way they ran our family,” Afatia says. “Fa‘a Sāmoa gave them a map.” Here, fireknife dancers prepare to perform at the Waikiki Starlight lū‘au.

A show recently created for the renovated Inter-national Market Place focuses on the history of this section of Waikīkī, originally called Kaluaokau, where Queen Emma once had a summer home. Says Misty, “We want to let people know: You’re not just at a shopping center.”

The most successful hybrid may be the “backyard” lū‘au at Disney’s Aulani resort. Called Ka Wa‘a (the canoe), the lū‘au features a boat-stage and tells the epic story of Polynesian voyaging. It’s framed as a backyard party. The hostess, Mahina, welcomes guests to the Leeward Coast, where she grew up, then mingles with them on the wide-open lawn—chatting them up, learning first names, posing for photos.

Meanwhile, women with luxuriant eyelashes and scanty dresses reveal the secrets of making kapa while bare-chested men with blossoms behind their ears give children temporary Polynesian tattoos and teach them how to pound poi. “It’s very spiritual,” says one of the men. “You have to have a clean mind. Put your hand in the water and wet your stone.”

Darkness falls, the lights in the hotel twinkle and dancers take the boat-stage by storm. The show features deafening drums, giant fishhooks (in a segment leading to that most famous tourist hula, “The Hukilau Song”) and a snakelike rope used by the demigod Māui to slow the course of the sun (which the fire-knife dancers create) across the sky. The men ooze charisma, the women radiate beauty. The soundtrack for the entire event is laid down by a quartet of up-and-coming musicians: Adam Asing, Jeff Au Hoy, Travis Kākā and Kapono Naili‘ili. Personally chosen by Afatia, they might merit a Hōkū Award themselves, mixing slack key, steel guitar, falsetto, jazzy riffs and clean renderings of classic songs.

Afatia and Misty are determined not only to honor the Pacific islands they know and love but to prove that a Polynesian model of family can be integrated with business best practices. “My dad has always said what makes Tihati strong is the Tihati people,” says Misty. Afatia adds that in the beginning those people were members of a literal family—cousins danced, an uncle ran payroll, “whoever was pregnant watched the kids.”

If Cha and Jack Thompson ever had anything like a business plan, it was fa’a Sāmoa, or “the Sāmoan way,” which is predicated on respecting elders, serving the community, extending hospitality and caring for the environment. Structurally, it relies on the church, the extended family and the stewardship of chiefs. “Our parents ran the business the way they ran our family,” Afatia says. “Fa‘a Sāmoa gave them a map.”

In reinventing Tihati for the twenty-first century, Afatia and Misty have had to balance preservation with innovation, aesthetics with showbiz and cultural prerogatives with business imperatives. Afatia and Misty (third and fourth from left) are seen in a moment of team bonding after the Te Moana Nui lū‘au at the Sheraton Princess Kai‘ulani hotel.

Several Tihati employees tell me that the sense of family is the best thing about the job. Among them is Pogi Tevaga, ‘Aha ‘Aina’s star fire-knife dancer. With bulging biceps, forbidding tattoos and a face that goes from fierce to furious, Pogi is terrifying onstage. But offstage he’s soft-spoken and gentle. Backstage in the Royal Hawaiian’s Monarch Room, he rolls out his tattooed thigh with a metal bar and expresses his appreciation for bosses who “treat me like a son.” A fire-knife dancing champion and 2013’s Mr. Polynesia, he was introduced to Tihati by his uncle, who was once a fire-knife dancer for the company. Tevaga’s stage name is Toa La‘i, a combination of his twin sons’ first names. The boys, who are ten, recently started spinning fire themselves, continuing the family tradition.

Sea Tonga, whose mother danced alongside Cha in the Puka Pukea Otea show, is another Tihati employee with a deeply felt connection to the company. She works as a hostess at ‘Aha ‘Aina, mingling with the guests on the Royal Hawaiian’s lawn. Within the company culture people have found the fine balance between “treating others like family and being professional,” she says. “Divas weed themselves out.” Those who remain pull together as kin, whether they’re actual cousins (as many are) or not. And therein lies Tihati’s ultimate strength. As Sea puts it, “We are working with people we love.” HH