|Remembering and Reviving the
Coco Palms Hotel
From The Honolulu Advertiser, Thursday, April 6, 2000:
Grace Guslander, visionary hotelier, dies
Grace Buscher Guslander, 89, who helped define the image of a Polynesian resort as the manager of the Coco Palms Hotel on Kauai, died at her Wailua home yesterday.
She combined fantasy, mystery, Polynesian culture and palm trees to create a world that tourists loved to visit, and thousands of hotel rooms around the Pacific succeeded based in part on that vision.
“She was a grand lady and a truly legendary figure in the hospitality industry,” said Kauai Mayor Maryanne Kusaka.
By 1965, 12 years after taking over her first and only resort property, her fame as a hotelier was global. She was named Outstanding Hotel Manager of the Year from among an international selection. She was named “Man of the Year” at New York City’s International Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Show in 1979, the first woman to win the title.
Two of the hotel managers she trained, who remained close friends, were at her side when she died.
“Visitors were looking for magic, and when they came here, they found what they truly thought Hawaii should be. They found it at Coco Palms,” said author David Penhallow, who left the hotel to manage the Hanalei Plantation Hotel, and later served as administrative assistant to Kauai Mayor Tony Kunimura and as an educator.
“She defined Hawaiian hospitality as the industry knows it today. She set the standard,” said Lopaka Mansfield, a former assistant manager under Guslander who now runs Waimea Plantation Cottages.
She came to the hotel industry along a circuitous route from her Collegeville, Pa., home. She worked as an astrologer’s assistant in Atlantic City, as a claims clerk in the Judge Advocate’s Office at Fort Shafter, and as credit manager for a gourmet shop in Waikiki.
She wrote a wine and food column for The Advertiser starting in 1952, and caught the eye of Moana Hotel Manager Lyle Guslander.
Guslander in 1953 leased the Coco Palms property, on ancient royal fishponds under the shade of palm trees that had been part of an old copra plantation. He asked the then Grace Buscher to run it for him.
She took the 24-room inn and began molding it into her vision of what Hawaiian tourism should offer.
There were the giant clam shells imported from the South Pacific to serve as bathroom sinks. And the monkeys in the zoo set back in the palms. Artifacts from across the Pacific adorned the place.
She invented the torch-lighting ceremony, turning a nightly maintenance chore into an evening spectacular, with muscular young men jogging along the hotel paths spinning torches as they set the night on fire.
Outrigger canoes were pulled up on shore, and set off across the shallow lagoons for special events.
The wedding of Elvis Presley in the movie, “Blue Hawaii,” was performed aboard a double canoe in the Coco Palms lagoon. The thatched hut in which Elvis stayed during the filming is now considered a historic landmark.
Weddings became big business at the Coco Palms, often in the chapel that Guslander converted from a movie-set chapel for Rita Heyworth’s 1953 film, “Miss Sadie Thompson.” Even though the hotel was closed after 1992’s Hurricane Iniki, veteran Coco Palms entertainer Larry Rivera still oversees weddings on the grounds.
Grace was famous for producing legends to fit any occasion. When newly introduced frogs kept people awake at night, she called for a legend, and the croaks became a natural part of the mysterious Hawaiian night.
She also was known for the golf cart she drove all over her resort property, and for a family relationship with her staff that endured well beyond her retirement from the hotel.
When Lyle Guslander sold the hotel chain in 1969, the two married. But Grace worked until 1985, continually upgrading the visitor experience she pretty much invented.
Funeral arrangements had not been completed late yesterday.
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