Kapaa, Kauai » Grace Buscher Guslander, the undisputed "boss lady" of Kauai’s hotel community, would have liked her 100th birthday.
Former Coco Palms Resort employees and members of the Kauai community made the Oct. 25 party flawless. Her Private Manager’s Cocktail Party and signature Torch Lighting went off without a hitch. A full "poi list," the phrase Guslander coined to signify "people of importance" to her and Coco Palms, attended. The only important person missing was Guslander, who died in 2000 at 89.
Guslander, a Hawaii tourism pioneer whose vision helped differentiate the state from other sun, sand and surf destinations and brought island pride to a generation of hotel workers, outlived her circa 1953 resort. Coco Palms closed in 1992 after Hurricane Iniki swept through it. But the eccentric Guslander was so beloved that party organizers wanted to mark the century point for a woman whose impact on Kauai continues even after death.
Some might think it odd that the community would host such a birthday party. But, in Guslander’s case, such an event seems to work. After all, she is the same woman whose front-page obituary preceded her death. She suffered a near-fatal heart attack in 1987, only to scoff at the obituary mistakenly printed in The Honolulu Advertiser.
Attendees came from all over the world for the Oct. 23 birthday party, which was held at Smith’s Tropical Paradise on the Wailua River. The event doubled as a fundraiser for the Kauai Historical Society. Jock Bethune, a widower from Arlington, Texas, was one of the many former guests who flew to Kauai to pay homage to Guslander and Coco Palms. Bethune and his late wife, Judy, honeymooned at the resort in 1981, he said.
"She called us her Texas lovebirds," Bethune said. "Over the years we kept coming back. Grace was our friend, and we just felt at home at Coco Palms. If she invited us to a cocktail party, we dropped everything and went. People would do anything for her."
Guslander wasn’t a graduate of a prestigious hotel school; however, she managed to transform Coco Palms from a 24-room motel into a 400-or-so-room resort that inspired devotion in locals and celebrities.
"She went to the school of imagination and common sense," said David Scott, who gave the birthday keynote and wrote a book about Coco Palms under his former surname, Penhallow.
Hotelier Lyle Guslander found Buscher working as the Advertiser’s food and wine columnist in 1952 and hired her to manage Coco Palms. The two later married in 1969 after he sold the property; however, she worked there until 1985.
She was the kind of woman who could stop trains on their tracks, literally, Scott said. Guslander and two bellhops almost got arrested for refusing to let a sugar train pass after guests complained about noise, he said. Scott remembers that when she was ordered off the tracks, Guslander said, "All right, but when (the train) goes by, I don’t want it to whistle, I want it to say aloha."
Scott said Guslander had a knack for turning negatives into positives, like the time she invented a "Legend of the Frogs," to make Coco Palms’ pesky amphibians more endearing to guests. Resort Music Director Larry Rivera wrote a song about them, and "frog rooms" were soon going for a premium, he said.
Guslander spent little on advertising, but Scott said "everybody on (Kauai) knew they were welcome at Coco Palms."
She had nightly cocktail parties, greeting each guest by name, he said. In 1979 her drive made her the first woman named "Man of the Year" by the International Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Show.
"Coco Palms had the highest returnee rate in the state," Scott said. "It was a tropical paradise."
It was also a place of romance, said Jim Anakalea, who was a bellman from 1968 to 1970.
"Even the employees were young and free-spirited," he said. "There were all kinds of good-looking people running around in loincloths."
Plain employees were made more exotic by virtue of working at Coco Palms, Anakalea said.
A guest once was puzzled as to how one of the less attractive maintenance men had ended up with a beautiful hapa-haole child, he said.
The man replied, "Eh, that’s because I don’t make them with my face," Anakalea said.
Coco Palms was a fun place to work; however, Guslander was a taskmaster who relied on astrology and ran her life by 5s and 8s, said George Costa, now Kauai’s Office of Economic Development director.
Employees were expected to wake Guslander each morning at precisely 5:58 a.m., a time she deemed lucky, Costa said. His first day at Coco Palms, Costa woke her at 6 a.m.
"She was up and waiting for me," he said. "It was the last time I ever did that. I cut my teeth on that job."
Scott described Guslander as a "white lady from Pennsylvania in a brown-skinned land." However, she worked tirelessly to provide jobs for native Hawaiians helping to integrate the host culture and the hospitality industry, said Hawk Kawaihalau, Guslander’s main bellman and torch lighter.
"She made us realize where we came from and how special it was," Kawaihalau said. "She had a great big heart."