Walter Mencken 11 a.m., May 24
Yes Virginia, there is a Bali Ha'i, but...
In the Welk Resort Theatre's current production of South Pacific, Bloody Mary (Brenda Oen) points to a volcanic island across a blue Pacific channel. She sings "Bali Ha'i," such a haunting song you'd think she 's pointing to Eden.
"Most people live on a lonely island/Lost in the middle of a foggy sea./Most people long for another island/One where they know they would like to be...
"Bali Ha'i will call you/Any night...any day..."
Like Nimue luring Merlin to a "cave by a sapphire shore" in Camelot ("Follow Me"), Bali Ha'i whispers "come away" to where your personal hopes and dreams "bloom on the hillside/And shine in the streams."
The song made the island so alluring that when Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical opened, in the spring of 1949, ardent theategoers beat down the doors of travel agencies, only to learn there was no such place.
James Michener, whose Tales of the South Pacific was the musical's source, said he made it up.
During World War II Michener was a Navy lieutenant/historian stationed at Espiritu Santo Island (in what is now the Vanuatu chain), which had the largest military base in the southwest Pacific.
Before Seabees arrived to level six runways, "Santo" had 15,000 natives and a few plantations. The largest, Bencula, was owned by an expatriate Frenchman, Pascal Michel, who may have been the model for Emile de Becque in the story and the musical.
Michener said he saw the name on a "rude signboard attached to a tree...it was so completely different from ordinary names, so musical to my ear," that he jotted down "Bali Ha'i" in a soggy notebook for future use.
The exotic name, and the way Michener made the island sound so much like paradise, prompted Rodgers and Hammerstein to write a song for it.
For the next 23 years, Michener wrote one novel after another: among them The Bridges of Toko-Ri, Hawaii, and The Source (he claimed he wrote 40 pages a day, every day). But no matter what he'd written, his readers hounded him with one question: where was Bali Ha'i?
No such place, he said.
Several islands made the claim to fame: Tioman in Malasia; Kaua'i Island, with its volcanic Mt. Makana. But the "real" residents are Tonkinese. So the quest continued, at the time rivaling the one for Atlantis.
Then in 1970, Michener fessed up. In an article he wrote for the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin, he said Bali Ha'i was a composite. He based it on a "miserable village" on Mono Island in the Solomons, and on a "steamy savage island called Aoba" (today's Ambae), 30 miles east of Espiritu Santo, and often shrouded in mists. Michener said he used fictional license to "dress them up a little."
After he wrote Tales, Michener visited Moorea and Bora Bora. Both, he said, would have been far better models (and the latter was his "Bali Ha'i of the spirit").
Today, few tourists visit Ambae Island, which has become densely populated and has no source for surface water. The volcano Michener saw across the channel, Manaro, erupted in 2005 and forced the evacuation of thousands of villagers.