The Merrie Monarch Festival began in Hilo, Hawaiʻi in 1963 when Helene Hale, the Chairman of the County of Hawaiʻi, looked for a way to attract tourists to the island. Hawaiʻi Island needed an economic boost after suffering from a tidal wave and business downturn.
“I was the Executive Officer of Hawaiʻi – it wasn’t called mayor … when the sugar industry went down, it was very depressed over here,” said Helene Hale.
Hale sent her Administrative Assistant, Gene Wilhelm, and her Promoter of Activities, George Naʻope, to check out the Lahaina Whaling Spree on Maui to see what lessons could be brought back. They returned inspired.
In 1964, the festival consisted of a King Kalākaua beard look-alike contest, a barbershop quartet contest, a relay race, a re-creation of King Kalākaua's coronation, and a Holoku Ball among other events. But by 1968 the festival fell into hard times and would have been suspended had it not been for Dottie Thompson, who took over as Executive Director of the festival.
“My mom wanted to move the festival more toward a Hawaiian theme, and so she brought back Uncle George Naʻope and Albert Nahalea," said current festival president, Luana Kawelu. "Uncle George would be in charge of the pageantry and the coronation, and Albert Nahalea would be in charge of the music. They wanted to replicate what King David Kalākaua had done, bringing the best hula dancers from around the islands to come and perform and share quality and the authenticity of hula at the time.”
With advice from the hula masters, "Aunty" Dottie and "Uncle" George introduced a hula competition in 1971. Nine wahine (women) hālau entered that first year, and Aloha Dalire won the first Miss Hula title. In 1976 when the festival opened the competition up to kāne (men), the festival began to take off and attracted hordes of enthusiastic fans.
Today, the festival enjoys enormous popularity and worldwide attention.