History of the Festival
How the Merrie Monarch Festival began
In 1963 Hawaiʻi island was struggling economically, stemming from the devastation of recent tsunami and the decline of sugar plantations along the Hāmākua coast. Helene Hale, the County of Hawaiʻi Chairwoman at the time, sought to give the island an economic boost by tapping into the burgeoning tourist industry.
Hale sent her Administrative Assistant, Gene Wilhelm, and her Promoter of Activities, George Naʻope, to explore the Lahaina Whaling Spree on Maui to see what lessons could be learned there. They returned inspired, and the seeds for the Merrie Monarch Festival were planted.
“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.
A committee was formed that included Gene Wilhelm (Chairman), Koshi Miyasaki (Vice-Chairman), Clifford Bowman, Arthur Evers, Ken Griffin, Ralph Lau, George Naʻope, Carl Rohner, Floyd Swnn, Steve Thorson, Thomas Unger, and William Weber. In 1964 the work of this committee resulted in the first Merrie Monarch Festival, which included events such as a King Kalākaua beard look-alike contest, a barbershop quartet contest, a relay race, a re-creation of King Kalākaua’s coronation, and a Holokū Ball. By 1968 interest and support for the festival had declined, and it would have been suspended if Dottie Thompson had not volunteered to serve as the Executive Director of the Festival.
Under the direction of Thompson, the Merrie Monarch Festival shifted its goals and objectives to replicate the ideals of King Kalākaua who sought to revitalize the Hawaiian people and culture. This revamped festival would gather the best hula dancers from all the islands, showcase Hawaiian artistry, and create a performance to serve as a rite, a celebration, a statement about Hawai’i and its people.
With advice from kumu hula Pauline Kekahuna, Louise Kaleiki, Iolani Luahine, Lokalia Montgomery, Puanani Alama, “Aunty” Dottie and “Uncle” George introduced a hula competition in 1971.
Nine hālau entered the wahine (women) group competition that first year, and Aloha Wong (Dalire) won the first Miss Hula title. When the Festival opened the competition to kāne (men) in 1976, the interest and enthusiasm for the event increased exponentially. The blossoming of the Festival coincided with the Hawaiian Renaissance, a time when cultural pride manifested through the perpetuation and practice of Hawaiian language, music, voyaging, arts, and crafts.
Louise and Luka Kaleiki
A third night of competition was added in 1980, when the number of entrants for the Miss Aloha Hula competition increased, requiring an additional night of competition. That same year the festival sold out of tickets for the first time. With no way to increase the seating capacity of the stadium, and no larger venue in Hilo to move to, the Festival began to be televised in 1981. “She was concerned about the kūpuna (elders) in places like Lunalilo Home, who could not come to Hilo to enjoy the hula,” said Luana Kawelu of Aunty Dottie’s decision to televise the Festival.
While the hula competition remains the focal point of the festival, other events have also drawn a loyal following, including the Wednesday night hōʻike (exhibition), invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair, and parade through downtown Hilo. The organization’s leadership officially transferred to the next generation in 2010, when Aunty Dottie passed away. Luana Kawelu, Aunty Dottie’s daughter, had worked with her mother since 1976 on all facets of the Festival and took over the reigns as the Festival President to continue the organizational legacy left by her mother.
The Merrie Monarch Festival celebrated 50 years of existence in 2013. That year, organizers paid homage to the Festival’s roots by bringing back some of the pageantry of the early years like the coronation ball as well as more fun events like the Kalākaua beard contest.
The first wahine (Hauʻoli Hula Studio) and kāne (Nā Kamalei O Līlīlehua) hālau winners returned to grace the stage for the Wednesday night hōʻike, as did Nā Pualei O Likolehua, the men of Waimapuna, crowd-favorite Hālau O Kekuhi, and over thirty of our Miss Aloha Hula winners. It was indeed a celebration 50 years in the making.
Although the initial motivation for the Merrie Monarch Festival was to boost the economy of Hawaiʻi island through tourism, this event has come to serve a far greater purpose, which is perpetuating Hawaiian culture. Just as Kalākaua, the Merrie Monarch, sought to strengthen Hawaiian people through the revitalization of cultural practices, the Festival strives to ensure the vibrancy of Hawaiian culture for future generations.
Aloha Wong Dalire
Luana Kawelu & Dottie Thompson
- 865 Piʻilani Street Hilo, HI 96720
- (808) 935-9168