By PETER SUR
Special to the Tribune-Herald
Cannons boomed over the summit of Punchbowl crater on the island of Oahu one night in November 1886. Huge bonfires lit up the sky, and displays of rockets could be seen across Honolulu.
At midnight, the moment King David Kalakaua turned 50, a 21-gun salute fired in his honor. Thus began a two-week celebration, a royal jubilee for a king at the height of his power.
There was a parade and torchlight procession, a regatta program, a grand luau, a hula program, a birthday ball in Iolani Palace, athletic games and a state dinner.
Alas, those gilded days are gone. The king died in 1891, and within the decade the jewel of the Pacific became a U.S. territory. But Kalakaua was not forgotten.
This week the legacy of the Merrie Monarch returns with what promises to be the mother of all Merrie Monarch Festivals. Planning for the first one began in 1963, the year accepted as the birth of the festival, and the first celebration began in 1964.
The story of how the Merrie Monarch Festival got its start is a familiar one.
The late Helene Hale was chairman of the Board of Supervisors and executive officer of Hawaii County, and in 1963, as she neared the halfway point of her administration, she looked for a way to promote Hilo.
At the time, the local Canec plant was closing, laying off 190 jobs. President Kennedy was escalating American involvement in Vietnam, and civil rights activists were massing for a march on Washington.
Looking for inspiration, Hale dispatched her executive assistant, Gene Wilhelm, and county promoter of activities, George Naope, to Maui for the Lahaina Whaling Spree, held over Labor Day weekend.
This popular four-day festival featured a canoe regatta, a children’s costume judging, Hawaiian sports, a golf tournament, and a $1,000 beard contest.
The two reported to Hale that they didn’t think a drunken sailors’ festival would work well for Hilo, but Naope suggested something to honor Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king. The inaugural “Merry Monarch Festival” was set for the week following Easter Sunday in 1964.
Many events during that inaugural festival bore no resemblance to today’s hula juggernaut. There was, for example, a relay race using a live fish as a baton. There was a treasure hunt that inspired hundreds to dig holes in Hilo’s bayfront.
Duke Kahanamoku served as the grand marshal of the Royal Parade. There was a judging controversy, of course, in the parade float entries.
Hale lost a bid for re-election in 1964, and the Chamber of Commerce took over the festival until 1968, when the organization considered dropping it for a lack of interest.
This didn’t sit well with an employee in the county Department of Parks and Recreation named Dorothy Thompson. With the agreement of the hula masters of her day, Thompson expanded the festival, adding a soloist and halau hula competition in 1971. The Hawaiian renaissance was taking off, and the Merrie Monarch Festival led the way.
Ruling with an iron fist, Thompson added a kane hula division. She invited TV cameras to broadcast the contest. When the festival became too large for the Hilo Civic Auditorium, she moved it to the nearby tennis stadium. In the early 2000s, Thompson ceded control of the festival to younger members of her family.
“We’re getting excited about it being the 50th, and what the halau are going to put out there. The Ho‘ike is going to be exciting with the halau that are coming back,” said festival President Luana Kawelu, who was hard at work one afternoon in mid-February. “I think the audience is going to really appreciate and enjoy seeing the people onstage.”
Despite the overwhelming surge of interest in the Merrie Monarch Jubilee, the number of seats in the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multipurpose Stadium remains unchanged, leaving a record amount of rejected ticket requests.
The stadium seats roughly 4,200 people, but half of those seats are offered first to participating halau, leaving 2,100 to the general public. With more than 10,000 requests submitted, and much grumbling from hula aficionados, many thousands of longtime hula supporters must watch the spectacle from afar.
“They were very understanding. They understand that this year is a special year,” Kawelu said.
And yet, “special” seems like an insufficient description.
Beginning Easter Sunday and continuing for a week, the unfolding spectacle is drawing fans from around the world to Hilo to witness the most prestigious hula competition in the world. Beginning Thursday night with the Miss Aloha Hula competition, continuing Friday with the group hula kahiko night, and ending Saturday night with the group hula ‘auana contest, the Merrie Monarch Festival overpromises and overdelivers.
This year’s festival features three “big things” rolled into one week.
The first is the most prominent one, the three nights of the hula competition. The second big thing is the week of hula exhibitions, including the kickoff Ho‘olaulea on Easter Sunday, the Royal Parade on Saturday, the noon shows at the hotels and the entertainment at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, among other things.
The third big thing is the Merrie Monarch Festival’s 50th anniversary celebration, which adds another dimension. There are some clever homages to the past, beginning Easter night with the revival, for the first time in decades, of the Coronation Ball at Hilo Armory.
The free Ho‘olaule‘a is the showcase for the Big Island-based halau, and this year will feature for the first time the keiki group of Halau O Kekuhi in a headline role. Monday and Tuesday evenings bring the revival of two more beloved traditions, the Kalakaua Beard Look-Alike Contest, which is co-sponsored by the Tribune-Herald, and the Barbershop Quartet competition.
Wednesday is the biggest Ho‘ike night of them all. Normally a celebration of hula and Polynesian dance from around the Pacific, this year is a celebration of 50 years of the Merrie Monarch Festival. Unlike in past years, only those with tickets will be allowed into the stadium for the Ho‘ike, which has been sold out since January.
Thursday night is the solo Miss Aloha Hula competition, the night where 12 halau representatives, one at a time, take their turns before the withering gazes of the seven judges.
First she performs a hula kahiko, a catch-all term for the style of hula that was performed from before Western contact to the end of the monarchy in 1893.
Then, after the intermission, she undergoes a radical transformation backstage and emerges to do a hula ‘auana. The word “‘auana” means “wander” or “stray,” and so in the second half of the night anything goes — glittering dresses, high heels, and modern radio hits.
“In ‘auana, you can stand on your head, for all I care,” Na‘ope once said.
The wahine who masters both of these divisions to the satisfaction of the judges is named Miss Aloha Hula.
Who among this select group of 12 will take the title? It’s up to the judges, and surprises are likely, but some names are more familiar to the audience than others.
Manalani Mili Hokoana English of Halau Na Lei Kaumaka O Uka, who finished runner-up in the 2011 Miss Aloha Hula contest, is back, as is Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua’s Kayshlyn Keauli‘imailani Victoria “Auli‘i” De Sa, the younger sister of 2010 runner-up Kapua De Sa. Also returning is Jaimie Elizabeth Kapuau‘ionalani Kennedy, who performed last year for Halau O Na Pua Kukui.
This year, three Hilo halau are entering a wahine in the Miss Aloha Hula contest.
Friday night is group hula kahiko night, when the various halau reach back to the old ways. This is the night where dancers don monarchial period dresses or pre-contact pa‘u skirts, depending on the mele. The instruments of choice are those available in the old days — the pahu, the ipu heke, the pu‘ili, the ‘uli‘uli and the ‘ili‘ili, among several others.
Saturday night is time for the hula ‘auana, the melodious final celebration of the Merrie Monarch Festival, followed by the announcement of results, followed by the inevitable judging controversy. With so many incredible performances on tap this week, greatness alone isn’t enough to win.
The judges this year are a seasoned bunch; all save one are veterans of many festivals in years past. The newcomer to the hot seat is Keali‘i Reichel, whose Halau Kealaokamaile produced a Miss Aloha Hula in two of the three years it was entered in the competition.
The others are familiar faces — Cy M. Bridges, Nalani Kanaka‘ole, Mae Kamamalu Klein, Noenoelani Zuttermeister Lewis, Joan S. Lindsey and Kalena Silva.
But there’s more to the Merrie Monarch Festival than the three nights of competition.
From its humble origins the festival organizers have added free hula exhibitions all over town, including the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center, the Naniloa Volcanoes Resort, the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. The civic, of course, is home to the invitational Merrie Monarch Hawaiian Arts and Crafts Fair. Other craft fairs unaffiliated with the festival are springing up all over Hilo.
Kalakaua’s Jubilee in 1886 remains the gold standard of 50th anniversary celebrations. That may never change. But the Merrie Monarch Festival’s Jubilee may be more important. The king, for all his popularity, lost his power in 1887 and his life in 1891.
By contrast, the Merrie Monarch Festival is not a person; it cannot die. Different people will cross the stage through the years, but at its core the festival thrives off the spirit and the culture of the Hawaiian people — which, in spite of everything, endures.