Merrie Monarch celebrates 50 years

By PETER SUR

By PETER SUR

Tribune-Herald staff writer

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The Merrie Monarch Festival didn’t start out as a hula competition, old-timers say.

Long before before the era of Dottie Thompson began the tradition of Miss Aloha Hula in 1971 and all those performances at Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium, there was the King Kalakaua beard contest. Some 150 storefronts in downtown Hilo were decorated in homage to the king. Over at the Hilo Armory, there was a recreation of Kalakaua’s 1883 coronation ceremony in which the king crowned himself and then his queen.

Those days are coming back.

For the 50th annual Merrie Monarch Festival, which kicks off March 31, 2013, in Hilo, the festival committee, led by President Luana Kawelu, wanted to do something different. They’re going back to the festival’s roots.

Some things that were done in the past cannot be recreated. There are no plans to revive a 4-mile relay race to deliver fresh fish for the king (a live mullet served as the baton). The same goes with the downtown Hilo beer garden dubbed the Monarchy Grogg Shoppe, the pentathlon of Hawaiian games, the Kohala-to-Hilo bicycle race, the treasure hunt and the barbershop quartet competition.

But the coronation pageant is returning to the Hilo Armory where it began. Festival organizers will be asking all merchants in downtown Hilo and in the shopping centers to decorate their storefronts with a Hawaiiana theme. And the Kalakaua beard contest is coming back.

In the inaugural festival in 1964, Robert Kaula Jr., a 30-year-old Parker Ranch cowboy, won $100 ($700 in today’s dollars) when a panel of judges deemed his mustache and sideburns to resemble Kalakaua’s the most. Kaula’s wife earned a $25 bonus for her troubles. More details about this contest will be released when they are available, but festival organizers want aspiring whiskered warriors to consider growing their mutton chops.

Duke Kahanamoku was the first grand marshal of the Royal Parade, which made its way through downtown Hilo.

One-time Tribune-Herald newsman Gene Wilhelm served as chairman of the inaugural festival; he is credited as a co-founder of the festival, along with Helene Hale and George Na‘ope.

In 2013, Wilhelm, who lives on Maui, will be the grand marshal of the parade.

All of this will be in addition to the usual events of the modern Merrie Monarch Festival, including the Ho‘olaule‘a, the free hula exhibitions at the Banyan Drive hotels, the craft fairs, and, of course, the Ho‘ike and the three nights of competition.

The Jubilee festival will begin Easter Sunday, March 31, and wrap on April 6, with the competition on the nights of April 4-6, 2013. All Hilo-area rental vehicles and hotel rooms are already sold out, even though tickets won’t go on sale until Dec. 26 of this year.

The Jubilee special events add an extra dimension to planning for the festival, Kawelu said. She’s been in meetings “every day, all day,” for a weeklong event that has been in the works since 2010. The festival is seven months away, but the T-shirts are already available for purchase.

The pieces are still coming together. At a meeting Tuesday with the Tribune-Herald, Kawelu was informed that Andres Baclig, the county bandmaster in 1964, composed a number called the “Merry Monarch Festival March.” The song, which was received with much acclaim, was presented at the Mooheau Bandstand on April 2, 1964, and it was a spirited number, featuring “lots of trombones and baritones,” Baclig told the Tribune-Herald at the time.

It’s unknown if this piece still exists.

Although the first annual festival was in 1964, organizers are calling the 2013 festival the 50th annual because the planning began in 1963.

Following the kickoff Ho‘olaule‘a on Easter Sunday at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, the coronation pageant will begin that evening at the Hilo Armory.

George De Mello, who is coordinating the pageant with U‘i Peralto, said the pageant will begin with a tableaux featuring Kalakaua, Queen Kapiolani, and the king’s three siblings — Queen Lili‘uokalani, Prince Leleiohoku and Princess Likelike.

“Each person will have a halau performing a number for that person,” De Mello said. After that, the royal procession will begin the coronation ceremony.

The downtown festivities are scheduled for the earlier part of the week.

The Wednesday Ho‘ike will feature some very old-time hula halau that were around from the start, including 1971 overall winner Hauoli Hula Studio, Na Kamalei, Waimapuna and Na Pualei ‘O Likolehua.

The 1971 Miss Aloha Hula, Aloha Dalire, will dance, and then all former Miss Aloha Hula winners will be called up to join her.

Thirty hula halau are competing this year, including four from the Big Island. They are Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua, Nahoku Gaspang’s Halau Hula O Kahikilaulani, Glenn Vasconcellos’ Halau O Ke Anuenue and Etua Lopes’ Halau Na Pua U‘i O Hawai‘i.

The Merrie Monarch Festival Committee has not formally presented its proposal to the Hilo Downtown Improvement Association, but they will be encouraging all merchants to pick up the spirit of Hawaii’s last king and decorate their stores.

Although Dottie Thompson did not start the Merrie Monarch Festival, in 1981 she founded a keiki hula ‘auana festival that ran until 2003. This year, on Oct. 20, that festival is being revived at Kanaka‘ole stadium.

Eight hula halau, all from the Big Island, will compete. There will be elementary, middle school and high school divisions, plus a soloist competition. The intent of the E Malama Mau I Ka Hula Festival is to perpetuate the art form and to get keiki ready for the rigors of competition hula. Leolani Pratt Ha‘o, Vasconcellos, Sandra Lee and Holoua Stender are the judges.

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Tickets for this competition are $5 and are available from the Merrie Monarch office at 935-9168 and participating halau.

Email Peter Sur at psur@hawaiitribune-herald.com.