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The History of the Merrie Monarch

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Dorothy Soares Thompson. (Star-Advertiser File)
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George Lanakilakeikiahialii Na'ope, better known as "Uncle George." (Star-Advertiser File)

The Merrie Monarch Festival honors King David La‘amea Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king, who reigned from 1874 to 1891.

Kalakaua, nicknamed the “Merrie Monarch,” is credited with reviving Hawaiian cultural practices and arts that had been suppressed for many years by missionary teachings.

During his reign, more than 300 ancient hulas were recovered, and Kalakaua supported the public performance of hula and advocated for a renewed sense of pride in everything Hawaiian — from medicine to chant and dance.

Because ancient Hawaiians had no written language, Hawaiian genealogy, religion, culture and history were passed down through the generations through hula and chant. It was also a way to acknowledge every feature of the natural world, from birds, trees and flowers to mountains, rivers, wind and rain.



The entrance dance that precedes the hula is the first impression made by the halau. In hula kahiko this is often a chant honoring a deity of the hula.


Encompasses everything, including presentation, hands, feet, costumes, adornments.


How the dancers express the hula, chant or song through their faces, body movements or inner self.


Carriage of the dancers’ body throughout their entire performance.


The precise execution of the dancers’ hands, feet and body throughout their performance.

Hand Gestures

Description and interpretation of the words of the chant or mele through hands.

Foot Movement/Body Movement

Execution and refinement of foot movements. In a hula noho (sitting hula), the expression of the body movement is judged.


The exit dance, which includes the manner in which the dancers exit the stage.

Authenticity of Costume

Should reflect the period or time of the chant or mele. Solid black in both the kahiko or auana is prohibited unless trimmed with contrasting colors. Cellophane skirts and artificial flowers are also prohibited.


Should be made of the foliage that represent the kinolau (body form) of the hula deities.


Overall neat appearance in both costume and adornments.

Overall Performance

Meeting all of the above criteria and the judge’s overall feeling about the halau’s performance.

Source: Kumu hula Ed Collier


» Cy M. Bridges

» Nalani Kanaka‘ole

» Mae Kamamalu Klein

» Noenoelani Zuttermeister Lewis

» Joan S. Lindsey

» Keali’i Reichel

» Kalena Silva

Kalakaua himself was a talented musician, composer and creator of hula.

An avid traveler, he made history as the first Hawaiian monarch to visit the United States and the first monarch of any nation to circumnavigate the globe.

He loved luxury, grandeur and having a great time, earning him the nickname of the Merrie Monarch.

On his 50th birthday, Kalakaua celebrated with a Silver Jubilee, a two-week celebration of Hawaiian culture on the grounds of Iolani Palace, which he had built. Besides hula and chant, there was a parade through downtown Honolulu.

One of the gifts he received for his birthday was “Na Mele Aimoku,” a collection of 48 chants in his honor. Today, those mele remain a great source of knowledge.

The Merrie Monarch Festival aims to continue what Kalakaua started with its weeklong festival of music, crafts, art and hula, bringing back the spirit of the king’s Silver Jubilee.

Today, the festival continues to honor the king by selecting a “mo‘i kane” (king) and “mo‘i wahine” (queen) every year to portray the royal court, which presides over the competition. A large portrait of Kalakaua hangs in the hula venue during the event, and this year, the festival committee brought back the King Kalakaua beard look-alike contest, part of the fun in the celebration’s early years.

The king’s words are emblazoned on every Merrie Monarch Festival program and this year’s commemorative T-shirt: “Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

Through the Years

» 1963

Festival was founded by Helene Hale, pictured at right, as a way to boost the economy in Hilo.

» 1964

Inaugural festival lasted four days and featured the King Kalakaua beard contest, barbershop quartet contest, and entertainment at the “Grogge Shoppe.”

» 1968

Dottie Thompson volunteered to be chairwoman of the Merrie Monarch Festival, bringing George Na’ope in to handle the court and pageantry and Albert Nahale’a to handle music.

» 1971

First hula competition took place at the Hilo Civic Auditorium, a one-night event. Jack Lord of the original “Hawaii Five-O” served as parade marshall, Hilo Hattie was honored.

» 1976

The kane (men’s) division was added. Robert Cazimero’s Halau Na Kamalei was the first kane to place at Merrie Monarch.

» 1979

Due to the popularity of the hula competition, the event was moved to the Tennis Stadium (then known as Ho’olulu Tennis Stadium)

» 1980

Waimapuna and Na Wai Eha ‘O Puna tied for overall kane division title; Hau’oli Hula Studio & Johnny Lum Ho Hula Studio tied for wahine division trophy.

» 1981

Live television coverage of Merrie Monarch began on KITV.

» 1988

The 25th annual Merrie Monarch Festival paid tribute to kumu hula Darrell Lupenui, founder of Waimapuna, who died in 1987.

» 1995

The Wednesday Night Extravaganza was renamed the Wednesday Night Hoike at Edith Kanaka‘ole Tennis Stadium.

» 2005

Robert Cazimero’s all-male Halau Na Kamalei swept kane and overall title.

» 2009

Thompson and Na’ope, co-founders of the Merrie Monarch as it is known today, get a standing ovation at what would be their last appearance at the festival. Na’ope died in Hilo in October 2009. He was 81.

» 2010

Thompson died March 19, 2010. She was 88. Kumu hula Rae Fonseca died less than 24 hours after Thompson. He was 56. TV coverage moved to KFVE.

» 2013

The 50th Merrie Monarch Festival pays tribute to many of the original winners from the early 1970s, who will appear at the Hoike Wednesday night.

Masters of the Art of Hula

George Na‘ope

George Lanakilakeikiahialii Na‘ope, better known as “Uncle George,” was a hula loea, or hula master, who taught hundreds of students, including many of today’s prominent kumu hula.

George Lanakilakeikiahialii Na'ope, better known as "Uncle George." (Star-Advertiser File)

He traveled far and wide and was known for his colorful personality and outfits as well as his love of good parties.

Na’ope was instrumental in bringing together the best practicing kumu hula to participate in the Merrie Monarch Festival’s first hula competition in 1971, following the inspiration of King David Kalakaua.

As a kumu hula, Na‘ope believed in hewing to tradition when it came to hula kahiko but also acknowledged there are many schools with their own traditions. He would often say, “Think not that all wisdom lies in one school.”

Named one of Hawaii’s “Living Treasures” and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship Award, he loved to share his knowledge of hula with students throughout the world.

“He was small in stature, but you always knew he was in charge,” said kumu hula Lani-Girl Kaleiki-AhLo of ‘Ilima Hula Studio. “You knew people revered him and admired him.”

The Merrie Monarch Festival was Na‘ope’s “baby,” said kumu hula Puanani Alama, who was close to him. “He did it. Who wouldn’t be happy with seeing how it grew?”

Na’ope died Oct. 26, 2009, in Hilo. He was 81.

Na’ope and the Merrie Monarch’s late Chairwoman Dorothy Thompson both attended the festival for the last time in 2009. Both were in wheelchairs, and received a standing ovation that evening.

Dottie Thompson

When the Merrie Monarch Festival was on its last legs just a few years after its start in 1964, Dorothy Soares Thompson stepped up to the plate and volunteered to be its chairwoman in 1968.

Dorothy Soares Thompson. (Star-Advertiser File)

Thompson, better known as “Auntie Dottie,” was considered the driving force behind what is now a thriving, world-renowned hula festival.

Thompson, who worked for the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, said she took the helm because she simply did not want to see the festival disappear.

So she enlisted kumu hula George Na‘ope to handle the pageantry and Albert Nahale’a to handle the music for the festival.

With the help of Na’ope, she invited the best halau from all the islands to compete in a hula competition honoring King David Kalakaua, to be held annually on the Wednesday after Easter. The competition has since expanded to three days — Thursday through Saturday — attracting dozens of halau from Hawaii and the mainland.

Thompson, known for donning a signature straw hat adorned with fresh flowers, was reputed to be decisive, tough and fiercely loyal to Hilo.

Over the decades, she insisted the festival stay in Hilo despite its phenomenal growth, and that admission prices remain low. She also mandated that the focus remain on hula.

Thompson died March 19, 2010, in Hilo. She was 88.

Miss Aloha Hula Over the Years

» 1971: Aloha Wong, Keolalaulani Hula Studio

» 1972: Aulani Newalu, Halau ‘o Kahealani

» 1973: Kalani Kalawa, Louise Kaleiki Hula Studio

» 1974: Dee Dee Aipolani, Piilani Watkins Hula Studio

» 1975: Leimomi Maria, ‘Ilima Hula Studio

» 1976: Ululani Duenas, ‘Ilima Hula Studio and Sheryl Nalani Guernesy, Kaleo ‘o Nani Loa Studio (tie)

» 1977: Pualani Chang, Pukaikapua‘okalani Studio

» 1978: Regina Makaikai Igarashi, Keolalaulani Hula Studio

» 1979: Jody Imehana Mitchell, Pa‘u O Hi’iaka

» 1980: Kaula Kamahele, Johnny Lum Ho Hula Studio

» 1981: Brenda Alidon, Johnny Lum Ho Hula Studio

» 1982: Dayna Kanani Oda, Hula Halau o ka Ua Kani Lehua

» 1983: Geola Pua, Hula Halau o ka Ua Kani Lehua

» 1984: Twyla Ululani Mendez, Hau‘oli Hula Halau

» 1985: Healani Youn, The Ladies of Ke‘ala ‘o ka Laua‘e

» 1986: Leimomi Nuuhiwa, The Ladies of Ke‘ala ‘o ka Laua‘e

» 1987: Lisa Kuuipo Doi, Hula Halau o ka Ua Kani Lehua

» 1988: Sheldeen Kaleimomi Kaleohano, Hula Halau ‘o Kahikilaulani

» 1989: Pi‘ilani Smith, Hula Halau ‘o na Maoli Pua

» 1990: Natalie Noelani Ai, Halau Hula Olana

» 1991: Kapualokeokalaniakea Dalire, Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa ‘o Laka

» 1992: Kauimaiokalaniakea Dalire, Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa ‘o Laka

» 1993: Maelia Lani Kahanuola Loebenstein, Ka Pa Hula o Kauanoe ‘o Wa‘ahila

» 1994: Tracie Ka’onohilani Farias, Na Wai Eha ‘o Puna

» 1995: Allison Kailihiwa Kaha‘ipi‘ilani Vaughan, Ka Pa Hula ‘o Kauanoe ‘o Wa‘ahila)

» 1996: Ku‘ukamalani Ho, Keali‘ikaapunihonua Ke‘ena A‘o Hula

» 1997: Kehaulani Enos, Halau Mohala ‘Ilima

» 1998: Lokalia Kahele, Na Wai Eha ‘o Puna

» 1999: Keolalaulani Dalire, Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa ‘o Laka

» 2000: Tehani Kealamailani Gonzado, Hula Halau ‘o Kamuela

» 2001: Natasha Kamalamalamaokalailokokapu‘u-waimehanaokekeikipunahele Oda, Halau O Ka Ua Kani Lehua

» 2002: Malia Ann Kawailanamalie Petersen, Hula Halau ‘o Kamuela

» 2003: Jennifer Kehaulani Oyama, Halau Na Mamo ‘o Pu‘uanahulu

» 2004: Natasha Mahealani Akau, Halau Na Mamo ‘o Pu‘uanahulu

» 2005: Maile Emily Kau‘ilanionapuaehi‘ipoiokeanuenueokeola Francisco, Halau Na Mamo ‘o Pu‘uanahulu

» 2006: Bernice Alohanamakanamaikalanimai Davis-Lim, Na Lei o Kaholoku (pictured)

» 2007: Keonilei Ku‘uwehiokala Kaniaupio Fairbanks, Halau Ka Pa Hula o Kauanoe Wa‘ahila

» 2008: Kalimakuhilani Akemi Kalamanamana Suganuma, Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa ‘o Laka

» 2009: Cherissa Henoheanapuaikawaokele Kane, Halau Ke‘alaokamaile

» 2010: Mahealani Mika Hirao-Solem, Hula Halau ‘o Kamuela

» 2011: Tori Hulali Canha, Halau Ke‘alaokamaile

» 2012: Rebecca Lilinoekekapahauomaunakea Sterling, Halau Mohala ‘Ilima

One response to “The History of the Merrie Monarch”

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