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 Kanakaole Stadium, there was the King Kalakaua beard contest. Some 150 storefronts in downtown Hilo were decorated in homage to the king. At the Hilo Armory, there was a recreation of Kalakaua’s 1883 coronation ceremony in which he crowned himself and 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 ask 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 year’s 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 Naope.
In 2013, Wilhelm, who now lives on Maui, will be the grand marshal.
All of this will be in addition to the usual events of the modern Merrie Monarch Festival, including the hoolaulea, the free hula exhibitions at the Banyan Drive hotels, the craft fairs, and, of course, the hoike and the three nights of competition.
The Jubilee festival begins Easter Sunday 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, although tickets don’t go on sale until Dec. 26.
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.
Although the first annual festival was in 1964, organizers are calling the 2013 festival the 50th because the planning began in 1963.
Following the kickoff hoolaulea on Easter Sunday at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, the coronation pageant will begin at the Hilo Armory.
George De Mello, who is coordinating the pageant with Ui Peralto, said the pageant will begin with a tableau featuring Kalakaua, Queen Kapiolani and the king’s three siblings — Queen Liliuokalani, 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 Wednesday Hoike will feature some 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 all former Miss Aloha Hula winners will be called up to join her.
Thirty hula halau will compete 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.