To city slickers, this parade down Keawe Street may not look like much, bit in Hilo town, it was an event. Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin

When the hula festival's in town


The Big Island burg shines during the annual event

By Nadine Kam
Assistant Features Editor

HILO - In the game of resort roulette, Hilo isn't even a contender. Compared to her sun-bronzed sisters Kohala and Kona, Hilo is the storm cloud, the ugly duckling, the black sheep, the fly in the soup, the last cookie on the plate, the little town that coulda, woulda, shoulda, but nevah.

Until April. For one week, at Merrie Monarch time, Hilo is transformed into a stunning, resplendent cloak of lei and smiles. But beyond the sudden glamor, those on the outside finally are able to appreciate Hilo's crawling pace and smallness.

Where else are the hotel rules relaxed to the point where five to a room becomes commonplace? Where else can you have a parade - which took place Saturday - in which the car drivers get more cheers ("Hey Lynn!") than the beauty queens or Mayor Steve Yamashiro? Not to mention a parade in which a yellow school bus from Laupahoehoe stops in the middle of the route to pick up a bunch of dancers who, as far as anyone could tell, might have been shopping the craft fair in Mooheau Park. And certainly, on Oahu, there are few parades so casual that anyone walking alongside the route could be mistaken for a participant.

"Look how straight they stand!" remarked one spectator observing Minnesota's impressive Marching 'Bassadors from Long Prairie High School.

"Oh yeah," said her companion. "Not like the Hilo people. They walk any kine way. They from Minnesota that's why, they get plenty practice."

Derek Awong, a spectator who stopped in from Volcano, said, "It's unusual to have a big parade in Hilo. It's good fun because everybody knows everybody. Can I say hello to my family in Maili?"

Greetings, Awongs.

"Oh, nah!"

A paniolo says aloha to a friend.
Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin

"This town hasn't changed," said Bob Dedic from St. Paul, Minn., who has come back to Hilo every year for the past five years. He first saw Hilo in 1943, during World War II.

Although he's never been here during the weeklong Merrie Monarch celebration, he says, "I don't find it crowded at all compared to St. Paul."

On Wednesday and Thursday, Aloha and Hawaiian airlines deposited some 8,000 people at the Hilo Airport, people absorbed by the 1,250 rooms available from Hilo to Honokaa in hotels, condos, bed & breakfasts. Others find room with family and friends. Some halau stay at the Kilauea Military Camp dormitories, while others bunk down in school recreation halls. Somehow Hilo manages to absorb all quickly, seamlessly.

Except on Saturday, when the Hilo Farmer's Market and Merrie Monarch craft fair and parade lures visitors downtown, the average Hilo citizen remains unaffected by the event. Traffic is generally centered around the airport Wednesday and Thursday, the hotels and the Edith Kamaka'ole stadium, where the hula competitions are held.

Sitting inside Elsie's Fountain, where owner James Shinohara will wears a white shirt and black bow tie as he has for the 50 years he's run the lunch counter, old-timers gather Saturday morning for their usual cup of 65-cent coffee. They're plotting a three-day trek to Vegas, but ask them if they'll be walking around the corner to watch the parade, and they say no way.

Talk to Hilo residents and you'll find that with a majority of them, the last time they attended the 33-year old festival lies closer to statehood than this decade.

In the KTA parking lot, 48-year resident Isabelle Gonzales says that except for the jam-packed parking lot, the festival doesn't affect her either. The housewife often watches the proceedings on TV, but she believes the last time she went to the competitions was 30 years ago.

It's the visitor that the store owners rely on for improving their bottom line, and they do all they can to lure them with displays of hula implements, T-shirts and tote bags, but downtown shops were doing little business Friday and Saturday.

At Fabric Impressions, advertising a 25 percent off sale of Hawaiian print fabric, owner Diane Adrian said, "Merrie Monarch doesn't really affect us that much. We just get a lot of happy people in town.

"The people who do come in are looking for something to take back home. We don't get the halau. They stick together and they don't have much time to wander off on their own.

"We don't depend on Merrie Monarch. We don't depend on anything except hard work."

At Mastercuts, a hair salon in the Prince Kuhio Plaza hairdresser Edna Anderson said business is slow at the mall during festival hours. "In three hours (Thursday night) we did eight people. Normally, we would be doing 30 haircuts."

Those who do well are the itinerant crafters and lei sellers who prepare all year for this one week.

At the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel and Hawaii Naniloa Hotel, vendor tables are filled with lauhala basketry, koa jewelry, Hawaiian heirloom jewelry, handmade ukulele, muumuu, pickled mango and onions, and haku lei.

Joyce Midel works by day as a clerk-stenographer at Hilo Hospital and holds part-time night job at a detox center, took a week's vacation to sell haku lei at the Hilo Hawaiian, as she's done for the past 17 years.

"I enjoy it and really enjoy the people I meet. I see a lot of the same people every year and a lot of the (hula) judges buy lei from me. I sold all my lei this morning, so I'm making fresh ones."

She sells about 120 lei at $15 apiece, but the extra income isn't treated as fun money.

"Merrie Monarch is the time to pay bills. It's the time to catch up with everything."

Her sentiments were echoed by Mei-Ling Wong, a waitress at Don's Grill, who says that any extra tip money will go toward paying bills.

And Daniel Wadahara, owner of Empire Cafe, which serves local and Filipino food, said, "With the plantation layoffs and state cutbacks this island doesn't know where it stands, so everyone's afraid to spend money."

Hula Halau O Kamuela imports its meals from Oahu and dines in the hallway of the hotel. Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin

If the store owners in the middle don't seem to be doing well, the little guys and the big guys must be doing OK because $5 million is the magic number floated whenever anyone asks how much money the festival brings into Hilo. Yet no one has ever done the research to come up with this statistic - not the Hawaii Visitors Bureau, not the state Department of Economic Development and Tourism, not Hilo County and not Hilo's Chamber of Commerce.

"Because they said that the (Bud Light Ironman) Triathlon brings more money into Hawaii than Merrie Monarch, I asked (DBED) eight years ago to prove it, and no one ever did," said Dorothy "Dottie" Thompson, executive director of the festival.

"A figure like $5 million would be conservative when you consider how much Merrie Monarch impacts the airlines, the hotels, car rental agencies and vendors," said Hawaii Visitors Bureau Big Island Executive Director Ken Johnston. "But we have no data base for tracking that kind of information."

A proposal to get that information was killed by the county eight years ago, according to Diane Quitiquit of the county office of Research and Development. "It costs a lot of money to do a survey like that, and there are more pressing needs in Hilo," she said.

Those needs include managing unemployment that likely runs higher than the 9.3 percent rate for Hawaii County, which encompasses the whole island.

"Once they get the information, what are they going to do with it?" asks Johnston. "If I had to go to the Legislature and ask them to give me money to support the festival, it's a figure I would want to know. But Merrie Monarch does not get state funds. It's totally self-supporting, so there's no need to justify how much it impacts the county or state."

In the Hawaii Naniloa Hotel, the halls smell very green. On the sixth floor, the parents of the dancers of Paleka Mattos' and Kunewa Mook's Halau O Kamuela are busily whittling down the ribs of 6,000 ti leaves - 200 leaves for 30 skirts - for the 'auana competition costumes. They work from 7 a.m. Friday and into Saturday, up until 5 minutes before the girls are slated to take the stage.

Is it worth it? "If they win," said Pamela Goya, the mother of dancer Kauwela Goya. "Every person you see doing everything is the parents. But we enjoy this don't we?"

Nobody answers.

Craft fairs specializing in Hawaiiana do brisk business. Photo by Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin

Outside, in the elevators, people wonder fearfully that somehow Hilo will lose Merrie Monarch. They wonder if the festival has outgrown Hilo. There are only 5,250 tickets to go around each night, and reserved seats were sold out in four days in January. By early March, every general ticket was gone.

But there's no such thing as moving the Boston Marathon out of Boston or Mardi Gras out of New Orleans. Merrie Monarch is as much a part of Hilo as its 128 annual inches of rain and the red sampan buses cruising the street.

The festival needs Hilo as much as Hilo needs it. Where else is the sight of dancers cruising the craft fairs with hair in braids and rollers a vision, not an eyesore? And where else is the shortage of rooms, cars and slow elevators half the fun?

And those on the Big Island like the size of the festival as is. Wendall Kekumue, a member of the Koa Puna Motorcycle Club, running security outside the stadium, said, "It's good for the county and the economy."

A resident of Volcano, Kekumue said, "But if had this many people all the time our trips to Hilo would be less frequent. If people here want that kind of lifestyle, they can pack up and move to Honolulu."

By today, Hilo is "Deadville," says Thompson, but the party happens again next year.

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