Merrie Monarch’s
guiding force steps
out of spotlight

"Auntie Dottie" lets her daughter
run the show after 34 years as leader

Hilo >> Her absence was noted in whispers among family, friends, business associates and even a few adversaries.

"Where's Dottie?" became a mantra at the just-concluded Merrie Monarch Festival. But the reality that the festival's iron-fisted matriarch had passed the leadership torch after 34 years seemed too painful to publicly acknowledge.

For the first time in her reign over the most prestigious hula event in the world, Dorothy "Auntie Dottie" Thompson failed to appear at any of three days of competition.

She made one brief visit to the Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium at noon Saturday, the festival's closing day, to check with her heir, daughter Luana Kawelu. "Just seeing if everything was OK," said Thompson, 81, as she left for her Hilo home.

She exited the rustic, rusting venue alone and without fanfare, head down, eyes misting, shuffling a bit over the rain-slicked parking lot. Just outside, Thompson glanced back, a faint smile appearing, then said to no one, "It's in good hands."

Through the years, Thompson has been called "The Godmother," with piercing dark eyes and a crooked right index finger that no one ever wanted pointed at them in anger. She was a familiar figure in her straw hat with lei band.

She was a Hawaii County employee when she volunteered in 1969 to run the Merrie Monarch because no one else wanted to. The festival was in danger of dying. One of the first things she did was establish new goals: to gather the best hula dancers from all the islands, revive the art and to create "a rite, a celebration, a fete, a statement" about Hawaii and its people.

But those first few years were lean. The fledgling event received no support from the county, Hilo residents or the news media, Thompson recalled Wednesday in an interview. In 1974 and 1976 she had to take out bank loans to keep the festival afloat.

"I begged for publicity, but no one would touch us with a 10-foot pole. If we had 100 people attending (civic center), that was a big crowd."

Still, she maintained strict standards, refusing to take money from major corporations, to move the event to a bigger venue outside Hilo or to increase ticket prices.

"This festival is for the Hawaiian people, not the business people. I don't believe in making any changes just to make more money or to attract more people. That would make it much too commercial, and who benefits from that? Not Hawaiians, not the halaus, not the kumu hulas, not Hilo people."

Thompson's definition of the ideal sponsor: "Someone who donates ... and asks for nothing in return."

The turning point was in 1976 when festival officials -- Thompson, actually -- agreed to allow the kane, or men, into the competition. "We had a lot of requests -- actually, in the old days it was the men who danced the hula," she said. "There were plenty of highly qualified kane groups to compete."

Today, the Merrie Monarch budget runs about $200,000, with funding from in-kind services and donations as well as ticket, T-shirt and program sales. "Some money" comes from KITV, which has been broadcasting the event since 1981. The festival remains an all-volunteer event -- Thompson was never paid, either.

It's 4:45 a.m. on the last day of competition when daughter Kawelu arrives to make sure the lights are on for the first hula halau to practice.

Unlike her mom, Kawelu, 61, is instantly approachable, her brown eyes full and sparkling, the smile disarming. She served as her mother's assistant for 26 years but knows she has "huge shoes to fill" and tries to avoid discussing her mother's "retirement."

"I don't want her to leave," Kawelu said, covering her mouth to soften sudden sobbing. "She says it's my turn now and there are decisions for me to make."

In a private meeting with kumu hulas and judges last September, Thompson did announce that "my daughter is taking over the festival."

Kawelu's tears start to flow when reminded of the meeting. The festival will remain her mother's legacy, she said. "I can't imagine her not being a part of this. No one can. This is very, very hard for all of us. My mom is 81, and I know this means someday she's not going to be around."

Only a few close friends and family know that in February Thompson suffered an attack of Bell's palsy, which causes paralysis on one side of the face and makes the mouth droop.

Saturday night was the first time that Kawelu, not her mother, presented the awards. "She ordered me to do it," Kawelu said. "She said, 'You have to learn, and you better wear a muumuu.'"

Kawelu still called Thompson at home to ask again whether she was going to make the 10-minute trip to the stadium. "She was sleeping and said it was my turn to take over."

She said nothing to the audience about her mother's absence. "My mom is very private and wouldn't want me to do that."

Merrie Monarch Festival


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