The men of Sonny Ching's Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu won the overall men's title Saturday night at the 41st Merrie Monarch Festival. In the auana portion of the competition, the halau told the story of the royal train -- "Lanakila" -- that took the queen to Moanalua over the bridge at Halawa. The performance placed second in that category.

Traditional values

Change comes slowly to Hilo’s
Merrie Monarch Festival -- but
ticket prices will go up next year

Hilo >> Change is not something generally associated with the Merrie Monarch Festival, which has been run pretty much the same way since 1969, when the tight-fisted, no-nonsense Dorothy "Auntie Dottie" Thompson took over the declining annual event.

Festival champs

Merrie Monarch Festival 2004 Winners and their point totals:

Festival Overall Winner

Na Leo O Kaholoku, 1,212


1. Na Lei O Kaholoku, 609
2. Hula Halau O Kamuela, 598
3. Halau Hula O Hokulani, 595
4. Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu, 591.5
5. Halau Hula Olana, 591

1. Hula Halau O Kamuela, 610
2. Na Leo O Kaholoku, 603
3. Halau O Ke A'ali'i Ku Makani, 597
4. Halau Mohala Ilima, 596
5. Halau Hula Olana, 595

1. Na Lei O Kaholoku, 1,212
2. Hula Halau O Kamuela, 1,208
3. Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu, 1,186


1. Ke Kai O Kahiki, 599
2. Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu, 597.5
3. Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, 591
4. Halau Kealii O Nalani, 588

1. Halau I Ka Wekiu, 607
2. Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu, 603.5
3. Ke Kai O Kahiki, 592
4. Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La, 588

1. Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu, 1,201
2. Ke Kai O Kahiki, 1,191
3. Halau I Ka Wekiu, 1,186

The organization's unofficial mantra remains "We don't care how they do it in Honolulu."

Assistant festival director Luana Kawelu, Thompson's daughter, says "there's no reason to fix something when it isn't broken."

"My mom's been doing it this way for a long time, and we're still going strong," she said moments after the three days of hula competition ended Saturday night.

Thompson, who turns 83 next month, has done far more than just keep the festival alive. The event has thrived under her stern policies, tight control of spending and her philosophy that the festival's good comes before anything else. She has refused to take money from major corporations (except a select few, all Hawaii-based) and won't move the event to a larger venue, away from its birthplace, Hilo's rustic Edith Kanakaole Tennis Stadium. Nor will she increase ticket prices, fill the program with advertisements or cater to news media.

"All that would take away from our control, make it too commercial," Thompson said. "I've said these things for years."

Gov. Linda Lingle said Thompson's independence from government funding is "probably the main reason Merrie Monarch has been so successful." She added, "Any hoops Auntie Dottie had to jump through are her own creation and no one else, including government."

Merrie Monarch has an all-volunteer staff, including Thompson and Kawelu. The annual budget is about $200,000, raised from in-kind services and donations; T-shirt, program, ticket and other sales; and from KITV, which has broadcast the event since 1981. Hawaii County provides the stadium and staffing to set it up.

But some changes are sneaking up on Merrie Monarch.

Ticket prices have remained shockingly low for more than a decade. A single ticket costs as little as $5 -- or purchase the best seats in the house for $25 for three nights. That's if you're lucky enough to find any tickets, as they usually sell out within a few days of going on sale in late December.

But prices have to be raised next year, Kawelu said, at least $2 on three-night tickets.

The Hilo Fire Department cut 110 floor seats from the total 5,500 this year for safety reasons. And the 42nd festival will lose several more seats -- the exact number is unknown -- to accommodate wheelchairs.

No one is complaining. Most attendees say they would pay much more to be able to see the world's greatest hula event.

Na Lei O Kaholoku wahine, directed by kumu hula Nani Lim Yap and Leialoha Amina, were the big winners at the festival. The Kohala group won the festival's overall first-place title as well as the women's overall and kahiko titles. During auana competition, above, the women performed a dance comparing a beautiful lei to a loved one, both kept close to the heart, in "Ku'u Milimili."

This year's biggest change was the selection of five new judges out of the seven. All were kumu, including the eccentric crowd favorite Johnny Lum Ho, of Hilo, and noted kumu and hula expert Frank Hewitt.

Past complaints from competing halau and their kumu had centered on objectivity, competence and openness to new ideas on the part of some judges. No one is saying if Thompson just got tired of the complaints or if daughter Kawelu decided on the change, but it is hard to ignore its effect on this year's competition.

"We asked each kumu to submit three names of possible judges, and then they made the final selections," Kawelu said. "Many of the kumu felt if you put your halau onstage to be judged, then you have the right to be a judge."

Though it is impossible to know, as judges' ballots are confidential, this year's results seem to indicate a new philosophy.

Oahu's Hula Halau O Kamuela, which had won the majority of the wahine competitions for five years as well as the festival's overall award, lost to the Big Island's Na Lei O Kaholoku in kahiko, wahine and festival overall -- ending what many were calling a hula dynasty.

Saturday night's most applauded halau was Halau I Ka Wekiu, whose nine men performed an auana mele, "The Surfing Lesson." The men wore bright red rash guards and knee-length white surf shorts, then put a surfing lesson to dance, including paddling across the floor, jumping to their feet and singing boisterously.

"Johnny (Lum Ho) will love this performance," an audience member said.

Ho, in his first year of judging, did not enter his halau Ka Ua Kani Lehua. He is known for his tradition-busting, innovative choreography and raucous singing. In last year's auana, his kane mimicked a Waimea rodeo, and the halau won the overall kane title.

The surfing kane of Halau I Ka Wekiu were surprise winners in the men's auana competition.

Dorothy "Auntie Dottie" Thompson, left, and her daughter, Luana Kawelu, continue to rule the Merrie Monarch Festival with a firmness of purpose that they say protects the event from harm.

Fewer halau participated this year -- 21 -- and there were only 11 Miss Aloha Hula entries compared with 2003's 15.

These numbers probably will not go up, because it makes the event "far more manageable and lets us end at a decent hour," Kawelu said. "We have so many people, halau, who want to come from all over the world to perform, especially now Canada, Israel and Japan. But we want to take care of Hawaii. We want our Hawaiians here to be involved in their culture first."

Only two out-of-state halau competed this year -- Sissy Kaio's Na Pua me Kealoha of Carson, Calif., and Keali'i Ceballos' Halau Keali'i O Nalani, of Los Angeles -- the fewest in years.

Previously, the competition has ended past midnight. This year, it concluded at 11 p.m.

But ballot tabulation still took 30 minutes longer. While the final accounting is done by computer, the seven judges still make their tallies by hand.

Neither Thompson nor Kawelu is leading toward speeding up that process, which would primarily help the news media.

"It really doesn't take that long," Kawelu said.

The biggest change that did not happen this year was Thompson's rumored "retirement" from Merrie Monarch. Thompson said last year that the 2003 Merrie Monarch would be her last, and she did not attend any of that competition. But this year, she attended all three nights and looked healthier and more robust than at any time last year.

Thompson did not want to discuss her earlier statements or current medical situation.

"Auntie Dottie" attended in her trademark muumuu and straw hat with feather band. She oversaw the judging and the tallies, and when a volunteer was slow to respond to her, she pointed her fabled, dreaded crooked index finger and made him run to her.

"I'm not going anywhere any time soon," she told a volunteer. "Nothing's changed."

Not quite true.

"Auntie Dottie's" massive four-door black Lincoln Continental Towncar is gone. Merrie Monarch's matriarch now cruises Hilo in a late-model four-door dark blue Cadillac.

Aloha Dalire's Keolalaulani Halau Olapa O Laka, from Heeia in Kaneohe, performed "Ka Poli 'O Waimea" during the auana portion of the women's competition. The dance compared Hawaii's beauty to a loved one.

Halau I Ka Wekiu, a Honolulu halau directed by kumu hula Karl Veto Baker and Michael Casupang, was a surprise winner, placing third among men's groups overall and first in the men's auana competition (their piece replicated a surfing lesson). Their bold kahiko performance, above, a tribute to the deity Ku, was greeted with excitement and cheers.

Ka Leo O Laka I Ka Hikina O Ka La was all smiles during the auana competition, performing a mele moa, or song, for King Kalakaua. The performance placed fourth. The Honolulu halau, directed by kumu hula Kaleo Trinidad, also placed third in the men's kahiko competition.

Hula Halau O Kamuela failed to place first overall for the first time in five years. The group, led by kumu hula Kau'i Kamana'o and Kunewa Mook, won second place overall and first place in the auana competition -- with a piece that spoke of the lehua blossom swaying by the sea in Puna.

The men of Halau Na Mamo O Pu'uanahulu were jubilant after it was announced they had taken first place among men's halau overall.

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