Hula fest is shining legacy


POSTED: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Next month's Merrie Monarch Festival will be poignantly enhanced with the memory of its two pillars throughout the decades. Dorothy “;Auntie Dottie”; Thompson, the monarch's matriarch, died last week at the age of 88, and “;Uncle”; George Naope, its co-founder, died last October at age 81. Their legacy should be cherished and celebrated as the Hilo festival is staged for the 47th year.

Hawaii County's chief executive sent Naope to check out Maui's whaling spree in 1963 to gain ideas about hosting a similar event. He returned with the vision of the Merrie Monarch Festival to honor King David Kalakaua.

Only a few years later, Thompson, an employee of the county's Parks and Recreation Department, entered the scene as the festival's executive director and steered it through hard times, planning, scheduling and bringing halau, judges and spectators together year after year to keep the festival alive.

Naope had taught hula in Hawaii and around the world and was a walking encyclopedia of traditional hula and chant, co-authoring the two-volume “;Lost Secrets of Ancient Hawaiian Hula.”; He earned a doctorate in music from the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and received the nation's highest honor in folk and traditional arts in 2006 from the National Endowment for the Arts.

But it took Thompson — not a native Hawaiian — to put energy into the festival, setting new objectives that reflected the ideas of King Kalakaua and turning it into an internationally known forum to display and teach the Hawaiian dance, including kane, or male, hula dancers beginning in 1976. The Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs applauded her a decade ago as the “;outstanding non-Hawaiian perpetuating the Hawaiian culture.”;

“;She ran the whole show,”; said Thompson's daughter, Luana Kawelu, who succeeded her as the festival's director in 2003. “;She was strong-willed, but fair.”; That included her insistence that prices of admission to the festival remain affordable — no more than $30 for the festival's three nights — without relying on financial support. This, even as the festival blossomed into an annual cultural and economic boon for laid-back Hilo.

Both Thompson and Naope were deservedly recognized as Living Treasures of Hawaii by the Honpa Hongwanji Mission of Hawaii in 2007.

While there are no plans at April's festival for a tribute to Thompson — “;She liked to stay in the background,”; her daughter explained — her legacy and that of Naope will radiate throughout Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium next month and at every Merrie Monarch Festival to follow.