history of merrie monarch

The wahine of Keolalaulani Halau ‘Olapa O Laka dance during the auana portion of the Merrie Monarch Festival competition. (Kumu Aloha Dalire; He’eia, O’ahu). Photo: Dennis Oda.

The Merrie Monarch Festival honors King David Laʻamea Kalakaua, Hawaii’s last king, who reigned from 1874 to 1891. Kalakaua, nicknamed the “Merrie Monarch,” is credited with reviving Hawaiian cultural practices and arts that had been suppressed for many years by missionary teachings.

During his reign, more than 300 ancient hulas were recovered, and Kalakaua supported the public performance of hula and advocated for a renewed sense of pride in everything Hawaiian — from medicine to chant and dance.

Because ancient Hawaiians had no written language, Hawaiian genealogy, religion, culture and history were passed down through the generations through hula and chant. It was also a way to acknowledge every feature of the natural world, from birds, trees and flowers to mountains, rivers, wind and rain.

King David Kalakaua, for Whom the Annual Merrie Monarch Festival is Named

Kalakaua himself was a talented musician, composer and creator of hula.

An avid traveler, he made history as the first Hawaiian monarch to visit the United States and the first monarch of any nation to circumnavigate the globe.

He loved luxury, grandeur and having a great time, earning him the nickname of the Merrie Monarch.

On his 50th birthday, Kalakaua celebrated with a Silver Jubilee, a two-week celebration of Hawaiian culture on the grounds of Iolani Palace, which he had built. Besides hula and chant, there was a parade through downtown Honolulu.

One of the gifts he received for his birthday was “Na Mele Aimoku,” a collection of 48 chants in his honor. Today, those mele remain a great source of knowledge.

The Merrie Monarch Festival aims to continue what Kalakaua started with its weeklong festival of music, crafts, art and hula, bringing back the spirit of the king’s Silver Jubilee.

Today, the festival continues to honor the king by selecting a “mo’i kane” (king) and “mo’i wahine” (queen) every year to portray the royal court, which presides over the competition. A large portrait of Kalakaua hangs in the hula venue during the event, and this year, the festival committee brought back the King Kalakaua beard look-alike contest, part of the fun in the celebration’s early years.

The king’s words are emblazoned on every Merrie Monarch Festival program and this year’s commemorative T-shirt: “Hula is the language of the heart and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.”

Read more about the Merrie Monarch Festival.

Merrie Monarch Festival Through the Years

» 1963
Festival was founded by Helene Hale, pictured at right, as a way to boost the economy in Hilo.

» 1964
Inaugural festival lasted four days and featured the King Kalakaua beard contest, barbershop quartet contest, and entertainment at the “Grogge Shoppe.”

» 1968
Dottie Thompson volunteered to be chairwoman of the Merrie Monarch Festival, bringing George Na’ope in to handle the court and pageantry and Albert Nahale’a to handle music.

» 1971
First hula competition took place at the Hilo Civic Auditorium, a one-night event. Jack Lord of the original “Hawaii Five-O” served as parade marshall, Hilo Hattie was honored.

» 1976
The kane (men’s) division was added. Robert Cazimero’s Halau Na Kamalei was the first kane to place at Merrie Monarch.

» 1979
Due to the popularity of the hula competition, the event was moved to the Tennis Stadium (then known as Ho’olulu Tennis Stadium)

» 1980
Waimapuna and Na Wai Eha ‘O Puna tied for overall kane division title; Hau’oli Hula Studio & Johnny Lum Ho Hula Studio tied for wahine division trophy.

» 1981
Live television coverage of Merrie Monarch began on KITV.

» 1988
The 25th annual Merrie Monarch Festival paid tribute to kumu hula Darrell Lupenui, founder of Waimapuna, who died in 1987.

» 1995
The Wednesday Night Extravaganza was renamed the Wednesday Night Hoike at Edith Kanaka’ole Tennis Stadium.

» 2005
Robert Cazimero’s all-male Halau Na Kamalei swept kane and overall title.

» 2009
Thompson and Na’ope, co-founders of the Merrie Monarch as it is known today, get a standing ovation at what would be their last appearance at the festival. Na’ope died in Hilo in October 2009. He was 81.

» 2010
Thompson died March 19, 2010. She was 88. Kumu hula Rae Fonseca died less than 24 hours after Thompson. He was 56. TV coverage moved to KFVE.

» 2013
The 50th Merrie Monarch Festival pays tribute to many of the original winners from the early 1970s, who will appear at the Hoike Wednesday night.