Quote Unquote: What It’s Really Like Organizing the Merrie Monarch Festival

Luana Kawelu, 79, took over as president of the Merrie Monarch Festival after her mom, Dottie Thompson, who was instrumental in reviving the event in the 1970s, died in 2010.


Luana Kawelu

Kawelu in the quiet Edith Kanaka‘ole Stadium, site of the Merrie Monarch Festival. Photo: James Rubio



A retired social worker, Luana Kawelu oversees everything from managing the 19 wāhine and 10 kāne hālau competing this year to sorting the thousands of ticket requests that come in from across the globe.


I’m just in awe, I tell you. I am in awe of what the kumu teach the haumana (students) and what it produces on the stage. It is inspiring.


Nothing was said that I was going to take over. It was just there were many things that [my mom] taught me to do, and I just did it.


This is a volunteer position. I question myself. I think, “Why am I doing this?” But I have my mom’s picture above my desk, and this is her legacy. I could never let her down.


I used to be the running-around person when my mom was alive. Now, I’m sitting next to Kimo [Kahoano]—and my daughter, Kathy, who I am planning to turn the torch over to, is the running-around person. That’s not an easy job out there. You have to put out so many fires.


I would say we have maybe 3,500 envelopes [for ticket requests], and you multiply that by two because they usually request two tickets. We have seating for 5,000, but 1,000 of that is for participating dancers.


“The kumu hula are traveling to farther places to teach hula, so more people are loving it now.”


We have mail coming in from Switzerland and Germany—a lot of Europe, you know? And China, Taiwan, Mexico, Tahiti, New Zealand and so many from Canada. And from almost every state in the United States. There was one, I think it was Lithuania. I thought, how did they hear about us? I was so shocked with how the word gets around.


Tickets—This is the worst part of the festival. In the end, we have to mail back requests and say that we’re so sorry we’re unable to fulfill your request. It just breaks my heart.


[People] stand in line at 5 in the morning [for Wednesday’s hō‘ike performances]. They have their pop-up tents, chairs and umbrellas. But they have fun in the line. It makes me not feel so bad with them waiting so long.


I used to dance hula a long time ago. I went because I lived with my grandma, and she sent me to hula. And then I broke my wrist and never went back.


SEE ALSO: Merrie Monarch Celebrates 50th Year


[My favorite parts of the festival are] the sharing of our culture and the devotion and passion that the kumu hula have for this art form that they’re so willing to share with the world. I so admire them.


It’s so amazing, and the good thing about the festival is that … the same people come back and patronize the stores, restaurants and the craft fair. It’s a lot of camaraderie that goes on.


Watch the Merrie Monarch Festival, April 25 to 27, on Channel 22 or via livestream. For more information, visit merriemonarch.com.