The History of Hawai‘i From Our Files: The Not-So-Merrie Monarch?
HONOLULU Magazine emerged from predecessor Paradise of the Pacific, which began in 1888, fulfilling a commission by King Kalākaua. That makes this the oldest continuously published magazine west of the Mississippi with an enviable archive worth diving into each month. Here’s a look back at November 2001.
The Merrie Monarch hula festival in Hilo is revered by many cultural practitioners, teachers and students. In 2001, HONOLULU writer Scott Whitney probes behind the pageantry for a story titled “The Not-So-Merrie Monarch.” The piece prompts outrage, praise, criticism and a closer look at the famous festival beyond the nearly impossible-to-get tickets, hotel rooms and rental cars, past the uncomfortable stadium seats and into the back story of an event started as an economic revitalization project before it turned into the world series of hula. “If you watch the performances on television, you see dances that are graceful and dramatic, and dancers who smile perfect smiles (often facilitated by a smear of Vaseline over the front teeth). But behind the scenes, little fits of rancor lurk outside the TV cameras’ views,” Whitney writes. “Many local people complain the Merrie Monarch has gone too far in turning away a live local audience in favor of becoming an international tourist spectacle. To some hula people, the competition itself is bogus. And Merrie Monarch organizers, for their part, feel the Hilo establishment doesn’t support them enough.”
SEE ALSO: Renowned Merrie Monarch Festival Returns to the Stage this July in Hilo
Critics complained that the writer lacked local perspective and wasn’t Native Hawaiian. But the festival sustains and had to retool for the pandemic. It was canceled in 2020 and adapted in 2021 with safety protocols and a videotaped performance without a live audience, parade or in-person fair, instead offering a virtual pop-up market.
SEE ALSO: Keepers of the Kaona: How These 6 Kumu Preserve Hawai‘i’s Hula Traditions
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