The Legacy of the Merrie Monarch Festival

The “Merrie Monarch”

An annual event on the Big Island of Hawaii, The Merrie Monarch Festival, is held to honor the legacy of King David Kalākaua, who reigned from 1864 until his death in 1891. The King was known by his people as the “Merrie Monarch” because of his devoted patronage to the arts. Kalākaua had a lively personality and loved to entertain guests with his singing and ukulele playing.

During his time as King, Kalākaua inspired the continuation of many of Hawaii’s cultural traditions, native languages and arts that had been lost, including the hula which had been banned from public in the kingdom since 1830. The ban on the hula was lifted at the king’s coronation and was celebrated each year until his death at his birthday jubilee celebration. The hula has been a traditional dance of Hawaiian culture since that time.


The Merrie Monarch Festival

The Merrie Monarch Festival is a week long cultural event and features the internationally acclaimed hula competition, an invitational Hawaiian arts fair, hula competitions and performances, and a grand parade through Hilo town. But, the festival is most widely celebrated for the hula competition that brings competitors from all over the world to the Big Island of Hawaii. The festival has received worldwide recognition and is considered one the most prestigious hula contests.


The History of The Festival

In 1964, the festival consisted of a King David Kalākaua look-alike beard contest, a barbershop quartet competition, a relay race, the recreation of the king’s coronation, and a Holoku Ball. By 1968 the festival was suffering and there was talk to have it suspended and, it would have been except for Dottie Thompson, who took over the festival as Executive Director.

In 1964, the festival consisted of a King David Kalākaua look-alike beard contest, a barbershop quartet competition, a relay race, the recreation of the king’s coronation, and a Holoku Ball. By 1968 the festival was suffering and there was talk to have it suspended and, it would have been except for Dottie Thompson, who took over the festival as Executive Director.

Dottie wanted the festival to reflect a more Hawaiian theme. She contacted Uncle George Naʻope and Albert Nahalea to get started. “Uncle George” as everyone called him, was to be in charge of the pageantry and the coronation, and Albert Nahalea in charge of the music. The goal was to replicate the celebrations of King David Kalākaua and bring the best hula dancers from around the islands to the Big Island to perform and share the quality and authenticity of hula at the time. The hula competition was introduced into the festival in 1971. There were nine wahine (women) hālau who entered the first year. Dottie and Uncle George are both celebrated for their participation in breathing new life into the festival and bringing hula back to the people


The Festival opens to Kāne

In 1976, the festival opened the competition to kāne (men), and the festival took off, attracting hordes of enthusiastic fans. From that point the festival grew rapidly in popularity, and has become one of the biggest events in Hawaii along with being credited for playing a major role in a Hawaiian cultural renaissance. Today, the festival enjoys enormous popularity and worldwide attention.


Uncle George Na’ope lived “Aloha”

George Na’ope aka Uncle George was a dapper man who sported colourful clothes and huge rings. He was a daily fixture at the festival held on the Big Island and attended many of its auxiliary events. He could often be seen sitting in a huge peacock chair having his picture taken with visitors from around the world. He drew doting fans and the cheering crowds would rise to their feet when he took the Merrie Monarch stage to perform hula during the festival’s finale.

Na’ope believed and lived in the word “Aloha” and helped spread that message throughout the world through hula. As well as being a co-founder of the Merrie Monarch Festival, he was also the co-founder of the George Na’ope Hula Festival in California He died in 2009 at the age 81 but his hula lineage continues to live on.


A Legacy Lives On

A testament of this lineage was evident when, at the 2017 festival, kumu hula Iwalani Kalima brought her Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani ‘E to the Merrie Monarch hula competition. The news created extreme excitement as Kalima, was a favored student of Na’ope, and he revered as one of hula’s greatest masters. Kalima last appeared on hula’s biggest stage in 2006.

Kalima said her hula brother, Punahele Andrade, planted the idea for her to perform at the festival to keep Uncle George’s legacy alive and perpetuate his individual style of hula. Kalima’s time on the Merrie Monarch stage may be few in number, but they have taken on an almost mythic aura. Kalima founded Hula Halau O Kou Lima Nani ‘E in 1986. The wahine halau has now become a fixture in a variety of community and cultural events, noncompetition hula festivals as well as the Merrie Monarch week events around Hilo town.


2018 Merrie Monarch Festival

Schedule of Events


Hoʻolauleʻa (celebration)
9:00 a.m., Sunday, April 1st at the Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium. Free admission to watch performances by local hālau

Free Mid-day Entertainment
Daily (Monday – Friday) entertainment at the Hilo Naniloa Hotel at 12 pm, and at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel at 1 pm

Merrie Monarch Invitational Hawaiian Arts Fair
9:00 am to 5:00 pm, Wednesday, April 4th through Friday, April 6th, and 9:00 am to 4:00 pm, Saturday, April 7th, at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium

An annual favorite, this free event features local artists, crafters, and entertainment.

Hōʻike Performances
6:00 pm, Wednesday, April 4th at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium. An exhibition night of hula and folk dance from around the Pacific. The performances are open and free to the public

Miss Aloha Hula
6:00 pm, Thursday, April 5th at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium. Individual competition for the title of Miss Aloha Hula with contestants performing hula kahiko, hula ʻauana and oli (chanting)

Group Hula Kahiko
6:00 pm, Friday, April 6th at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium. Hālau hula perform ancient style dances

Group Hula ʻAuana & Awards
6:00 pm, Saturday, April 7th at the Edith Kanakaʻole Stadium. Hālau hula perform modern style dances with an awards presentation for all group winners

Merrie Monarch Royal Parade
10:30 am, Saturday, April 7th. One of the festival’s most entertaining and fun events for the entire family, the parade begins and ends at Pauahi Street and winds through downtown Hilo taking Kilauea Avenue, Keawe Street, Waiānuenue Avenue and Kamehameha Avenue

Event Locations

Edith Kanaka‘ole Tennis Stadium
350 Kalanikoa Street
Hilo, Hawaii 96720

Afook Chinen Civic Auditorium
323 Manono Street
Hilo, Hawaii 96720


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Annette Mejia, Realtor Broker
Annette Mejia, Realtor Broker

"Everything Annette did for me was from the heart"

As someone that has spent her whole life feeling lucky to work with people in customer service, I vowed then and there to help people like you and me have the experience they deserved when moving to The Big Island. Because let’s face it, this should be the start of the happiest, proudest, and most peaceful period in your life!

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