Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Hula festival turns into Hawai'i TV sensation

 •  What to watch for as dancers compete

By Vicki Viotti
Advertiser Staff Writer

Malihini might shake their heads in disbelief to hear that a hula event is a Hawai'i TV sensation, but it shouldn't really be a surprise: The Merrie Monarch Festival has more pageantry and suspense than the Miss America and Miss Universe contests rolled into one.

The women of Hula Halau O Kamuela celebrated their two wins at last year's Merrie Monarch Festival.

Advertiser library photo

In addition, there's a deep, hard-won well of cultural tradition behind the spectacle. And it's all juiced up by family ties — with "family" defined very broadly.

"Sometimes, in hula, we call each other 'hula cousins,'" said Diane Luttrell, a veteran dancer who lately has sat out the competition but watches her comrades on TV every year.

As everyone knows, families love to gossip. In this case, viewers say: Isn't that my old hula sister up there? What steps is that new kumu teaching? That's not how WE learned it, you know. And how come everybody has the same lei this year?

Folks who've attended the Merrie Monarch say there's no substitute for the electricity you feel when you watch the event in person. But only 5,000 people fit in the Hilo stadium that plays host to the three-day competition every year, so a lot of the TV watchers do their best to recreate the carnival atmosphere in their living rooms.

Tube-watching techniques

Bonnie Judd, a publicist for Punahou School, has acquired a reputation for her Merrie Monarch bashes. Each year, Judd and assorted friends settle on a night for the party — they like Friday's showcase of hula kahiko, or traditional dance, but Saturday's modern 'auana competition often works out best in everyone's schedule.

What emerges is something Judd calls the "pune'e phenomenon": a laid-back entertainment best enjoyed lying back on the Hawaiian-style settee of that name.

Judd suggests party-givers situate all the potluck snacks right alongside that pune'e: "Make sure the cooler's close at hand, because you don't want to have to get up very much," she said.

"You gotta have the local foods: the poke, the edamame. You CAN show up with chips and salsa, but get over it! It's not just the dancing that's being judged."

One year, Judd handed out placards her guest could raise during a performance; each inscribed a one-word evaluation of the dance, the dress, whatever. They can hold up the one that says "NAILS!" when they're feeling catty, or "Zesty!" for those rare, kindly moments.

Some years, Luttrell joins the guests at Judd's dishy do; on others, she kicks back at home and shares her thoughts with friends or her kumu, Kaha'i Topolinski, either in person or in commercial-break phone chats.

True aficionados like Luttrell make comparisons between this latest performance and last year's, cringe over the mispronunciations by a TV commentator, note similarities in styles taught by young teachers and the ones who taught them, and generally annotate and enjoy a sort of genealogy of the dance.

This goes over the heads of most viewers, to whom the Merrie Monarch is all a blur of lovely bodies in motion. But that doesn't stop the event from creating a sizeable draw for local audiences.

Two years ago, the competition took place during television's Nielsen ratings sweeps.

The three nights of hula programming averaged a 15 rating and a 28 share, said Mike Rosenberg, general manager of KITV, the station that produces the TV coverage.

That's television lingo which can be translated like this: 15 percent of all the TVs in the market are tuned into the Merrie Monarch, and 28 percent of all the TVs actually being watched are tuned to the hula broadcast. "That's twice the rating other stations are getting at prime time," he said.

Live vs. remote

Even ticket holders in Hilo often appreciate the lure of the tube, said John Wray, who directs the show at the Edith Kanaka'ole Stadium.

"I think people actually leave the stadium around the end," Wray said. "Their 'okole are tired, and a lot head back to the hotel rooms to watch the final moments."

The denizens of Hilo, for the most part, yield the stadium seats to Honolulu invaders and other tourists.

Until last year, Keola Donaghy, media and telecommunications director with the Hale Kuamo'o Hawaiian Language Center at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo, was one of the pune'e potatoes. He gave sitting in the stands mixed reviews.

"I think you get a much better feel for how the halau are doing on the TV," he said. "The view is better, and obviously my sofa is a lot more comfortable than the benches at the stadium.

"It cannot match, however, the atmosphere you get being live at Kanaka'ole Stadium: the sound, the smell and the reverberation of the song and chant throughout the venue," he added. "It was a chicken-skin experience, but one that left your 'elemu a bit tender after three nights."

Watching from afar

When you don't have much choice in the matter, a video representation is far better than nothing to the far-flung fans of hula. For the second year, KITV is Web-casting the event live on its site.

Brent Suyama, managing editor for the site, said the Webcast was watched by "thousands," herky-jerky, postage-stamp-sized images and all. E-mail feedback came from as far afield as Britain.

"While there were glitches, people were so happy just to be able to get a bit of home," he said. "People e-mailed me from San Francisco the first night. They told me they were having a party. They just doubled the size of the picture, and it was a little grainy."

For the first time this year, Hawaiian expatriates in Las Vegas will be able to supersize their visual experience. Next Sunday, the day after the competition concludes, people will gather for a lunchtime lu'au at Gilley's, ordinarily a country-western venue at the New Frontier Hotel. But because it's equipped with three wide-screen TVs, local publisher Mel Ozeki of 'Ohana Magazine decided it would be perfect for a Merrie Monarch fest.

KITV is sending Ozeki a dub of Friday's kahiko performance to arrive in time for the lu'au. Cost for the meal and televised show: $27.

"This being the first time, I said, 'Hey, let's do this, even at a loss,'" Ozeki said. "It's a great cultural event and, because it's on the Sunday right after, it's still fresh.

"It doesn't matter who won," he added. "To see the competition visual would be exciting."

And for the true devotee, that never gets old.

"Sometimes, if I have somewhere I have to be, well, then I'll tape it," Luttrell said. "Otherwise, it's Merrie Monarch weekend — and I'm watching."