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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, September 12, 2008

Auntie Toni conjures up a parade

 •  Aloha spirit prevails

By Wayne Harada
Advertiser Entertainment Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Auntie Toni Lee had to be inventive and prudent in order to make Saturday's Floral Parade happen.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Auntie Toni Lee is a go-getter. As chairwoman of tomorrow's Aloha Festivals Floral Parade, she managed to round up 11 bands, space out a group of pa'u riders and their horses with 186 units, and reach out to the community to enlist the services of nearly every Hawaiian organization, plus beauty queens, boy choirs and hula halau.

All to make the parade a reality.

And all in a month's time.

"There are only three truly Hawaiian parades in town," said Lee, who also is the mother of 1997 Miss Universe Brooke Lee. "It's the Kuhio Day parade, Kamehameha Day parade and Aloha Festivals. We had to keep this one marching."

She rode in the parade in the 1970s, but she never chaired one until now.

"The only thing they had in place was the pa'u unit," Lee said. "Leiala Cook, who heads the equestrian unit, had a year of fundraising and preparation, because it takes money and that long to get the pa'u ready. They breathed a sigh of relief when they heard the parade would happen, after all the practice; they cried, even the men cried. They remembered the 9/11 year, when the parade was canceled. And what is a parade without pa'u riders and horses?"

A taskmaster, Lee doesn't believe in the impossible. The parade budget, she said, was $58,000, and a huge amount is going to pay for police security. So she had to be inventive and prudent.

"You cannot wait for people to come to you; you have to go to them," she said. "And with the theme 'Hula: The Art of Hawaiian Dance,' you gotta have hula. I was a student of Auntie Maiki Aiu, and while growing up, I went to the parade, and I saw halau on flatbed trucks, and I figured it was time to go grassroots. Too last-minute for hotels to participate."

She approached halau with a "this is your chance" challenge. "When you tell them floats, they get scared, think it's an unattainable goal," Lee said. "So we decided on flatbeds and looked for contributions."

Amazingly, she influenced various dance groups to scope their homes for chicken wire, lumber, flowers. Whatever it takes to decorate the flatbeds.

"We only spent $8.62 for more chicken wire we needed," she said. "The way I figured, with the size of halau nowadays, if each student brought something, you have more than you need."

She rattled off kumu hula names: Leimomi Ho, Marlene Kuraoka, Shirley Recca, Hokulani DeRego, Michael Pili Pang. Even Punana Leo, celebrating its 25th anniversary, will have a float, she said.

"And the floats are in competition," she said. "May not be grand, like the old days, but these halau are going to work some wonders."

Lee's son has a business called Hawaiian Steam, and he had three flatbeds to loan; he asked his friends to kokua. "He got me eight flatbeds, including one that will be a float for the Royal Court, and I had the Prince Kuhio Hawaiian Civic Club commissioned to (do) that one."

Lee said the simplicity and back-to-the-people approach to the parade has been gratifying.

"In its prime, the parade was commercial and touristy," she said. "Now we have the chance to effect change, and take it back to our people. I think the locals were neglected over time, so it's great to get them involved."

Kale Chang, who works with the Honolulu Boy Choir, was enlisted to march. "Maybe the kids will sing, too, but I'm told it's difficult to walk and sing at the same time," said Lee.

Le'a Kalimakuhilani Suganuma, this year's Miss Aloha Hula from the Merrie Monarch Festival, will appear on a float built by the Kuni Pio Lani Hawaiian Civic Club.

Ryland Tokioka, 2007 winner of the Aloha Festivals 'ukulele contest, also will participate.

"Tutu and Me, a local organization, will have a trolley; and past kings and queens of the Aloha Festivals will be on another trolley, too," Lee said.

Instead of grand marshals, a trio of Hawaiiana treasures Ka'upena Wong, Rubellite Johnson and Mae Klein will appear as Ambassadors of Aloha.

Master and Little Miss Keiki Hula will appear, too. And a couple of beauty queens but not daughter Brooke, who has an out-of-town commitment.

Reach Wayne Harada at wharada@honoluluadvertiser.com.