'Dottie' Thompson put hula on world stage, 88
By Wanda Adams
Advertiser Staff Writers
Dorothy "Auntie Dottie" Thompson, one of the founders of the Merrie Monarch Festival, died last night in Hilo. She was 88.
Thompson, along with George Na'ope, founded what would become Hawai'i's signature showcase for hula. The festival, in Hilo's Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium, celebrates its 47th anniversary this year.
"She was an absolutely amazing woman," said Noenoe Zuttermeister Lewis, a kumu hula and Merrie Monarch judge. "I don't think she had any idea it would grow into what it has become today.
"She had a special love for the Hawaiian people and I want to express my love to Auntie Dottie. She helped elevate our culture so it became more widely known."
Thompson has been executive director of the festival since its inception in 1964. She had very strong views about how the festival, and in particular the hula competition, should be operated. She declined to change or modernize. She kept prices low, insisted that the hula be the focus of the show and resisted offers to move it to a bigger, more modern venue.
"Auntie Dottie had a quiet command. She didn't have to raise her voice," said Manu Boyd, who has been involved with the festival as dancer, kumu hula and musician.
"We look at Auntie Dottie Thompson as an ali'i wahine — she was a chiefess. She did so much for our community.
"As sad as this is, it's also a happy time for Hawai'i because we know through her leadership and guidance that hula is in a better place and the culture is in a better place."
What began as an effort to boost tourism and civic pride in Hilo became the most prestigious showcase for hula, largely due to Thompson's determined leadership.
She was known as a stern taskmaster but also a faithful friend. Years after they rendered service to the festival, supporters would be rewarded with tickets.
In interviews, she frequently reflected back to the early days when she had to scrape for funding and beg for press coverage for the festival. She never forgot those who helped at the beginning.
She was determined to keep the festival volunteer-driven and was a masterful community organizer. She was able to bring together such disparate groups as Hawaiian civic clubs and Harley-Davidson motorcycle clubs to volunteer year after year.