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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 21, 2010

Hawaii’s Auntie Dottie’ helped form hula festival traditions

 •  Naope’s memory celebrated

By Wanda A. Adams
Assistant Features Editor

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

"Auntie Dottie" was key to the success of Merrie Monarch.

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Condolences on the death of "Auntie Dottie" Thompson may be sent to the Thompson 'ohana at the Merrie Monarch Festival office, 865 Piilani, Hilo, HI 96720

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Auntie Dottie and Uncle George are gone, but the Merrie Monarch will live on.

Word spread through the hula community that Dorothy Soares "Auntie Dottie" Thompson, 88, of Hilo, had died Friday just a few weeks before the festival's 47th anniversary. Only last October, kumu hula "Uncle George" Naope, too, had passed.

Together, over almost 50 years, the two shaped the Islands' most famous and respected celebration of Hawaiian dance, the Merrie Monarch Festival hula competition.

Ask her daughter and successor, Luana Kawelu of Hilo, about her mother's legacy and Kawelu — like Thompson, a woman of few words and great determination — said simply, "The festival."

And that festival — which launches April 4 in Hilo with entertainment, a craft fair, a homespun parade and the hula competition between April 8 and 10 — will proceed exactly as always, Kawelu said.

She became involved with her mother's pet project in 1977 and now is director. Speaking by phone yesterday from the festival's office, she said, "Why would I change something that has been so successful under her reign? It would be foolish to do so."

Kawelu said the Merrie Monarch Festival, a nonprofit organization governed by a board of directors, will continue to be held every Easter week in Hilo, built around but not limited to the hula festival, dedicated to King Kalākaua's mission of reviving and perpetuating the Hawaiian culture and to being accessible to all.

So prices will remain low, seats will remain limited and the hula and Hilo will remain the focus. And it will never, never, never be about money, she said.


In the early days, Thompson had to scrape for funding and beg for press coverage for the festival.

John Wray of KITV, longtime director of the Merrie Monarch broadcast (now shown on KFVE), said year after year he would suggest to Thompson that she raise prices just a few dollars (tickets for three nights are still a maximum of $30).

And even though she had been known to pay for Merrie Monarch expenses out of her own pocket during tough times, she resisted.

"This is not about making money," she would tell him. "This is for the people of Hilo."

Gov. Linda Lingle said in a press release: "I was always impressed and inspired by Auntie Dottie's strong determination and persistence in ensuring the continued success of the Merrie Monarch Festival, garnering support throughout the community without government funding."

Early on, Wray suggested some changes in staging to make the show work better for TV.

"This," said Thompson, waggling a cautioning finger, "is not your show."

It was very much her show, but one she produced in concert with hula teachers with whom she worked.

Kawelu said her mother's vision was to keep the festival homegrown.

Said kumu hula Karl Veto Baker, of Halau I Ka Wekiu, who first met Thompson when he was a young hula dancer in Robert Cazimero's Halau Na Kamalei in 1976: "She asked the kumu how to do this, she listened to their mana'o (thoughts)."

And that, said longtime Merrie Monarch TV producer David Kalama, was her secret: "Why did Merrie Monarch become so significant? It was the way she treated the participants. She made it big because the halau wanted to be there."

By all accounts, she could be hard-nosed in a business negotiation and warmly loving — even light-hearted and joking — once her point had been made.

"You always knew where you stood with her," said Wray.


She also cared deeply about giving the audience an experience that was both authentic and affordable.

Those who came to the festival could count on the same traditions each year: the leather-vested bikers directing traffic, the stately entrance of the elaborately dressed "court," the benedictions and chanting of "E O Mai" by Father George De Costa, the hard bleachers and the delicious smells from the concession stands.

Every year until she became unable to attend, Thompson could be glimpsed on the sidelines wearing lush lei and a beautiful papale (lauhala hat).

And here are two facts many will find surprising: Thompson was not ethnically Hawaiian (she was Portuguese), and she was never formally trained in hula, although she knew a few "party hula."

"They always say you need the koko (blood)," Kawelu said. "She didn't have it, but she perpetuated the hula."

Kumu hula Naope served as her mentor, introducing her to key players who formed the infrastructure of the Merrie Monarch hula competition.

"She was supported by the masters of hula — Iolani Luahine, Lokalia Montgomery, Edith Kanakaole," said kumu hula Vicki Holt Takamine, who has served as a Merrie Monarch judge. "She has left something not just for the generations she served, but for the future generations."

What began as an effort on the part of then-Hilo County chairman Helene Hale and others to boost tourism, business and civic pride in Hilo became, under Thompson's leadership, something unique.

Although involved from the beginning, she didn't assume leadership of the festival until 1968, when the 5-year-old event was in danger of being canceled for lack of leadership.

Thompson volunteered and formed a partnership with Naope.

They were two very different characters (he a flamboyant artist, she a no-nonsense administrator). But both were focused on preserving all manner of hula tradition — not just the ancient form, but the modern; not just the dance itself but the chant, the music, the adornments, the implements.

The rigorous requirements they set (halau have to document and justify everything from chant authorship to flower choice) are responsible for much hula-related scholarship.

Thompson was born Dorothy Soares on May 16, 1921, in Hilo. She was married twice, first to Ronald Saiki, and later to George Thompson, both of whom preceded her in death.

Thompson graduated from McKinley High School, having moved briefly to O'ahu in her teens. She worked for the Hilo County Parks and Recreation Department for more than 30 years before retiring.

Her death came after a long illness.

She is survived by her four children, Ronald Saiki Jr., Leinani Andrade, Francis "Bo" Saiki and Luana Saiki Kawelu. She had so many grandchildren that Kawelu, when asked, couldn't begin to count them all.