The State of Aloha

The only time I ever went to Front Street on Halloween was when I was 15 years old. Believe it or not, it was my parents’ idea. They got together with some of their friends, donned a few saffron- and maroon-colored robes and made signs with the words “FREE TIBET” on them. The main part of their ensemble was my little brother, who wore a pair of the iconic eyeglasses, got a fresh buzz cut and was the spitting image of the Dalai Lama. Being a sullen teenager, I opted out, put glue in my hair and went as Sid Vicious. That was in 1997.

As expected, my brother and his followers were a popular attraction and they even entered the costume contest under the Banyan Tree. Most folks liked the get-up. Others didn’t get it and asked for some of the “Tibet” that they were handing out for free.

Halloween in Lahaina has been deemed and advertised as the “Mardi Gras of the Pacific.” The west-side town is packed to the gills with costumed revelers. Scantily clad women and men bathed in fake gore and sweating under rubber masks walk up and down Front Street late into the night. The bars are packed. Good luck trying to get in. Hotel rooms are booked. Good luck with that too. And cops are on the lookout for anyone acting up.

The origins of the famed celebrations of Halloween in Lahaina are murky. Many credit its beginnings to a humble and informal gathering of folks in the 1980s. The event grew to include costume contests, kids events and, of course, parties.

In 1990, it got official. The county started to regulate the crowd by closing down the street and having more of a police presence in the area. This helped everyone promote the event even more. By the time I was there with my brother as the Dalai Lama in ’97, the event had become known as the “Mardi Gras of the Pacific.”

It had built a reputation of being a raucous party. And at the time, it felt a little dangerous. Thousands of people flocked to Front Street. You’d hear about fights and unruly crowds.

Complaints followed. Lahaina is more than just a town on Maui. It’s the old capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom. First of all, there’s Moku’ula, a small island that was once surrounded by a fishpond. It was the home of high chiefs for centuries and was the royal residence of Kamehameha III. It was right there along Front Street.

A logo advertising the event of a headless horseman holding a pineapple (instead of a pumpkin as he did in Washington Irvine’s story) was deemed culturally insensitive. Folks complained that the party was distasteful and undignified.

Things came to a head in 2008. The county’s Cultural Resources Commission denied permits allowing the late-night street closure and party. The commission effectively killed it, but allowed the afternoon keiki parade and costume contest.

The reaction was swift, but mixed. Those who favored the dramatic move cited the disrespect shown by partygoers. It was too rowdy, too insensitive to the importance of Lahaina, and just too rambunctious. The party led to fights, drunk drivers and all kinds of unwanted behavior.

Others were far from thrilled about the decision. Partygoers still will go to Lahaina — whether the streets are closed or not. It won’t do any good. On top of that, with cars passing through the streets it would be even more of a safety hazard. Besides, local businesses, hotels and bars were making a lot of money with all the people in town.

For two years, Lahaina did not have an official Halloween celebration. I found it incredibly ironic that the government used Lahaina’s historical and cultural significance as grounds for pulling permits on a rowdy party on Front Street. Lahaina town was the place to have a rowdy party. Yes, it is true that there are sacred sites near the center of town, but let’s not forget that the royal capital was also a hub for the whaling industry in the 19th century.

Sailors wreaked havoc on the town once they were in the harbor after long months at sea. Missionaries and local residents literally had to fight off hordes of sailors who destroyed property, kidnapped women and ran all over town drunk and obnoxious. Sound familiar? Perhaps if everyone dressed as sailors on Halloween, the county would issue a permit for an historic re-enactment.

In 2011, the county brought the party back to Lahaina. The crowds weren’t as big as before, but slowly with each passing year more and more people are coming back. There’s also a bigger police presence and it seems less, well, out of control than years past. Seems like everyone’s happy about it these days.

I have never gone back to Lahaina for Halloween since that night in 1997. In fact, if everything goes according to plan this year, I’ll be miles from Front Street next Monday quietly passing out candy instead of passing out. If you do go, good on you, but be mindful and considerate of the town too.

* Ben Lowenthal is a trial and appellate lawyer, who grew up on Maui. His email is “The State of Aloha” alternates Fridays with Sarah Ruppenthal’s “Neighbors.”