The State of Aloha

Pictures of King David Kalakaua depict a handsome, stately man, in an illustrious uniform modeled after European-style royalty or militaries of the 19th century not unlike Italian dukes or Greek princes.

He will go down in history as the ruler who loved a good party, favored pomp and circumstance and had expensive tastes. It is no wonder he earned the nickname “The Merrie Monarch.” For a man who liked to have a good time, he must have been bitterly disappointed that he could not celebrate his coronation in style.

His path to the crown was controversial. Because Kamehameha V died without an heir in 1872, it was decided that the new ruler would be elected. Kalakaua ran, but lost by a wide margin to Prince William Charles Lunalilo, a descendant of Kamehameha the Great and the kings that followed. Lunalilo’s reign, however, had been short. Lunalilo contracted pulmonary tuberculosis and died approximately 13 months after his coronation.

And so another election was held. Kalakaua ran again and this time he squared off against Queen Emma, the well-respected widow of Kamehameha IV. This time, Kalakaua won.

The queen’s supporters weren’t happy and rioted in Honolulu. It was so bad that Kalakaua turned to British and American warships to calm everyone down. This was not the time for a lavish coronation.

Eventually folks settled in with the nonroyal king. But many were critical. The king loved spending money. First there was the tour of the islands and then to the United States. Then there was the long and pricey construction of Iolani Palace, an architectural amazement for the little island kingdom that cost an unheard of sum of $350,000.

As the king approached his 50th birthday, he had big plans to make up for his subdued coronation ceremony. And so in November 1886, King Kalakaua celebrated his birthday with parades, regattas and fireworks.

But the most shocking and astounding part of the king’s jubilee was the reintroduction of a lost art. King Kalakaua welcomed the return of hula.

Hula had been forced largely underground for 60 years. Protestant missionaries arriving to the islands denounced it as heathen, sinful and un-Christian. Their influence swayed ruling chiefs to ban hula. The converted Queen Ka’ahumanu banned public performances, but it still could be done in private.

In the decades before Kalakaua’s time, the public hula was strictly licensed and regulated. Kalakaua would change all of that at his birthday celebration.

On Nov. 23, 1886, the king, his ministers, governors and hundreds of others gathered on the palace lawn and feasted all afternoon. After the sun had set, hula dancers appeared and performed. This wasn’t the only time hula was on display. The king’s party lasted two weeks. During that long celebration, chanters, singers and, of course, hula dancers were publicly performing on palace grounds.

Despite his European-style dress and tastes, Kalakaua was a patron of Hawaiian culture and promoted the old, near-forgotten mythologies, stories and arts. Perhaps that’s what stoked the fears of future conspirators who forced upon him a constitution restricting his powers and eventually engineered an outright overthrow of the monarchy.

After Kalakaua and the monarchy, while Hawaii remained an isolated territory to the United States, hula shows were performed for non-Hawaiian audiences. It was featured on the Mainland with circuses and traveling shows. And by the time of statehood in the 1950s, it had become a hokey tourist attraction. (Look no further than the plastic ring we call the “hula hoop,” and you get the idea.)

The desire to bring in tourists was everywhere — even in Hilo. In 1964, just four years after statehood and not long after the town had been rocked by a tsunami, the county wanted to attract more tourist dollars and put on a festival in Hilo in honor of the old “Merrie Monarch,” King Kalakaua. There was a barbershop quartet, a relay race, a re-creation of the coronation and even a King Kalakaua beard look-a-like contest. It proved to be popular and for most of the decade it remained a small-town event for Hilo — but that too fell on hard times.

In 1971, the Merrie Monarch Festival changed forever. The festival’s directors tuned into the rising consciousness of Hawaiian people at the time. According to 2015 Festival President Luana Kawelu, the new directors back then “wanted to replicate what King David Kalakaua had done, bringing the best hula dancers from around the islands to come and perform and share quality and the authenticity of hula at the time.”

They succeeded. This week heralds the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. Tonight kicks off a televised three-day hula contest and pageantry with live music and chanters. Dancers are adorned spectacular flowers and garments. Then the event ends with a grand parade through the streets of Hilo on Sunday.

How fitting for the monarch who brought hula back onto the public stage.

* 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.”