Behind Scenes At Merrie Monarch

Veto Baker

Veto Baker’s students practice at a Hawaii County gym. Photo from Veto Baker

The annual Merrie Monarch Hula Festival takes over Hilo this weekend. Hordes of visitors and halau, and they all need rooms. Don’t you wonder where they stay in a sleepy town that’s notorious for its slim pickings in rooms?

Obvious stays are the Naniloa, Castle, Uncle Billy’s and most-popular-by-price Hilo Seaside. “We’re booked out,” emailed Seaside Hotels’ Patti Kimi Woodd. I squeezed in by a hair this year.

Some people go far afield to Volcano House or Kilauea Lodge (29 miles) or Akiko’s Buddhist B&B in Wailea (15 miles). The Lodge emailed, “We are usually sold out well in advance in the rooms. The restaurant is slow for dinner since our guests are attending the festival.” So the Sunday right after MM is your best bet. I do the venison or wild boar every year. A vodka martini on the rocks by the famous Lodge fireplace.

So where do all those dancers crash? I’m a curious guy, so my thanks to kumu hula Veto Baker of the oft-winning Halau I Ka Wekiu for filling me in.

Baker says, “We always stay at one of the Hawaii County gyms. This year it will be the Keaukaha Gym. We pack up our air mattresses or cots and towels and our dry foods and ship them to Hilo on the Young Brothers barge. The gym cost is $10 a night per person and we are there for four nights. So $2,200 for lodging.” The halau cooks its own meals and brings a chef named Kokua.

“The great thing about staying at a gym,” Baker says, “is that we are away from all the distractions and can focus on the reason we are in Hilo, and that is to dance. We use the gym to practice and there is space for our students to make their lei, which they use during kahiko night. For us, part of the experience is to make one’s own lei for your performance. This is how our kupuna did it.”

I’m fascinated by how hard it is for halau to make the Hilo trip, do the costumes and the floral decorations. And the cost. Snowbird Bento told me last year that her halau needed to raise about $50,000 for the whole affair.

I’ve sometimes opined that it would be nice to move the Merrie Monarch to Honolulu’s Blaisdell Center so more audience could attend and with cheaper TV production costs. But there is something wonderful about using much-more-Hawaiian Hilo, even if it were without TV coverage. So I’ve redacted that move-it opinion.

I love Hilo at MM time. The shopping and eats at Nori’s, Cafe Pesto, Seaside, Cafe 100 and the Hilo Bay Cafe. And the strawberry mochi from Two Ladies Kitchen.

See you this weekend, and please don’t come to the MM without proper omiyagi snacks to share. At least not if you’re seated near Denby and me!

Two state lawmakers – Rep. Sharon Har and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz – propose turning the area around the Palama Super Market on Makaloa Street into a formal Koreatown.

Hey, why stop there?

A Filipinotown around Cocina Restaurant & Bakery on North King. Pacific-Islandtown around Mr. Mandoo Restaurant at 710 North King. Haoletown around Le Bistro in the Niu Valley Shopping Center. And AJAtown around the 442nd clubhouse on Wiliwili Street.