Dorothy Thompson dies at 88; force behind noted hula festival in Hawaii

Mcclatchy-Tribune News Service

Dorothy "Auntie Dottie" Thompson, who helped found and direct the Merrie Monarch Festival, Hawaii's most prestigious showcase for hula, died March 19 in Hilo after a long illness. She was 88.

Thompson and George Na'ope co-founded the festival in 1964 with the intention of boosting tourism and cultural pride. Na'ope died in October at 81.

The weeklong Merrie Monarch Festival, in Hilo's Edith Kanaka'ole Tennis Stadium, celebrates its 47th anniversary this year beginning April 4. Under Thompson's determined leadership, the festival remained little changed or modernized. A behind-the-scenes force, 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.

The hula festival, dedicated to reviving and perpetuating Hawaiian culture, is governed by a nonprofit organization that is directed by Luana Kawelu, Thompson's daughter and successor. Tickets for three nights are still a maximum of $30, but they sell out quickly.

Until she became unable to attend a few years ago, Thompson could be seen on the sidelines of the festival wearing a muumuu, flower lei and straw hat.

She was never formally trained in hula. Although involved from the beginning, Thompson didn't assume leadership of the festival until 1968, when the still-new event was in danger of being canceled for lack of leadership.

Thompson volunteered and formed a partnership with Na'ope, a hula master.

They were two very different characters, he a flamboyant artist, she a no-nonsense administrator. But both were focused on preserving 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 are responsible for much hula-related scholarship.

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

She worked for the Hilo County Parks and Recreation Department for more than 30 years before retiring.

Besides her daughter, Thompson is survived by her three other children, Ronald Saiki Jr., Leinani Andrade and Francis "Bo" Saiki; and grandchildren.

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