Alice Kealoha Holt’s hula skills brought statewide acclaim and a small film role
Before there was the Merrie Monarch Festival, before there was Miss Aloha Hula, there was “Queen of Hula” Alice Kealoha Pauole Holt, winner of the first — and only — Inter-Island Hula Contest in 1938.
Just 19 at the time, Holt, who was from Nawiliwili, Kauai, was one of 500 enthusiastic hula dancers from across the Territory of Hawaii who entered the contest sponsored by the locally owned Consolidated Amusement Co. and Hollywood’s MGM Studios.
It is believed to have been the first statewide hula contest in the islands. Newspaper accounts indicate the event caused quite a stir in the community and made Holt a celebrity across the United States and Canada.
Preliminary hula contests were held on five islands. The island winners were invited to participate in a Hula Nui Night Grand Final in Honolulu on Sept. 6, 1938. The winner, it was promised, would get a free trip to MGM Studios, a screen test and a chance at a featured role as a “Native Dancing Girl” in the movie “Honolulu,” starring Eleanor Powell and Robert Young.
The five island winners were Alice Kealoha Holt, Miss Kauai; Dorothy Dudoit, Miss Molokai; Alice Keahi Bright, Miss Oahu; Rita Lum Ho, Miss Maui; and Ethel Moniz, Miss Hawaii.
When the finalists and their chaperones departed their respective islands to travel to Oahu via boat or airplane, crowds of well-wishers gathered to bid them farewell with lei, music, speeches and, on at least one island, a parade. In Hilo the festivities were broadcast live via the KHBC radio station.
When tickets went on sale at the 1,400-seat Hawaii Theatre, hundreds of excited people stood in line for hours to get seats. The crowd was so big that people spilled into the street, causing traffic jams throughout the area. The police were called in to keep the streets clear.
Tickets sold out quickly, causing Consolidated to quickly make arrangements for a second contest show at the nearby Princess Theatre, which had a seating capacity of 1,600. Tickets at this venue also sold out quickly.
Rhoda (Holt) Napoleon, 88, remembers the event because Holt was her aunt. Only 12 years old, she was unable to attend because it started at 10 p.m., and her parents did not allow her out so late at night.
“I remember that we all thought that Auntie Kealoha was a big Hollywood movie star,” she said.
For the contestants, the days leading up to the finals were filled with newspaper interviews and publicity photo shoots. In the hours prior to the show, there was a special makeup session with Reggie Palmer, the Max Factor representative in Honolulu and a former “makeup artist to the stars” at the Warner Bros. studio.
Judges for the event were Alexander Faye, Kauai; Rosalie E. Keliinoi, Maui; Jennie Wilson, Molokai; Bernice Spitz, Oahu; and Mrs. Joseph L. Victor, Hawaii. Johnnie Noble and Mrs. Joseph R. Farrington served as advisory judges.
The contestants were judged on three criteria: dancing ability (50 percent), beauty and form (25 percent each). These criteria were vastly different from the current Merrie Monarch hula competition judging standards, which are much more detailed and culturally rigorous.
Providing music for all the contestants was well-known musician and composer Johnny Almeida and his Melody Masters.
The “hapa-haole” hula that each contestant chose to dance to were varied. Holt danced to an unnamed song written for her; Bright performed to “Pua Rose,” Lum Ho to “Kuulei Lilia” and Dudoit to “Kalakaua,” while Moniz danced to a medley of songs.
Publicity photos published in The Honolulu Advertiser show the women in costumes utilizing ti leaf, raffia and cellophane skirts and various tops. All wore lei and were barefoot.
After the event it was reported that “Hula Queen” Holt had worn a “becoming costume which consisted of purple (the color of Kauai) cellophane skirt, pikake and maile lei, and a head cap (lei) of green leaves edged with a strand of pikake.”
As the winner of the contest, Holt received a beautiful silver Cromwell Cup donated by James Cromwell and his wife, Doris Duke, the tobacco heiress who spent many winters at her home at Black Point called Shangri La.
MGM immediately sent out press releases with a photo of Holt adorned in lei. Dozens of newspapers across the country picked up the story and printed the photo. She departed for Los Angeles aboard the SS Lurline three weeks after winning the Hula Queen title.
The Hollywood Plaza Hotel was Holt’s home for three months as she embarked on a whirlwind of VIP tours of Hollywood tourist sites, attended MGM Studio previews and nightclub shows, and even made a short trip to Tijuana, Mexico.
“Honolulu” film producer Jack Cummings reported that Holt passed the screen test “with flying colors,” and she was immediately cast in a special role as a “Native Dancing Girl” who frolics in balmy, flower-scented Hawaii.
Holt’s brief one-minute appearance in the film comes about 30 minutes in, when the two romantic leads attend an evening luau on the beach at Waikiki, complete with a waterfall, a lovely moonlit sky and swaying palms — filmed entirely inside an MGM studio.
Holt dances solo to “E Liliu E,” a traditional mele in honor of Queen Liliuokalani, which was jazzed up with modern rhythms and played with modern instruments including the acoustic guitar, ukulele, steel guitar and stand-up bass, to suit American musical tastes.
According to Holt’s daughter, Keikilani Curnan of Kailua-Kona, who is a kumu hula, her mother’s hula teacher was Annie Roberts. Roberts’ hula teacher was the revered Lokalia Montgomery.
Roberts, like many hula teachers of her era, embraced hapa-haole music and cellophane outfits and made them her own.
Eleanor Powell’s hula scenes in the movie were something else altogether.
Powell was featured in three dance numbers at the “Fiesta Room” nightclub in an elegant white cellophane skirt and bra and backed up by about 30 chorus line dancers, none of whom were authentic hula dancers.
Powell’s first two “hula” dances, done barefoot, consisted of hand and arm movements that appallingly resemble what is now known as the Chicken Dance. In the last dance the talented Powell donned her signature tap shoes and managed to do some fairly recognizable hula movements, but with a typical over-the-top Hollywood flair.
The trailer for “Honolulu” described the number as “the most amazing dance of the decade!”
In the book “The Hula,” author Jerry Hopkins states there was backlash to the dances, with some irate Native Hawaiians demanding that Powell’s jazzy hula be removed from the film.
For Holt, everything in Hollywood was new and exciting to her at first, said Curnan, but after a few weeks the excitement started to wane. In a United Press story, Holt is quoted as saying, “I wish I were back home. I don’t like Hollywood — that is, I don’t like all this hurly-burly. I don’t like the dance halls and the way people dance the hula here. They should be ashamed!”
When Holt returned to the islands after her mind-boggling Hollywood experience, she went to work as an aide at the Department of Health, married FBI agent Donald Curnan and had seven children. She died in Kailua-Kona on Jan. 12, 2010, at the age of 90, and is buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific with her husband.
Nanette Naioma Napoleon is a freelance writer from Kailua, Oahu. Her aunt is Rhoda Napoleon, niece of Alice Kealoha Holt.
MERRIE MONARCH FESTIVAL
>> Hula competition begins 6 p.m. nightly at Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium, Hilo: April 9, Miss Aloha Hula; April 10, group kahiko; April 11, group auana and announcement of winners.
>> Watch live coverage of the competition starting at 6 p.m. April 9 on KFVE, with encores at 11 a.m. the following day. (Live streaming available at kfve.com.)