It’s Carnival Time

What makes President Barack Obama, AOL CEO Steve Case and entertainer Henry Kapono high achievers in their professions? Could be the lessons they learned at the Punahou Carnival as junior classmen.

Susan Sunderland
Wednesday - February 02, 2011
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Juniors Stephen Li and Nicole Johnson co-chair this year’s Punahou Carnival.

What makes President Barack Obama, AOL CEO Steve Case and entertainer Henry Kapono high achievers in their professions? Could be the lessons they learned at the Punahou Carnival as junior classmen.

Along with academic pursuits, each was required to be involved in the staging of the nation’s largest school carnival. It’s a Punahou tradition and a kind of rite of passage for students.

But 400 juniors and 4,000 volunteers will tell you it’s a privilege to be involved in this nearly 80-year tradition that attracts Islanders and tourists to the Manoa campus each February.

This year’s extravaganza, themed “The Carnival Before Time: Prehistoric Paradise,” happens Friday and Saturday, Feb. 4 and 5, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Free admission.

The Punahou Carnival is an uber-community gathering with a rich history that has taken on a life of its own to become our “state fair” of sorts.

Folks from Waipio to Waialae make the trek to Punahou and Wilder Avenue for this family-friendly outing of food, carnival rides, games, bargain hunting and entertainment. They brave occasional rain, parking perils and claustrophobic crowds to mingle with the in(sane) crowd.

Each year they consume 14,000 hamburgers; 14,000 ears of corn; 11,300 containers of noodles; 10,000 gyros; 6,500 taco salads, and 4,600 Hawaiian plates. It takes 400 tubs of batter and 9,000 pounds of sugar to satisfy their craving for Punahou’s famous malasadas.

But you can’t be sweet on stats without considering all the other facets of staging the school’s largest fundraiser for scholarships. Thanks to this event, 500 need-based applicants to Punahou receive financial assistance each year. Typically, the private coed school gets 2,300 applicants for enrollment annually.

Join us behind the scenes of this year’s Punahou Carnival for a look at its inner workings. There are valuable lessons to be learned, from event planning to human motivation, as student co-chairs Stephen Li and Nicole Johnson can tell you.

Learn the time-honored techniques and tricks of staging a carnival of this caliber. Welcome to Carnival 101.

Cheryl Hetherington sports the 2011 carnival apron.

Lesson 1. Coalesce folks who care.

If we could bottle the spirit and enthusiasm of student co-chairs Li, 17, and Johnson, 16, it would be as in-demand as Punahou’s mango chutney. Each aspired to carnival leadership with Li winning election as junior class vice president and Johnson being chosen out of 30 applicants for her position.

“This is an amazing experience,” says Li, son of Phil and Susan Li. “We learn so much about leadership and how to rally around a common goal.”

“I so enjoy the Punahou community and my (junior) class; this is a great opportunity to get to know both,” adds Johnson, daughter of Mark and Stephanie Johnson and granddaughter of Punahou grads and community leaders Larry and Claire Johnson.

While the Li-Johnson team operates on the student level, Cheryl Hetherington, Parent Faculty Association carnival chairwoman, works with parent counterparts.

“Many people - students, staff, families, graduates - come together to help this endeavor,” Hetherington says. “It reflects the rich diversity of this campus and makes involvement in carnival so unique.”

Donning a yellow carnival T-shirt and multicolored theme apron, she adds, “It’s really the culmination of thousands of hours and hands coming together to raise funds for school scholarships. Yet I’m a firm believer that hard work and having fun are not mutually exclusive.”

Not for what is hailed as “the most ambitious student enterprise in America.”

Five divisions of parent-student leadership are involved. Alumni volunteers from 38 classes, spanning five decades, staff more than 50 booth shifts. It is a well-organized, well-oiled machine.

That is not surprising, given the carnival’s legacy.

The tradition began in 1932, during the Depression, when academy students hosted an Oahu Campus Carnival to raise money for the yearbook. Everything cost a nickel back then, and in the end, they raised $240 for the Oahuan.

In 1935, the junior class took responsibility for the carnival. It became a two day event in 1947, with money going to school scholarships. The 2009 carnival netted between $400,000 to $500,000.”

Lesson 2. Fuse food, fun and fantasy.

Today, the carnival features 60 different booths with food, games, rides and attractions for all ages. Carnival favorites include the senior class Variety Show, the malasada and mango chutney booths, and the hugely popular white elephant sale.

Parent-volunteer Charlie Yamamoto takes us through the cavernous, 7,000-square-foot storage area known as “The Tank.” This is where the enormous collection of donated items are stored before carnival. Pallets of books, recorded music, clothing, housewares, toys and collectibles are transferred to the massive blue-and-white tented White Elephant booth for bargain-hunters.

Forget going to the mall on carnival weekend. This is where you want to be to find trinkets to treasures. Nothing is priced over $5 in the regular inventory. Reyn Spooner aloha shirts, designer purses and jeans, books (including Herman Wouk’s Don’t Stop the Carnival) and “Obama for America” T-shirts await avaricious shoppers.

Antiques and rare finds are categorized in the Treasures section, where astute collectors are drawn each year.

“One lady comes for Oriental lacquer ware, another wants Japanese ornamental dolls,” Yamamoto says.

“We also have some rare African artifacts and masks this year.”

Art connoisseurs and auction fans will find their paradise at the Gates Science Center, where works of prominent local artists, sculptors and woodcarvers range in price from $20 to several thousand dollars. Among the collection is artist Kelly Sueda’s original painting of this year’s carnival poster.

Among the coveted items at the auction in Cornuelle Hall is a quilt made of fabric commemorating 13 years of past Punahou carnivals. And yes, there are jars of mango chutney on the auction block.

At Dillingham Hall, Variety Show director Christopher Obenchain is rehearsing talented senior class singers, dancers, actors and stage crew for The Greatest Show on Earth.

He auditioned students last spring requiring singers to sing the first 16 bars of America the Beautiful.

“Many don’t know the words,” he laughs. “I once got ‘O beautiful for spaceship skies.’”

That’s not one of the songs in this year’s show. But the student production comes together in memorable fashion Friday and Saturday at 2:30, 5:30 and 8:30 p.m. $10 tickets go fast.

For free entertainment, head to the Hawaiian Plate cafeteria for live music by the Punahou Jazz Band, Punahou Glee, Manoa DNA and Henry Kapono, among others.

Lesson 3. Dig new age marketing. Getting the word out and motivating people can be challenging, according to carnival co-chairs Li and Johnson. Enthusiasm can carry you only so far.

In a kind of new-age carnival marketing, their teams incorporated social networking and computer wizardry on the Internet to promote the carnival. It’s probably the only school carnival with its own Facebook page and Twitter (@punahoucarnival) account.

Volunteer sign-ups were done online too. No old-fashioned parent permission slips and paper forms were used.

“What do you think we are? Prehistoric?” chime the new generation.

Lesson 4. Plan ahead, way ahead.

Finally, be prepared to mobilize plans, logistics and strategies years ahead of the actual event. The junior class tells us they actually started thinking about their carnival involvements as early as freshman year. Once you’re a junior at Punahou, it’s show time.

So there, you have it. Nothing difficult about it, especially if you’ve got plenty of help.

It’s only a rough ride if you’re a Roosevelt grad - gulp - having to write about legendary rival Punahou.

Oh well. Pass the lilikoi butter.

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