Even in the dead of winter, glossy green leaves encircle soft blooms of pink or white or deep rose on camellia bushes throughout the coastal Carolinas. But give it a couple of months, and the real glory of a southern spring is evident. Tulip trees pop with pink blooms, followed by dogwoods and their cross shaped white petals. Just as April opens, out jump the seersucker suits, linen sun dresses and wide-brimmed hats vying for attention with the profusion of white, pink, pinker, and red azaleas. It’s festival time!
The North Carolina Azalea Festival in Wilmington began in 1948 as a celebration of the recently beautified Greenfield Lake area. Thousands of azaleas, dogwoods, and other flowering plants had been added by the local Rotary Club (one of the nation’s oldest). It was, and remains, a truly beautiful sight. Several prominent local men met in 1947 to discuss the feasibility of a festival to showcase the lake, Airlie Gardens, Orton Plantation, and other gardens. Their ad hoc leader was Dr. W. Houston Moore, but when the second meeting was completed, Hugh Morton, (of Grandfather Mountain fame) who couldn’t attend the meeting, had been elected the first president of the newly formed festival.
The late Mr. Morton later recalled that the first event saw gardens at their peak of beauty and perfect weather. The effort cleared $5000 which was used to start the second year’s event.
“Our first and absolutely Ideal Queen was Jacqueline White of RKO Radio Pictures,” Morton later wrote. More than sixty years later, she returned as a celebrity guest. Other 1948 celebrities included Ted Malone, who originated his coast-to-coast ABC Radio Network program from a platform in front of the community center on Second Street, and NC Governor Gregg Cherry who crowned the queen at Lumina Ballroom on Wrightsville Beach, according to Morton’s report.
The event’s schedule was twelve lines long in the souvenir program. It included a street dance and a flower show. A songfest of massed choirs was held at Legion Stadium. Malone’s broadcast went live on Friday. Saturday was the big day with the Grand Festival Parade at 11:00am downtown, band concerts in the afternoon at Greenfield Park, and three dances that evening: the Teenage Dance at the Community Center; the Grand Coronation Ball at Lumina Pavilion with Larry Clinton’s band, and the Invitational Ball at the Country Club with Jimmy Livingston’s band.
From that humble but successful beginning, the NCAF has grown to a five-day event which draws tens of thousands of visitors from around the world, working with a budget hovering around one million dollars. Celebrity guests, major concerts, a parade, street fair, juried art show, home tours, garden tours, spectacular patron-only events and much more are offered.
Over the years, queens and celebrity guests have included Abby Dalton, Michael Landon, Dixie Carter, Kelly Ripa (who mistakenly told her studio audience that previous queens had included Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly), Bob Hope, Phylicia Rashad, Johnny Mathis, Jennifer Love Hewitt, General Hugh Shelton, and Kenny Rogers. Concerts have run the gamut from Alan Jackson to The Avett Brothers to Hootie and the Blowfish, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Widespread Panic, Nelly, and Liza Minelli.
The festival had the distinction in 2005 of being featured as the first travel piece ever to appear on the cover of Southern Living magazine. The cover photograph was the front porch and surrounding garden of the late Henry Rehder’s Oleander Drive home, where the queen’s official portrait was taken for many years, and an accompanying article praised the area’s beauty. It has been selected one of the top events by Southeast Tourism Society multiple times.
The festival has continued to grow and evolve. More than one thousand volunteers, an all-volunteer board, and an executive director plan the event year-round. The economic impact on the area goes beyond the numbers to the image of the city taken back home by celebrity guests and attendees.
Legend has it that dates for the North Carolina Azalea Festival® are determined by a complicated combination of soil and atmospheric analysis, accompanied by a sip of whiskey in Mr Rehder’s home. The determination could also have something to do with the dates for Easter and the NCAA tournament. Truth is, almost every year in the Festival’s illustrious history, there have been millions of azaleas, trees, and bulbs blooming to remind us of spring and the beauty of our city.
That is to say, almost every year. A few years ago, Mr. Rehder told the story of one year, around 1959, when a parade float featured beautiful young ladies dressed in swimsuits. “It was so cold that the parade marshals got some of the downtown merchants to lend fur coats to wrap up the ladies,” he said. In a previous year, a late freeze one week before the Festival “turned every leaf black. We thought it a disaster, but overnight, our gallant committee worked and worked, and the next day paper flowers bloomed on all the floats except one. That was the Kiwanis float, and a clown guarded a little florist azalea in a barrel which he lifted now and then to show to the cheering crowd.”
From the first Festival until the 1960’s many of the celebrity guests arrived in town by rail. Queen Azalea I Jacqueline White arrived by private rail car at Atlantic Coast Line downtown. The tradition of having the queen arrive by water began about 1969 or 1970 when queens and celebrities were arriving by airplane, according to Judge Allen Cobb, who served as president in 1974. The long flight from California often took a toll on the flyer’s appearance and energy. “We got someone in town to agree that the queen could stay in their home the evening she arrived. She rested, then went in the morning to the State Ports and came into town on the river, so the public did not see her until that morning,” he explained. The river arrival tradition continues even though the queen is also greeted, often with a live television program, at New Hanover International Airport.
Television has played a major role in the Festival since the beginning of that technology. WECT-TV 6, the first television station in the region, began operations in the 1950’s at 210 1/2 Princess Street on the third floor. “There was no remote equipment,” said the late Wayne Jackson, retired news reporter and long-time NCAF volunteer. “We did have a lot of cable and microphone cable.” In order to broadcast the parade live, they ran the cable from the third floor over the top of the Ambassador Coffee Shop, which was across from City Hall where the reviewing stand was, and set up a camera to broadcast the parade. “It was actually a studio remote. Everything was hooked up in the studio, and the camera and microphone were on the street. A few years later, wireless microphones became available, so Jackson used a wireless to move among parade units, but couldn’t get more than a block away from the studio. Television’s importance extends to the celebrity guests who visit each year. While many famous television actors and actresses have visited, we’ve seen quite a few stars at the beginnings of their careers.”
“We lucked into Demond Wilson,” Jackson says. “Sanford and Son came in as a replacement in January and the network offered Demond as an unknown. By the time the Festival came, the show was hugely popular.” Wilson was mobbed everywhere he went. “In the early days, we could get people from top night time shows. Michael Landon was here in the heyday of Bonanza.” Most of the cast of Daniel Boone visited during that show’s run, as did cast members from many other popular shows.
The stories of how the Festival came to represent Wilmington and North Carolina and grew to its current popularity are innumerable. Here are just a few more:
Today Show regular Jack Lescoulie was to leave on Sunday following the Festival to play in a golf tournament elsewhere. Wayne Jackson, who was to take Lescoulie to the airport, recalls that Lescoulie “had a great time with the people of Wilmington on Saturday night, and on Sunday morning when he finally answered the phone in his room, I reminded him of the airport. He said ‘To hell with it,’ and hung up. He later got out of town, but he didn’t make the golf tournament.”
A similar late sleeper was Cab Calloway who told his escort to awaken him at 9:00PM for his flight. Allen Cobb recalls that Calloway didn’t respond to three hours of phone calls and knocks on his door. When he finally awoke at midnight, Calloway was less than gracious.
A 1961 guest was John Larkin, The Edge of Night character Mike Carr. Jackson received a telephone call from a local woman who voiced concern that someone evil from that show was coming to town. “She said ‘Wayne, I want to tell you now, if you bring him here, he’ll never get out of New Hanover County alive. We don’t need people like that here.’” Larkin’s appearance was a huge hit with Festival crowds.
When Coast Line Railroad was still running, MacMillan and Cameron brought in Ronald Reagan who was a spokesman for GE at the time. The reviewing stand was positioned on Front Street near Coast Line.
Bert Parks served as master of ceremonies in 1956. Well known for his role in the Miss America Pageant, he crowned the Azalea Queen. “He was very gracious,” Rehder recalls, “in doing everything the public asked. Most graciously, he went with me to the Bulluck Hospital on Front Street to visit the sick who had requested his visit.”
When Polly Bergen was queen, the Festival committee realized that no entertainment had been planned for the official party on Sunday morning. They asked Mr. and Mrs. Henry Rehder to host the party for Sunday breakfast. “Not only did we have good Southern food, but we had milk punch,” Rehder recalled. “Unfortunately the caterers got into our wrong china closet, and we were horrified to find the queen and attendants drinking out of broken cups and saucers.” Wilmington’s own Hannah Block played the piano that morning as Polly Bergen sang.
Cape Fear Garden Club coordinates and sponsors the NCAF garden tour each year. 2016 marks the 91st anniversary of the first meeting of the club. The first garden tour took place in 1953. Profit from the tours provide scholarships and grants. The club coordinates the famous Azalea Belles who grace the gardens and other events during the festival. Their antebellum-inspired costumes are custom-made by local seamstresses.
WATCH THE 2015 NORTH CAROLINA AZALEA FESTIVAL VIDEO HERE
SEE MORE NORTH CAROLINA AZALEA FESTIVAL PHOTOS HERE