Azalea Festival memories

It’s that time of year again — the shrubs are blooming, the Queen has been selected, and Wilmington is all geared up for the 62nd annual celebration of “all that is Southern” — the NC Azalea Festival, which begins this week.

Stephen forwarded me a link to a charming article from last week’s Star News in which longtime Wilmingtonian Thurston Watkins, Jr. “remembers splendid, scandalous events from past Azalea Festivals.” In skimming through the article, I realized we had Morton images to illustrate many of the choice moments Watkins recalls. A few are included below.

Ted Malone doing his radio broadcast before a crowd at the Wilmington Azalea Festival, circa late 1940s-early 1950s

Watkins reports: “Announcement of our festival to all points was accomplished by Ted Malone’s coast-to-coast radio show. Malone had mastered the art of descriptive English and would be considered an equal to Charles Kuralt’s abilities many years later.”

Portrait of actress Cathy Downs, 1952 Queen of the NC Azalea Festival

Watkins reports: “I remember the festival having a ‘close call’ with Queen trouble. Janet Leigh had agreed to be our Queen, but just before she was to arrive, her husband, Tony Curtis, canceled the deal. Hugh Morton was aware of a movie star, Cathy Downs, accompanying her husband at the Azalea Golf Tournament and approached her with our problem. She agreed to be the ‘short notice Queen’ and they secretly took her to Fayetteville and put her on a plane back to Wilmington. The arrival ceremonies turned out just fine and her ‘royal subjects’ never knew she hadn’t made the trip from Hollywood.” (The year was 1952, and Morton took several stunning portraits of Downs, including the one above).

And finally, one Watkins memory I just have to correct. He recalls “a ‘tipsy’ Wilmington Mayor crowning a Queen Azalea at Lumina, Wrightsville Beach—with the crown upside down—then proceeding to almost fall off the stage.” That tipsy mayor was actually the Governor of North Carolina, R. Gregg Cherry, who crowned the very first Azalea Queen, Jacqueline White.

NC Governor R. Gregg Cherry crowning the first Azalea Queen, Jacqueline White, in 1948

As Susan Taylor Block recounts on page 26 of her book on the Azalea Festival, Belles and Blooms:

At her coronation ball at Lumina, Miss White’s composure was tested when Governor R. Gregg Cherry crowned her Queen Azalea I. The first citizen of NC had been in town all day, enjoying seeing a number of old friends. After spending hours socializing, the elderly gentleman was somewhat overdosed on Southern hospitality. He teetered dangerously close to the edge of the stage before placing the crown upside down on Miss White’s head.

This detail of Morton’s photo shows the upside-down crown:

NC Governor R. Gregg Cherry crowning the first Azalea Festival Queen, Jacqueline White, in 1948

14 thoughts on “Azalea Festival memories

  1. Elizabeth, Thank you.
    I Readers Digested the story about Governor Cherry for “Belles and Blooms,” but Mr. Morton told it in great detail. He remembered some of the people and groups that entertained the Governor. One of the organizations that served him a drink was the Wilmington Light Infantry. Mr. Morton, in his imitable way, told the story so that it was very amusing yet did not compromise the Governor’s dignity. The photo of Gov. Cherry crowning Jacqueline White is a favorite of mine. Bless his heart – he’s trying so hard to do it just right, and she is the picture of beautiful grace under coronation pressure.

  2. Elizabeth: I was just before sending you the Azalea festival link from Saturday on “StarNewsOnline,” when you put your post.

    http://www.starnewsonline.com/article/20090327/ARTICLES/903279965&tc=email_newsletter

    This is a great look-back piece, and if I may, let me add one additional comment from Mr. Watkins’ article. He relates how my dear friend Charlie Justice wowed the crowd in 1949, and adds a Morton image of Justice crowning the 1949 Queen, Martha Hyer.

    The story of Gov. Cherry crowning the Queen was a Hugh Morton favorite. He always had that image in his slide shows, and you may recall comments from your August 27, 2008 post.

  3. I think Jacqueline White was Hugh’s favorite Queen of tham all, She was warm, cooperative, even punctual, a real lady. She and her husband returned for the 50th Festival and we enjoyed being their hosts for the week-end. She was just as pretty and as nice as ever.Gov. Cherry had been the Captain of the WW I (Naional Guard?) company from Wilmington, and they were each and every one happy to celebrate his visit. hugh was mortified that some Marines (He always said} booed during the ceremony. He screwed up his courage the next day to call the Governor and apologize for the discourtesy. The Governor said, “That’s all right, Son, my hide has gotten pretty thick by now.” and they were fast friends for ever after.

  4. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

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  5. I had the honor of escorting Jerry Maren and his wife to their flight at the Tulsa International Airport where I work as a passenger assistant. They were both so gracious and kind and very interesting. I love the movie “The Wizard of Oz” and shared this with them. Mr. Marin then sang the Lollipop song to me as we went down the concourse! It truly made my day! He is a wonderful gentleman and it was an honor to meet him.

  6. Can you show a picture of the 1952 Azalea Festival Court with Queen Cathy Downs? My wife Betty Beck Patterson was in the court representing Greensboro College. How could I obtain some pictures? I know the Wilmington newspapers had several articles about the Azalea Festival and several celebrates were present.

    Dick Patterson 1429 Henri Street,Mount Airy, N.C. 27030

  7. Hi Dick, there are a few photos from the 1952 Festival in the Morton digital library, but none that show the Queen’s court exclusively. There may be some in the Morton collection, but none are scanned as of yet.

  8. Hi Elizabeth, I have a nephew who has Cystic Fibrosis. He is currently in the Duke University Hospital on a respirator. He is fighting for his life every day. He use to record the basketball stats for Coach Dean Smith. Do you know or can you help me get an e-mail or letter to Coach Smith. My nephew really looked up to Coach Smith as an idol and mentor and I wanted to see if he could visit him at the hospital. My nephews name is JOey O’Connell and his parents (Harry & Lana) live in Cary NOrth Carolina.
    Thanks for all your help

  9. What happened to all those old photos (and who was the photographer chosen, 1958 )of all the May Queens throughout the state who represented the colleges. I was there in 1958 from the old Flora Macdonald College : ) Just curious. It was a wondrous event.

  10. Ms. Barefooot,
    I’m afraid I cannot answer your question from a “Hugh Morton Collection perspective.” Morton photographed many beauty queens—nearly 300 images in the collection, but almost all of them are unidentified. Was there a single event where they all gathered?

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