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