“Mighty Mites,” Morton, and millions of azaleas

The 67th Annual North Carolina Azalea Festival will be presented in Wilmington April, 9 – 13, 2014.  World class entertainment and millions of azaleas will combine to welcome spring to the Tar Heel state again.  Wilmington’s celebration of spring began in 1948 and each year celebrity guests have been an important part of the festivities. Morton collection volunteer/contributor Jack Hilliard takes a look at a special group of celebrities that came to the New Hanover County port city back in the 1950s.

1949 Queen of the North Carolina Azalea Festival, actress Martha Hyer, with her court.

1949 Queen of the North Carolina Azalea Festival, actress Martha Hyer, with her court.

A Prologue:

When the 1950 College All-Star football team reported to training camp at St. John’s Military Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin on Thursday, July 20, 1950, UNC’s great All America football star Charlie Justice met up with his old friend Doak Walker from Southern Methodist University (SMU) and new friend Eddie LeBaron from College of the Pacific (COP), which is now University of the Pacific.  Justice and Walker had become friends over the years when both were on most of the 1948 and 1949 All America teams and both had been pictured on the cover of Life.  Walker had been selected for the 1948 Heisman Trophy while Justice was first runner up.  And when UNC was in Dallas for the 1950 Cotton Bowl, Walker had helped the Tar Heels prepare for a game with Rice Institute (now Rice University).  Walker’s SMU team had played and lost to Rice, 41 to 27, on October 21st. Hugh Morton photographed Justice, Walker and UNC Head Coach Carl Snavely during one of the film screening sessions at the Melrose Hotel.  Also, Justice and Walker had gotten into the T-shirt business in early 1950 and Morton had done their publicity pictures.  Quarterback Eddie LeBaron had been selected All America in 1949 as well, and the three “country boys” hit it off.  All three loved watermelon and on the first day of camp they staked out a small country store which sold melons. “Put one on ice every afternoon,” Charlie told the store owner, “and we’ll come by and pick it up.” So every afternoon after practice the trio walked to the store, purchased their chilled melon, took it outside and sat on the curb enjoying the treat.

When game day arrived on August 11, 1950, the three “Mighty Mites,” as they were called (each was under six feet tall and weighed less than180 pounds) took the World Champion Philadelphia Eagles down by a score of 17 to 7. Hugh Morton didn’t attend the All-Star game, but he always included a wire photo from it in his slide shows.

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Back in Wilmington after the War, I left town for a week, and while I was gone the local folks elected me chairman of the first Azalea Festival in 1948. —Hugh Morton, 1996

The Dallas Morning News issue of Saturday, March 18, 1950 featured the storybook, Friday night wedding of Doak Walker and his college sweetheart Norma Peterson.  The story said the couple would leave for a wedding trip to Canada “early next week . . . and will take another trip to North Carolina soon after they return.”  That North Carolina trip would be to the 1950 Azalea Festival in Wilmington, held March 30th through April 2nd.

Hal Love, president of the Azalea Festival Committee; Mrs. Norma Walker; Doak Walker; former Wilmington mayor E. L. White; and Cherokee leader McKinley Ross (with "Unto These Hills" program in pocket) at Bluethenthal Airport, Wilmington N. C., 31 March 1950.

Hal Love, president of the Azalea Festival Committee; Mrs. Norma Walker; Doak Walker; former Wilmington mayor E. L. White; and Cherokee leader McKinley Ross (with “Unto These Hills” program in pocket) at Bluethenthal Airport, Wilmington N. C., 31 March 1950.

Hugh Morton photographed Doak and Norma soon after they arrived in Wilmington.  Hugh’s wife Julia said in A View Hugh comment back in 2009, “I do remember that Doak and Norma and Charlie and Sarah (Justice) stayed with Hugh and me.  The festival didn’t have as much available money back in those days, and they were our friends.”

Charlie and Sarah Justice had been part of the 1949 festival. Charlie had crowned Queen Azalea II who was movie star Martha Hyer and many remember how the photographers covering that event had insisted that Justice kiss the Queen and he very obligingly followed through on the request.  Morton’s photograph in The State for April 16, 1949 (page 5) showed Justice with lipstick on his face.  (The original negative for this shot is no longer extant, but there is a similar negative made moments apart.)

Walter Doak during the 1950 North Carolina Azalea Festival

Charlie Justice and Doak Walker during the 1950 North Carolina Azalea Festival parade.  This scan of Morton’s negative shows the entire scene, which is usually cropped in publications.

During the 1950 festival, Morton took several pictures of Doak and Charlie, and Norma and Sarah: a beautiful shot of both couples at Arlie Gardens, and a shot from the parade on Saturday, April 1st. The parade image was reproduced in the 1958 Bob Quincy–Julian Scheer book, Choo Choo; The Charlie Justice Story, on page 112.  The same picture was also included in the 2002 Bob Terrell book All Aboard, but with an incorrect caption.  That image is on page 182. And of course, The State magazine issue of April 15, 1950 (page 3) included a Morton picture of Justice and Walker at the crowing ceremony where Justice passed the crown to Walker who crowned Gregg Sherwood as Queen Azalea III.

When Charlie and Sarah arrived in Wilmington for the 1951 festival, Hugh Morton had put in place a new event. On Saturday afternoon, March 31st, there was a special golf match at the Cape Fear Country Club.  It was called “Who Crowns the Azalea Queen?” and it pitted broadcasters Harry Wismer and Ted Malone against football greats Charlie Justice and Otto Graham—nine holes—winners crown Queen Margaret Sheridan Queen Azalea IV. And the winners . . . Charlie Justice and Otto Graham.

The day following the 1950 All-Star game, Eddie LeBaron left for Camp Pendleton and Marine duty. He would spend nine months in Korea and would receive a letter of commendation for heroism, a Bronze Star and a purple heart. Lt. Eddie LeBaron was back home in time to accept Hugh Morton’s invitation to the 1952 Azalea Festival. Again, as in 1951, there was a “Who Crowns the Azalea Queen?” golf match. This time with ABC broadcaster Harry Wismer, writer Hal Boyle, bandleader Tony Pastor, and football greats Justice, LeBaron, and Otto Graham.  The football guys won and would be part of the crowning ceremony for Queen Azalea V, Cathy Downs. A tightly cropped version of Morton’s crowning shot is also in Chris Dixon’s 2001 book Ghost Wave (unnumbered center picture page).

Later, in November, 1952, Hugh Morton took in a Washington Redskins game and photographed Justice, LeBaron, and Graham at Old Griffith Stadium.

In March of 1953, Charlie and Sarah Justice made their fifth Festival appearance as Alexis Smith became Queen Azalea VI on Saturday, March 28th.

Eddie LeBaron would return to Wilmington for the ‘58 Festival, along with Andy Griffith who crowned Queen Azalea XI, Esther Williams on March 29, 1958. Morton photographed LeBaron with Andy and NC Governor Luther Hodges.

The “Mighty Mites” were special Azalea Festival guests and were special friends of Hugh Morton, who in 1997, at the 50th Festival was honored with a star on the Wilmington Riverfront Walk of Fame and was the Festival Grand Marshal.

An Epilogue:
Doak Walker’s marriage to Norma Peterson ended in divorce in 1965 and four years later he married Olympic skier Skeeter Werner.  They lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado until his death as a result of paralyzing injuries suffered in a skiing accident. Walker’s death on September 27, 1998 came ironically 50 years to the day of his Life magazine cover issue.

Prior to the planning sessions for the Charlie Justice statue, which now stands outside the Kenan Football Center on the UNC campus, Hugh Morton visited the Doak Walker statue at SMU.  Morton decided, unlike the Walker statue, that Charlie would not wear his helmet so everyone could easily recognize him.

Charlie Justice passed away on October 17, 2003 following a long battle with Alzheimer’s.  Charlie’s wife Sarah died four months later.

Hugh Morton “slipped peacefully away from us all on June 1, 2006.”  Those words from Morton’s dear friend Bill Friday.

Eddie LeBaron played professional football with Charlie Justice for two seasons with the Washington Redskins.  After Charlie’s retirement, the two remained close friends.  LeBaron participated in a Multiple Sclerosis Celebrity Roast for Charlie in 1980, and both were Hugh Morton’s guests at the Highland Games in 1984. Justice and LeBaron were also celebrity guests at the Freedom Classic Celebrity Golf Tournament in Charlotte in 1989 and 1990.  LeBaron lives in Sacramento, California and continues to play golf in his retirement.  Due to his diminutive size, 5 feet, 7 inches, and his leadership skills from his military service, he is often called the “Littlest General.”

Final weeks for “Photographs by Hugh Morton: An Uncommon Retrospective”

Just wanted to float a reminder out there that the exhibit “Photographs by Hugh Morton: An Uncommon Retrospective” is entering its final two weeks at the Turchin Center for the Visual Arts at Appalachian State University.

Are you going to be in the mountains for a bit of skiing this weekend, but the weather forecast calls for rain on Saturday?  Just looking for something to do in Boone?  Swing on over to the Turchin Center, view the fabulous photography by Hugh Morton, and stay dry!

Emmett Kelly, Jr. at the 1968 Azalea Festival Parade

Emmett Kelly, Jr. at the 1968 Azalea Festival Parade in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Perhaps the world’s most recognizable clown, Emmett Kelly, Jr. sprung into international fame soon after completing his four-year apprenticeship in 1964. Hired by Kodak as the attraction for its pavilion during the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair, the company employed Kelly as a touring Ambassador of Goodwill for the following four years. During that time period, Kelly was the most photographed clown in the world, including this one by Hugh Morton—a founder and organizer of the azalea festival.

Here are the gallery hours at the Turchin Center:

  • Tue: 10am – 6pm
  • Wed: 10am – 6pm
  • Thu: 10am – 6pm
  • Fri: 12noon – 8pm
  • Sat: 10am – 6pm

Can’t make it to Boone before the exhibit’s last day on January 25th?  Fear not!  We have two additional venues in the works for this year: one farther west this spring and another in the east during the late summer and autumn.  I’ll be posting more information as the details unfold.

Revealing X-ray

Grady Cole and Neva Jane Langley

Grady Cole and Neva Jane Langley, Miss America 1953, during the 1954 Wilmington Azalea Festival

Today marks the discovery of the X-Ray . . . and a post that reveals the story behind A View to Hugh mystery from 2008.  On this day in 1895, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen was the first person to observe X-rays.  This important scientific discovery ultimately led to the Hugh Morton photograph seen above, cropped as it appeared in the Wilmington Morning Star on March 31st, 1954. (You can see the full-negative version with its descriptive information by clicking on the photograph.)

Back in April 2008, Elizabeth Hull included this photograph in a Who Am I? post for the Azalea Festival.  Lots of comments from readers eventually led Elizabeth to discover that the woman was Neva Jane Langley, Miss America 1953.  One commenter speculated that Langley and Grady Cole might be holding an X-ray related to a tuberculosis display at the 1954 Azalea festival.

Today’s science anniversary prompted me to search for the word “X-ray” in the online collection of Morton photographs.  Two similar images of Cole and Langley were the only hits, so I turned to the blog post from four years ago.  The unresolved speculation in the comments about tuberculosis and that the event could be from the 1954 festival led me to the microfilm room and the Wilmington newspaper for March 1954.

Langley arrived in Wilmington at Bluethenthal Field on Friday, March 26th around 5:00 p.m.  Hugh Morton and Grady Cole formed the welcoming committee, with Morton at the wheel of the car that whisked away the reigning beauty queen from the airport.  The next day, Langley was to participate in the Azalea Festival Coronation Ball, and Cole was to be its master of ceremonies, so it was a logical choice for Cole to be her official greeter.

Saturday evening was rainy at Wrightsville Beach, where the coronation ball was to take place at the Lumina Ballroom.  Here’s the Sunday Star-News account of something that happened that night:

Cole’s Sir Walter Act Ends In Pain

Grady Cole—”Mr. Dixie” of Radio Station WBT Charlotte—did Sir Walter Raleigh one better with Miss America at the Azalea Festival Coronation Ball last night and was in the hospital today with what is believed to be a dislocated vertebra.

Hugh Morton, co-chairman of the festival’s invitations committee, said that during the downpour at Wrightsville Beach Cole carried Neva Jane Langley of Lakeland, Fla.—Miss America of 1953—over puddles of water and up the stairs of Lumina Ballroom.  Miss Langley was an honorary celebrity at the crowning of the Azalea Festival Queen—movie and television actress Ella Raines—by Gen. Mark Clark.

Cole carried on his duties as master of ceremonies of the Coronation Ball, then was rushed by the highway patrol to James Walker Memorial Hospital.  Morton said it is believed that Cole dislocated a vertebra with his gallantry.

A few days after the festival, the photograph above ran uncredited on the back page of the March 31st Wilmington Morning Star with the following caption:

POSITIVE PROOF — Grady Cole Radios’s “Mr. Dixie,” of WBT, Charlotte and the CBS Network, is shown holding an X-ray of his spine, which was injured at the Azalea Festival Coronation Ball Saturday night when Grady carried Miss Neva Jane Langley, “Miss America of 1953,” across a mud puddle in a heavy downpour of rain.  Miss Langley is shown holding the X-ray which revealed that Cole sustained what doctors call “a compressed fracture of his sixth vertebra.” Doctors told Cole he could “never lift a pretty girl again,” and he philosophically replied, “we all have to quit sometime and I’m glad I quit with the best.”

Where in Wilmington did Morton take the photograph?  On the right side of the full image, a few business signs are visible.  One appears to be for the Cape Fear Dining Room, which was in the Cape Fear Hotel at 121–131 Chestnut Street. Today the building is home to the Cape Fear Hotel Apartments.  In the background on the opposite side of the street, the shorter building on the left is the United States Post Office.  The building on the right is the Southern Building, which sat on the southwest corner of Chestnut and Front streets.

 

Picturing the Port City

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With the 63rd Annual North Carolina Azalea Festival kicking off next week, it seems an appropriate time to highlight the festival’s home turf: Wilmington, NC. Not only was Hugh Morton was born and raised in Wilmington, but he and his family played a major role in shaping the tourism industry and infrastructure of the charming, historic Port City.

Here to help us is another Wilmington native, author, and purveyor of all things Wilmington history-related, Susan Taylor Block. Susan is the author of a whole bunch of books and articles (including photographic histories) on Wilmington’s past, culture, and some of its residents. She’s also behind the latest entry in our Worth 1,000 Words series, entitled Wilmington: Faded Glory to Fresh Achievement.

We hope you’re enjoying the growing variety of the essay offerings, and the opportunity they offer to delve a bit deeper into the riches of the Morton collection.

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

Who Am I?–North Carolina Azalea Festival Edition

Azalea blossomsWilmington’s 61st annual North Carolina Azalea Festival kicks off next week (April 9-13). Hugh Morton played an integral role in the event’s founding: while only in his twenties, he was selected to serve as president of the inaugural festival in 1948. (A letter from Morton on the festival’s website explains that when he missed a committee meeting, they responded by electing him president). As Susan Taylor Block writes in “Clan MacRae,” an article in the 4/2007 issue of Wrightsville Beach magazine, Morton deserves credit not only for Wilmington’s Azalea Festival, but also many of its azalea plants:

Morton had worked diligently since 1946 to make the 1948 Azalea Festival debut a success. He encouraged Wilmingtonians to plant azaleas, persuaded the local government to plant an additional 175,000 azaleas at Greenfield Lake and recruited garden clubs to transplant azaleas from their own private gardens to public spaces. Morton encouraged the festival fathers to be careful stewards of the event’s ticket take, seek out quality in celebrity guests and make the azalea itself the guest of honor. He knew that if the first festival ended up in the red, it would be the last.

North Carolina Azalea Festival negatives in the Morton collection are numerous and mostly in good shape, but not well-documented. The early years of the festival (from 1948 to about 1958) are best represented, but little identifying information is provided other than the year (if that). Fortunately, we have at least one good source to work from—historian Block’s 2004 book Belles & Blooms, heavily illustrated by Morton’s photos. Block’s time line will help us pin down some of the major details, like who was queen in what year, what celebrities attended, etc.

In the meantime, though, we’re asking you to help us put names to faces in some of these early shots.

Unidentified celebrities at the Azalea Festival, Wilmington, NC, ca. early 1950s
Judging from the enormous fur coat and all the cameras pointed at them, I’m guessing that these people are famous. But who are they?

Azalea Festival group at the airport, Wilmington, NC, 1950
The image above was taken at the 1950 Azalea Festival. I can’t read any of the name tags, but I do see that the man on the far right (in the headdress) has a program from “Unto These Hills” (an outdoor drama performed at Cherokee, North Carolina) in his pocket.

Grady Cole (L) and unidentified woman holding up an X-ray, Wilmington, NC, ca. early 1950s
The man in this photo is Grady Cole, talk radio celebrity with WBT Radio in Charlotte, North Carolina (and frequent Morton photo subject in the early 1950s). But who is the woman—and is she the same woman from the previous photo? Most importantly, why are they holding up what looks like an x-ray of somebody’s spine?!