The 71st annual North Carolina Azalea Festival will take place in Wilmington beginning today, April 11th, and will run through the 15th, 2018. Thousands of visitors will gather in the port city to take part in the city’s premier event. In addition to the millions of beautiful flowers, there will be a wide variety of entertainment, a parade, and the famous crowning ceremony of Queen Azalea LXXI . . . just as it has been since 1948. Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back to 1948 and the beginning of this North Carolina tradition.
When Hugh Morton presented his slide shows across North Carolina, he almost always included slides from the first Azalea Festival. In addition to his magnificent photography, he would add a few light-hearted remarks about how he became the point-man for that first event in 1948. According to Morton, the story went something like this.
Prominent Wilmington physician Dr. Houston Moore had an idea as far back as 1934 to celebrate Wilmington’s magnificent azaleas. Then in the early 1940s he came up with the festival idea. In 1947 he invited Wilmington’s major civic clubs to select one or two representatives to attend a festival organizational meeting. Morton was there representing the Wilmington Jaycees. April, 1948 was selected for that first festival. When the second planning session was held, Morton was out of town on business, but when he returned he learned that he had been elected president for the first festival. Morton said he respectfully declined, but Dr, Moore was a very persuasive gentlemen, so Morton took charge and put his magnificent public relation skills to work on the first annual North Carolina Azalea Festival, held April 9h through April 11th, 1948.
The unofficial celebration for the first festival got underway at 12:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 8th with the arrival of Queen Azalea I: Jacqueline White, RKO movie actress from Hollywood. Wilmington mayor E. L. White and a formal reception committee . . . plus a long line of autograph-seekers greeted Miss White at the Atlantic Coast Line train station. She very graciously signed and spoke with many in the long line.
Later that evening, Wilmingtonians greeted a second queen, Mrs. Barbara Randall, who had been selected “Queen for a Day” on the Mutual Radio broadcast the preceding day. A trip to Wilmington was part of her prize.
Friday, April 9th was a beautiful spring day as a festival spirit filled the city. Flower shows and visits to the famed Greenfield Park, Orton Plantation, and Airlie Gardens were high on the priority list. At 11:45 a.m., ABC Radio’s Ted Malone broadcasted his nationwide radio program from a platform set up in front of Community Center. A crowd of about 2,000 turned out for the broadcast.
On Friday evening, more than 4,000 people turned out for a band concert at Legion Stadium, featuring the New Hanover High School Band. Following the band concert, the New Hanover High School Choral groups performed along with the Atlantic Coast Line Choral performers. In all more than 600 musicians took part in the concert. The evening’s festivities closed with a community sing along, concluding with the “Hallelujah Chorus” from George Frideric Handel’s Messiah.
Long before the parade moved off from Front and Castle Streets at 11:04 a.m. on Saturday, April 10th, a huge crowd was in place for prime viewing. The mile-long parade of sixteen floats, five marching bands and two military units, with Queen Jacqueline near the front. The parade made its way through downtown, passing North Carolina Governor R. Gregg Cherry, Mayor White, and Queen Barbara Randall seated at the official viewing stand at City Hall and then back to its point of origin.
The closing and festival highlight event was held in Lumina Hall at Wrightsville Beach on Saturday evening. At that time, Queen Jacqueline was officially crowned by North Carolina Governor R. Gregg Cherry.
One of Hugh Morton’s favorite Azalea Festival photographs from the 1948 event was that of Governor Cherry crowning Queen Jacqueline. A close look at the image shows the governor has the crown upside down. Morton loved to explain how that misstep occurred.
Governor Cherry came down to crown our first azalea queen, Jacqueline White of RKO Radio Pictures. He had been in the National Guard with a group of Wilmingtonians, with whom he felt he always had to have a drink. (A separate toast for each Guard member.) When time for the coronation arrived, the Governor was ‘toasted-out’ and a bit unstable on his feet as he put the crown on upside down. Master of ceremonies, Carl Goerch publisher of The State and Chairman of the coronation ball, died a thousand deaths.
Queen Jacqueline smiled and kept her composure as the crown was then placed correctly on her head. Following the coronation there was dancing with music by Bob Astor and his orchestra. At day’s end, “it was quite an evening for Hugh Morton,” as author Susan Taylor Block said in her 2004 book, Belles & Blooms: Cape Fear Garden Club and the North Carolina Azalea Festival. “He had ushered Dr. Moore’s dream into reality and witnessed the crowning event in Lumina, the pavilion created by his grandfather, Hugh MacRae, and named by his mother Agnes.”
Fifty-five years later, in a 2003 interview, Morton described that first festival. “When the first Azalea Festival took place in April 1948 the gardens were at peak beauty, the weather was perfect, and the Festival cleared $5,000, a profit we knew we had to have or we would never see the second Festival.”
Today, the North Carolina Azalea Festival continues in its 71st year as a festival like no other.
Another of Hugh Morton’s most reproduced photographs from the 1948 Azalea Festival was his image of Queen Jacqueline White seated under the Airlie Oak.
When the Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary in the spring of 1972, Jacqueline White Anderson returned as a special guest. And, as you might expect, Hugh Morton took her over to the Arlie Oak for yet another memorable photograph.