The North Carolina Azalea Festival is in progress for the 72nd time in Wilmington. This year’s event takes place from April 3-7, 2019. Going back to 1948, not only is this event a celebration of flowers and golf, it brings celebrated guests from across the United States. From Hollywood movies, to TV stars, to celebrated sports heroes, the festival has seen them all. Over the years, many of the guests have made returned visits. This was especially true in the early years. As we celebrate festival number 72, Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back at one of those guests, noted broadcaster Harry Wismer, who visited often during the1950s.
Hugh Morton crossed paths with legendary sportscaster Harry Wismer at the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1949 in New Orleans. Wismer was in town to broadcast the game for ABC Radio between the UNC Tar Heels and the Oklahoma Sooners. Of course Morton was in town to photograph the game which featured his dear friend Charlie Justice. And as one would expect, Morton took at pre-game picture of Justice and Wismer, a picture that Hugh often included in his famous slides shows. Morton also included the image in his 1988 book Making a Difference in North Carolina on page 257.
Nearly two years later on December 10, 1950, Morton photographed the final regular season game between the Washington Redskins and the Cleveland Browns in Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Again, he crossed paths with Harry Wismer, the Redskins’ play-by-play man. At the time, Harry Wismer, who was known by many as “The Whiz,” was already considered the nation’s leading sportscaster, having broadcast numerous events like the National Open and PGA, the Penn Relays, and the National Football League Championship.
Wismer was also a part owner of the Detroit Lions and the Washington Redskins of the National Football League. In addition to his co-ownership, Wismer was “The Voice of the Redskins,” having called their games on the “Amoco-Redskins Network” since 1943. It was on those Redskins’ broadcasts that I first heard him. As a little kid, I listened to the Redskin games starting in 1950. When the game came to TV in North Carolina in 1951, Wismer was right there with the play-by-play. I remember those early broadcasts. Wismer’s commercial tag line went like this: “All around town, for all around service, visit your Amoco man, and Lord Baltimore filling stations.”
Starting in 1949, the Azalea Open Golf Tournament became a part of the spring festivities. Hugh Morton invited Wismer to the 1950 Azalea Festival in Wilmington, along with Southern Methodist University football hero Doak Walker and his wife Norma. Of course, Tar Heels Charlie and Sarah Justice returned in ’50, having been there in 1949 to crown Azalea Queen II, Hollywood starlet Martha Hyer. When Justice and Wismer returned to Wilmington for the 1951 festival, Hugh Morton had added a new event: a special golf match at the Cape Fear Country Club called “Who Crowns the Azalea Queen?” The match pitted two ABC Radio broadcasters, Harry Wismer and Ted Malone, against two football greats, Charlie Justice and Otto Graham.
The winner of the nine–hole–event would have the honor of crowning Queen Azalea IV, Margaret Sheridan. The ‘51 winner was the Justice/Graham team.
In addition to being part of the parades, flowers, and parties, Wismer broadcast the Azalea Open Golf Tournament on ABC Radio. The 1951 Open winner was Lloyd Mangrum, and Wismer included an interview with him on his ABC Radio show which was also originated live in Wilmington.
The 1952 “Who Crowns the Azalea Queen?” event once again put Wismer’s team, which included writer Hal Boyle and band leader Tony Pastor, against a football squad of Charlie Justice, Eddie Lebaron, and Otto Graham and this time the Wismer team won.
According to Hugh Morton, the original queen selection for 1952 was actress Janet Leigh, but her husband Tony Curtis decided to cancel their trip to Wilmington. Morton knew that actress Cathy Downs was in town because her husband Joe Kirkwood, Jr. was playing in the Azalea Open. When Morton invited her, she accepted and became Queen Azalea V.
Wismer would later become one of the founding fathers of the American Football League, which began play in 1960; three years later, however, he gave up his football leadership. Wismer spent the remainder of his life trying to reclaim his glory days as broadcaster and team owner, but was unsuccessful partly because of his declining health. In 1965, Wismer wrote a book titled The Public Calls It Sports. In it he gives a “behind the scenes” look at professional football from a broadcast and ownership point of view.
Harry Wismer passed away on December 4, 1967, the day after a tragic fall at a New York restaurant. He was 64-years-old.