North Carolina Azalea Festival

North Carolina Azalea Festival

Southern Charm In Full Bloom
Genre Festival
Date(s) April
Frequency Annually
Location(s) Wilmington, NC
Country United States
Inaugurated 1948
Founder Hugh Morton
Previous event April 6–10, 2016
Next event April 5–9, 2017
Participants Over 1,000 Volunteers
Attendance 300,000

The North Carolina Azalea Festival is Wilmington’s annual community celebration and the largest festival of its kind in the state. Founded in 1948, the Azalea Festival has emerged as Wilmington’s premier event.

Each April, a full week of natural beauty, big-name entertainment, festive galas, fun family events and Southern hospitality come together to showcase the charms of the Wilmington area. For community pride and springtime pageantry, the North Carolina Azalea Festival has no equal!

The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers perform on the Belk Main Stage at the 2016 North Carolina Azalea Festival

The Festival’s concerts, fairs and special events are attended by 300,000 people. More than 200,000 are estimated to attend the annual three-day Street Fair, while more than 100,000 gather to watch the Festival Parade. Each event is a celebration, beginning with the traditional arrival of Queen Azalea at the official opening of the five-day event. Stars glitter throughout town as Southern belles and their escorts promenade through lush gardens at the annual garden party. Everywhere the blooming azaleas offer colorful testimony to the rich heritage of coastal Carolina.

The Festival is a great source of local pride, with the entire community involved in displaying Wilmington to the world in its finest colors. More than 1,000 volunteers are required to stage over 50 events ranging from concerts to art shows, a street fair with interactive displays, home and garden tours, a parade, special exhibits, and a variety of other entertainment and events.

Staging the Azalea Festival – every year for almost seventy years – is a real community effort, and everyone who works on, participates in, or simply enjoys the Festival can be proud of these honors. They are a positive reflection on the greater Wilmington area as well.


The mission of the North Carolina Azalea Festival is to be nationally recognized as a showcase for our community’s rich array of artwork, gardens, history, and culture through recreational, educational and family-oriented events. The Festival encourages volunteerism and civic participation as it contributes to the region’s economy and promotes the unique qualities of Wilmington’s river-to-the-sea community.


Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer wins 1957 Azalea Open Golf Tournament, Wilmington, NC.

The Azalea Festival began in 1948 as an idea of Dr. W. Houston Moore, M.D. Dr. Moore held a meeting in Wilmington's Chamber of Commerce with leading civil club representatives to discuss and begin planning for the first Azalea Festival.[1] The Festival would take place in April 1948 and would serve the purpose of showcasing the beauty of the local gardens such as Airlie Gardens, Orton Gardens, and Greenfield Gardens.

The following is a letter written by Mr. Morton to Gayle Ward in response to her request for information about the Festival beginnings:

"Dear Gayle:

Dr. W. Houston Moore, M.D., a wonderful old gentleman who lived in the 1800 block of Market Street, had been active through the Rotary Club in beautifying Greenfield Park with azaleas, dogwoods, and other flowering plants. In 1947 he decided to invite all of the leading civic clubs in Wilmington to send a representative to a meeting at the Chamber of Commerce in its building behind City Hall to discuss the feasibility of holding an Azalea Festival that would celebrate the beauty of Greenfield, Orton, Airlie and other gardens around town. I was sent by the Wilmington Jaycees as their representative to that first meeting.

There are probably minutes somewhere that list all of those who attended that first gathering. I can recall Henry Rehder, Wallace Murchison, Kenneth Sprunt, Star-News Editor John Hope and Paul T. Marshburn as being among ones who were particularly supportive of Dr. Moore’s idea.

I had a business trip that caused me to miss the second meeting of the somewhat informal Committee, but upon returning to town I was advised that I had been elected-selected President of the first Azalea Festival. I did my level best to talk my way out of that, but Dr. Moore was a persuasive and determined guy, and there were promises of support from all around the room from others on the Committee.

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. Our first, and absolutely Ideal Queen was Jacqueline White of RKO Radio Pictures. The top other celebrities were Ted Malone, who originated his coast-to-coast ABC Radio Network program from a platform in front of the Community Center on Second Street, and NC Governor R. Gregg Cherry, who crowned the Queen at Lumina Ballroom on Wrightsville Beach. The community was saddened when Dr. Moore died during the summer following the 1948 Festival, but the whole town was pleased to believe he died happy that the first Azalea Festival was a rousing success.

Best regards,

Hugh Morton" [2]

Many events have ebbed and flowed through the Azalea Festival Schedule of Events, including the Azalea Open Invitational where Arnold Palmer took home the title in 1957.

The first sidewalk show was held in 1953 and has continued as tradition since.[3]


The North Carolina Azalea Festival has over 50 events each year; many are free to the public and some are private functions for Festival dignitaries and sponsors. Regional media such as newspapers and television stations ensure wide coverage of all events which take place during the festival.

Public Events

Private Events

Associated Events

Customs and traditions

Airlie Gardens

Airlie Gardens span 67 acres (270,000 m2) of Wilmington property and was created in 1901. The gardens are less than a mile from the ocean and are filled with all types of flora. Ownership of the Gardens has changed hands many times and has gone from being a 640-acre (2.6 km2) land grant from King George II in 1735 to a now comparably small 67-acre (270,000 m2) garden open for public viewing.[4] The garden showcases some of Wilmington’s finest land and flowers and is often used to host weddings because of its beauty and several attractive venues located within. The garden tours are available to the public and are a prominent stop in Wilmington for tourists. The tours include visits to several different areas of Airlie including the butterfly garden, a mystery grave, and the Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden which showcases the BottleChapel along with both metal and ceramic sculptures.[5] Along with tours, Airlie also has summer camps and educational programs available to the public.[6]

Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Belles

Azalea Belle
Azalea Belle at the 2016 Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Garden Tour Ribbon Cutting

A tradition held by the Azalea Festival is the Belles. These young ladies serve as hostesses and guides to the gardens in the area. They wear antebellum attire and serve as a mark of the NC Azalea Festival. This tradition began in 1969 under Mrs. Harley Vance’s suggestion. Mrs. Harley Vance was the president of the Cape Fear Garden Club at that time.[7] The first year, seven girls played the role of Azalea Belles.[8] To become an Azalea Belle, one must apply for the position; however, precedence is given to those girls who are either daughters or granddaughters of Cape Fear Garden Club members. Girls from New Hanover County High School are next in line for receiving the honor of becoming a NC Azalea Belle.[7] If the Belle is not a member of the Cape Fear Garden Club, she may be “committee sponsored” by applying through the belle chairman.[9] New Azalea Belle policies were adopted in 2006. The number of belles needed for each year is dependent upon the size of the gardens in the tour and is determined by the belle chairman.[9] Also, a young lady may only serve as a Belle one year and may not be in the Azalea Festival Scholarship Pageant during the year that she serves as a belle.[9]

North Carolina Azalea Festival Queens

The North Carolina Azalea Festival has brought many known faces to the Wilmington area to serve as the Festival’s Queen. Queens arrive and are crowned during the first day of the festival. Past participants include:[3][10]

1948- Jacqueline White
1949- Martha Hyer
1950- Gregg Sherwood
1951- Margaret Sheridan
1952- Cathy Downs (actress)
1953- Alexis Smith (actress)
1954- Ella Raines
1955- Sara Shane
1956- Polly Bergen
1957- Kathryn Grayson
1958- Esther Williams
1959- Debra Paget
1960- Linda Christian
1961- Shelly Fabares
1962- Whitney Blake
1963- Nancy Malone
1964- Abby Dalton
1965- Patricia Blair
1966- Ulla Strömstedt
1967- Melody Patterson
1968- Linda Cristal
1969- Chris Noel
1970- Karen Jensen
1971- Phyllis Davis
1972- Ann Elder
1973- Joan Van Ark
1974- Sharon Gless
1975- Stephanie Braxton
1976- Rita McLaughlin
1977- Francesca James
1978- Nancy Addison
1979- Laurie Walters
1980- Lacey Neuhaus
1981- Maureen Teefy
1982- Lynda Goodfriend
1983- Tina Gayle
1984- Sharon Wyatt
1985- Phylicia Rashad (first African-American Azalea Queen)
1986- Kim Zimmer
1987- Robin Greer
1988- Kim Morgan Greene
1989- Rebeca Arthur
1990- Kate Collins
1991- Tonja Walker
1992- Clare Carey
1993- Kelly Ripa
1994- Laura Sisk
1995- Laura Bonarrigo
1996- Gina Tognoni
1997- Lauren Roman (50th Azalea Queen, first Azalea Queen born in Wilmington)
1998- Alla Korot
1999- Sydney Penny
2000- Nina Repeta
2001- Nikki Deloach
2002- Valerie Wildman
2003- Tracey Bregman
2004- Dari Alexander
2005- Kelly Packard
2006- Tanisha Lynn
2007- Amy Pietz
2008- Barbara Alyn Woods
2009- Amrapali Ambegaokar
2010- Lindsey Shaw
2011- Heather French Henry
2012- Erika Dunlap
2013- Jennifer Wayne
2014- Kristen Haglund
2015- Mallory Hagan
2016- Anna Kooiman


The Azalea Festival has been known to bring celebrities from all over the world to the southern town of Wilmington. Celebrities have served as guests, visitors, Queens, and emcees to the Festival. Some past Azalea Festival Celebrities include:[11][12]

Ronald Reagan – 1959 Festival Emcee
Michael Jordan – 1982
Cathy Downs (actress) – 1952 Azalea Queen
Andy Griffith – 1958 Festival Emcee
Phylicia Rashad (actress) – 1985 Azalea Queen
Kelly Ripa – 1993 Azalea Queen
Esther Williams – 1958 Azalea Queen
Barbara Alyn Woods (actress) – 2008 Azalea Queen
Kevin Frazier – 2008
Chelsea Cooley (Miss USA 2005) – 2008
Captain Mark Davis (USN Grand Marshal) – 2008
Lee Norris (actor) – 2008
Hilarie Burton (actress) – 2008
Chad Michael Murray (actor) – 2008
Jessica Marie Jacobs (Miss NC) – 2008
David Cook (singer) – 2009 Festival Performing Artists
Kerri Walsh Jennings – 2015
Clark Beckham - 2016

Notes and references

This article is issued from Wikipedia - version of the 7/7/2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.