Wilmington flashback: The famous faces and memorable moments in Azalea Festival history
1948: The Azalea Festival is formally incorporated on March 27. Two weeks later, the festival opens to great success. Hugh Morton, who had been drafted as president the year before, presides over events including a parade with 31 floats and the first Azalea Open Invitational Golf Tournament at Cape Fear Country Club.
1949: High school student Marguerite Todd is crowned the first Azalea princess. Events include an 800-voice community choir concert at Legion Stadium and a downtown street dance on the 100 block of Chestnut Street, which draws 2,000 people. Honored guests include University of North Carolina football star Charlie "Choo-Choo" Justice and Gen. George C. Marshall, recently retired as U.S. Secretary of State.
1950: Both of North Carolina's U.S. senators, Frank Porter Graham and Clyde Hoey, are among special guests, along with the chief of the Cherokee Nation and a winner from radio's "Queen for a Day" series. Actress Gregg Sherwood wears the real crown.
1951: Arthur Smith and his Cracker Jacks join Queen Margaret Sheridan (co-star of science-fiction classic "The Thing"). Smith, the Charlotte-based "King of the Hillbillies," well-known for his rendition of "Dueling Banjos," will appear at Azalea Festivals through the 1980s.
1952: Janet Leigh drops out as Azalea queen, reportedly at the insistence of husband Tony Curtis, and is hastily replaced by actress Cathy Downs, whose husband, actor Joe Kirkwood Jr., happens to be playing in the Azalea Open. For the first time, the queen arrives at the Wilmington airport, courtesy of a Piedmont Airlines flight. The street dance moves to 17th and Market streets and the operetta "H.M.S. Pinafore" is performed at Legion Stadium.
1953: Actress Alexis Smith flies to Wilmington, reportedly on four hours' notice, to fill in as Azalea queen after the announced candidate falls ill. The Cape Fear Garden Club launches its Azalea Garden Tour, replacing the "Pilgrimage" walks of earlier festivals. The first sidewalk art show is held on Cottage Lane downtown by the students of late Wilmington artist Elisabeth Chant.
1954: Celebrity guests include World War II hero Gen. Mark Clark and Choo-Choo Justice, now playing for the Washington Redskins. Queen Ella Raines wears a crown from Harry Winston, reportedly with 1,900 diamonds and 75 rubies.
1955: Queen Sara Shane reigns despite a painful case of poison ivy. (Later under her real name, Elaine Hollingsworth, she'll become a prolific author on natural remedies.) Guests include actresses Kim Hunter ("Stel-l-l-l-a!" from "A Streetcar Named Desire") and Polly Bergen, who offers beauty hints on behalf of Pepsi-Cola.
1956: Bert Parks takes a break from the Miss America pageant to crown Polly Bergen (back for a second year) as Azalea queen. Six years later, Bergen stars in the classic film noir "Cape Fear."
1957: Comedian George Jessel, "Toastmaster General of the United States," is master of ceremonies. Col. Dean Hayes, a fighter ace of World War II and Korea, is grand marshal. Actress Kathryn Grayson, born "in a trunk" in Winston-Salem while her parents were on tour, becomes, technically, the first native Tar Heel Azalea queen. Guests include TV cowboy star Dale Robertson and Metropolitan Opera tenor Lauritz Melchior.
1958: Esther Williams, Hollywood's "Million Dollar Mermaid," reigns as Azalea queen, alongside two kings: actor John Bromfield as "King of Festivities" and cowboy actor Scott Brady as "King of Hospitality." Brady, who is escorting Williams at the time, quarrels with her and stalks off early; the post of "Azalea King" does not last. Arnold Palmer plays at the Azalea Open. A pre-Mayberry Andy Griffith serves as emcee.
1959: Ronald Reagan is emcee; Debra Paget is queen. The first free Azalea Variety Show, festival tradition for decades, is held in Legion Stadium. The entire event is officially dubbed "The N.C. Azalea Festival at Wilmington."
More: New hotels are popping up across Wilmington. What's driving the boom?
1960: Merv Griffin is emcee. Ronald Reagan and Andy Griffith are back, along with British character actor Charles Laughton. A local kid named Charlie Daniels plays the Ocean Plaza Ballroom at Carolina Beach.
1961: Shelly Fabares, teen co-star of TV's Donna Reed Show reigns as queen, the year before her recording "Johnny Angel" becomes a No. 1 pop hit.
1962: "Today Show" announcer Jack Lescoulie is emcee for Azalea Queen Whitney Blake of TV's "Hazel." The Azalea Festival Horse Show at Long Leaf Park (then known as Hugh MacRae Park) draws more than 1,000 spectators.
1963: Azalea Queen Nancy Malone, then a soap opera actress, will later return to Wilmington as a director for episodes of "Dawson's Creek." Guest TV celebs for 1963 include a pre-'Munsters" Fred Gwynne.
1964: Michael Landon (then "Little Joe" on "Bonanza") and singer Frankie Avalon head the guest list.
1965: Singer Ed Ames, alias "Mingo," the college-educated Indian on TV's "Daniel Boone," attends along with Azalea Queen Patricia Blair, who plays Rebecca Boone on the series. The Battleship North Carolina Memorial inaugurates its long-running sound-and-light show during the festival. The Air Force Thunderbirds fly overhead.
1966: Cowboy star Tex Ritter, Staff. Sgt. Barry Sadler ("The Ballad of the Green Berets") and the Bitter End Singers headline one of the more musical festivals to date. Ulla Stromstedt, who plays the Swedish marine biologist on TV's "Flipper," Flipper, reigns as queen.
1967: Melody Patterson ("Wrangler Jane" of TV's "F Troop") reigns. The Four Preps sing.
More: Wine, walking and Wilmington: How this gal is creating a niche in the local event space
1968: Washington Redskins star Sonny Jurgensen, a hometown boy, is a big celeb, along with singer Vaughn Monroe and circus clown Emmett Kelly Jr. The Back Porch Majority and the Four Freshmen sing for the young folk.
1969: David Hartman (in his pre-"Good Morning America" days) rides a horse in the Azalea parade. Jazz master Al Hirt, funny man Henny Youngman and Latin heartthrob Alejandro Rey are among the headliners. Impressionist Rich Little is emcee. The Azalea belles (just seven of them) make their first festival appearance.
More: From nature trails to a BMX track, here are 5 park upgrades taking shape in 2023
1970: Country star George Hamilton IV, "Yackety Sax" instrumentalist Boots Randolph, the Dells and former Miss America Vonda Kay Van Dyke provide the music.
1971: The Army's Golden Knights parachute into the festival, while the U.S Navy invades with a small flotilla. Phyllis Davis is queen. Henry Darrow of "The High Chaparral" is a guest celeb and has such a good time that (many years later) he moves to Wilmington. The last edition of the Azalea Open Invitational tees off, but hot competition for PGA stars dooms the local golf tournament.
1972: Ann B. Davis ("Alice" from "The Brady Bunch") joins a lineup with Demond Wilson of "Sanford and Son," Pat Boone (performing with his whole family) and the New Christy Minstrels. Jacqueline White, the first Azalea queen, returns as a special guest.
1973: Cab Calloway and ventriloquist Willie Tyler (and Lester) entertain the crowds. Joan Van Ark, in her pre-"Dallas" days, reigns as queen.
1974: The N.C. State Wolfpack basketball team celebrates its NCAA national championship with a festival visit. Patti Page, "the Singing Rage" who scored a hit with her rendition of "The Tennessee Waltz," is the musical headliner, and a pre-"Cagney & Lacey" Sharon Gless is queen.
1975: Stephanie Braxton of "All My Children" becomes the latest in a long line of Azalea queens from the world of daytime drama.
1976: Ted Lange ("Isaac" from "The Love Boat") is a celebrity guest. Richard and Patti Roberts with their World Action Singers revive a '50s festival tradition of evangelists and religious artists. Rita McLaughlin of "As the World Turns" is queen.
1977: Lawrence Welk's "Champagne Lady," Norma Zimmer, is a musical guest, along with comedian John Byner and Charlotte Stewart ("Little House on the Prairie"). Azalea Queen Francesca James from "All My Children" has such a good time, she comes back for next year's festival on her own.
1978: Nancy Addison of "Ryan's Hope" left Irish eyes a-smilin' as Azalea queen.
1979: The music ranges from Debby Boone ("You Light Up My Life") to Pure Prairie League ("Amie").
1980: The Clyde Beatty/Cole Bros. circus joins the festival lineup for the first time. Dionne Warwick and Pete Fountain provide the music.
1981: Festival headliner Bob Hope is solemnly declared an honorary inmate of the New Hanover County jail. "Days of Our Lives" stars Bill and Susan Seaforth Hayes attend and begin a long association with Wilmington.
1982: Hometown hero Michael Jordan, fresh off scoring the winning basket in the NCAA finals, joins founding president Hugh Morton to crown Azalea Queen Lynda Goodfriend (Richie's sweetheart from "Happy Days"). The Four Tops rock for festival fans.
1983: Andy Williams headlines a musical festival that also features the Gatlin Brothers and a young unknown named George Strait, who wows 'em at the Variety Show. Williams has a good time strolling through the Cotton Exchange shopping complex downtown, totally unrecognized.
1984: Johnny Mathis and Barbara Mandrell sell out Trask Coliseum.
1985: Phylicia Rashad (appearing as Phylicia Ayers-Allen) of "The Cosby Show" is the first Black Azalea queen. The talent lineup includes Rich Little, Donny and Marie Osmond, Crystal Gayle, Porter Wagoner and "Jeopardy!" host Alex Trebek.
1986: B.B. King plays his guitar Lucille at Brogden Hall. (That same weekend, in a non-festival event, Dizzy Gillespie blows his horn in Thalian Hall.) Kim Zimmer of "The Guiding Light" is queen. Among the celebs are Wayne Newton, Victor French of "Little House on the Prairie" and country star Shelly West. Barbara Eden of "I Dream of Jeannie" spends the whole weekend in a Western-style fringed outfit after her luggage disappears en route to Wilmington.
1987: Queen Robin Greer of "Falcon Crest" comes with her co-star (and sweetie at the time) Lorenzo Lamas. The Beach Boys and Johnny Mathis play Trask Coliseum, while the guest list includes country star Little Jimmy Dickens, Tony Dow ("Wally" from "Leave it to Beaver") and boxing champ James "Bonecrusher" Smith.
1988: Tom Jones, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Bare are musical highlights.
1989: Julie McCullough is disinvited as Azalea queen after her past as a Playboy Playmate of the Month is brought the attention of festival organizers. (She'll return to Wilmington 20 years later as part of the "Beauty and The Dweeb" comedy tour with actor Marc "Skippy" Price.) Her replacement is Rebeca Arthur of TV's "Perfect Strangers," who carries her toy poodle in her purse wherever she goes. Musical highlights are Hall & Oates, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and Nashville singer Lorrie Morgan.
1990: Kenny Rogers and Alabama headline a country-flavored festival. The Azalea queen is Kate Collins of "All My Children."
1991: A pre-canceled Bill Cosby packs 'em in at Trask Coliseum. Also performing are the Judds (in one of their last appearances together) and the Righteous Brothers. The guest list includes "Bionic Woman" Lindsay Wagner.
1992: Gladys Knight and Reba McEntire are musical highlights. The queen, Clare Carey, comes from the TV show "Coach," which co-stars former Azalea queen Shelley Fabares. The Navy's Blue Knights command the skies.
1993: A pre-Regis Kelly Ripa is queen. Tanya Tucker, Lou Rawls, Alan Jackson and Kitty Wells sing.
1994: Frank Sinatra headlines. Neil Sedaka and John Anderson also perform.
1995: In a big change, Azalea Queen Laura Bonnarigo is crowned on the first day of the festival, in a morning ceremony at the downtown riverfront. For many years, the coronation had been scheduled on Saturday night. The musical lineup is especially rockin': Ray Charles (subbing for Aretha Franklin), Roberta Flack, the Four Tops, Barry Manilow and T. Graham Brown.
1996: Julio Iglesias and the Beach Boys are the big musical attractions. Baseball star Willie Stargell is parade marshal.
1997: For the 50th anniversary, the festival gets its first Azalea Queen actually born in Wilmington: Lauren Roman of "All My Children" spent most of her childhood in Virginia but was born here Dec. 3, 1975. Vince Gill gives the Thursday night concert, while Frankie Valli and the Four Tops stage big comebacks Saturday night. Hugh Morton, who received his star on the city's "Walk of Fame" during festival week, is back as marshal, heading a parade grown to more than 200 units.
1998: The music ranges from Tim McGraw to Liza Minnelli. Gen. Hugh Shelton, a North Carolina native and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, serves as parade marshal and addresses a salute to the nation's military at the Battleship North Carolina Memorial.
1999: Country stars Brooks and Dunn and former disco diva Donna Summer bookend the festival, with Tar Heel native Shirley Caesar heading the Variety Show's lineup. Space shuttle astronaut Col. Curtis L Brown Jr. of Elizabethtown is parade marshal. The number of Azalea Belles hits 99.
2000: The festival experiments with an outdoor concert Thursday night at the airport featuring Kool & the Gang, comedian Sinbad and K.C. and the Sunshine Band. The Saturday night Trask Coliseum concert is scrapped in favor of a downtown street dance with Morris Day and the Time. Nina Repeta, a star of the locally filmed "Dawson's Creek," is queen.
2001: Tony Bennett leaves his heart in San Francisco long enough to headline the festival. The Azalea queen is a singer, Nikki DeLoach, who performed with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake as one of the new-generation Mouseketeers.
2002: Natalie Cole is the headline artist.
2003: R&B great Al Green and the country band Lonestar top the bill.
2004: Festival lovers mourn Henry Rehder, longtime festival volunteer, who dies barely six weeks before festival time. Rehder organized the first Azalea parade, and all the queens posed for their portraits in his azalea garden, with a bouquet he prepared. Country star Brad Paisley opens the festival with a Trask show, while Jessica Simpson and then-husband Nick Lachey are big attractions.
2005: Azalea Queen Kelly Packard from "Baywatch" is crowned on Wednesday, a day earlier than before. Travis Tritt's big show is in Trask Coliseum that night. Hootie and the Blowfish follow on Friday.
2006: "American Idol" star Carrie Underwood opens the Azalea Festival, Patti LaBelle delivers the big finish.
2007: For its 60th year, concert performers include Michael McDonald, and late Wilmington-based actor of stage and screen Pat Hingle was a festival celebrity.
2008: Country act Sugarland and pop star Colbie Caillat (remember "Bubbly"?) headlined shows at UNCW's Kenan Auditorium. Wilmington teen George Pocheptsov, known for painting works that were selling for five and six figures by the time he was a teenager, was the official festival artist.
2009: Dancer and actress Amrapali Ambegaokar became the first Azalea queen of Asian descent; "American Idol" singers Kellie Pickler and David Cook were the concert headliners.
2010: Country rockers Montgomery Gentry and pop rockers Collective Soul ("Shine") were the concert headliners; actress Lindsey Shaw served as queen.
2011: North Carolina favorites The Avett Brothers play the Azalea Festival for the first time. They'll go on to play the fest again in 2013 and 2016. Also headlining is country star Darius Rucker, formerly of Hootie and the Blowfish. Former Miss America Heather French Henry is the queen. Tennis legend John McEnroe and longtime pro tour player Todd Martin square off in an exhibition match at Trask, a festival first.
More: Azalea Festival announces 76th queen, and she's a Wilmington local
2012: "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery headlines Trask Coliseum, marking the final year that concerts are held on the UNCW campus. 2004 Miss America and "Amazing Race" star Ericka Dunlap is queen.
2013: For the first time, festival concerts are held downtown (in a parking lot behind The Wilson Center). The Avett Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and "hick-hop" artist Colt Ford headline.
2014: Country star Justin Moore and jam band Widespread Panic headline concerts. Former Miss America Kirsten Haglund reigns as queen.
2015: Original Queen Azalea Jacqueline White returns to crown Queen Azalea Mallory Hagan, a former Miss America. A sand volleyball tournament is hosted by Olympic medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and her husband, Casey Jennings, also a professional volleyball player. Country star Alan Jackson and hip-hop star Nelly play concerts.
2016: Rapper Snoop Dogg plays his first ever Wilmington concert as the Avett Brothers return to headline for the third time. N.C. Gov. Pat McCrory makes an appearance, and "Fox and Friends" co-host Anna Kooiman is the queen.
2017: '80s pop icons Duran Duran give an epic performance, and frontman Simon LeBon asks the festival crowd, " 'ave you 'ad your beer and 'ot dogs? Or was it Champagne and caviar?!" Country star Cole Swindell and singer and dancer Jason Derulo headline concerts downtown as well, and beach music legends The Temptations play UNCW's Kenan Auditorium. N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper visits. Kira Kazantsev, whose reign as Miss America was marred by a bullying scandal from her college days, is the queen.
2018: Rapper Ludacris, rockers .38 Special and country singer Billy Currington headline concerts. Celebrity chef Vivian Howard is a festival guest.
2019: Briana Venskus, who identifies as bisexual, becomes the Azalea Festival's first LGBTQ queen. Country legend Hank Williams Jr. and rapper Ice Cube deliver radically different mainstage concerts. This will be the last festival featuring Azalea belles, as the tradition will be ended in 2020.
2020: For the first time since its inception, the Azalea Festival holds no in-person events. Aside from a couple of online events, like a "virtual garden party," the festival is effectively canceled due to the pandemic. Wilmington-born Broadway performer Anne Hawthorne is still recognized as queen.
2021: Making a tentative return from the pandemic, the festival holds a months-long mix of virtual and in person events. For the first time, the parade was held in August instead of April. Miss North Carolina 2017 Victoria Huggins, a former "American Idol" performer, serves as queen.
2022: Festival returns from the pandemic in earnest for its 75th annual, with concerts held for the first time at the new Live Oak Bank Pavilion: Brantley Gilbert, REO Speedwagon and Cypress Hill headline.
This article originally appeared on Wilmington StarNews: The famous faces and memorable moments in Azalea Festival history