Azalea Festival 2021: Locals get creative modifying events to celebrate the arrival of spring

Christa Pun-Chuen’s aunt’s house at 511 S. 2nd St. is part of Azalea Festival’s inaugural Porch Parade. (Port City Daily/Courtesy of Christa Pun-Chuen)

WILMINGTON — After having to cancel the 73rd year of the Azalea Festival only three weeks out from its launch last March, the festival’s executive director, Alison Baringer, said she is happy to see its official springtime return in 2021 — even if some events have been modified and others spread out into summer. 

The 74th annual North Carolina Azalea Festival gets under way Wednesday, with a hybrid of in-person and online events taking place through Sunday. Normally, Baringer said the festival brings a $50 million economic boost to Wilmington, with 300,000 people descending on the Port City, primarily downtown. This year will be different.

Some events have completely canceled, like the boxing tournament, shag contest, “All Shook Up” theatre production from Thalian Association, and the Cape Fear Garden Club’s annual Azalea Garden Tour (which caused its own bit of controversy last fall upon announcing it would cancel the Azalea Belles permanently).


Some events, like the art shows and chef’s series, have been scaled down due to Covid-19 restrictions, while the street fair, parade, and concerts have been moved to August. In fact, the festival attempted to reschedule concerts three times now since last April. 

“Because we did a really good job, in my opinion, of pivoting and getting in early with those artists to try to set new dates for later in the year . . . we were able to keep those ticket revenues, in hopes we could provide those events later,” Baringer said.

The concerts also will be hosted at the new North Waterfront Park, with Sublime with Rome, Michael Franti and Spearhead on Thursday, Aug. 19, and The Avett Brothers on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 20 and 21.

RELATED: After delays and cost increases, city anticipates June 2021 opening for Wilmington’s North Waterfront Park

Baringer said the festival was able to reroute 2020 sponsorship money into 2021, which helped it operate on its $2 million budget. 

“It just shows the level of support that the community has for the festival at a time when we needed it the most,” Baringer said. 

In normal times, the festival would launch on Wednesday with the arrival and coronation of Queen Azalea. Since folks can’t gather with the 500 people the coronation ordinarily would draw as part of the Cape Fear Garden Club kickoff party, Baringer is trying a different approach. She will crown Victoria Huggins — who served on the queen’s court during Azalea Festival 2016 and reigned as Miss North Carolina in 2017 — at 16 different spots each day during 10-minute visits. 

“I had the idea to have 74 kind of mini coordinations to represent our 74th festival this year,” Baringer said. “[W]e’re not publicizing them, and we purposely want them short because we don’t want people to gather . . .  just a quick hello, wave and some photos at sponsor sites, one school, and we’re also stopping at historic sites for the city.”

Porches on Parade

After Baringer had to cancel and amend 2020’s festival to all online events last year, she joined a Covid task force as part of the International Festival and Events Association last summer. She said tapping into how other planners nationwide were adapting their own events really helped her inform the organization of the 2021 Azalea Festival. On the task force, she learned how to re-present events and even reverse concepts into something that could be community engaging, while maintaining Covid protocols. 

“So we had a plan, a re-presented plan, for every single event, probably by August of last year,” Baringer said.

Enter the Porch Parade. 

New Orleans saw much success with it when it had to cancel all of its Mardi Gras parades in February. Instead, the community began creatively decorating their houses in the spirit of Mardi Gras, so folks could walk around the city and view all of the homes, many designed by local artists.

“One of my friends at the Portland Rose Festival was one of the first people to do that back in May of 2020,” Baringer said. “It’s one of those reverse-formatting things that has worked. Instead of the spectators being stationary, and the participants moving, you make the participants stationary and the spectators move.”

Baringer said Azalea Festival already began toying around with a similar concept with businesses a few years ago. About 20 began doing window dressings in the spirit of spring to help drive people to support local shopping. The pandemic amplified the idea. 

As part of the first year launching the Porch Parade, between 40 and 50 participants — nonprofits, homeowners and businesses — are on the map across the city, from downtown to Oleander Oaks, Windermere to Masonboro Sound.

The Lower Cape Fear Historical Society entered the Latimer House on the parade route. Manager of operations Jessie Labell said it was the first time they could get together again with volunteers since Covid hit. With their help and several board members, the Latimer House is draped in green lights and floral garlands, and even has a visitor permanently perched on the porch — a bunny named “Harvey.” 

Labell said they stuck to a simple spring theme. “Like the rest of the world, we’re hoping for a fresh start after the difficult year everyone has had,” she said. “Covid was difficult for us, as a nonprofit, as it was for thousands of other organizations and communities worldwide. As restrictions are easing and cases are dropping, we were eager to once again participate in community events. We look at it as a way to begin the healing process after so much loss and difficulty.”

A few blocks away at 511 South 2nd St., the family of Doris Ann “Sanny” Slack decorated their aunt’s home who lived downtown for 30 years. According to her niece, local artist Christa Pun-Chuen, Sanny was a master gardener and loved azaleas. She turned 100 in February 2020 but passed away last June.

Pun-Chuen decided to decorate the home in honor of her aunt and used recycled cardboard from her neighbors and acrylic paint to create large azaleas and bees. Pun-Chuen said it has brought cheer to the neighbors and passersby.

“I think it is a great way to creatively connect with other people in the community and share a moment of joy with the public,” Chuen said.

Lisa Morgan McLeod agrees. McLeod and her husband live at 204 Castle St. and decided to participate upon the encouragement of other neighbors. McLeod said she thought back to her childhood after her 93-year-old mother reminded her of paper flowers they would return home with after weekend trips to Mexico. McLeod reached out to family and friends to help recreate the flowers out of tissue, wire and construction paper.

“I knew I wanted it to look as if a cartoon flower bomb had gone off on the porch,” McLeod said. “‘Over the top’ was not quite far enough, so the more flowers, the better, we all agreed.”

Azalea Festival has Porch Parade signs posted at all of its stops around town to indicate a participant on the route. (Port City Daily/Shea Carver)

All the world … err, promenade is a stage

While some porches are donned in visual art, this weekend the Historic Wilmington Foundation (HWF) will be bringing other porches to life via performance art. “Promenade Performances” will take place this Saturday and Sunday in place of HWF’s annual Azalea Festival Home Tour.

“Promenade Performances” came from HWF’s new executive director, Travis Gilbert, who decided, rather than face another year without the fundraiser — the tour canceled in 2020 — why not revamp it? Gilbert wanted to fill in the gaps of entertainment that would be lost as part of the street fair and concerts normally hosted during Azalea Festival, while also shining a light on local artists.

“Promenade Performances” is an hour-and-a-half walking tour that will be Covid-19 safe and launch in groups of 14 each, masked and socially distanced. It will depart from HWF headquarters at 211 Orange St. every 15 minutes between 1 p.m. and 4:15 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. 

Gilbert curated the showcase by focusing on history of the region, its structures, as well as the people who inhabit it — past and present.

“I also wanted to acknowledge all forms of art in terms of medium, and include artists of color,” Gilbert said. “So we were very meticulous in finding a diverse group of artists that are not only acknowledging Black history, but queer history, Indigenous people’s history, the history of the environment and how we must protect the environment. It’s a little bit of everything — so it was intentional.”

Participants will walk to six historic properties in downtown Wilmington. As they learn about the buildings’ places in local history, they also will be treated to live dance, music, theatrical readings and even comedy.

Thalian Hall executive director Tony Rivenbark will be doing a dramatic reading of Wilmington artist Claude Howell’s writings at downtown’s children’s museum. The Orange Street location was the first site of the Cameron Art Museum, and before that St. John’s Museum of Art, which Howell helped found.

“I’ve always loved Tony’s readings of Claude’s journals,” Gilbert said. “And what a beautiful statement for preservation because that building was the Masonic Temple that was adaptively reused into a private residence and then into an art museum and, finally, into a children’s museum. So it’s a beautiful celebration of one of Wilmington’s first queer icons and prolific artists, and also a beautiful tribute to this building.”

At the Gov. Dudley Mansion on 400 S. Front St., Gilbert envisioned paying homage to the prevalence of the Cape Fear River as an economic driver of Wilmington.

“The man that commissioned the house — [the first governor of Wilmington] — much of his wealth is attributed to the Cape Fear River, his ability to bring rail to the port,” Gilbert said.

The executive director decided to reach out to Turning Pointe Dance Company about bringing to life the movement of wind, sail and water, representative of the river.

Other stops on the tour include the William B. Meare’s House (416 S. Front St.), once occupied by Union troops, though utilized as a hospital to treat Black soldiers. Comedian Wills Maxwell — winner of Port City Comic 2019 — will take over the gardens to perform a set focused on topics in Wilmington history to present day.

Broadway musician Brian Whitted will take over the porch of the Davis-Warshauer House (209 S. 2nd St.), playing 1920s tunes that would have circulated during its era of completion (c. 1923). 

At Thalian Hall (310 Chestnut St.), opera singer Shaunté Jordan and pianist Daniel Rottenberg will pay homage to the history of America’s first Black opera singer, Caterina Jarboro, who performed in an all-white touring company. Jarboro was best known for her role in Verdi’s “Aida.”

“She was born and raised on Church Street and came back here in the 1970s, to be honored at the opening of St. Thomas Preservation Hall, which is owned by the City Club now,” Gilbert said.

The City Club of Wilmington is located at the De Rossett House (23 S. 2nd St.), which also makes an appearance on the tour. The Little Turtle family — southeastern Woodland Native People — will host a drum circle and perform stories, dances and songs.  

“Cat Little Turtle is going to be leading, acknowledging the Indigenous people’s history and culture that outdates all of this built history that we preserve,” Gilbert said. 

All performers are being paid on the tour as well, Gilbert pointed out, thanks to individual sponsors. “We don’t get any of that funding,” he said. 

The Azalea Festival Home Tour is the HWF’s largest fundraiser of the year — one of many wiped out from Covid-19. The organization will keep funds from all ticket sales ($30 each) to help continue its mission. 

Next year, Gilbert said, the home tour will be back in full force — and depending on how well “Performance Promenades” goes, it may hang on to some of 2021’s new additions.

“We believe the house tour really represents the best of our community, just how neighborly Wilmington is, and how when you are a caretaker, and steward of one of these homes, it comes with the acknowledgement that this home is to be recognized by the entire community,” Gilbert explained. “But that is not to say that if this weekend is a success, elements of this won’t be included in future house tours or future events.”

Barringer, too, already is looking ahead to 2022 in planning a banner year for the Azalea Festival. It will turn 75, and she said, while the focus will be on preserving tradition, history and culture, modifications have helped give her an idea on how to best approach celebrating with people again.

“We know there’s going to be some who still aren’t quite comfortable to go to large events yet,” she said. “So we will look at how to keep them engaged in the festival. This last year was a great way to get people involved right from their own homes, so that’s something that I could see easily continue.”

OTHER IN-PERSON EVENTS

Juried Art Show and Youth Art Show
Hannah Block/USO Community Arts Center
Apr. 7-8: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Apr. 9: 10 a.m. – 7 p.m. 
Apr. 10: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. 
Apr. 11: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
More than 100 artists will be on display with their art works, hosted by the Wilmington Art Association. As well, youth artists from local elementary and high schools will have their art on display as part of this year’s Azalea Festival Youth Art Contest .

Chef’s Series
Apr. 7: Oceanic (sold out)
Apr. 8: Hops Supply Company, available for 2-top, 4-top or 6-top. Register here.
Apr. 9: Bluewater Waterfront Grill, available for 2-top, 4-top or 6-top. Register here.
A 4-course meal will be served nightly, with wine pairings that are presented from Top Chef contestant Katsuji Tanabe, who now works for the LM Restaurant group. Queen Azalea and other special guests will join each dinner.

Coin Show
Apr. 10, 10 a.m. 
Elks Lodge, 5102 Oleander Dr.
Families welcome, children will be gifted foreign coins. More than 30 dealers will be on site to appraise, buy, sell and trade.

VIRTUAL EVENTS

Azalea Sun Run
Run or walk 3.1 miles (5K) at area beaches during festival week, whenever and wherever possible. Register here.

Secret Garden Party
Apr. 9, 2 p.m. 
Dress in your finest in your favorite secret garden. Take a photo of yourself and hashtag #ncafbingocard or #ncafsecretgardenparty on social media. 

Bonus: Register by midnight Apr. 8 to get a Secret Garden Party BINGO card sent to you for a chance to win prizes, plus receive a special toast from Queen Azalea.

To see the full schedule of Azalea Festival events, including August happenings, click here.


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