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How does the N.C. Azalea Festival get great acts like Kellie Pickler or Sugarland to come to a smaller city like Wilmington?

Ben Steelman

“There’s a lot of luck involved with that,” said Erica L. Mearns, 2010 president of the N.C. Azalea Festival at Wilmington. “We’ve been blessed to have excellent agents and resources.”

In the case of Sugarland, for example, the festival was able to book the band just before its big break, when the band would have become unaffordable, Mearns said.

Of course, money plays a big role as well. In 1981, for example, the festival paid Bob Hope a total of $70,000 for two shows, plus expenses (including the salary of his backup singer). That’s a long way from the $5,000 total budget for the first Azalea Festival, back in 1948.

Wilmington’s local TV stations — notably WECT and WWAY — have been instrumental in recruiting NBC and ABC stars for festival events.

In the 1940s and ’50s, Azalea queens and celebrities tended to come from Hollywood movie studios — Jacqueline White (Queen Azalea I), Alexis Smith, Polly Bergen, Kathryn Grayson, Esther Williams. When Andy Griffith came to crown the queen in 1958, he was better known for such movies as “A Face in the Crowd” and “No Time for Sergeants”; Mayberry was still in the future. Ronald Reagan was festival emcee in 1959.

Beginning in the 1960s, the festival became more TV-oriented. Notable performers have included Rich Little (first in 1968), Pat Boone and family (in 1972), Patti Paige (1974), the Gatlin Brothers (1974), Johnny Mathis and Barbara Mandrell (1984), Donnie and Marie Osmond (1985), Barbara Mandrell (1985), “I Dream of Jeannie” ‘s Barbara Eden (1986), Bill Cosby (1991), the Judds (1991), Reba McEntire (1992), Ray Charles (1995), the Beach Boys (1996), Julio Iglesias (1996), Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons (1997), Tim McGraw (1998), Donna Summer and Shirley Caesar (1999), comedian Sinbad and KC, Kool and the Gang and KC and the Sunshine Band (2000), Tony Bennett (2001), Natalie Cole (2002), Al Green (2003), Jessica Simpson (2004), Darius Rucker with Hootie and the Blowfish (2005), Carrie Underwood (2006), Hilarie Burton (2008) and Chad Michael Murray (2008).

The 2010 N.C. Azalea Festival, the 63rd, will be held April 7-11 in Wilmington.

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