TYLER -- The first big dress rehearsal for the Texas Rose Festival Coronation, the centerpiece of the annual extravaganza, is always in July. Organizers look on anxiously as the queen's court of 40 young women, all of them college sophomores, attempt to walk regally down a broad set of stairs and execute the trademark deep curtsy, while wearing full-skirted sequined gowns that often come with matching Vegas-style headpieces and can weigh upward of 100 pounds.
"I think that first rehearsal shocks a lot of the girls," says festival executive director Julie Kidwell, "and they spend the rest of the summer in the gym, lifting weights."
The women, you see, have more at stake than just fear of falling on their faces in front of a few thousand friends, family members and tourists: They've got tradition to uphold. They're representing their families and their city in one of the most storied festivals in Texas, the Texas Rose Festival, dating to 1933. Originally intended to boost civic pride in the local rose industry, the annual October extravaganza grew over the years to be both the city's premier social event and a kind of all-city homecoming.
And tourism officials have caught on: This year, they're extending the festival two additional weekends. In addition to the mainstays like the rose parade, a queen's tea and the festive coronation, there will be a marathon, an open-air concert, horticulture workshops, plantation and garden tours, and other events, making October a fine time to visit this East Texas city that's as much Southern as Texan.
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"Rose Festival has always been our best foot forward," says Jill King Ramey, the festival's official historian, and the 1950 Rose Queen. "Tyler is very hospitable, and the festival is a wonderful way for people to be able to come and experience that."
Roses by the armfuls
"You cannot separate roses from Tyler," Ramey says. She's quite right. Even as Tyler has grown into a city of nearly 100,000, with medical and legal communities that are far larger than the remaining agricultural industry, roses remain central to the city's identity. They're woven into the official city logo, they're planted in roadway medians, they provided a nickname for one of the most famous football players to come out of Texas -- Earl Campbell, the "Tyler Rose." (His beloved late mother, Ann Campbell, grew roses, too, Ramey points out.)
The city's Municipal Rose Garden is the nation's largest, with about 40,000 blooming bushes spread over 14 acres; the adjacent Rose Museum tells the story of both the festival and the area's enduring rose-growing industry. (About 20 percent of the nation's commercial rosebushes are grown here, and the area's cold-storage facilities process and ship at least half of the rest.)
And a true trademark? The bunches of Tyler roses that you can buy for $2.50 a dozen. Spring through fall, shoppers line up in parking lots to take home armfuls, the colorful blooms wrapped in wax paper and newsprint, thorns still attached, with an intoxicating floral scent that may remind you of roses from your grandma's garden.
But it wasn't always so. Once, peaches were the biggest crop around these parts. And they might well have stayed that way, except that in the 1920s, a blight swept through peach orchards, devastating them practically overnight.
Left with empty fields, many growers realized that roses would flourish in the same growing conditions as peaches. An industry was born. By the early 1930s, Tyler roses were so well-regarded that they were used in gardens at the Chicago World's Fair, and the city was becoming known as the Rose Capital of the Nation, says Tom Ramey III, Jill Ramey's son, a longtime festival volunteer official who will be its president next year.
Ramey's grandfather, in fact, saw those roses at the World's Fair in 1933, which made the Tyler businessman amenable to a group of women from a local garden club who approached him that summer about creating a festival to celebrate the rose industry. With other business and civic leaders, the elder Ramey organized the first festival in just six weeks, in the fall of 1933.
Except for a brief hiatus during World War II, it's been held every year ever since. The core of the festival has remained similar for generations, and except for a raft of private parties that surround the festivities, all of it is open to the public, much of it free or at nominal cost.
Every year, there's a ladies' brunch (this year's speaker is Sandra Brown, the Arlington-based novelist who was once a TV journalist in Tyler) and a men's luncheon, headlined this year by T. Boone Pickens. There's a rose show, garden tours and an arts-and-crafts fair at the Rose Garden. There's a big parade, with rose-bedecked floats, marching bands, Boy Scouts, clowns and Shriners driving those tiny cars.
And there's the centerpiece of the whole thing: the queen's Coronation, a cross between a pageant, a Vegas show and a debutante ball, where the queen, her attendants and their escorts are presented in an elaborate, choreographed production. It's so popular that there are two seatings -- a Friday matinee, where tickets start at just $20, and an evening show.
About the only change in the core festival is that several years ago, events were compressed into three days, so that the members of the court, always college students, don't have to miss too many classes.
The queen and her ladies-in-waiting are all from Tyler, but the visiting duchesses, decked out in outfits that evoke the Miss Universe Parade of Nations opening number, come from all over. Last year, a duchess was from Abu Dhabi, says Kidwell, who is also executive director of the museum. (Kidwell was a train-bearer as a little girl, but passed on being a lady-in-waiting during college in favor of studying abroad, an irony her family did not fail to note when she took the job three years ago.)
Except for Kidwell, the entire operation is run by volunteers, many of whom take on the same role every year. One group of women gathers every year to decorate the parade floats with fresh Tyler rose petals. Another group of volunteers arranges the showy blooms at the annual Rose Show at the Rose Garden. Others serve the punch and cookies at the Queen's Tea, a free afternoon event in the Rose Garden that's attended by thousands, and where little girls line up to gawk at and snap pictures with the jewel-bedecked queen and her ladies-in-waiting, like a hometown version of Disney princesses.
And perhaps that unique combination -- flash and substance, high society and hometown pride -- is why the Texas Rose Festival has continued not just to endure, but to flourish.
"This [festival] is about a town that didn't want to be just another spot on the map," Tom Ramey says. "Cities spend millions of dollars to create this kind of identity, and here we already have the very best one."