A young lady used to need a Cape Fear Garden Club sponsor in order to be an Azalea Belle. Now, senior girls can apply without a sponsor...but they are required to attend a meeting on Tuesday, January 23rd at 4:00 pm.
Debbie Scheu has been dedicated to the dresses worn by the Belles for 26 years. Audio of our conversation will be available soon; read our extended transcript below.
Debbie: I sew. I sew every day just about. Mostly I like to make clothes that are for another time. I sew costumes. I design them.
Gina: Is that why you like the Azalea Belles?
Debbie: That's why I love Azalea Belles.
Gina: What do you do exactly with the Azalea Belles?
Debbie: Well, I design the dresses sometimes for imaginary Belles because I just fall in love with a piece of fabric and I create a design; the perfect neckline, the perfect sleeve, and it becomes a dress for an Azalea Belle to wear. An Azalea Belle is chosen through the Cape Fear Garden Club. And then she comes to my home and she sees the dress and she tries it on and then she's a Belle.
Gina: So it's magic.
Debbie: It is magic.
Gina: And you're here today to talk about girls who would like to be Belles but who don't necessarily have a sponsor through the Garden Club.
Debbie: It's amazing because a lot of people in Wilmington or a lot of teenage girls might not realize they can actually be an Azalea Belle even if their mother or their family doesn't know anyone who's in the Garden Club. And this is something that's very contemporary. It's very exciting for me that the Garden Club has opened up this opportunity to all of the teenage girls. They're almost all seniors. It's hard to use the juniors because they literally run out of spots. And the Garden Club decides how many Belles they need by the sizes of the gardens and the number of responsibilities that the Cape Fear Garden Club is asked to provide Belles for. The number of events.
So the way that they have engineered this is that the girls that are interested in being a Belle who do not know anyone need to go on online to the Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea page. On that page they will find an address to go to a special meeting that is on Tuesday, January 23rd at 4:00. It's like a magic time. So it's after school. And you go there and you will learn about the application process for you to apply to be a Belle even though you don't know someone in the Garden Club.
Gina: Previously you had to know someone in the Garden Club in order to be an Azalea Belle?
Debbie: Yes, a sponsor. And that is certainly the most direct line, the most efficient way to do it, but some girls just don't have any way of meeting anybody. The best way to meet them is usually through your family, through your parents, maybe your mom works someplace where there's a Garden Club member, or maybe you attend church on the weekend where there are ladies in that church who are in the Garden Club, and other venues, other places, other walks of life. But if you can't find anybody and you've looked under every rosebush in town, you can go to this meeting.
Gina: What inspired the Garden Club to open it up like this?
Debbie: I don't know. That's a great question. I'm just glad they did.
Gina: Is this the first year?
Debbie: I think it's about the third year. It could be longer. It's not really part of my job. My job is to dress them once they're selected.
Gina: For people out there who don't know what in the world are we talking about- what is an Azalea Belle?
Debbie: An Azalea Belle is an ambassador to the City of Wilmington. It's somebody that loves the Azalea Festival- the North Carolina Azalea Festival- which is I think almost 75 years old or somewhere around there. And the Cape Fear Garden Club exists in a symbiotic relationship with the North Carolina Azalea Festival and they created the Belles. In the beginning- back in the '60s- it was their own daughters and granddaughters and they dressed up in pretty dresses that had very full skirts like in movies like Gone With the Wind or Raintree County. That's an amazing movie. And so for the romance of that time period in history, they look like flowers in the garden. Some years when we have the North Carolina Azalea Festival the azaleas have come and gone because of our weather. And so then we have the Belles in the gardens to be our flowers. And we're grateful for it. People come from far and wide to see these Wilmington girls. Well, and also there's a few other- I think Pender and Brunswick County but I'm not positive.
I think it's beyond New Hanover County. Just on the edges. So they put in a lot of volunteer hours and they do get to put this on their resumes for college or any job that they apply to. Volunteer jobs are very important on any resume and they spend a lot of time getting fitted, going to their orientation meetings and then being on floats in the parade. They go to ribbon cuttings. There are so many ribbon cuttings during the festival. So they go to those. Sometimes they have to get up at 6:30 in the morning to be someplace special. They go to the Queen's coronation and decorate the stage for her arrival. So it's a lot. And every single time they get dressed up in their whole outfit. An Azalea Belle is in a class by herself.
Gina: Tell me about your history as someone who sews.
Debbie: Well, I started sewing right around my fourth or fifth birthday. I have a picture of me with my mom learning to make clothes for my dolls. I have sewn all my life. I have never not sewn. By the time I was 12 or 13, I was wearing making clothes that I wore out in public; church, dances. My mother made my wedding dress. So she taught me to sew all my life. I started costuming in the '70s because I had children and they won Halloween contests back then. And by 1975 I was working in theater. So I costumed my first show in 1975. And prior to moving to Wilmington in '91, I had always been a volunteer. All my shows I just pitched in and sewed and dressed people and had a wonderful time with it, which I still do. Only, ever since I've been to Wilmington, I took it up a notch because I met Lou Criscuolo and Mary James, then Morgan, and they introduced me to the world at Thalian Hall with Tony Rivenbark. I've done over 80 productions on the main stage at Thalian Hall in my career since I moved here. In 1992 a doctor named R.V. Fulk had his play that he wrote produced on the mainstage and it was directed by Lou Criscuolo and that was set in the mid 1840s. It's the story of Isabella Stewart Gardner and a Garden Club member saw that production and she called up Mary James and she said, "Who made those dresses in that show?" And Mary James called me and she said, "Debbie, if I give her your number it's going to be from now on." And I said, "That's fine with me." So the Garden Club ladies came to my home in February of 1993 and invited me to become a dressmaker for the festival.
Gina: So that's twenty five years?
Debbie: Twenty six.
Debbie: So that's the segue from personal sewing to theater to Azalea Belles.
Gina: And of course you still do lots of theater.
Debbie: Yes. Yes.
Gina: Will you tell me again about the meeting for prospective Belles?
Debbie: Yes. What is very timely about this particular week is: a lot of people don't think of being an Azalea Belle until it's April. They go, "Oh hey, it's time for the Azalea Festival." But the application deadline is right there in the first week of February. The deadline that it has to be postmarked is on the application and the way to get the application is through a Garden Club member that you know or by going to the meeting that is on Tuesday, January 23rd at 4:00. And that address, that location is on the Facebook page [click HERE] for the Cape Fear Garden Club Azalea Belles. So that's really important. You're thinking really three months out for something very exciting and magical that would change your life. Especially as the fantasy side of it and the volunteerism. They go hand in hand.
And--for any Azalea Belle- the ones that do or don't know Garden Club members- there's something special that happened last year. The Cape Fear Garden Club has created an actual Pandora bracelet charm. It is for sale at the Dragonfly on Oleander Drive. But what's special is that a percentage of the sale of each charm goes back to the Cape Fear Garden Club and they keep it in a special separate account from everything else that they do. And it is earmarked exclusively for girls in our community who feel that they might not be able to be an Azalea Belle because of financial challenges. So this is very exciting to me personally and so I want to put that out there to girls- that this magic can happen for them.
Gina: How much does it cost to be an Azalea Belle?
Debbie: It costs a hundred and twenty five dollars for the rental of the dress and the accoutrements, which we could list, and then they have more expenses for gas to get to functions. But they also need a hairpiece so their hair looks old fashioned and they need sweet little shoes that look like Cinderella's shoes so that they're not in UGGS or sneakers. That's kind of important. So from their head to their toe. And they basically have to think about the hair and the shoes and I pretty much cover everything else in between. So they get they get a hair bow, a dress, a hoop, a pair of bloomers, gloves, a shawl if they're going to be cold or they want to make a fashion statement and a reticule.
Gina: What is a reticule?
Debbie: A reticule is a purse. But they didn't call it a purse in 1860. And nowadays that reticule holds a cell phone so that we can keep the 21st century hidden from the 19th century.