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A Hometown Favorite Draws Quite a Crowd : Celebration: It's called the Azalea Parade, but it's far from a flowery event. With everything from a 76-year-old queen to a Hawaiian theme to a street-smart vendor, it's the essence of Main Street U.S.A.

March 18, 1993|DICK WAGNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SOUTH GATE — Bands were tuning up and the Tweedy Boulevard curbs were filling up with balloon-clutching youngsters. The Kambos Family Restaurant, along the route of the annual Azalea Parade, was not quite filled, unusual for a late Sunday morning.

"It cuts into my business but I never complain; I feel South Gate is the city I was born in," said owner Paul Galanakis, who came from Greece 20 years ago. He wore a green lei and seemed to be checking if the street had been blocked off yet.

It was a couple of hours before the parade, which is part of the monthlong Azalea Festival, held each year since 1966 during the time the azaleas are in bloom.

This year's festival events, geared to a Hawaiian theme, included "Sunset Luau," "Lava Chili Dinner," "Kamehameha Enchilada Dinner," "Diamondhead Golf Tournament," "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "Outrigger Fishing Derby."

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday March 25, 1993 Home Edition Long Beach Part J Page 3 Column 1 Zones Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
Azalea Parade--In the Southeast and Long Beach sections March 18, a caption identifying Rachel Prater as queen of the Azalea Parade in South Gate was omitted, as was the photographer's credit. The parade pictures were taken for The Times by Ginny Dixon.
PHOTO: Azalea Queen Rachel Prater
PHOTOGRAPHER: GINNY DIXON / Los Angeles Times

But the parade would be the highlight. It would be reigned over by a queen who, according to longstanding tradition, must be civic-minded and at least 60 years old. Pageantry Productions of Lynwood--which puts on 65 parades a year--had worked for 12 months planning the Azalea Parade and ensuring that it would have a hometown flavor.

Asked what makes a successful parade, Pageantry Productions' owner Bill Lomas answered:

"Bands."

His computer sheets indicate that this parade would have nine of them.

"And a parade has to be interesting to everyone and lots of fun," Lomas added. "Nothing too serious."

A big man in a red shirt and white pants, Lomas carried a clipboard and 30 years of parade experience through a parking lot that had been taken over by horse trailers. He greeted another parade veteran, a black Arabian horse with patent leather shoes and purple saddle. "Tzaral's done more than a hundred parades, including the Rose Parade," said his rider, Eileen Bushman of Chino.

The parking lot was near the intersection of Tweedy and California Avenue, the parade's mustering area. It held three empty floats--one for the queen and her court, one for former queens and one for the Tweedy Mile Assn., a group of merchants on the boulevard.

Twelve blocks down Tweedy, a pre-parade reception was being held at the Bank of America. In the lobby, Fred Mayfield, 38, the boyish-faced, enthusiastic co-chairperson of the parade committee, said that the parade last year drew 20,000 spectators, despite rain. "Today we could have up to 50,000," he said.

Mayfield said the parade cost $13,000, with the city paying $10,000 and the rest coming from community donations.

A long food table was in front of the tellers' cages, and the carpeted area where loan officers normally sit was crowded with colorfully attired women, including the parade queen and former queens. They were dressed in flowery Hawaiian garb and had crowns on their heads.

The queen, Rachel Prater, 76, was wearing a purple-and-white mumu and eating at a table with former queens Zelma Benner and Ann Fowler. Still surprised over her crowning last month, Prater said, "It feels great, I've never had so much adulation."

She has served in many volunteer positions during her 53 years in South Gate. She has made clothes for the handicapped and was president of the Friends of the Weaver Library. The festival program notes that she is an avid boater and quilter.

Lewis Prater was proud to have a queen for a wife. "It's an honor that comes once in a lifetime," he said. He pulled a photograph from his wallet of Rachel taken after they had met in junior high.

Among those greeting the guests was Zelma Benner's husband, Chuck, one of the founders of the festival.

He said the festival was launched to awaken civic pride. "We just had no purpose, we needed something to hang our hat on," said Benner, who was president of the Chamber of Commerce at the time. "I appointed a beautification commission, and we adopted the azalea as the city flower because Frank Ishida, a nurseryman, said we had the ideal climate to grow azaleas. There were very few here then."

As to the tradition of the queen having to be at least 60, Benner said the city wanted to honor the older people who had contributed to South Gate. "Euphrosine Green was the first queen," he said. "I had never heard of the gal, but she had contributed a lot toward the city."

Back in the mustering area, the sound of drum rolls could be heard. Vendors pushed their cotton-candy carts. Lomas, the parade organizer, gave commands to his staff over a walkie-talkie.

The parade would have 250 units, including the three floats, city officials in vintage convertibles, clowns, horses, tall flags and many drill teams.

"I'm going to jump out of my car and shake hands," Councilman Albert T. Robles said.

The queen and her honor court arrived from the reception in vans and got onto their float with the help of float driver Martin Ramirez, who called them "baby dolls."

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