Ask McGehee

For several years during the 1950s, the reigning Miss America would come to Mobile to open the city’s popular Azalea Trail. Perhaps the most memorable year was 1956, when four Miss Americas and a record-breaking crowd of 37, 000 packed Ladd Stadium for what the newspaper described as “the star-studded show of the coronation ceremonies.” That was the sixth year that a Miss America reigned over Mobile’s Azalea Trail as its queen. Sharon Kay Ritchie had that honor in 1956 and was joined by three former Miss Americas: Lee Ann Meriwether (1955), Margaret Ay (1954) and Mobile native Yolande Betbeze (1951).        

Sixty yards of the field at Ladd Stadium had been converted into what was termed “a colonial garden with a lake in its center spanned by a bridge over which members of the court passed to surround a three-tiered stand and throne.” A 22-year-old Jaycee named George Gorman Jr. acted as king and had the honor of crowning Miss Ritchie his “Queen Sharon.”

Perhaps the real reason so many were in attendance that March day was that at 2:53 p.m., singer Eddie Fisher walked on stage and smilingly introduced his “better half, ” actress Debbie Reynolds. His opening song was what the newspaper called “his latest top recording, ‘Dungaree Doll.’”

Fisher, though largely forgotten today, was one of the nation’s most popular singers in the 1950s. From 1953 to 1957, he starred in an NBC TV show “Coke Time with Eddie Fisher.” His legion of female fans would walk into soda shops and order an “Eddie Fisher.” Thus, his name became synonymous with the drink, and he was under a million-dollar contract with the beverage company. A year before the famous Azalea Trail event in Mobile in 1955, Fisher and Reynolds had even honeymooned in Atlanta during a Coca-Cola bottlers’ convention. His bride, however, announced that she did not drink the product, as it was bad for her teeth. The stunned audience broke into laughter when they thought Reynolds was joking. Fisher’s Mobile visit was undoubtedly due to the fact that the president of the Azalea Trail was George Downing, who also presided over Mobile’s Coca-Cola Bottling Co. since the death of Walter Bellingrath a year earlier. Downing made sure that the couple got a personal tour of Bellingrath Gardens and Home during their visit.

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During the coronation show, Reynolds sang “The Tender Trap” before the couple did a duet of “Love and Marriage.” Afterward, Fisher and Reynolds joined “a cavalcade of convertibles, ” which followed the 37-mile route of the Azalea Trail, ending at Memorial Park at the Loop where local “shutterbugs” had a field day filming the throng.

By the end of the decade, the duo, who were once hailed as “America’s most popular married couple, ” were embroiled in one of the most public divorces in history. Fisher had left Reynolds for the recently widowed Elizabeth Taylor. Reaction was swift; Coca-Cola cancelled his contract, NBC unplugged his TV show and RCA ended his recording contract. His career never fully recovered.

Miss America no longer makes appearances in Mobile for the opening of the Azalea Trail, and that organization no longer crowns a king. Today, the Azalea Trail Queen is recognized by wearing the only pink dress in the court.

Text by Tom McGehee

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