by Robert Marlin
The 89th Texas Rose Festival is scheduled to take place October 13th-16th, continuing a legacy celebrating Tyler’s rose industry that began in the midst of the Great Depression. The annual event, rich in heritage and tradition, is one of the state’s most well-known community events, attracting thousands of visitors each year. The estimated number of visitors who attend annually, specifically for the Rose Festival, is in excess of 125,000. More than 25,000 people lined the streets for last year’s parade. The economic impact to Tyler, directly attributed to the Texas Rose Festival, is close to $3 million. Attendance last year was greater than that of 2019, largely because of the cancellation of the festival due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. According to 2022 Texas Rose Festival President Tom Brown, “Attendance is expected to be larger this year than last, which in turn means the economic impact will be greater.”
The major events of the Festival itself include the Ribbon Cutting and Morning Prayer Service, the Men’s Luncheon and the Ladies’ Luncheon; the Queen’s Coronation Ceremony (which is performed twice, afternoon matinee and evening performance, to accommodate the large crowds expected), the Rose Parade, and the Queen’s Tea. In addition to the “official” events, there are numerous other things going on throughout Tyler from Thursday through Sunday, ranging from the Palette of Roses Art Show & Sale to the Rose Festival Arts & Crafts Fair, to a Movie in the Park, and exhibitions at all of Tyler’s various museums.
AN HOMAGE TO ROYALTY
There is a definite fairy-tale quality that permeates the Texas Rose Festival. That is most likely due to an early decision by its original planners to model the festival after the pomp and pageantry that accompanies Britain’s Royal Family. In 1933, the very first festival had a queen, Margaret Copeland, a twenty-year-old from Palestine, Texas, whose coronation took place at Bergfeld Park. She is the only Queen NOT to be a Tyler native. The gown she wore was made of white chiffon and velvet, with a train made of white crepe, adorned with sapphires. It was described as having dignified lines. The second year of the festival saw the addition of a fuller Queen’s Court; and thus, the tradition of local boys escorting local girls as Ladies-in-Waiting, and Duchesses representing other towns across Texas and beyond, was born.
The festival gained popularity as more people became aware of its existence. Within just a few years, Tyler became known as “The Rose City” and a destination for visitors trekking across the state to take part in the festivities. Just two months after the third anniversary festival in 1936, the year it was renamed The Texas Rose Festival, the world was shocked by the news of King Edward VIII’s abdication. King George V acceded to the throne, and ten-year-old Princess Elizabeth immediately became heir apparent to become Queen. It was the relentless news coverage of the youthful future queen’s every move that accelerated America’s fascination with Britain’s Royal Family. That fascination was reflected by the Texas Rose Festival. Interest in choosing the annual event’s Queen was matched by the enthusiasm of Tyler mothers urging their sons and daughters to participate. It took fewer than five years for the TRF to become a family tradition among those who actively participated. Younger sisters and cousins from those families took on the roles of their predecessors as Queens and Ladies-in-Waiting. At the same time, out-of-town Duchess families developed into a multigenerational tradition.
A CONTINUING TRADITION
As its popularity grew, the Texas Rose Festival steadily gained more participants and activities. With America’s entrance into the Second World War, the Rose Festival was suspended during the war years 1942-1946. The 1947 Texas Rose Festival was met with great anticipation, by a community eager for “a return to normalcy.” It had been held each year from 1947, until it was once again suspended in 2020 due to the global COVID-19 Pandemic. The Queen’s Court selected for the 2020 Festival was in place, and most of the costumes had been completed by the time of the cancellation. So, as not to deprive those young ladies and gentlemen of their moment to shine, they were invited to wait for one year, resuming their roles and celebrating as the Court for the 2021 Texas Rose Festival.
The 2021 Festival was record-setting, with higher attendance and the Queen’s Court numbering 112 individuals; comprised of the Queen, a Princess, and the Duchess of the Rose Growers; nine children serving as Attendants to the Queen; fourteen Ladies-in-Waiting; thirty-six Duchesses; and fifty Escorts.
Preparations for the 2022 Texas Rose Festival began within a month after the close of the 2021 festival. Planning for the next Festival always begins about a month after the close of the previous. It is during this time that the many committees that make up the bulk of the organization go to work developing the upcoming theme, choosing the Queen and her Court, and developing the timeline for the myriad of activities that will take place throughout the following year.
CREATING THE FAIRY-TALE
Every year, a theme is chosen by the Coronation Committee and announced by the Co-Chairs. This year’s Co-Chairs are Allison Saar and Amy Walters. “The journey for the 2022 theme started four years ago,” says Allison Saar. “We had a few ideas, but when the world stopped in 2020, it really solidified what our theme needed to be. We wanted to celebrate our beautiful world by highlighting the natural wonders and beauty created by empires from long ago. From precious gems to stained glass and exquisite porcelains, and even agricultural beauty that literally comes from the ground, like our beloved roses, ‘Empires of Enchantment’ is our vision for combining humanity with nature, allowing symbolic representations to illustrate those wonders and beauty.”
Once the theme is announced, the process of making that theme come to life begins. The responsibility for bringing life to the theme falls to the designer. From 1982 until 2019, the late Winn Morton was the designer of the Texas Rose Festival. It was his creative vision that reflected the theme for thirty-seven years. Everything seen by the audience, from the sets and lighting to the elaborate costumes, were first imagined in the mind of Winn Morton. It was not his creative vision alone that made Morton the most essential part of the annual festival. Just as important, and to many a more important aspect of his work, was his interaction with the various personalities involved. He had a knack for making the participants and their parents feel comfortable. He worked with the committees, and with the many volunteers, who were not professionals in the theatrical realm, but who rose to the occasion through Morton’s guidance and skill at coalescing the many moving parts that is the Texas Rose Festival. Before he began his designs for the 2019 Festival, Morton informed the TRF board that it was to be his last; that he was retiring.
What generates the most talk among first-time visitors to the Queen’s Coronation at the Texas Rose Festival? For many of them, what they see is a presentation in which individual components seamlessly connect. The result is a presentation, which is viewed as a whole, despite the disparate elements brought together to reflect the Festival’s theme. However, if you press visitors to tell you what was the single thing that stands out most in their memory, they will tell you without reservation—it would be the elaborate costumes worn by the Festival’s participants. TRF Executive Director Liz Ballard sums up why it is the people who make the costumes that makes them the subject of so much talk, “I don’t think people realize what a huge part of the puzzle the costuming construction team does to make the event so special. These people, and so many others, are involved in making the designer’s art come to life.”
ENTER A NEW DESIGNER, JACOB CLIMER
“I don’t remember exactly when it was in 2018 that I got a phone call from Liz Ballard, the festival’s Executive Director, asking if I would be interested in interviewing to take over from Winn Morton. Naturally, I was interested; but during one interview I had with the Executive VP of Coronation, Bruce Faulkner, and the Board, I was honest about telling them that if they wanted Morton’s style of design, I was not the guy. I told them I was interested in the job, but I had my own vision and a different aesthetic. I think my frankness is part of why they eventually offered me the position,” Jacob recalls.
Once he was hired, Jacob spent the entire 2019 festival season observing Winn Morton’s work. “Working with Winn for his final festival gave me insights into the traditions of the Texas Rose Festival. It was also an opportunity to meet and get to know people in Tyler who are part of the festival’s heritage.”
The Texas Rose Festival was not unknown to Jacob when he received Ballard’s call. He grew up in the Oak Cliff section of Dallas. His parents were the Baldwin piano dealers in the Dallas market, so he grew up as an active member of the local performance community, learning to play the violin and cello, training in dance and pantomime—and dreaming of one day becoming a professional performer. “Crippling stage fright made that dream fade when I was in high school,” he says laughing. “I started working backstage, which is where my interest in designing sets and costumes was born.” After high school, Jacob studied costume and scenic design at the University of Evansville. After earning his BFA, he went to Carnegie Mellon University to complete his MFA.
Explaining his role as designer for the Texas Rose Festival, Jacob takes the long view. “My primary job is to ensure I give everyone the experience they need. I need to make certain everyone involved feels special about their participation. The festival is not about my designs. For this particular project, my designs are meant to emphasize the lady in the dress, not the dress. It’s about these young ladies and Tyler. It’s about families and the community. And it’s about the rose industry that is being celebrated and the tradition that has evolved over the last eighty-nine years.”
To provide direction to Jacob, the committee explained that they wanted each of the Ladies-in-Waiting to be represented as various gemstones; Diamond, Topaz, Ruby, and so forth. For the Duchesses, they provided three classes of beauty: Natural Beauty—Victoria Falls, the Great Barrier Reef, the Sahara Desert, etc.; Agricultural Beauty—Spices, Dragon Fruit, Sugarcane, etc.; and Created Beauty—Imari Porcelain, Murano Glass, Faberge Egg, etc. These were the examples from which Jacob was able to begin making his designs to bring the theme to life.
Once his designs are made and approved by the TRF Coronation Committee, Jacob relies on others to turn the designs into reality. “The costumers are the lifeblood of our presentation,” says Allison. “Under Jacob Climer’s leadership, each one plays a vital role in the process, and they bring the designs to life with unparalleled craftmanship. Some of our costumers have produced works of art for several generations of families.”
“My team does their best to not only reflect my vision, but the beauty, tradition, and history of the Texas Rose Festival,” Jacob explains. “These talented dressmakers and costumers bring these creations to life, and without them, my designs would exist only as ideas. It is a joy to work with these artisans who bring such a diversity of professional experience to their work, all of which coalesces into a joyful event, wonderfully close to my own hometown.”
JOHN AHRENS, RETIRING AFTER NEARLY 40 YEARS
John began working as a costume maker for Morton in 1983, which happened to be the fiftieth anniversary of the Festival. “A huge, gold dress had been made by a seamstress in San Antonio for Queen Jane Hartley. There was a problem due to its weight, and it kept collapsing. I was brought in to make a petticoat that would hold it up. I think that assignment was actually my audition. Anyway, the petticoat I made worked and Winn was happy with my work. The next year, I worked on dresses for the Ladies-in-Waiting, including the dress I made for Libby Lawrence, who happens to be the mother of the 2022 Queen, Molly Louise Berry.”
John grew up in Iowa. He was introduced to sewing when he was taking theatre classes. He received a BFA in Theatre Design from the University of Kansas, where he was trained in costuming, set, and lighting design. He then transferred to the Yale School of Drama, where he started his graduate work. “I began working in professional theatre, painting sets. Work got in the way and I never finished my graduate thesis. Of course, once you get a job in the theatre, no one ever asks to see your degree, so it really didn’t matter much. It would be a different thing if I wanted to teach, which I don’t, so there you have it.”
When he moved to New York City, he fell in with a group of costumers. “Working on costumes was smaller scale work than working on huge pieces of scenery. I liked that much better, and that is how I came to costume work,” John explains. “In the summer of 1976, I got a call from a college friend who was working with the Dallas Summer Musicals. He told me they needed scene painters. So, I spent the next summer and stayed through the winter in Dallas. The next winter, I was back in New York. In 1978, I moved back to Texas permanently. I swore I was never going to shovel snow again!”
After making Dallas his home, John worked in professional theatre, working with the Dallas Opera, the Summer Musicals, and others. “Most of the costume dressmakers in Dallas have a background in the theatre. Making dresses is different than doing costumes. The costumes are usually more intricate and bigger than what one would wear on the street. They have to be made to last. For instance, when a costume is made for the Dallas Opera, they will be used for years and years. They must be able to hold up. The work we do for the Texas Rose Festival is like that. They tend to be larger, much more work goes into what is underneath, the part no one ever sees. The foundations beneath these costumes are larger, lots of petticoats that help support the weight and lots of hoops to make the dresses fall off the body to the floor, so the girls appear to be gliding when they walk. It is a different discipline than what one would employ in making a street dress,” says John.
“Legacy is very important when working for the Texas Rose Festival,” he says. Having done costumes and gowns for several generations, he knows more than most about how legacy affects each edition of the Rose Festival. “Little girls growing up in Tyler are involved at an early age taking part in Rose Festival activities. Many of them dream of one day being presented on that coronation stage.” As an example of the TRF legacy, he is working on the costume for Duchess Elly OBrien from Dallas. “I promised her great-grandmother that I would do all the costumes for each of the four girls in the family. They have all appeared in the Rose Festival. In fact, I made dresses for their great-grandmother, their grandmother, and their mother. Elly is the last of the four daughters for whom I made a costume.”
Another example is how Janet and John Hills cornered him last year during the Queen’s Ball. “They asked if I would consider making the ball gown for their granddaughter, Hadley Brewer. I had made her mother’s dress. Olivia Young’s mother asked me to do Olivia’s ball gown. And of course, her gown was designed by Winn Morton, so I was honored to be asked to make the gown that turned out to be Winn’s final design for the Rose Festival.”
In reference to last year, “I would like to say that Janet Gershelfeld should be recognized for the beading work she did for Queen Anna Grace Hallmark last year.” John believes in giving credit where credit is due!
NICOLAS VILLALBA, BEGINS RELATIONSHIP WITH TRF
Unlike many of the people who actually make the costumes for the Texas Rose Festival, Nicolas Villalba comes to the project having spent a twenty-two-year career as a couturier. “Most of my work consists of custom pieces I design for my clients. They are one-of-a-kind dresses these ladies wear to the important events in their lives. When I was approached by Jacob Climer to work on his designs for the Texas Rose Festival, I was both humbled and honored. When I saw his designs, I was absolutely blown over by the detail included and the scope of the projects. He was offering me a challenge I could not resist.”
Nicolas’ interest in sewing began as a child growing up in El Paso. Both of his grandmothers were accomplished hobby seamstresses. “If either of them was babysitting me, they put me to work. I have lovely memories sitting next to my grandmothers as they taught me stitch work while watching their soaps on television. They were wonderful teachers, and I seemed to have a natural ability.”
He studied for a degree in Fashion Design and apprenticed under a designer in Dallas where he learned the craft. He took courses in Fashion Design at UT North Texas in Denton, and then furthered his studies at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence.
For the Texas Rose Festival, Nicolas has been given three projects to work on. The first is Lady-in-Waiting Katherine Jill Parker from Tyler. Her gemstone is Onyx, as part of the Empires of Enchantment theme. He is also working on a particularly challenging piece for Dallas Duchess Margot Marron. “Her costume was designed by Climer as Murano Glass, which is, of course, an Italian craft that presents the incredible challenge of fighting physics to make fabric look like glass. It is quite beautiful; with the colors and the fabric under the lights, it will be absolutely showstopping!”
His third assignment is the most prestigious of this year’s Festival. He has been asked to do Queen Molly Berry’s costume. “This is my first experience working with Jacob Climer, and I found the experience enriching and fulfilling. As a designer myself, I am accustomed to being the one who makes the decisions. For this assignment, I have stepped aside, working for another designer. Once I saw his designs, I was too tempted by the challenge to refuse. His level of creativity is inspiring. In fact, I would call it invigorating. Working under Climer has actually reinvigorated my love of the craft! He has encouraged me to use my experience and to give input. He has created a working environment where we work together, rather than me being told how and what to do. It has been a most rewarding experience.”
Upon meeting with the Queen’s mother, Libby Berry and her daughter, Queen Molly, Nicolas was immediately impressed at their mutual desire to create something that has never been done before. “In that respect, working with them was very similar to how I approach working with couture clients. They had a high sense of style and quality. There was nothing they requested that I felt I could not deliver. There is no question that they were able to communicate what they envisioned to Jacob, who then was able to create a design that captured it completely. When working on something that is this personal, it is necessary to develop a close relationship. If there was something they wanted changed, for instance moving the location of a bow, it was an easy shift. We began working in February, and within a month, we had become friends. The atmosphere was always fun and friendly in the fitting room. I always had champagne in the room during the fittings, and we enjoyed a casual working relationship that aided in developing what I believe will be a lasting friendship.”
Because exact details about the Queen’s costume are never allowed to be revealed before it is presented during the coronation, Nicolas limits his comments to vague references. “What I will say is that Climer’s design made it obvious we needed to increase the size of our team! The beadwork alone took eight women who solely concentrated on that handwork. Our team of patternmakers developed all of the appliques and the gown itself. We used a 3-D printer to create the patterns for the accessories, which then took two laser cutting specialists to fabricate. The gown itself also required two people using a laser cutter. Four machine sewers were needed to assemble all the parts and pieces to the completed gown. Everything is handsewn, from head to toe. All I can say is this: once she is presented wearing this incredible creation, everyone will be absolutely gobsmacked when they see it!”
KATHY MARSHALL AND THE LONG TRAIN
For twenty years, Kathy Marshall has owned a shop she calls Tricorne in New York. Her primary focus is creating costumes for Broadway, television, dance, ballet, opera, and film projects done in New York. “Jacob Climer called me after he took over design responsibilities for the Texas Rose Festival. In 2020, we did our first train for him. He returned this year with an even more ambitious project.”
Kathy says that since her childhood, she always enjoyed making things. Her grandmother taught her how to sew. “The first dress I ever made was for my grandmother. She let me sit down at the sewing machine and just let me do it. Today, after all these years, I still enjoy it. It is a shame that sewing has become something of a lost art. Not many young people take an interest in sewing these days. It is very difficult to find dressmakers anymore. It’s even more difficult to find people who are adept at intricate handwork. Today, most of the people on my staff are from Europe. Sewing, and handwork in particular, are still a part of European culture, much more so than here.”
Kathy has been working as a professional seamstress in the theatre since 1975. Her first professional experience came while working at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. In 1978, she moved to New York, and has been there ever since. “Our workroom is comprised of strictly makers. Designers bring us their ideas and sketches. We discuss what they want to achieve, and we then collaborate with the designers to make the patterns to achieve their design goals,” Kathy explains.
Creating a train is somewhat different than making the usual costume, such as a dress or a suit of clothes. The reason has to do with the scale. This was certainly true of the second assignment Kathy received from Jacob Climer. “It is much more complicated than merely executing a diagram that is on paper and making a pattern. Massive size and scale are the biggest challenges. These trains are sixteen feet long and six feet wide. That takes up a lot of space. We have to break down the various elements of the design. Then, we have to figure out the layering: What is the base layer, and what does it go under? We start layering from the bottom up. Specialty elements are made later in the process, but we have to be aware of them from the very beginning. We have to consider what the background is, and what it is made from. Is it all beaded? If so, all the beading must be done, before the various layers can be assembled to finish the completed train.”
For this current project, it was 98% beadwork. The train has a fur border, and it contains more than twelve pounds of bugle beads. There are more than 20,000 pieces of crystal, which according to Kathy is an unusually large amount and helps account to the weight of the finished train. And there is also the secrecy aspect of working on this kind of a project.
Another thing that affected how the train was made is the fact that because of a resurgence of COVID in New York, Kathy never actually met the family. “On the first train we made, I actually met with the Hallmarks, and that was helpful because it was clear what they wanted when they were able to be in the workroom to review the work as it progressed. In this case, Jacob would come and take photos of the work in progress and send them to the family. He would get their feedback, then come back and tell us what adjustments had to be made. Then, he would take more photos and send them to the family. Jacob is very responsible as a designer and is on top of every detail from the beginning to the final stitch.”
The vast majority of the work was done by hand. That meant bringing on additional staff to handle much of the beadwork and hand stitching the individual crystals onto the proper layers of the train. “It’s hard to say exactly how many people worked on it, because we were doing our regular theatre work at the same time we were working on this massive train. I would say at least twenty people. We brought on specialists who did nothing but beadwork. We had three fulltime people from our workroom doing nothing but beadwork, and we still had to send out more of the work. We worked on it for several months. The final process of assembling all the elements together into the completed train took several weeks,” says Kathy.
Kathy is pleased with the final result and believes it is exactly what the family envisioned. She also had her hand in the work. “I am always a part of the process. It’s difficult for me not to get involved with the actual work,” she laughs. “The individual elements are each outstanding in their own right. All put together, it is quite fabulous!”