The 2019 Strawberry Festival Queen’s Pageant Exhibit is decked to the nines to match the “It’s a Hit” theme and has a special display for Queen Kendall Guadens and former queen Silvia Azorin, now Silvia Dodson.
For Dodie White and Marsha Passmore, the Strawberry Festival is much more than just an 11-day carnival in the spring.
Since the sisters were children in Plant City, the Strawberry Festival – specifically the Strawberry Festival’s Queen’s Pageant – has been a special part of their year, and over the past six years that passion has culminated in their unique queen’s exhibit that highlights the current and past Strawberry Queens.
“I think we were always a queen wannabe,” Passmore said about what drew them to the pageant as kids. “But the fun part was, we always thought the queens were so royal and they represented the city. We always thought that was the neatest part of the whole thing because that’s who we looked up to as children.”
The sisters began as tram captains with the festival, where they volunteered at the position for around 15 years, which they said may have been longer than anyone else at the time. In fact, they volunteered as tram captains for such an extended period that a luncheon was thrown in their honor when they retired.
They then worked for the festival’s ambassador program, ran a fundraising booth for the Business and Professional Women’s Club and had, “done a little bit of everything,” before being asked to co-chair a committee for the Festival’s Neighborhood Village.
“I can’t remember not volunteering, but I was probably 18 when we started. We were young,” Passmore added.
But starting a new chapter for the Queen’s exhibit came with its own set of challenges. The Festival had special displays built in Neighborhood Village and the decades worth of former Queen and Court photos were in desperate need of some care if they were going to be ready for their glamorous new homes.
At first Passmore and White were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to do the exhibit justice as the photos laid dusty on the floor, but three months of cleaning, reframing and fitting the display with satin got them through their first year.
The following year the entire exhibit had to be taken apart in order for the satin in the displays to be hemmed and laundered before being put back together.
“The first two years, we probably spent no less than 100 hours out here working on them,” White said.
Now in their sixth year things are easier with the groundwork laid, but the work never stops as the display is altered each year to highlight a different queen and fit the theme of the festival.
This year’s theme is “It’s A Hit,” and that theme is carried on in the royal exhibit. Bats, balls and gloves loaned from the local Little League and softball associations adorn the displays.
When you walk in the doors you are immediately presented with 2019 Queen Kendall Gaudens’ iconic red dress and photos of the big night in January when the new Queen and Court were crowned. Taking a stroll along the photos of years past you turn the corner to find the highlighted queen’s display for 2019, who just so happens to be one of Plant City’s “greatest hits” Silvia Azorin – now Silvia Dodson – the 1968 Strawberry Festival Queen.
Dodson is still heavily involved in the city, serving as chairperson for the city’s Empty Bowls Project, an annual event hosted by the United Food Bank of Plant City to raise money for the organization.
“It does seem to fit, though, doesn’t it?” Passmore said. “Every year it seems like there’s a queen that needs to jump out of there and be focused on.”
When glancing back down the now double sided rows of smiling young women White took a moment to point out which queens had been highlighted for each year and how they tended to fit the theme perfectly. When the festival released its theme for 2019 they knew almost immediately who they wanted to display as their featured royal.
“Sylvia’s a hit,” White said. “She’s a hit, there’s just no doubt about it. You don’t know Sylvia without loving her.”
From there the exhibit continues down memory lane and includes a side display of pictures of the current Queen as well as First Maid Madilyn Conrad and Court Members Olivia Frazier, Jada Brown and Kennedy Cullins.
Since taking over the exhibit it’s grown from merely pictures hanging on the wall in the main exhibit hall, to a home in separate building on the grounds, to two full glass case displays in the festival’s Neighborhood Village that represents each year’s queen and her court.
“We’ve known so many of the people that were queens or at least in the court,” Passmore said. “And sometimes the court members don’t get highlighted as much as they should because there’s so many court members that, over the years, are still so much a part of Plant City.”
Pointing at a Queen the duo used to babysit and another that they went to high school with, they then began to share stories of the contributions so many of the royals have gone on to make in Plant City. The festival would be hard-pressed to find a pair that know the immense history and have such a genuine adoration for the pageant as White and Passmore.
“All five girls represent Plant City and the Strawberry Festival so well,” White said. “It’s so cool to see how they actually portray what children should grow up to be like, girls and boys.”
You can see the Queen’s Exhibit in Neighborhood Village throughout the festival.