Fiery float mem­o­ries lit up

Central Otago Mirror - - FRONT PAGE - JO MCKEN­ZIE-MCLEAN

Dawn Rus­sell is prob­a­bly the most talked about Alexan­dra Blossom Fes­ti­val princess in the event’s 60-year his­tory.

Sixty years ago, the then 19-year-old bal­let teacher was sit­ting half-clad on top of a pa­rade float when she had to jump for her life when the float burst into flames.

The year was 1957, and Rus­sell was asked by lo­cal news­pa­per owner Ge­off Stevens to be the princess for his float.

‘‘Ge­off and his friend sat in the front and just had a hole to see through. I was sit­ting on top of it. It was meant to look like a print­ing press and I was burst­ing forth from a torn hole in the top.’’

Dur­ing the pro­ces­sion, Rus­sell had to lit­er­ally ‘‘burst forth’’ from the float af­ter some­one from the crowd flicked a cig­a­rette into the gut­ter.

‘‘It caught the frill around the bot­tom of this float which im­me­di­ately ig­nited. In those days, most of the floats were dec­o­rated in fresh flow­ers but un­for­tu­nately the bot­tom was full of crepe pa­per and sud­denly it was to­tally ig­nited. Of course, I had to leap out feel­ing ridicu­lous with no skirt, just in a lit­tle leo­tard.’’

Iron­i­cally, Rus­sell was wear­ing a cos­tume she wore in Dunedin for a cabaret to the mu­sic of Kiss of Fire.

A woman was hav­ing a wed­ding re­cep­tion in her gar­den when the float caught fire and guests came to the res­cue with hoses, she said.

‘‘It was peo­ple with hoses that put it out...Ge­off and his friend didn’t know un­til the day they died how they got out be­cause it was a tight fit. They were in the car, the doors were shut and all these things pushed over the top. It would have been fa­tal if we hadn’t been able to get out of it. I was sit­ting there on top of it. We just tried to get away from it, out of it as soon as pos­si­ble.’’

De­spite the drama, they con- tin­ued with the pro­ces­sion.

‘‘We pro­ceeded look­ing ridicu­lous into Pi­o­neer Park and our charred, bat­tered float was hardly a thing of glory any­more.’’

The ru­ined float might not have won votes that year, but it re­mains the most talked about float to this day.

‘‘It’s one way to get recog­ni­tion I sup­pose.’’

❚ The 60th Alexan­dra Blossom Fes­ti­val an­niver­sary kicks off with a Se­nior Blossom Fes­ti­val Queen event on Mon­day.

Dawn Rus­sell, of Alexan­dra, re­calls when she was a float princess in the first Alexan­dra Blossom Fes­ti­val in 1957 and the float she was in caught fire.

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