Fiery float memories lit up
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.