TYLER, Texas — Early on a recent Saturday, the townspeople of Tyler staked out spots along the Texas Rose Festival parade route. Marching bands boomed, convertibles honked, and T-shirt guns fired into the cheering crowd. Fourteen floats bore coteries of young women in whimsical, garden-themed gowns that wouldn’t have been out of place on the set of “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” The Apache Belles, a local dance troupe dating back to the 1940s, shouted, “Tyler, Tyler, we are the best!”
But the best, in fact, was yet to come. As the penultimate float rounded the bend near the high school football stadium, there was a flurry of excited whispers. Spectators craned to see past the twirling batons and John Deere tractors. A little girl tugged on her mother’s sleeve and pointed to a pink blur in the distance. “Here she comes!” she said. “Look, it’s the queen!”
Slender and fair skinned, the Texas rose queen glimmered in her pink layered organza and lamé gown. A silk-trimmed train bursting with giant ribbon roses, and weighing 42 pounds, unfurled behind her. Her head was dwarfed by a gold-plated crown studded with Swarovski crystals and enamel roses. Children gathered at the hem of her skirts, the girls in white lace gloves, the boys in gold vests and ruffled collars.
The queen was Anna Grace Hallmark, a 20-year-old business major at the University of Mississippi and a Tyler native. She waved benevolently to her subjects, many of whom were seeing her for the first time.
They had waited a long time. Ms. Hallmark had been scheduled for the 2020 parade, but when that was postponed because of the pandemic, her title was transferred to the following year, which makes her the longest-reigning queen in the festival’s 88-year history.
An hour earlier, as the parade started, Ms. Hallmark and her 7-year-old brother, Cameron, sat in a staging area at a nearby medical building. “My friends at school think this is a debutante ball, but it’s not that at all,” she said, wrestling a white knee-high sock onto Cameron, who looked bored.
Her costume was en route, so she covered up with a baggy Oxford shirt, her massive crown on her head. “Debutante is senior year of high school,” she clarified. “You wear a white dress and go onstage. It’s just one night.”
This celebration, on the other hand, lasts three days. During that time, Ms. Hallmark becomes a focal point of the community, a fairy tale queen who presides over a court of ladies-in-waiting, duchesses, escorts, train bearers and one scepter bearer (in this case, Cameron).
An outsider may wonder: What exactly does the rose queen do? A quick answer would be: P.R. Much like it does in the British royal family, the bulk of the job is in appearances — media interviews, public functions, ribbon cuttings, balls, ladies luncheons. She does not have a specific talent; nor is she elected by a popular vote. She is a figurehead, handed her position by a mysterious committee that has operated since 1933.
One morning in early December 2019, Ms. Hallmark found out she would be queen when a man named Bruce Faulkner, the white-haired president of the festival committee, arrived at her home with a large red box. There was a silver tray inside, engraved with her name and newfound title.
“It’s a huge honor, a very humbling thing,” said her mother, Erica Hallmark. In 1996, Erica was a lady-in-waiting, and she is well acquainted with the mechanics of the role. That year, the crown went to a young woman named Anna Clyde, who herself came from a long line of rose royalty: The Clydes, former owners of the defunct Tyler Morning Telegraph, had been handed the crown six times.
“She was so magical to me,” Erica recalled. “Then this year they asked my Anna to be queen, so it really comes full circle.”
Everything’s Coming Up Roses
After a heyday in the 1950s, rose production in Tyler has cooled. Chamblee’s Roses, a local nursery started in 1953, still plants over 200 varieties each year, though many are trucked in from states like California and Arizona. Still, roses remain a big business: 80 percent of the country’s roses are processed in Tyler. In nearly a century, the Texas Rose Festival has been canceled only once before the pandemic: during World War II.
Tyler’s devotion to its showy, perfumed export, and the iconography that’s grown out of it, is a quirk in a state largely built on oil and cattle fortunes. The city crest is a rose, and it is stamped on everything from trash cans to trail markers to the local water tower. The two biggest events on the city’s social calendar involve flowers: the October rose festivities and an azalea trail that blooms in the spring.
In downtown Tyler, you can order a matcha latte with rose syrup, snack on rose-flavored cinnamon rolls, buy rose beard oil or pick up a pack of seeds at Chamblee’s Rose Nursery. (On certain mornings, a white van parks outside the Smoothie King on Broadway, selling fresh cut roses for $3 per dozen.) Roses first came to Tyler in the 1920s, prompted by an agricultural disaster: A decade earlier, quadraspidiotus perniciosus — better known as the San Jose scale — decimated the city’s peach crop. Growers shifted their attention to roses, and the thorny things thrived, thanks to Tyler’s sandy soil and typically mild winters.
The Tyler Rose Garden, a main attraction for visitors and horticulturists, opened in 1938. Today, its 12 acres contain more than 35,000 rose bushes, though they, too, are vulnerable to nature’s whims. The bushes are constantly checked for rosette disease, a lethal virus transmitted by eriophyid mites; and last February, Winter Storm Uri, a blizzard that affected large swaths of the Southwest, wiped out a number of the roses.
“We haven’t had a freeze like that in 48 years,” said Jose Parda, the head gardener at the Tyler Rose Garden. “Snow was on the ground for a week. The roses don’t like that.”
But if the storm caused any lasting damage to the collection, it was hard to tell on a recent visit. The roses, in glowing shades of yellow, fuchsia, purple, white and classic red, were just coming into their second bloom of the season, a final showing before the stalks get pruned back and the flowers retreat until spring.
Broadway Comes to Tyler
After the parade, Jacob Climer, the 43-year-old designer responsible for this year’s costumes, walked through the rose garden. It was time for the Queen’s Tea, and local families fanned out on the emerald synthetic grass. The ladies of the court, in full regalia, were shaded under a row of maple trees, and they posed for pictures on wooden stools. It felt a bit like being in a sculpture garden, only the figures moved and talked.
“Opera fully prepared me for this,” said Mr. Climer, who has worked on major Broadway shows like “Les Miserables” and “Boys in the Band.” His challenge for the rose festival was to come up with 53 distinct looks that made sense as an ensemble but could also stand alone.
Mr. Climer, who grew up in Dallas but lives in Queens, N.Y., was the festival committee’s first choice as successor when the previous designer, Winn Morton, retired in 2019 after nearly 40 years on the job.
His aesthetic — a blend of 1980s-era Vivienne Westwood and Charles James — was visible on all the designs, including the foam-padded orchid corsages and the lace-fringed Elizabethan collars. Judging from the looks on people’s faces as they passed through the meet-and-greet line, his creations were a smash. “I just adore Jacob,” Erica Hallmark, the queen mother, gushed.
Some of the gowns were quite cumbersome. (“Jacob, we need more showstoppers!” was a constant refrain he heard from the festival committee during the months he spent preparing the gowns.) In a wooden gazebo there was an orange moth with giant foldable wings. A few feet away, a bunny held a carrot fashioned out of an umbrella. And next to a hedge of Wild Blue Yonder roses, someone dressed as the sun was rigged with a pack of flashing LED panels. None of the young women in costume looked fatigued, despite having been wearing their dresses for the last six hours.
By far, the most involved section of the wardrobe was the queen’s. The top layer of her skirt included rows of overlapping pink sequined petals, and she wore a fitted bodice with an off-the-shoulder portrait neckline that made her look like Powerpuff Audrey Hepburn. The train alone took five months to build, Mr. Climer said.
He peeked through the bars of a large metal conservatory, where the queen sat atop a tufted pink throne to receive her public. Over the course of the afternoon, she would pose for more than 1,000 photos; her audience was mainly girls in princess dresses, but adults lined up to meet her, too.
“It’s fully bonkers,” Mr. Climer said, laughing. “Even within the Texas debutante system, this is wholly unique.”