Blackheath's Rhododendron Festival gets its first Royal Family

First there was a queen, then there were lots of them. Later there was a princess, followed by many more princesses.

Rhodo Festival royalty: Tibby McKenzie with parents Bruce and Michelle. Crowns by Demonkitty, a Hazelbrook-based local artist. Photo in the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens, Blackheath.

Rhodo Festival royalty: Tibby McKenzie with parents Bruce and Michelle. Crowns by Demonkitty, a Hazelbrook-based local artist. Photo in the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens, Blackheath.

Now, Blackheath's Rhododendron Festival is getting its first Royal Family.

The McKenzies - Bruce, Michelle and daughter, Tibby - will be the annual festival's first family royalty.

It's a break from a tradition which extends back to 1953, the year of the inaugural Rhododendron Festival.

The festival was dreamed up by a group of locals who wanted to find ways to raise money for major projects in the town. Their first aim was to build a community hall and the festival queen (later princess) competition provided the main source of funds.

A number of young women - generally three (although in the first year, apparently galvanised by the excitement of the idea, seven took part) - were nominated to compete for the title of festival queen.

They held a variety of events to raise money and the young woman who raised the most money by the deadline was declared the winner. She was crowned at the end of the parade before a cheering crowd.

The fundraising was a great success. Within three years of that first festival, the hall had been built and officially opened. Subsequent funds raised went towards furnishing it and later maintaining it.

Times moved on and the festival queen morphed into festival princess. And, while fundraising continues to be the princess's major role, the competition element was gradually lost.

Last year, the festival reflected on the success of the same sex marriage vote and opened the field to both sexes, happy to crown either a princess or a prince.

Unfortunately, no would-be princes appeared. But this year, there will be not only a princess, but a king, queen as well.

Festival president, Elizabeth Giddey, said the McKenzies have long been involved in Blackheath community events and were keen to help keep the festival's ideals alive.

"We have lots of projects going on and need to raise more funds," she said. "The McKenzies will be a very welcome addition to the long list of rhodo queens and princesses."

The McKenzies seem well placed to take the public stage.

Bruce is the man behind the sound and lighting for numerous shows in town, including the annual Rhodo Revue, the Heathens choir, the biennial Choir Festival, Blackheath Theatre Company productions and the Dance for Life concert.

He has also appeared in many Rhodo Revues.

Michelle, who works for the Blackheath Area Neighbourhood Centre, is another frequent performer in Rhodo Revues as well as being a committee member and actor with the Blackheath Theatre Company.

Tibby, at just 20, already has many performing credits, combining her acting with full-time study at Macquarie University for a Bachelor of Arts majoring in psychology. She also has a passion for cosplay.

There is definitely a theatrical bent to the family, who were happy to glam up (and ham it up) at the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens for photos for the Gazette.

"I think it's a fantastic idea," said Michelle of the royal family initiative. "We hope to bring the royalty into the community."

Rhodo princess 2017, Monique von zum Hof, crowns Amy Antaw, 2018 princess.

Rhodo princess 2017, Monique von zum Hof, crowns Amy Antaw, 2018 princess.

Bruce thought it would be a good move to develop the princess theme into "something broader".

"It also might be easier in the future because sometimes people might feel it's difficult on their own [to be the princess]. But if they could hold someone's hand ..." they might be keener to get involved, he thought.

The McKenzies family's theatrical flair even extends to Halloween, where they put on a show designed to both thrill and terrify. It attracts up to 400 visitors each year to their home in Hat Hill Road.

They decorate the front garden and verandah with skulls and spider webs. Tibby hides in the semi-dark to pretend-ambush trick or treaters, Bruce (as Dracula) plays the organ and Michelle is known to jump out from behind the curtains to add to the surprise factor.

The Rhodo Festival, now 67 years old, still raises money for the town. Local groups to have benefited include the fire brigade, kindergartens, the swimming pool and memorial park, youth clubs, sporting clubs, the RSL and the ambulance service.

But, as Ms Giddey points out, and as most Mountains festivals will be only too aware, expenses have increased enormously, including insurance premiums and the cost of traffic management to meet stricter police safety and anti-terrorism requirements.

Still, as Michelle McKenzie said, speaking of her family's involvement: "For fundraising, we've got three different groups of people we can call on."

The festival is spread over the month of November with a variety of events including the Rhodo Revue (this year is Glumbooks - The Musical), art show, jazz weekend and golf classic.

In 2012, the 60th Rhodo Festival, all available old queens and princesses took part in the parade. Photo: Mike Chirgwin

In 2012, the 60th Rhodo Festival, all available old queens and princesses took part in the parade. Photo: Mike Chirgwin

Rhodo Day is Saturday, November 2, with stalls, rides, entertainment, wood chopping plus coal shovelling and roof bolting. The grand parade is at 11.30am and this year there will be guided tours of the historic Soldiers Memorial Park (at 2 and 4pm).

On Sunday, November 3, there is a concert at the Uniting Church plus a large and spectacular open garden, Allendale, at 48 Clarence Rd (tours 10am, noon, 2pm). The Blackheath Community Farm (Thirroul Rd) will be open from 10am-3pm.

The official opening (and opening of the art show) is on Friday, October 25 at the community hall at 7pm. Entry $25 includes fabulous finger food, drinks and music, as well as the chance to see some of the magnificent artworks submitted.

See rhodofestival.com or Blackheath Rhododendron Festival on Facebook.

2015: Eleni Vergotis in the parade.

2015: Eleni Vergotis in the parade.

2018 princess: Amy Antaw

2018 princess: Amy Antaw

2017: Monique von zum Hof.

2017: Monique von zum Hof.

2016: Emma Crowe

2016: Emma Crowe

2014: Shauna Collier

2014: Shauna Collier