By Mary Jane Fine
To say that the Delray Affair grew from the ground up but has flowered over the decades would be to tell the story via pun. But it would be entirely true, as well.
Just flip the calendar back to the post-World War II era — 1947, if you will — and picture the Delray Gladioli Festival as it was then, a melding of frivolity and flowers, culture and commerce.
That first-ever fest gathered beaucoup bouquets of gladioli from farms that spanned from Congress Avenue west to U.S. Highway 441. It allowed farmers to display (and sell, of course; that was an important part of it) armloads of flowers. And sell they did. As surely as crocuses announce springtime, Delray’s gladioli festival said, “February.” It said it all through the 1940s, continued saying it into the ’50s.
“It was an exposition that attracted flower buyers from all over the country,” Roy Simon said. A native of Delray Beach, Simon was a gladioli festival volunteer who helped nurse the event into the Delray Affair.
This year’s Delray Affair — the 50th — will line Atlantic Avenue from April 13th through the 15th, the weekend after Easter.
Artist and gallery owner Ora Sorensen is a long-time Delray Affair booster and, this year, a first-time commemorative-poster artist for the event. Her poster gives a proud nod to the past with a stalk of mauve gladioli in the foreground and the Colony Hotel just behind.
“I love the Colony,” Sorensen says on a recent afternoon, in her Atlantic Avenue gallery, where she sits surrounded by the bursting-with-color roses and orchids, hibiscus and bird-of-paradise paintings that are her signature work. “And they make the best martini in town. It gets so crazy here; I like to go there around 5 p.m. and sit at the lobby bar. It’s like going back in time.”
Going back in time can explain how the Affair evolved from what it was to what it now is: an arts-and-crafts extravaganza that attracts 700 exhibitors (up from 24, back in 1962), draws an attendance of close to 300,000 and, over the years, has generated some $21 million in revenue for the city of Delray Beach, according to event organizer Nancy Stewart-Franczak, executive director of Delray Beach Arts Inc.
Development in the city’s western reaches, combined with a shift in farming from flowers to vegetables, turned the Gladioli Festival into a small Agricultural Expo. It was Roy Simon who suggested expanding on that, taking inspiration from the Winter Park Art Festival. In 1962, community leaders organized a committee and, with then-chair John Bordeman, chose “The Delray Affair” as the name of the bigger, better arts-and-crafts-and-agriculture event.
The committee was money-minded, too. By scheduling the festival later in the year, they could effectively extend the tourist season by tempting snowbirds to postpone their homeward migration until after Easter, and extend the tradition of frivolity and flowers, culture and commerce.
Ora Sorensen expresses delight at her role in it all. “I’ve been 20 years in this location and, this year, they picked me, and I think I cried,” she says, “because I feel that Delray is my town. I love Delray.”
She moved to Florida after graduating from high school in Bangkok, Thailand — her father worked there for the U.S. government — and, she says, “I wanted to go someplace hot. I lived in Boca first, for 20 years, then came to Delray. I love its complete and utter charm. It’s like Mayberry.”
In Boca Raton, Sorensen owned a children’s clothing shop, but the notion of something else was always in her mind. “I wasn’t an artist when I opened the gallery,” she says. “I had 12 artists when I opened it, and I just learned to paint from them. I was always drawing, just doodling and drawing. Drawing, drawing, drawing.”
But even after two decades as a gallery owner and considerable success as a painter, Sorensen had always bypassed the poster competition, figuring that its emphasis on Delray landmarks didn’t mesh with her emphasis on flowers. (“Honestly, it’s what people want,” she says, explaining her floral focus. “I started out painting portraits, but people don’t like to buy pictures of strangers.”)
This year, she submitted sketches that combined landmark and flowers, and it proved a winner — with one requested change.
“Silly me,” she says, with a smile. “I submitted a drawing with hibiscus in the foreground.”
The committee, of course, wanted gladioli, and Sorensen was happy to comply.
And happy to be a part of the city’s signature event. The frivolity and flowers, the culture and commerce.
“It’s really just huge,” she says, “and it’s fun.”