10/11/13 — The princess guide

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The princess guide

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 11, 2013 1:46 PM

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Shari Stewart talks with lighting and sound technicians during a rehearsal Thursday night for the Wayne County Fire Princess Pageant, which will be held Saturday night at the Paramount Theatre. It will be Mrs. Stewart's last pageant after 28 years of directing the event.

This weekend marks Shari Stewart's 28th year as director of the Wayne County Fire Princess pageant -- and her last.

She started out as a judge for the contest the first year she moved to Wayne County, in 1983. And she served for two years as assistant director before taking over the reins in 1986.

Sponsored by the Wayne County Firefighters Association, the event originated as a way to promote fire prevention and fire safety in a fun and entertaining way, Mrs. Stewart said.

It is also a platform for education, with the contestants required to do extensive research and incorporate information into their talent presentation.

"That makes it difficult for them to come up with a talent," she said. "Even with a song like 'Great Balls of Fire,' it's a great song and lots of fun, but it has absolutely nothing to do with fire safety. So what they'll do is change the words of a popular song. We have had girls do 'Firemen Are A Girl's Best Friend.' Some girls like to go the dramatic route. They might be more serious in what they do."

Faye Ballance Davis, now a teacher at Charles B. Aycock High School, was the first Fire Princess crowned, in 1975, Mrs. Stewart said.

Contestants are high school students in grades 10-12. They are chosen to represent a particular fire district. Judging the pageant is based on four areas: talent, costume, evening gown and an on-stage question.

Unlike other local pageants, preparation starts in the spring, giving the girls the summer to do the necessary research. It's changed over the years in some respects, Mrs. Stewart said.

"For a while, I had the girls write a 500-word essay about fire prevention and fire safety," she said. "Then we went to the on-stage question. We give the girls the questions so they can research them but they don't know which question it's going to be."

Ten contestants will compete Saturday night at 7 p.m. at the Paramount Theater. But once upon a time it was a staple at the annual county fair.

"They used to have Queen of the Fair at the beginning of the fair and Fire Princess was at the end of the fair," Mrs. Stewart said.

In the early days, the event drew as many as 24 contestants, presenting a unique problem, the director recalled.

"Some years I would say, 'How wide is your dress so I can get everybody on stage?'" she said with a laugh.

In 1999, the year Hurricane Floyd blew through, it coincided with the event's 25th anniversary, forcing the pageant to be relocated to the Paramount Theatre.

"It turned out so nice we decided we might keep it there," Mrs. Stewart said. "We stayed there until it burned (in 2005), moved to Wayne Community College for two years, then back to the Paramount. We've been there ever since."

Mrs. Stewart said she has enjoyed getting to know all the contestants that have competed over the years. For some, it will be their only pageant experience, while for others it leads to other contests. Either way, as director, she said she works hard to make it memorable for them.

"I want them to feel special that night, to walk off knowing they have done their absolute best, that they're absolutely beautiful and talented," she said. "I hope that later on they'll reflect on it and know that."

"I have absolutely loved doing it," she said. "It's going to be hard to walk away. But there comes a time when changes need to be made. I have got three children and a husband. I would like to have a free Sunday.

"I really have loved it but it just seemed like it was the right time to make a change. I'm going out with a smile. I'm going to have tears in my eyes but I'm going to have a smile."

The pageant has always been first and foremost about fire safety, she said, noting that her father had been a volunteer fireman for years.

"I remember he would get up in the middle of dinner or run out of church," she said. "(The pageant) was just a little way that I could make people understand what these firefighters go through.

"They train for hours and hours to keep you safe, but we have to have some responsibility, too."