The Crape Myrtle Festival began as a small backyard gathering among friends in Wilmington, then moved to Chapel Hill, where it remained for years before moving to Raleigh. In the capital city it was held on the grounds of the elegant Poe House, where it remained for a few years, and then moved to the Raleigh convention center. Some of the better years were those when sweat drowned our linen and silk outfits and made them look like they’d never been pressed. Large tents were erected on the lawn with hundreds of green plants and urns of fresh flowers, and young, buffed men tantalized the guests at the entrance, welcoming all to a night of wonder. Those were the wonder years, indeed.

This year’s edition was held Saturday at the Exploris museum (though we weren’t allowed to visit its allegedly beefed-up displays). But something was missing–people. The giant entranceway of Exploris dwarfed the turnout of less than 100 there when I arrived at 7 p.m. It’s still the thing to be fashionably late, but by 9 p.m. this was beginning to look grim. In the end, it turned out that only around 700 people paid the $45 for tickets, compared to sales last year of over 800 and 950 the year before.

Organizers say the declining numbers may be because the community has become complacent about the problems posed by HIV/AIDS. “We are victims of our own success,” says Mark Zumbach, one of the “queens” of this year’s event. “People think that we are not in crisis mentality, so the need to give is not as important as it should be.”

The festival has always been a fund-raiser for organizations around the state that serve the HIV/AIDS community, and God knows we need them, the way the state and federal governments have under-funded programs to help those with the virus. But successes at treating and controlling HIV are pushing the dread disease into the background, and that was apparent Saturday night. From the less-than-grand entranceway to the tiny crowd filling the gigantic halls of the museum and the lack of significant silent auction items, it was a disappointment. The salmon and condiments were fine, and most of us were drawn to the five-foot silver candelabra containing fresh florals in the middle of the table. People gathered around the strawberries and fondue reminiscent of prom days, and I couldn’t help but wonder if this was when most of the guests felt like they were getting their just desserts. All looked happy as they spread on the chocolate.

I don’t blame the low turnout on the organizing committee, called the court, or the coordinators who call themselves the queens and reign over all aspects of this once-grand affair. This year’s co-chairs (aka the queens) were Zumbach and Ray Tillery. And I enjoyed meeting up with several acquaintances, including Rob Fox, David Lorenc, David Negrotto and Thomas “T.K.” King, who were having a ball in the Resource Room, which featured some of the recipients of the fund-raiser’s proceeds, including the AIDS Community Residence Association, the Alliance of AIDS Services and eight others.

The Crape Myrtle tree is a hearty species. Its root system is strong, it endures a lot of heat, and it comes in a variety of colors. I hope the festival named for it can be, too, and can continue to provide substantial funding to organizations serving a population that desperately needs it. Eddie Sartin and Chris Smith, both veterans of the festival, were crowned the 2006 Crape Myrtle Queens. It will be under their leadership that we will see if this festival continues to blossom.

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