Winn Morton’s eyes light up when the conversation turns to one of his favorite subjects — the circus.
Start talking about the circus and the 90-year-old becomes a wide-eyed kid under the big top watching as the ringmaster in a top hat and red coat directs attention to high-flying trapeze artists in colorful costumes and lumbering elephants draped in rhinestone-covered fabrics.
“Did you see ‘The Greatest Showman?’” he recently asked guests as he showed them around his home in Lancaster.
”The costumes (of the circus performers) were spectacular. They got it right,” he said of the 2017 musical starring Hugh Jackman as rags-to-riches circus founder P.T. Barnum. “The costumes were perfect!”
Morton paused in front an oversize poster he acquired while working at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey — the same circus that showman extraordinaire Barnum founded. The poster beckons people into an exciting world of acrobats and animals where they can forget their troubles.
For seven decades Morton has used his uncanny abilities as a designer to sweep audiences into mesmerizing worlds of escapism and entertainment. Just ask patrons at the Texas Rose Festival Queen’s Coronation, where his wildly imaginative and visually stunning costumes are stars of the show.
Morton has been the coronation’s designer since 1982, but that is about to end. He is retiring this year. The Rose Queen’s Coronation will be his final achievement.
”It was all perfect,” he said wistfully as he looked at the circus poster. He seemed to simultaneously be referring to “The Greatest Showman,” the circus and his amazing career.
EARLY YEARSIf Morton’s parents had their way, he would have have been an artist.
Growing up in University Park, located within the city of Dallas, Morton showed a talent for art. His aunt, Ressie O’Neal, paid for him to take classes at the Dallas Museum of Art. He was so good that Alexandre Hogue, one of the most accomplished artists of his day, agreed to tutor Morton.
Hogue was famous for being one of the Dallas Nine, a group known in the art world of painting landscapes of the Southwest in a realistic style that differed greatly from the impressionistic style of landscape painting popular in Europe.
Morton soon was winning competitions and seemed on a path to artistic greatness when show business stole his heart.
He was thrilled by the splashy musical revues he saw at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas. But more than anything, young Winn Morton loved everything that had to do with the circus.
”Throughout his childhood, he attended the circus whenever it came to town and loved meeting the clowns and performers,” according to a biography of Morton by Myra Walker.
After his freshman year at Southern Methodist University, Morton announced to the dismay of his parents and aunt that he was through with studying art.
”I was bored with it,” Morton said of being stuck alone in a room for hours putting paint on a canvas.
Convinced that his path into show business was through design, he enrolled in the Ringling School of Art in Sarasota, Florida, and then the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City.
While in New York City, Morton honed his skills on jobs making sketches for businesses that created department store displays and costumes used in ice shows.
Morton returned to Dallas in 1950 and developed a reputation for being versatile and innovative. He designed costumes for theatrical productions and received national attention for his work on grand-scale dioramas that wowed patrons at the State Fair of Texas Exposition.
Beginning in the mid-1950s, Morton spent the next two decades in New York City where his career took off. At CBS television, he designed clothing worn by performers on the network’s earliest variety shows, including the top-rated “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
His big break came when the Roxy Theatre, one of New York City’s grandest show palaces, hired him to design the nearly 200 costumes needed for each of the spectacular ice shows it staged several times a year.
”They gave me complete freedom,” Morton said of his time at the Roxy. “I could do whatever I wanted to. I loved it.”
Morton was in charge of everything from conceiving ideas to final fittings. He learned every aspect of the garment industry.
“His interaction with the producers, choreographers and performers was intensely satisfying,” Walker noted. “The excitement of seeing his personal vision materialize on the Roxy stage never left him.”
Morton was now one of the nation’s top designers of big budget live productions. He worked on ice shows, Broadway musicals and special events, including a patriotic-themed musical that was a big hit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York City.
He later became the visual creative force behind all the shows at the Six Flags amusement parks across the nation. A career high point came when he spent a year at Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus designing the costumes of the performers who entertained audiences with death-defying acts under the bright lights.
“It was a dream come true,” Morton said of being part of the legendary circus that he loved since childhood.
ROSE FESTIVALIn 1977, Morton moved into Winniford House, a farmhouse with a large wraparound porch on the outskirts of Lancaster that was built in the late 1800s by his ancestors. He restored the estate, which had fallen into disrepair, and converted a room into his office and design studio.
Back in Texas, Morton focused on decorations for fundraisers, private balls and high-dollar parties.
“These nights of glamorous entertainment created a lasting impression on those lucky enough to attend,” Walker wrote. “Dallas’ reputation for especially lavish fetes rests to a great extent on Morton’s exceptional ability to think and create on a grand scale.”
By the early 1980s, Texas Rose Festival directors were looking to improve the Rose Queen’s Coronation, one of the festival’s highlights. The formal presentation of the queen’s court lacked the top-notch theatrical qualities that similar events in other cities had achieved.
“I couldn’t pass it up,” Morton said of taking on the challenge.
The needs of the festival and Morton’s talents were a perfect fit.
“His exuberant creativity and confident balance between fantasy and elegance has brought an electric sense of theatricality and excitement to the Rose Festival,” Walker noted.
Liz Ballard, the festival’s longtime executive director, said it is hard to understate how much Morton has meant to the festival. “His creativity has brought the festival from a simpler time to now having much more of a theatrical element which makes the Texas Rose Festival one of the top festivals in our country.”
Some say among Morton’s greatest achievements were the costumes for the 2014 Rose Festival, “Cirque de la Rose.” Once again, Morton let his circus-fueled imagination run wild.
The Tyler Morning Telegraph reported that the costumes had “every color of the rainbow.” Duchess Kathleen Sinclair Bertram came on the stage in a dress covered with circus imagery in purple and pink and a towering headpiece in the shape of a big top.
The Lion, Fifi and Her Fabulous Poodle Parade, Plate Spinner and Firebreather were other costumes that received thunderous applause.
Iconic images of the Greatest Show on Earth glittered like a million twinkling stars on Rose Queen Kathryn Elizabeth Peltier’s showstopping 16-foot long, 6-foot wide jeweled train.
“It was just marvelous, and the costumes were great and unique,” Sherry Chancey of Jacksonville told the newspaper after attending the coronation. “I don’t know how people come up with these ideas. I was very, very entertained.”
LASTING LEGACYMorton’s sketches and costumes are valued as works of art.
In 2013, the Tyler Museum of Art presented “Winn Morton: Festivals, Pageants & Follies.” The exhibition featured 250 of his sketches, costumes and accessories.
“The Tyler community knows Winn Morton for his decades of creativity and magic around the Texas Rose Festival,” Chris Leahy, the museum’s executive director, noted in the exhibit’s guide. “With the exhibition ... we have the opportunity to experience the depth and breath of his larger artistry.”
The museum opened the exhibition with a huge formal party at which Morton reigned as the center of attention.
Some of Morton’s festival sketches and costumes are on view at Gallery Main Street in downtown Tyler. The “Portraits of Inspiration” exhibition is being held in conjunction with this year’s festival of the same name.
The grandest showcase of Morton’s talent is the Tyler Rose Museum, where some of his coronation costumes, including rose queen gowns, are always on display. One of the museum’s missions is to preserve and present the costumes for future generations to see.
Morton’s work with the Rose Festival also has been immortalized in “The Queen’s New Clothes,” a recently released documentary made by Ashley Bush, a granddaughter of the late President George H.W. Bush. The film won the People’s Choice Award earlier this year at the Dallas Film Festival.
THE ENDMorton kept designing long after most people would have retired. Eventually his only client was the Texas Rose Festival and his only focus was making the festival’s costumes unforgettable.
A few years ago, Morton suffered a serious fall at home and badly damaged both knees. He spent months in rehabilitation. He said he’s sometimes in pain when has to be on his feet a lot. He acknowledged that he tires more quickly.
Those who know Morton say despite turning 90, he is as creative as ever.
“Winn’s brilliant. There’s no one else who can do what he does,” Bob Cook, Morton’s longtime collaborator and prop maker, said in an interview last year. “And he just keeps getting better.”
Morton said he is making this festival his crowning achievement. “I have to. It’s my swan song. ... The queen wanted the biggest and most beautiful crown ever and that’s what she got.”
Ballard said the costumes are some of his best work. “So proud for this festival and for the audiences to see what he has (in store) for the grand finale. No shortage on sparkle, I can assure you.”
During an interview this summer, Morton was reluctant to discuss whether he would be overcome with emotions when the curtain comes down on his final coronation.
”It will be sad for me,” was all he would acknowledge.
Ballard tears up when she thinks about it. She said it also will be sad for the thousands of people he has worked with on the Rose Festival over these many years and the countless number who admire his work.
”Winn Morton has brought such talent and joy to our organization over the past three decades,” Ballard said. “He has graced us with enthusiasm and imagination that (never) ceases to amaze us all. ... He is a jewel and he will be greatly missed.”
The Rose Festival has selected Jacob A. Climer, a designer born in Dallas and based in New York City, to carry on Morton’s tradition of grandeur.
”He comes along with amazing credentials and education,” Ballard said. “Jacob has extensive knowledge in the Broadway, theater and opera worlds. We look forward to seeing him step into some big shoes and carry us into the next generation of the Texas Rose Festival.”
Morton knows, perhaps better than anyone, that his long affiliation with the Texas Rose Festival has cemented his reputation as the king of glitz and glamour and that, even without him, the show must go on.