Inside the Magical, Fantastical World of Winn Morton, Broadway Costumer and Legendary Designer of the Texas Rose Festival
PaperCity Was the Last to Photograph Morton's Legendary Lancaster Home IntactBY Rebecca Sherman // 03.08.23
The landmarked Winniford House in Lancaster, Texas, was designed and built in 1913 by Morton’s great uncle, Andrew David Winniford. Morton restored it in the 1980s. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Morton added theatrical touches throughout the house, including the entryway with its celestial blue ceiling and upholstered swag border design. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
The parlor was furnished in family antiques and lighting original to the house and pieces that belonged to Morton and Lewis’ house in Bucks County, PA. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
More details in the parlor. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Family antiques and collections from Winn Morton’s travels, including sculptures of elephants, his favorite circus animal. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Morton’s longtime colleague Bob Cook upholstered the parlor walls in the 1980s in yellow toile fabric, similar to the original wallpaper. The fireplace’s hand-painted tile is original. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Winn Morton loved to paint ceilings celestial blue, as he did here in a bedroom. Walls and ceiling borders are fabric reminiscent of the room’s original wallpaper. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
A guest bedroom is enveloped in green toile and striped fabric, added when the house was restored in the 1980s. On the wall is a Cecil Beaton drawing. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
In a guest bedroom, a costume sketch by Winn Morton. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
A simple, charming bathroom updated in the ‘80s. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
Winniford House’s beautiful parterre garden. (Photo by Lisa Petrole)
After 37 years designing thousands of festooned costumes and spectacular sets and lighting for Ringling Bros., The Texas Rose Festival, and Dallas social extravaganzas, the late Winn Morton left a rare legacy including his family’s 1913 Prairie-style house in Lancaster, which is currently on the market, its elaborate collections disbanded. PaperCity was the last to photograph the legendary home intact.
In a scene from Ashley Bush’s 2019 documentary The Queen’s New Clothes, a decades-old newsreel clip captures a fresh-faced debutante as she makes a deep curtsy, her white gown billowing around her. A man in formal attire solemnly places a glittering crown on her head and presents the new queen with a golden scepter. She stands, turns, and smiles … The Texas Rose Festival has officially opened.
“Boring,” quips Winn Morton as the camera cuts back to him. “It didn’t have any kick to it,” he says of the Rose Festival’s crowning ceremony, a Tyler tradition that dates to 1933. “We made it more Broadway … more of a show.”
And what a show it was. Morton took over as the Rose Festival’s coronation designer in 1982, spending the next 37 years transforming the annual coming-of-age ceremony into a glamorous spectacle of costumes and sets worthy of a Las Vegas revue. For the queen and her court of some 50 other debutantes, Morton designed fantastical gowns and headdresses festooned with thousands of hand-sewn sequins, feathers, pearls, and other embellishments.
The gowns, which cost tens of thousands of dollars, took inspiration from the unexpected — a Fabergé egg, monarch butterfly, feathered condor, and coral reef. They were often outrageous. A “Cirque de la Rose”-themed festival featured a costume with a headpiece that looked like a towering circus tent. Other costumes included a ferocious performing lion and a sideshow fire breather; one year, a debutante was dressed as a teapot — with handle and spout. Some were complex, such as one young woman’s gown that was orbited by an elaborate three-dimensional constellation of planets, moons, and stars. It all glowed pink and green under a blacklight illuminating the stage. But nothing was as dramatic as the queen’s train, which could be 20 feet long and feature 100 pounds of exquisite ornamentation. The scale and poundage of the train required her to practice weeks ahead of time with a makeshift cloth train dragging a piece of furniture that weighed almost as much as she did. Morton didn’t stop at the costumes — he directed every aspect of the production, from how the debutantes moved in their costumes to the lighting, music, and special effects.
Bush was a production coordinator at a New York production company in 2013 when a Texas friend casually mentioned she was making her debut at the Rose Festival as Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. She even had Toto in her basket. “It sounded absurd. I was confused and fascinated and intrigued all at the same time,” Bush tells me by phone from Los Angeles, where she is a writer and producer. A former deb herself who came out in New York at the 52nd International Debutante Ball, she’s the granddaughter of President George H.W. Bush. For her debut at the Waldorf Astoria hotel, she wore a classic strapless white gown with a demure bow at the bodice — a far cry from the Broadway-inspired ensembles emerging from east Texas.
Kickstarted by initial funding from the New York production company, Bush set out to make a documentary on the Rose Festival and traveled to Tyler to shoot. “While I was there, I was like, ‘Wow, the real queen of this pageant is Winn.’ He’s the Walt Disney of this small town — he brings the same glitter and fantasy.”
Her focus switched to Morton, and over the next five years, she filmed him at work in Tyler and at his ancestral home in Lancaster, near Dallas. “I was learning filmmaking, and he was so patient letting me come back again and again,” she says. Meanwhile, Bush had enrolled in film school at USC, honing her skills and eventually editing a mountain of interviews and footage of Morton into a short documentary. The Queen’s New Clothes premiered at Landmark’s Magnolia Theater in Dallas two months after his retirement in 2019. The theater was packed, and Morton sobbed as the crowd cheered. The movie, now on Amazon Prime, is a bittersweet denouement to a remarkable career.
Bush maintained a deep friendship with Morton until his death in 2022 at age 93. “Winn was warm and witty, always laughing and smiling,” she says. “I really got to know him during the process of making the film — It was quite a journey.”
Long before the Texas Rose Festival landed on Winn Morton’s radar, there was the circus. He was obsessed with it. As a child, his father took him to see the animals as they were unloaded from boxcars, and later at home, he’d draw his favorite tigers and elephants on a sketchpad. He had talent, so at 6 years old his parents enrolled him in private art classes with noted painter Alexandre Hogue. By the time he started Highland Park High School, he was designing sets for school plays.
While his parents envisioned a career as a fine artist—he was sent to SMU to study painting — Morton dreamed of working for the circus. A year later, he dropped out of SMU and headed to Florida to study at the Ringling School of Art. When the director of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus suggested he might get work if he sketched costumes faster, Morton decamped for New York City and a stint at Parsons to hone his skills. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, he designed sets and costumes for hundreds of live TV productions for NBC and CBS, including The Ed Sullivan Show and Arthur Godfrey’s number-one-rated show. He mounted large-scale ice extravaganzas for The Roxy Theatre in New York and lavish sets and costumes for opera, live theater, and countless Broadway and touring productions, dressing stars including Lucie Arnez and Sandy Dennis.
By the late ’70s. he’d grown tired of New York and moved back to Dallas with his longtime partner, Harry Lewis, whom he’d met years earlier. Learning of Morton’s Broadway background, Dallas socialites clamored to hire him for their charity balls and private parties. As his old friend and former Rose Festival colleague Bob Cook says, “Money was never a problem. If you wanted Winn, you found the money. There were always women ready to outdo the other — “My ball is bigger than yours,” that kind of thing.”
Throughout the 1980s, Morton designed lavish, themed galas for The Crystal Charity Ball, the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Dallas Opera. For Mayor Starke Taylor’s birthday party, he designed an enormous showboat and floated it in the politician’s backyard pool, and for the wedding of a daughter of a Dallas billionaire, he took over the entire Dallas Country Club with opulent sets and decorations.
Morton was already on-board at the Texas Rose Festival when the circus finally came calling. After a nationwide search of top theatrical designers, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus tapped him to create 400 new costumes for the company’s touring train that included superstar tiger trainer Gunther Gebel- Williams. The year was 1985, and with a $1.5 million budget, Morton sent feathers and headpieces to be hand-dyed in Paris, costumes to Haiti for embroidery, and sourced Vienna for the world’s most luminous topaz rhinestones. Gebel-Williams’ own costume was so ornate it took seamstresses 350 hours to complete.
Longtime friend Myra Walker, former director of the Texas Fashion Collection at UNT, organized a 40-year retrospective of Morton’s creations in 1989 at a pavilion in the Trammell Crow Center. In 2007, she enlisted him to design the acclaimed Balenciaga show at the Meadows Museum, which was so dazzling that it was held over by popular demand. She compares Morton to British society photographer and stage and film designer Cecil Beaton. “Winn could do it all: costumes, sets, lighting … He had an expansive talent and social connections. There really aren’t people like that anymore.”
Home is Where the Heart is
One of the last bits of footage Ashley Bush filmed of Winn Morton was at the historic Winniford House in Lancaster, the 1913 Prairie-style house where he was born, set on a couple of hundred acres. Morton greets the camera on a broad wraparound porch and swings the screen door open. He and Harry Lewis restored the house together in the ’80s; after 53 years together, Lewis died in 2006. “Winn wore his heart on his sleeve,” Bush says. “He always talked about Harry; It was such an emotional thing for him. As a filmmaker, I knew I needed to put it in there.”
The couple’s arrival in small-town Texas after being on the East Coast for 40 years was initially difficult. They had acquired Yankee accents, which people didn’t like, and as progressive gay men in the conservative Bible Belt, they stuck out. Morton won them over with his small-town charm and Broadway charisma. “Tyler really embraced Winn,” says Bob Cook, who grew up there. “When he was showing these fantasy sketches to the [Rose Festival] mothers, they laughed and clapped and had the best time. He just knew how to sell it.”
Morton’s birthday was around Christmas, so he held a blow-out party each year at his home, attended by the same boldfaced names whose parties he designed. “He would get out all these incredible circus decorations and transform the house into this magical experience. He loved to give people escapism,” Bush says.
Designated a Texas Historical Landmark, Winniford House was designed and built by Morton’s great-uncle, Andrew David Winniford, an artist who painted opera-house scenic backdrops throughout Texas. Many of the original details Winniford designed for the house — ornate tin coves, beamed ceilings, and hand-painted tile fireplaces — were restored. Morton, who oversaw the Lancaster Historical Society at one point, spared no expense in fixing up his ancestral home. The walls, which had been covered in wallpaper, were redone in $600-a-yard fabric with designs similar to the original papers.
“Winn liked old things, and he hoped the fabric would fade over the years, but it never did,” says Cook, who hung the fabrics in the 1980s. The costly toile and patterned textiles — today’s equivalent to $1,800 a yard — were so expertly made they remain as vibrant as ever.
Morton imbued rooms with a bit of theater by painting ceilings in shades of celestial blue, salmon, and gold. Many of the furnishings were original to the house, such as the parlor’s old player piano and Texas Mission chairs. A painted 18th-century Pennsylvania Dutch cupboard from a Bucks County house once owned by Lewis and Morton. They had hundreds of books and a collection that included a Cecil Beaton illustration, Edward Curtis gravures, and paintings by famed Dallas Nine artists Alexandre Hogue and Jerry Bywaters. The halls and bedrooms are lined with posters of Morton’s Broadway productions and sketches of costume designs, along with framed missives from the White House, received after he designed former President Lyndon B. Johnson’s televised Salute to Congress in 1965. In the barn, Morton stored dozens of kerosene lanterns that had been used to light the house for a decade after the family went bankrupt in 1939.
Following Morton’s death in April 2022, Myra Walker spent months sorting through more than 3,000 of his sketches, which are now headed to the Circus World Museum in Wisconsin and the Texas Rose Festival Museum in Tyler. As Morton wished, most of the contents of the house, including his prized antique circus elephant figurines, were sold at an estate sale last fall. The family house and land have been put up for sale.
Morton’s health declined after he retired, but his mind stayed sharp.
Ashley Bush drove to visit Morton at his house some months before he passed away. “He put on an incredible outfit and laughed and told stories, even though it was hard for him to get around,” she says. Making the documentary had a lasting effect on her, and her voice quavers with emotion as she remembers him. “I got to see his insane passion — he was passionate about everything — his dogs, his work, his lover. It taught me in my 20s that you don’t need a lot, but you do need excitement and passion and artistry to keep going. It was a moment in my life — an incredible thing to take with me.”