Diana Mayhew on the National Cherry Blossom Festival ~
“. . .the festival’s first and foremost the Washington D.C. springtime celebration that makes Washington the destination to come in Spring, but we always remember the roots and we celebrate the culture of Japan, because that’s where it all started.”
A Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen and this is Our Town. I have the distinct, wonderful pleasure to talk to an old friend. This is not only the busiest time of the year, but inviting her into the studio right now is like kidnapping Santa Clause at Christmas Eve, but she’s here with us for Our Town. Over the past 20 years, she’s grown the Cherry Blossom Festival into an internationally recognized extravaganza, generating over 100 million dollars for Our Town. She’s usually wearing pink in honor of her role as one of the most important people in the city of the Spring. Please welcome Diana Mayhew, Director of Events at Downtown BID, and President of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. Diana, welcome to Our Town.
Diana Mayhew: Hi, thank you, nice to see you again.
A Ockershausen: We go back a long way, long before there were cherry blossoms, there was you. All of the things you have done … one of the things you are probably too young to know or to remember, but WMAL and WMAL TV, we were involved in the Cherry Blossom Festival up to our necks. A couple of the young people here were just asking me stories about what did we do, and I said, “Well, we used boats then. We televised the parade on Channel 7. We did a lot in radio and our talent was always involved, Harden and Weaver, and Bill Mayhugh, Tom Gauger. We did shows with the Cherry Blossom Festival.” But you have put the Cherry Blossom Festival at a new level, Diane. I know that because I’ve lived through it with you.
Diana Mayhew: Oh, thank you.
A Ockershausen: How’s it been? It’s just been such a great experience to know all about what has happened, where they came from, how they started. I mean, the cherry blossom story, I think, is fabulous.
How Diana Mayhew Came to Lead National Cherry Blossom Festival
Diana Mayhew: My background is hospitality industry here in Washington.
A Ockershausen: This is your home town, correct?
Diana Mayhew: Yes, I love-
A Ockershausen: It’s your hometown.
Diana Mayhew: I love Washington D.C., I love showcasing it and just really this National Cherry Blossom Festival had the opportunity many years ago when it was run all by volunteers, just 16 years ago, to really get upgraded, to have somebody pay attention to it and not thinking I would be sitting here. I was trying to be a proponent out there for the different groups in Washington to take it under its …
A Ockershausen: It became bigger than anybody thought it would be, Diane, but it was real big at one time and then it went down. I remember going to the dinners and we would bring talent in as an expense. The president of our company then was deeply involved with the convention and visitors bureau, board of trade, which essentially expired. But we’d bring in talent from Hollywood to participate in the festival and the parade, and then it slopped off until you brought it back.
Diana Mayhew: Well, thank you.
A Ockershausen: Which you did, Diana.
Diana Mayhew: It wasn’t just me by myself. Obviously it was a vision of several organizations in the city. The Downtown Business Improvement District actually was the one 16 years ago who said, “Let’s go ahead and fund an executive director for three years.” They donated the salary of an executive director for three years to start it … getting strong again. There’s so many volunteers over the years that have kept this festival together. Back in the days that you know, very, very strong, but if the volunteers sort of went away-
A Ockershausen: Changed.
Diana Mayhew: If they changed, there’s no consistency, and that’s what makes it a little weaker than we’d like. Again, myself and then a year and a half later, I have a teammate who’s still with us today, Lillian Iversen, basically the two of us really worked on putting this together and now we’re a staff of 13, but lots and lots and lots of contractors, lots of volunteers still so necessary-
A Ockershausen: Tons and tons.
Diana Mayhew: -to have lots of volunteers to do it.
A Ockershausen: Well your background is so important, because you are a Washingtonian. You grew up in Our Town and you know what it is and you know the players and the people. Having the dots, you able to connect, is what made this festival come alive so … to me, and I’m an observer, because I would’ve been involved a long time. I’ve been in Our Town for many, many years and I love what you’ve done to the festival. But you had the great background for it, correct?
Diana Mayhew: Oh, thank you.
A Ockershausen: Anybody can promote to Washington Dips soccer team, but you did, you did the boat for a while, you did food for a while, and you did soccer for a while, correct?
Diana Mayhew: Yes, yes.
A Ockershausen: So you had a chance to connect some dots.
Charlie Brotman Protégé
Diana Mayhew: That’s really where I started in the hospitality world, is with the Washington Diplomats, and that’s when we met.
A Ockershausen: You learned everything you know from Charlie Brotman.
Diana Mayhew: Oh, absolutely. I was one of Charlie’s protégés. I must say, definitely.
A Ockershausen: You know he’s got so many good things and he’s wonderful. We talk all the time. He’s still quite active. He’s lost his wife and he moved out to … somewhere in the-
Diana Mayhew: Leisure World.
A Ockershausen: Leisure World. But Charlie’s still Charlie. He’s got a million ideas. As a matter of fact, he’s helping his friend promote a fight that’s coming up here, a big fight, and it’s … oh I forget the guy that’s producing it, but I mean a major, major event in May at the MGM Grande. Charlie’s back involved again. He can’t stop.
Diana Mayhew: Well he’s fantastic. I remember going from the Diplomats to private industry when I went over to Spirit Cruise … or actually, it was Washington Boat Lines, it was the Washington Boat Lines when I first went over to the boats-
A Ockershausen: They had two or three boats, did they not?
Diana Mayhew: Yes, yes. I went to Charlie and said, “Okay, this is not sports, this is just regular business. How do we get some fun and excitement to happen here? How do we get media?” He sat there with his big war board in his office … do you remember that war board?
A Ockershausen: Oh, very well.
Diana Mayhew: And said, “Okay, let’s see, the first day of spring” … actually, now that I think about it, spring must be in my blood, but, first day of spring he said, “Let’s check.” So he checked the exact time of spring according to the vernal equinox. I think it was 11:33 AM or something, so we did like a New Years event on the boat and we had every single weather reporter come down, the radio, everybody to cover that event.
A Ockershausen: He made an event-
Diana Mayhew: Charlie has taught-
A Ockershausen: -out of a non-event.
Diana Mayhew: That’s exactly right.
A Ockershausen: Well he did the same thing for a couple of restaurants too, he’s amazing, the way his mind works. He’s way out there. You had good training, but you learned at the Spirit job, too, there was some food involved there, wasn’t it?
Learn, Implement, Repeat
Diana Mayhew: Yes, so every job that I’ve had actually I’ve learned. My kids used to say to me, “Mom, why do you work so many hours?” I say, “Well, half the time I’m learning what I’m doing because we’re always trying to create something new and if you’re trying to be new and different you just have to keep transforming.”
A Ockershausen: Absolutely.
Diana Mayhew: Once we start learning and then we implement for a while, then go onto something else.
A Ockershausen: You mention the children, that’s the first time you mention … You had the kids after the Dips, right?
Diana Mayhew: Yes.
A Ockershausen: You’ve been around for a while and you have three children now?
Diana Mayhew: I have four.
A Ockershausen: You have four now?
Diana Mayhew: Four and two grandchildren now. Two grand babies.
A Ockershausen: You’re too young to have grandchildren.
Diana Mayhew: I know.
A Ockershausen: I don’t believe that.
Diana Mayhew: That’s okay, I started when I was 12.
A Ockershausen: Janice and I have known you for so long … no way you did. You’ve done so much for Our Town and one of the things you do, Janice points it out, you wear pink all the time. That’s so important. You make a statement when we see you, and we see you a lot. You do a lot of things besides this event, correct? You keep a high profile.
Diana Mayhew: Well, I try to stay involved in the community and give back. My favorite thing is mentoring, mentoring young people-
A Ockershausen: Absolutely.
Diana Mayhew: -to give advice. I just basically share what your experience is, your mistakes are just important to share as your-
A Ockershausen: You learn more from your mistakes than you do your successes.
Diana Mayhew: That’s right, so I enjoy doing that. I work with theBoys and Girls Club of Greater Washington. . .
A Ockershausen: I knew that.
Diana Mayhew: Other projects around city.
A Ockershausen: Well remember, we had a very active police Boys and Girls Club when we lost the police, but growing up at the Boys Club and knowing it so well and being involved, I know what you’ve done and I know how important that club is. We serve a lot of kids in this city, the Boys and Girls Club. I know that.
Diana Mayhew: I focus on women’s leadership board that takes a couple projects on at a time, and right now we’re working on the Fearless Girls and Fearless Leaders program.
A Ockershausen: We had a couple of branches that I worked with that Richard England branch over on Benning Road, and one of the things that we did with the young women in that neighborhood … and it was all African American, it was that neighborhood, that’s what it is. We had classes, cooking classes, for the females that would take advantage of it to learn how to cook, because most of them had grown up with fast food.
Diana Mayhew: Oh, that’s great.
A Ockershausen: They didn’t know how to shop either. The shopping is something you’ve got to learn to do and you only learn it when you do it. These kids grew up fast food, so they didn’t shop, they just go in and get what they want. The Boys and Girls Club did a great job in helping that neighborhood. I don’t know whether the program still exists or not, but you know what I mean, by helping young people.
Diana Mayhew: Yeah, it’s so important. Again, I wish sometimes I was five different people so if I had to do something else, that’s what I would do, help kids at a really young age understand what their career interests are and start exploring, even as young as high school, middle school … start exploring-
A Ockershausen: Never too early.
Diana Mayhew: Right. Start exploring-
A Ockershausen: Never, never too early.
Diana Mayhew: -what’s out there.
A Ockershausen: I read somewhere, and I’m not sure it was in the Post, but that maybe it was in Wall Street Journal, but getting young people, particularly young females to understand the necessity for financial information. Got to understand the value of money. A lot of young people don’t have that anymore. You and I had it, because we grew up in Our Town.
Diana Mayhew: That’s right.
A Ockershausen: But I can see now how important it is to understand how to handle your money, and young people got to learn that at an early age. This was somebody’s idea, I hope it works, because they need help.
Well, this is Diane Mayhew, and we’re going to take a break here. It’s Andy Ockershausen on Our Town, we’ll be right back with the Cherry Blossom Festival.
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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town.
A Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen, this is Our Town. We’re talking to Diana Mayhew, the head honcho of the National Cherry Blossom Festival. When did this start? When did the festival start? I know your career is recent, but it started a long time ago.
History: Cherry Blossom Festival
Diana Mayhew: I’ll back up before even the festival … the trees were donated to Washington D.C. 105 years ago by the Mayor of Tokyo to Washington D.C. Helen Taft had a big, big role in that, so that was in 1912. In 1927, the first festival existed and it started with a couple day celebration with school children re-enacting the tree planting and a couple other festivities right at the waterfront.
A Ockershausen: I recall there was a lot of hostility with the Japanese at one time and there was a reason for that, but before there was the World War II, there was the cherry blossoms and a great relationships between the two countries. The Japanese were very good to America and they were certainly … the Cherry Blossom Festival’s idea that … but seems to me that they were smart enough to export cherry blossoms all over the country. A lot of cities have cherry blossom festivals now. Nothing to compare to yours.
Diana Mayhew: Right, I think at the same time these original trees were given, also they were given to New York. So Brooklyn Gardens also have some of the same trees.
A Ockershausen: They’re later than you though, right? Because of the weather.
Diana Mayhew: Yes.
A Ockershausen: Your festival-
Diana Mayhew: Just a little bit-
A Ockershausen: -is way ahead of theirs.
Diana Mayhew: Yes.
A Ockershausen: And then all these years of being involved, we’ve had the Japanese relationship continue after the war. It’s like it didn’t happen, still they became involved with us and the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Diana Mayhew: Well thank goodness. It’s a great example of a wonderful friendship with two countries. The Japanese government, Japanese embassy are very, very much involved and appreciative of the fact that the city celebrates that celebration. The Ambassador said the other day that the National Cherry Blossom Festival is the largest US/Japan celebration in the world.
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Diana Mayhew: So it-
A Ockershausen: That’s incredible.
National Cherry Blossom Festival Today
Diana Mayhew: -is really important. Again the festival’s first and foremost the Washington D.C. springtime celebration that makes Washington the destination to come in Spring, but we always remember the roots and we celebrate the culture of Japan, because that’s where it all started.
A Ockershausen: In addition to the cultural part of it, I think there’s a great entertainment factor that I know from Our Town, because being involved with the parade all the years ago at Channel 7, we were deeply involved, how important it was to Our Town and to exploit it and we did it at Channel 7. It was so much entertainment value for the public. The parade, the floats were terrific.
Diana Mayhew: Right? We were hoping to continue. We do continue that tradition, so this year we’ll have the same celebration, of course try and make it different and new each year on Constitution Avenue, but it’s now expanded from just a few days to four weeks, so we have key-
A Ockershausen: Incredible, you did that.
Diana Mayhew: -four anchoring weekends.
A Ockershausen: Used to be a long weekend and a dance and they had the queens from all the states would nominate the float or something for the Cherry Blossom Parade. We’d have a party and a dance and we had big names Ernest Borgnine, when he was one of the biggest name in show business. He was married to Ethel Merman, the great entertainer, and they would be part of the Cherry Blossom Festival. I recall going to dances and parties and it was more than just a parade.
Diana Mayhew: And I’d love to interview you all about how did you bring those celebrities, and how … because I looked through some of the history. We have the library of all the old programs and all of the famous … Roy Rogers, I saw there the other day, Roy Rogers, the Presidents were involved-
A Ockershausen: Oh yeah, absolutely.
Diana Mayhew: You know, the First Lady is traditionally the honorary chair, which we have continued that, but it would be really fun to go back and talk to you about the celebrity interest.
A Ockershausen: They used to be a great morgue of pictures, of celebrations, at the Washington Evening Star Newspaper Company. That was the owner of Channel 7 of WMAL Radio. We were all involved and it was important because it was Our Town and the Star was an Our Town newspaper. At one time, the Post was not dominant, the Star was, but Star got killed by television. Because afternoon papers suffered, they couldn’t deliver the paper, that’s a true story. They lost circulation because it was so tough to get papers out at traffic. You don’t have problems with traffic, do you, Diana?
Diana Mayhew: We like to try to tell people all the different ways they can get around now. You know the Circulator goes around Tidal Basin-
A Ockershausen: You’ve got a great, great vibe-
Diana Mayhew: -so that’s easy. Metro, again metro has stopped most of it’s safe tracking. There’s only one section that they’re working on now, but we also have an App with Park Mobile that you can actually park and reserve to park in advance. We try to make it as easy as possible for people.
A Ockershausen: You’ve got shuttle buses.
Diana Mayhew: But you know, walk down.
A Ockershausen: 25, 26, 27 years ago, maybe 30 years ago, Janice and I started to go to the Cherry Blossom Festival. We would walk every morning starting at 5:30 or 6:00 AM and we’d walk the circle around the Tidal Basin. We just made that as a part of our growing up together at WMAL. It was so great. We beat the crowd. In fact one year, they had searchlights out and we walked at night, and they had the search lights … do they still do that at the festival?
Diana Mayhew: No, I don’t think that they put the lights out so much at night. I think the have flood lights down there, but we don’t encourage too many people to go there after dark.
A Ockershausen: Every time we were there, at almost every parade, we’d go by, we’d see Diana doing a standup with a television station. That early in the morning, correct?
Diana Mayhew: Yes, absolutely. That’s the best time. We do the morning interviews, but also a lot of the Presidents and their families came down early in the morning and liked that, to enjoy.
A Ockershausen: Is that right? Oh, I’m so glad.
Diana Mayhew: Mrs. Bush loved to do that in the morning.
A Ockershausen: That’s great for Our Town and the Cherry Blossom Festival is Our Town. This is Andy Ockershausen and this is Our Town. I’m talking to Diana Mayhew and I’ll be right back.
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Announcer: You’re listening to Our Town with Andy Ockershausen, brought to you by Best Bark Communications.
A Ockershausen: This is Andy Ockershausen, Our Town, I’m talking with Diana Mayhew who runs the Cherry Blossom Festival that is number one festival in the city of Washington, if not the number one in the whole country, Di, because other cities have tried to copy us but they can’t get away with it, because we got Diana Mayhew.
Diana Mayhew: And a lot of other great people in this city that promote it and love it.
A Ockershausen: It makes Our Town come alive and you couldn’t do it without volunteers, is that correct?
Diana Mayhew: Oh absolutely.
A Ockershausen: No way to run it.
National Cherry Blossom Festival Dependent on Volunteers
Diana Mayhew: No, it’s so dependent on volunteers. People that put hours and hours and hours, not just during the festival, but all throughout the year. 2017 is actually the 90th anniversary of the first festival.
A Ockershausen: Wow.
Diana Mayhew: So if you can only imagine, who would’ve thought that a gift 105 years ago of these trees would now be the Nation’s greatest springtime celebration and bring so much joy and precious moments and memories to so many people.
A Ockershausen: When did the Board of Trade get involved with the Convention Bureau or the Visitor Bureau? I remember that 50 years ago-
Diana Mayhew: Right, as I was going to say, I think it was ’60s-
A Ockershausen: They got involved?
Diana Mayhew: I think so. At that time, wasn’t the Board of Trade and convention was one group, was one organization.
A Ockershausen: Clarence Erata.
Diana Mayhew: Exactly, Clarence Erata, we know Clarence from Diplomats too.
A Ockershausen: We grew up with Clarence, and I recall the … they went down, they took a group down to New Orleans to study the parade of-
Janice Ockershausen: Mardi Gras?
Clarence Erata | Barry Kern | National Park Service
A Ockershausen: Mardi Gras parade to see what goes on and so forth, and they didn’t want all the drinking and everything but they liked what they found out. That’s why they got Channel 7 involved, is we were talking about the talent that we were able to bring in, but it was good for Our Town, it was good for Channel 7, it was good for the Star, our owner, the owner of WMAL TV.
Diana Mayhew: And Barry Kern actually from New Orleans did the National Park Service float in the parade. They did a great favor for the Park Service, the 100 year anniversary, because of course we couldn’t have any of this without the National Park Service | Downtown BID
A Ockershausen: They make it sound good.
Diana Mayhew: They take care of those trees.
A Ockershausen: I had so many friends in the Park Service and the names that go … they’re floating through my brain now, but the leaders of the local park service were so important to Our Town and everything they did. One of the things I noticed and I’m so proud if it, Diana, it’s … your festival and everything else goes on, the Park Service keeps this town clean.
Diana Mayhew: Absolutely.
A Ockershausen: They keep Our Town … I’ve seen parties downtown and afterwards, you can see the Park Service out there cleaning up.
Diana Mayhew: Absolutely. And now we have all the bids. Now we have all the bids in the city, started with the Downtown BID 20 years ago. That helps as well. It makes this town, Our Town, a very wonderful place to be.
A Ockershausen: Oh, the bids have been fabulous and you’ve been fabulous. Well what do you look for for the future, just more and merrier for the festival?
Looking to the Future
Diana Mayhew: You know, we’re taking a strategic look. Obviously, this festival needs to be sustained into the future, so we’re hoping that people, first of all, are working with the National Trust to help support the trees, number one, but for the festival it takes a village. It takes our staff, the individuals that volunteer, it takes all the sponsors and the city to participate. It’s 90 years, so we have to keep it fresh and new. Every year it has to be creative, it has to … we want the residents to continue to enjoy. We don’t want them to go and hide and say, “Ugh, let’s wait till all the traffic goes away.” What kind of special events can we attract to the local community? The great thing is that the festival’s job is to take the celebration beyond the blossoms and beyond the Tidal Basin throughout the city and throughout all the neighborhoods.
A Ockershausen: And you’ve done that.
Diana Mayhew: Yes.
A Ockershausen: You really have, in spite of the traffic problems that are not yours, traffic is created by people, not by cars, you understand that.
Diana Mayhew: Yes.
A Ockershausen: If you didn’t have a car, you wouldn’t have a traffic problem. But Diana, you’ve done so well and I’m so proud of Our Town and so proud to be associated with you and all that happened with the Board of Trade that I grew up with the convention thing and I know what it is. And to see what …you’ve exploited it, and it’s so important for what you’ve done.
Diana Mayhew: Well thank you, but again, I have to say it is … it’s everyone in the city that loves this festival, that supports it. It’s such a joint job. It’s a really labor of love of our team.
A Ockershausen: Well I’m sure for at least a month you don’t sleep, but you still look good, you still look great in pink, and we appreciate you very much Di. We will look forward to the future of many, many festivals and I hope you’re in charge forever.
Diana Mayhew: Oh my goodness, thank you very much. It’s so much an honor to be part of your Our Town-
A Ockershausen: Thank you.
Diana Mayhew: -celebrity line up.
A Ockershausen: You’re part of Our Town, Di. This is Andy Ockershausen, this is Our Town, and we appreciate you very much and we appreciate the National Cherry Blossom Festival.
Announcer: You’ve been listening to Our Town, Season Two, presented by GEICO, our hometown favorite, with your host Andy Ockershausen. New Our Town episodes are released each Tuesday and Thursday. Drop us a line with your comments or suggestions. See us on Facebook, or visit our website at ourtowndc.com. Our special thanks to Ken Hunter, our technical director, and WMAL Radio in Washington D.C. for hosting our podcast. Thanks to GEICO, 15 minutes can save you 15% or more on car insurance.
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