The first Miss America had a bust that measured one inch less than Twiggy's, which was hardly an all-American statistic. But since that small beginning almost 50 years ago, the Atlantic City beauty contest has more than met the measure of Americana. Do you remember when Miss America of 1956, now Mrs. Kyle Rote, reverently told the press she always sang The Lord's Prayer in the bathtub? Or the Miss America who, in the ecstasy of her winning moments, quoted St. Matthew, Abraham Lincoln and Grantland Rice? Or the winner who ran off with her Atlantic City chauffeur the night she was crowned? Or the two Miss Americas who dated—and later denied they would wed—Joe DiMaggio?
Those were moments to appreciate, and last month in Atlantic City events only strengthened the feeling that the Miss America contest—with all of its small ironies—has become a national sporting event that is going to rank up there forever with the World Series, Harvard-Yale and the other supreme competitive rites of fall.
The annual pageant is America as she likes to see herself, hale and happy, by God, even if the constant smiles become painful. Wearing rosette ribbons like those awarded at livestock shows, the burnished girls are the pride of the grass roots. They have been Apple, Strawberry, Cherry, Cotton and Potato Princesses, Miss American Legion, Miss VFW, Miss Traffic Safety, cheerleaders, homecoming queens and majorettes. To become Miss America contestants, they have had to show beauty ("outside and inside," is the way the people put it in Atlantic City) and at least two minutes and 50 seconds of talent, that being the amount of performing tune allotted each entry. Bert Parks, the ebullient master of ceremonies at the pageant, describes Miss America as "a composite of positive wonders," and with her copyrighted rhinestone crown and her gold-washed trophy she unquestionably generates a flutter in the heartland of America. Children are named for her. She receives the keys to more than 200 cities and towns. She travels 200,000 miles in the year of her reign, offering her dignified smile to places like Tupelo, Lubbock, Fayetteville, Kankakee, Thief River Falls and Great Bend. For many, she epitomizes all that is meaningful—patriotism, church, family, devotion, discipline, respect for authority, success earned through clean living and hard effort. She is America the Beautiful. "We stand for the great American middle class, the nonvocal middle class, for normal, average, young American womanhood," says Albert Marks, a pageant official for 15 years. "We are for normalcy. We have no interest in minorities or causes. SDS has its thing. We have no thing. If that is a crime in today's society, so be it. Our youngsters are interested in plain American idealism."
Of course, the 400,000 at the Wood stock rock festival who assembled in an alfalfa held about the same time are not in tune with Mr. Marks and his ideas of youth, and so the Miss America Pageant offers an extra fillip to the 75 million who watch it each year on TV. It exemplifies, in its way, a division in the country, for those who do not cherish Miss America are regarding her—between Toni commercials, Oldsmobile ads and station breaks—as a ridiculously amusing, high-camp figure of dated views and purpose.
October 5, 1969
Whatever one's opinion, the Atlantic City show is an American tradition—part contest, part pageant, part sport It began in 1921 when the circulation managers of some Pennsylvania and New Jersey newspapers were looking for a gimmick to increase sales. They decided to promote a bathing-suit contest, the winner to be called Miss America. Girls representing eight cities came to Atlantic City for the judging, and the victorious 16-year-old with a 30-inch bust was Margaret Gorman of Washington. She received a gold mermaid trophy, which was reported to be worth $5,000. During the Depression she had it melted down and collected $50.
In those early days there were scandals. Broadway producers attempted to arrange for their chorus girls to win. There was a contestant who married a stockbroker, took him abroad and shot him. It was a lusty leg show, and the girls were the toast of Prohibition. Miss America's prize was an all-expense-paid trip to Hollywood and a screen test, and among those seeking the title (unsuccessfully) were Joan Blondell, Miss Dallas 1927, and Dorothy Lamour, Miss New Orleans 1931.
The pageant shut down during the Depression, and when it reopened in the mid-'30s the mood was more sober. The wife of the mayor, an elderly Quaker lady who was also the grande dame of Atlantic City society, agreed to help change the somewhat garish image of the contest by establishing a strict chaperon system for the contestants. The rules she laid down are virtually unchanged today. Girls may not talk to a man, even their father or brother, except in the presence of a chaperon. They may be interviewed by a member of the press only if a hostess is there to censor the conversation, a system that sometimes provokes amusing exchanges:
"I'm sorry I'm sweating so much," one of this year's contestants remarked to a reporter. "I've just finished practicing my dance routine."
"Sweat is not a proper word," her hostess chided.
"I'm sorry I'm perspiring," the girl said, trying to repair the wrong.
"Miss Americas do not perspire," the hostess said sternly.
Girls are forbidden to smoke or drink in public. At night chaperons from their states sleep in their rooms or suites. Each morning their Atlantic City hostesses pick the contestants up at their hotels and escort them throughout the day. For Miss America, the same strictures will prevail throughout the year of her reign. She can date only with her chaperon present, and she cannot marry without the approval of pageant officials. The Atlantic City hostesses are the social leaders of the community. "Our philosophy has always been the masses follow the classes," a pageant official once explained. Unfortunately, this statement proved all too true in 1937 when Miss Bertrand Island, N.J. was named Miss America. Her chauffeur during her week in Atlantic City was the scion of one of the resort's great hotel families. He was handsome and had a fine car, and on the night of her victory Miss America disappeared with him. Newspapermen took photographs of the empty throne the next morning.
In 1945 the pageant moved into its third phase. Talent was stressed for the first time and winners were rewarded with scholarships—$940,000 has been given away to date. The first grant for study went to Bess Myerson, who played Summertime on a flute and became the only Jewish Miss America. It was just at the end of World War II and she bought Victory Bonds, posed in her bathing suit in front of Old Glory and established in the public mind the Miss America type. After her came girls like Colleen Hutchins, whose brother Mel played for the Fort Wayne Pistons and who herself was to marry New York Knick Ernie Vandeweghe. She was a Sweetheart of the Mormon Church and stood 6'2" in her spikes. A reporter described her as a "lady Tarzan type if there ever was one." Apparently, she did not remind him of Jane. The 1948 Miss America was BeBe Shopp, who used to kill and clean the chickens for the family dinner. As Miss America she went to Europe, where she expressed some noncommittal views about bikinis. Upon reading her quotes in a newspaper, her father, a Cream of Wheat executive in Hopkins, Minn., raged: "Those stories about her sipping wine and discussing French bathing suits are false. A Communist may have written them to undermine the character of my daughter and all American girls."
The following year Miss America was Jacque Mercer, who, it was reported, enjoyed harrowing and discing fields. She married Green Bay Football Player Dick Curran. In 1951 came Yolande Betbeze, who had the braces taken off her teeth after she was named Miss Mobile. To the chagrin of the Catalina bathing-suit company, which was the pageant sponsor, Yolande refused to pose during the year in a swimsuit. Catalina, needing a more acquiescent showcase, pulled out and started its own contest, the Miss Universe competition. Atlantic City bided its time, saying nothing until 1956 when it announced that that year's Miss Universe had finished 14th in the 1954 Miss America contest.
The Miss Americas of 1955 and 1957, Lee Meriwether and Marian McKnight, both dated Joe DiMaggio, and everyone denied everything. But sports fans got their romance not long after when Sharon Kay Ritchie married a Walker Cup golfer, Don Cherry, and wore her tiara and Miss America gown at the ceremony. They were later divorced and she married Kyle Rote. Today her Miss America trophy sits on a shelf in the Rote study, along with her husband's plaques and mementos as an SMU All-America, a New York Giant, and a sportscaster.
In 1959 the winner was Mary Ann Mobley, a National Football and Southeast Livestock Queen and a drum majorette who had been popular during halftimes at Ole Miss. Her talent performance was noteworthy. She did a striptease to a torch song arranged by a church organist. She wore on her wrist a bracelet with a quote from St. Matthew, 17th Chapter: "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall move...." On winning she quoted a poem by Grantland Rice about home and declared, as Lincoln once did: "All I am...I owe to my mother."
So it has gone through the years. Call it homespun corn, but the Miss Americas have a small-town reverence that is sincere. "What do you expect," says Sharon Rote, "when you take a girl from the fields of Nebraska? I don't think it hurts a girl to be Miss America, or to compete for the title. If they never get beyond the local pageant, they are better people for the dieting, exercise and poise they have learned."
The education process can be extensive. Miss America hopefuls are sent to charm schools to learn to walk—"imagine your hair is tied to the ceiling." They get diction, makeup and laughing lessons. Daily five-mile walks tone their legs. Exercise routines trim their figures. Contestant measurements are never verified by tape measure in Atlantic City, but excessive claims are unwise. It is considered unladylike for a girl to have more than a 37½-inch bust. As for padding, Albert Marks says, "We won't permit anything obviously engineered, but we certainly don't investigate." A 153-page handbook called How to Win a Beauty Contest has been written by Miss America Jacque Mercer. Among the helpful hints: read fairy tales to children to put expression in your face, and practice smiling at lampposts and mailboxes.
Miss America contestants spend long hours perfecting talent routines. Some performances are good and some simply good for a laugh. Once Miss South Carolina diligently learned to play the pageant theme song," "There she is, Miss America," in three speeds, and she won the talent trophy. On another occasion a victorious Miss America was adjudged an accomplished pianist, though in fact she could only play Tea for Two. Only one contestant in Miss America history refused to make any pretense about having a talent. That was Vera Miles. Miss Kansas of 1948—who later as an actress starred in Psycho. She told the judges, "I have no talent except to marry and raise children." (True to her word. she has had three husbands and four children.) She was named a runner-up for the Miss America title.
In 1949 Miss Montana rode a horse onstage to demonstrate her equestrian skills. The frightened animal nearly toppled into the timpani, and ever since beasts have been barred from the pageant. Miss Georgia out: year was an archer. She broke four balloons out of seven with her bow and arrow.
Several Miss America contestants, however, have had commendable talent. The most famous professionally is singer Anita Bryant, who was a runner-up in the 1959 contest. She remains an excellent model of the Miss America style of girl, starring in Bob Hope's Christmas shows for servicemen, leading rallies for decency and appearing with Billy Graham. At the Republican Convention last year she sang The Battle Hymn of the Republic, and then, ever noncommitted, she went to the Democratic Convention, where she led the delegates in a rousing rendition of Happy Birthday, Dear Lyndon.
But talent is in the eye of the beholder, which in this case means the judges. This year's panel of 10 (six men, four women) included a syndicated newspaper columnist, Norton Mockridge, the president of the Junior Chamber of Commerce, a Hollywood cosmetician and the director of Radio City Music Hall. Contestants often compile lengthy dossiers on the judges, and state chaperons will put the information on flash cards and drill the girls. There are conflicting theories of dealing with judges. Some girls believe in eye-to-eye contact. "I look at them squarely," Miss Texas said last month. "Of course, you don't look at a woman judge the same way you look at a man. With a woman, I think innocent thoughts." Miss Vermont, who has looked Joe Namath in the eye and said no when he asked her for a date, says, "I'm afraid to have eye-to-eye contact with the judges. I don't want one to think I'm playing to him."
The techniques of approach, the coaching and the money and effort expended to produce a Miss America vary enormously from place to place. One Southern state is rumored to have a $40,000 budget to create a champion. A state like Vermont has only two local pageants, while North Carolina, Texas and California have more than 50.
The local contests, through which the girls become such things as Miss Clatsop County, number about 3,500, and 70,000 girls enter these Miss America preliminaries each year. The winners of the minor titles go on to the state pageants. Girls return year after sear to try for the local and state crowns. It took Donna Axum, Miss America of 1964, three years to become Miss Arkansas.
With the state title a girl receives scholarships, a wardrobe ($3,000 worth of gowns, dresses and shoes is not unusual), the use of an Oldsmobile for a year and additional prizes—color TVs, silver, mink stoles and free car washes. She presides over fairs, Kiwanis and Rotary gatherings, visits hospitals and fire companies and graces Easter egg hunts. She makes three or four appearances a week in the state, receiving from $25 to $100 for each, depending on the state and the demand. Miss Wyoming earns perhaps $1,000 in a year; Miss Mississippi can make $20,000.
"The Southern states use their queens to increase tourism," the executive director of the Wyoming pageant explains. "We have other obligations—to the bears at Yellowstone, the Grand Tetons and Buffalo Bill. We stress those things in our tourist advertising."
Hairdressers, cosmetologists and voice coaches accompany the girls to Atlantic City; while there, a contestant may need to have her hair done three times a day. Special music is composed to suit her personality and talent, and hundreds of dollars are spent on special costumes that will enhance, or hide, her talent. All this in preparation for: "There she is, Miss America."
It is in the swelter of a Labor Day weekend—sometimes with as many as 14 suitcases weighing down their Olds-mobiles—that the beauty queens of the 50 states check into Atlantic City. They are wearing stylish fall tweeds, many collared and hemmed in sealskin or fox. Since it is after Sept. 1, fashion dictates the season is autumn, though common sense says such a notion is absurd. But their hair is attached to the ceiling, remember, so they cannot wilt. The marble steps of the old hotels in the fading resort town are as worn as the aged people who sit in the lobbies. Rouged women in silk hats and pearls use up their afternoons dozing in once-grand lounges. The girls themselves are parceled out, share and share alike, to hotels whose very names once set vacation-bound America trembling: the Marlborough-Blenheim, Claridge's, the Chalfonte. But now Atlantic City itself is a September Song. Only one of its places rates a top ranking in the American Automobile Association guidebook: Howard Johnson's. Elsewhere guests are apt to find themselves sleeping on horsehair mattresses, an honorable but unfamiliar sensation. The streets are the Monopoly board—Pacific, Ventnor, Baltic, Tennessee—and the Miss America Pageant office is, of course, found on the Boardwalk. The trophies in the window look commonplace, the kind awarded in a bowling alley. The bracelets and pins the girls seek so determinedly might have been bought in a souvenir shop. And the crown on its red velvet pillow has only the glamour of its rhinestones. The office is a simple, homely place; the flowered slipcovers on the chairs in the waiting room do not fit well. It is immediately obvious that this is no big-city, high-pressure operation. On the coffee table is a magazine called Belief. Its subtitle reads: "Messages designed to help people realize the benefits of faith in God, faith in America, faith in people, faith in themselves." On the cover is a strip of American faces, Carl Yastrzemski, Bart Starr and last year's Miss America, Judi Ford, who happens to be, like Yastrzemski and Starr, an athlete, the winner of the AAU's junior women's trampoline title in 1968.
The girls rarely see the pageant office, for Convention Hall is the center of their rigorously scheduled week: Monday and Tuesday, rehearsal of the pageant show and a Boardwalk parade; Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights, preliminary judging, and Saturday night the finals on national television.
The contestants are assigned hostesses arbitrarily, and the women cluck affectionately about the girls. A few are dour, forbidding figures, guardians of the pageant's honor as well as its contestants'. But for the most part the women are efficient and obliging to an astonishing degree, last year Miss Florida used bubble gum in her Charleston routine. When the girl was chosen as a semifinalist on the final evening of the pageant, she found she did not have enough time between her evening gown and talent appearances to get her gum in good bubble condition. Her hostess chewed the Dubble Bubble and turned it over in good shape for the dancer's performance. There is a week-long combination of mini-chaos and care. The hostess committee has set aside a Prayer Corner where the girls can be alone and a Giggle Corner where they can clown to relieve their tension. A row of rooms above the stage where the beauty queens rest between performances is called Sleepy Hollow. In the communal dressing room there is a bounty of teen-age food; the average age of Miss America winners is 19, and they have run lost then taste for pickles, potato chips, pretzels and peanut-butter sandwiches.
These girls lacquered and sheened—are part child, part woman. They still keep those schoolgirl autograph books, the ones with pink and yellow paper, writing messages for one another in self-conscious script. Yet at rehearsals they walk with ease in $200 pants suits of silk. They compete for a neat-as-a-pin award, a brooch with a diamond chip, by hanging their Neiman-Marcus gowns carefully on racks. Their selection of talent routines sometimes is telling of their age—Miss North Dakota's act this year was "Beeping Sleauty." As they talk there comes the sudden realization of how limited their experience, how unformed their tastes, how simple their philosophy ("I want to be happy"). An engaging, real Miss America quality keeps popping up. Miss Minnesota tells how, when she won the state title last June, pageant officials in Minneapolis ordered her to get rid of her poison ivy and mosquito bites, to stop climbing trees immediately and to stay out of the sun. They also curled her lank, sun-bleached hair the kind that is so in fashion in half of young America—and enrolled her in charm school.
It is impossible to be an All-American girl, and thus Miss America, without at least pretending to a few sporting enthusiasms. One of the categories that each girl must till in on her personal information sheet is Sport. Miss West Virginia had noted that she was a "champion relay runner." She explains, "Our team ran the 440, hut I can't for the life of me remember our time." What position did she run? Anchor? "I was the last one. Yes, I think you call it the anchor," she replies. Miss Louisiana "enjoys showing horses" but hasn't been on one since she was 14. A "roller skating champion," Miss Indiana, competed four years ago. (She might have scored more points by identifying herself as a cousin of Dodger Pitcher Carl Erskine.) The "swimming instructor," it turns out, has merely passed a lifeguard test, and the golfers haven't played long enough to have handicaps.
Interviews with the press—350 reporters cover the pageant—are allowed during the midday talent rehearsals, which are scheduled throughout the week. At a distant microphone some girl is practicing a monologue—"O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo...." Meanwhile, the other girls quietly explain their ambitions to reporters to be a schoolteacher, a nurse, to receive a master's degree in music, in drama, in physical education.
Some are very well prepared for these interviews. Miss Ohio has been a beauty queen for years—Miss Teen Mid-America, Miss Bowling Green, West Point Girl of the Month, Miss Independence, Miss Date-Setter. She is glossy and big-eyed. She studied a book—How to Improve Your Vocabulary—before she came to Atlantic City.
Miss Florida wants to be an actress and already has played Rita Hayworth's daughter in a movie. She reads palms. It is a hobby and makes for good conversation. She locks something like a swami as she sits there draped in fuchsia, cerise and purple veils waiting to rehearse her ballet from Kismet. She examines her own palm. "I am ambitious, hot tempered, spasmodically impulsive, stubborn, honest," she says. "I will be famous, marry twice, have one boy and three girls. I will lose a fortune in my 30s. I have sensitive bones. I am sensuous...."
"Don't write that down," the hostess says quickly.
Miss Arizona is exuberant and imaginative. She has brought her state crown along, and it can keep her talking for hours. "It's worth $3,000," she says, "and is of sterling mined in Arizona." She twirls the crown and points to the state bird and Mower and explains the number 48 in a heart—"We were the 48th state to enter the Union, and we came in on Valentine's Day. The ermine around the rim was trapped in northern Arizona, and these designs represent our industries—cotton, copper mining, cattle, ponderosa pine. We have another major industry—our climate—but it is not easy, to represent that on a crown, so I say, well, Miss Arizona has a sunny smile." Give Miss Arizona "A" for effort to go along with her grade school track ribbons—she high-jumped 4'4"—and a more positive athletic talent: she was a member of the University of Arizona women's swimming team and last year finished fifth in the breast-stroke in the Western championships.
The pageant even has a football hero of sorts, Miss Oklahoma, who won the football kick in the Sorority Olympics at Tulsa with a 35-yard boot. She says she had some professional training. "Howard Twilley, our All-America, who is now with the Miami Dolphins, taught me. He has great hands." Perhaps because it might blacken her image in Atlantic City, she did not list football among her sports. Instead, on the fact sheet she noted archery. "The archery championship I won," she says, "was in Girl Scout camp. I was 12."
As the girls talk and prepare, clusters of parents move through the backstage area on formal tours. They are florists, grocers, retired Army men, nurses, a truck driver from the New Mexico oil fields, a mother who rings doorbells for Avon. Shirt-sleeved men and housewives in slacks and Ban-Lon, they have, for the most part, faces marked by years and work, and probably monotony. As they glance at their daughters, one can't help comparing—it is, indeed, before and after. If their daughter becomes Miss America they will refinish the basement back in Marietta or Billings to show off the gifts she receives. And the Miss America award will make a handsome dowry. Appearance fees will he mailed home and deposited in the local bank. At year's end Miss America will have $50,000, as well as the $10,000 scholarship she received with the title.
Commercial establishments, such as department stores, pay her $1,000 and expenses for appearances. Churches and civic groups pay $500, and if she appears on behalf of the Pageant sponsors—Oldsmobile, Toni and Frigidaire—she receives $250 a day. The Women's Liberation Movement, which has taken to picketing the pageant, charges, among other things, that Miss America is "a slave to the capitalistic system—she is a walking commercial, wind her up and she plugs your product...." At times she does indeed seem packaged to appeal to a middle-aged, middle-America audience. The average age of an Oldsmobile buyer happens to be 40. This year at the Miss America Awards Breakfast, an Oldsmobile representative spoke briefly. He said he was very proud and pleased with their 1970 model—of car, not of Miss America, he hastily added. Actually, Oldsmobile has had some bad luck recently. Last year's Miss America was Judi Ford, and the father of this year's winner has worked for 29 years in a Chrysler axle plant.
Pepsi-Cola, a longtime pageant sponsor, dropped the show this year. Pepsi distributors in various states still back local pageants, but Pepsi withdrew on the national level, a company spokesman says, "because the pageant no longer has big-city appeal. It is a waste of time, for instance, to try to do anything with Miss America in New York City."
This fact does not particularly disturb Miss America officials, nor does it bother the sponsoring civic organizations—Jaycees, Rotarians, Lions, etc., whose members come to Atlantic City for the pageant each September. These men, decidedly opinion makers in their own communities, are successful, and bluff with good humor. Pageant week is a full-dress affair. Wives are corsaged and stylish in celery, eggshell and banana lace. During the three nights of preliminaries (when the contestants compete in groups for talent and swimsuit trophies), as well as preceding the Saturday finale, coiffured women in evening gowns move down the Boardwalk toward Convention Hall, past the taffy shops, the frozen-custard stands, the chicken licken and 10¢ bingo parlors.
Several years ago Convention Hall was the site of the Liberty Bowl, and high school football games and midget auto races are still held there. A Kiwanis convention once had a horse race on the stage, which suggests the size of the place. As a result, though the dress is quite formal for the evenings of judging, a sporting-event atmosphere prevails. Many of the men are carrying binoculars—not to leer through; they are a necessity. There are Metlike banners of encouragement for the girls, cowbells and cheers (Go Go, Miss Wyo).
At Convention Hall the Women's Liberation Movement is picketing again, passing out handbills protesting Miss America's "image of sex, virginal prettiness, glory of war, mindless conformity, acceptance of racism and competitive spirit." Last year the group burned its brassieres on the Boardwalk. "These people seem bent upon making women less attractive through the questionable process of doing away with underwear," Pageant Chairman Marks declares. But this year the demonstration is not fiery at all, due to a restraining order issued by a local judge. Plainclothesmen with blackjacks infiltrate the audience, and hundreds of policemen in the balconies watch for trouble. None materializes, but the Other America has made its point. The Miss America concept is being assailed.
For many years the Miss America Pageant mirrored the national mood. It had its flat-breasted, no-holds-barred flappers of the '20s, its postwar salt-of-the-prairie girls, its decade of prosperity and plenty when Miss Americas and almost everyone else were college-bound. But recently the pageant has been out of step. The theme of the 1968 pageant was Cinderella, and Albert Marks' children, aged 15 and 17, asked him afterward, "What was all that about?"
Marks is businessman enough—the pageant brings $2 million a year to the city—to react to change. "I had the distinct impression we were not communicating with the people we wanted to communicate with," he recalls. So he ordered a more up-to-date approach for the 1969 show. It was billed the Sound of Young, and Marks points out carefully that the composers of the score, Glenn and Edna Osser, used five different kinds of rock music. "There was no acid rock, I'm damned if I'll allow that," Marks adds. Some other policies were also changed. Contestants were told dresses no longer had to hang to the knee, two inches above the knee would be permitted. And, a shocker, the outgoing Miss America appeared on national television dancing with a bare midriff. It was the first navel in pageant history. The show's new lyrics pounded strangely through old Convention Hall:
The sound is the beat
The heat is the sound
Stirring and strange
Searching for change...
A whole lot of folks are refusing to face it!
Thinkin' that time and good taste will erase it!
But, you can't be an ostrich
With your head buried in sand!
Look up! Look around! Listen to the sound...
You can't he caught napping
With your generation gapping....!
And so the message went. Edna Osser wrote the lyrics in her bathtub, where she has written such successful things as the Campbell Soup commercial: M'm! M'm! Good...!
But the sound of young and the new beat did not come easily. The pageant feels it has moved to close its "generation gapping," but it has not gone over-board. Miss America entries wear hairdos—curled and sprayed stiff—that went out of style years ago. They wear old-fashioned swimsuits and three-inch heels, which few stores carry anymore. This year's Miss New York, who lives in a Buffalo suburb, told of spending days shopping for her shoes and dresses that could be let down far enough to meet pageant requirements. It was interesting, too, that when the contestants performing in a show called the Sound of Young were asked what kind of music they enjoyed, they replied almost to a Miss: "Henry Mancini, no rock...Percy Faith, no rock...Ferrante and Teicher, no rock...." In the talent competition the girls sang such things as Old Devil Moon, Makin' Whoopee and I'm Always Chasing Rainbows. And one of the competing pianists told of copying Lawrence Welk's keyboard form.
The girls cannot be all things to all people, but their backers try. A member of the Tennessee delegation spoke of his state's entry as "a fine, sincere, honest, Christian woman. But she's not religious," he quickly added.
The new image of the pageant is disturbing to some people. "I think it is upsetting the audience to see the reigning Miss America in a miniskirt," Bert Parks says. "There has not been the same response to her this year. In the past when she made her appearance the people would rise and do homage to her as if she were true royalty."
Parks is the father figure of the show, the soother with saccharine of uncomfortable moments, the quizmaster and the quintessence of the Miss America contest. He is the acme of camp. He did his first show in Atlantic City 15 years ago, when some of this year's contestants were only 3 years old. To Parks, the pageant is, "a fairyland of unreality in the ugliness and tragedy of present-day life."
The climax of the pageant for everyone has long been his singing of "There she is, Miss America." The only moment like it in the history of show business, Parks believes, was when Kate Smith sang God Bless America. The pageant theme song is so identified with Parks that when he makes personal appearances throughout the year he is usually asked to sing it. Written first for the 1954 pageant, the song was scrapped during rehearsals. Bernie Wayne, the composer, recalls leaving Convention Hall that night, getting drunk and calling his mother in disappointment. When the song was finally performed, it quickly became a fixture of the pageant.
One out of every three Americans watches the Miss America telecast, and in eight of the past 10 years it has ranked either first or second in the Nielsen ratings of the year's top shows. Occasionally the Academy Awards or a Bob Hope show outdraws it, and the fourth game of the 1963 World Series (Dodgers vs. Yankees) had more viewers.
It is a smooth production, and few in this year's television audience realized that many of Bert Parks' numbers and all of Miss America's songs were prerecorded and mouthed for the cameras. The reigning Miss America, Judi Ford, has no singing talent, so a professional singer was hired to do her songs. Ironically, one of the numbers was entitled Where Is the Real? with lyrics that went, "Can he see through the image to where is the real...?"
What is seen on television is the show, but what the multimillion viewers never really sense at the Saturday night finals is the game within the show—the contest, the sport, the judging. For this it is necessary to have a well-selected seat among the lady reporters from Bangor to Bismarck who return year after year and constitute as knowing a press box as any that ever looked down with scorn on Chicago's collapsing Cubs or ex-Allie's fumbling Giants. These ladies have a fine eye for the esoteric points of conformation that completely escape the novice. One basic rule, for example, is that a girl must look durable enough to stand the Miss America pace.
However, it is not fragility of body but of hair that first catches the eye of one of the press-row sharpies as Miss California passes down the runway. "That wouldn't do for Toni" is the comment.
Miss Colorado, the baton twirler in University of Colorado halftime shows, appears. She is too tall, too thin (she eats 10 instant breakfasts a day to slight avail) and sparkly gowned. "That's last year's dress" is the dry appraisal.
The swimsuit parade begins, and Miss Ohio looks lively, self-assured. She is 36-23-36 and has never lost a bathing-suit contest. "Mmmm," says a lady. "I don't know how she wins. One shoulder is lower than the other."
Miss Minnesota follows, the girl a charm school tried to teach to walk. "She didn't learn anything," someone remarks.
Miss Michigan arrives, sweetly blonde. She has won a swimsuit preliminary (she cannot swim). "Flabby thighs," a lady reporter notes.
Few people in Convention Hall are making such cool assessments. The audience is enjoying the spangle of color and music and the patter of Bert Parks. It wants to laugh a little and cry a little and believe that Miss America, whoever she may be, will live happily ever after. But the judges have noticed it all. The talent. The hair. The walk. The thighs. Now they vote. Four certified public accountants tally the ballots. The winner...(pause)...is Miss Michigan, Pamela Anne Eldred. They crown her, cloak her in velvet and ermine and give her a scepter. Suddenly it is midnight. Is the coach turning into a pumpkin? Who left this glass slipper behind?