MISS AMERICA ... THEN AND NOW
When I was a little boy, my family and I never missed the annual broadcast of the Miss America Pageant. On a Saturday night in September, we would gather on our living room couch in front of our Sylvania small screen TV that looked like a washing machine with rabbit ears antenna on the top. We would even attach aluminum foil to the tips of the rabbit ears so that we could get better reception.
And then Bert Parks would appear on our TV screen in glorious black and white live from the Atlantic City Convention Hall.
Bert was the emcee for each Miss America Pageant. At the beginning of the broadcast, he would introduce the contestants from all 50 states. My parents and I would applaud Miss Tennessee and whisper a prayer that she would be crowned Miss America 1958 (or whatever the year was.)
Bert would then guide the contestants through four stages of the pageant.
The first would be the swimsuit competition. In this event, the contestants would parade onto the stage wearing swimsuits and (so help me) high-heeled shoes. Even as a child I did not understand this fashion combination. My mother never wore high heeled shoes with her swimsuit when we went to the beach at the Redneck Riviera. Had she done so, there is no doubt in my mind that the spikes of her heels would have simply sunk into the sand. But for some reason, the Miss America Pageant required that its contestants wear high-heeled shoes with their swimsuits.
The second part of the pageant was the talent competition. This was a chance for Miss Montana or Miss North Dakota or yes, Miss Tennessee to show that she was more than a pretty girl. She was a talented pretty girl! In the talent competition, the contestants would play the piano or sing or twirl batons, and the tips of the batons would often be lit on fire! But the most talented contestants were ventriloquists who would come on the stage carrying a dummy, and I’m not referring to Bert Parks.
The contestant and her dummy would then sing songs or tell jokes with the beauty queen showing her pearly white teeth and never moving her lips! Now that was entertainment!
The third part of the pageant was the evening gown competition in which the contestants again appeared on stage walking in their high heels although this time they were topped by a beautiful evening gown, rather than a swimsuit. They all looked like they were headed for the prom!
And then came the final event of the exciting evening. Bert Parks would introduce the five finalists, and then he would ask questions of each one. They were not questions with objective correct answers such as, “How many United States Senators are there?” They were sort of verbal essay questions such as, “If you are selected Miss America, what will you do to promote world peace?”
After the five finalists gave beautiful answers, Bert Parks would announce the decision of the pageant judges. He did this in dramatic fashion, first naming the fourth runner-up, followed by the third and second before finally coming down to the two remaining contestants.
The two finalists would then literally hold each other as they stood before the audience and awaited Bert’s big announcement.
His announcement always went something like this: “The first runner-up … who will become Miss America in the event the chosen Miss America cannot serve … is … “
Bert would then announce the name of the second place finisher. Invariably the runner up would squeeze the new Miss America in her arms and act as if she was truly excited that the other girl, not her, had been chosen Miss America.
The new Miss America would then cry like a baby as the previous Miss America would come on to the stage and pin a tiara to her bouffant hairdo.
The new Miss America would then walk down the runway as Bert crooned, “There she is, Miss America!” But in 1979, Bert was unceremoniously fired by the Miss America Pageant in an ill-fated attempt to attract “a more youthful audience.”
I stopped watching the Miss America Pageant after Bert was fired, and apparently I’m not the only one. The ratings have dropped for years, and last year alone, they dropped 13%.
The Miss America Pageant ain’t what it used to be. And this year, that statement will be literally true.
On Tuesday, Gretchen Carlson who was Miss America in 1989 and is now the Chairwoman of the Miss America Board of Directors, announced major changes in the 2019 pageant. For starters, it will no longer be called a “pageant.” It will be a “competition.”
Second, there will be no more swimsuit contest either with or without bikinis and high heels.
Third, the contest will be open to women of all shapes and sizes, not just skinny girls. “We will no longer judge our candidates on their outward physical appearance,” Ms. Carlson told ABC News. The competition she added, “will be open to women of all shapes and sizes.”
And hold on to your tiaras! The evening gown competition is being “revamped,” as contestants will now be able to wear “whatever they choose.” (Wouldn’t it be great if one of the contestants chose to wear a swimsuit and high heels?)
Thankfully, there will still be a talent portion of the competition, and I hope this means we will still see a few baton-twirling ventriloquists!
Well, I don’t believe I’ll be tuning in for the 2019 pageant. It’s not that I’m opposed to change. It’s just that I now spend my Saturday nights in September switching between college football games on ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNU, ESPN Classic, ESPN Deportes, ESPN News, and the SEC Network.
Frankly, I think if the Miss America Pageant wants to get viewers like me back, they should telecast the pageant on ESPN where the contestants will toss footballs and tackle ventriloquism dummies while twirling firey batons! Now that’s entertainment!