Why was the Miss America Pageant not the Miss America Pageant without Bert Parks? That is the question.
Well, it's one of a couple of questions that seem worth asking in the wake of Parks' death of inoperable lung cancer Sunday night at age 77 in La Jolla, Calif.
Another question is the kind we're a bit gun-shy about asking in appreciations like this. But it's one we need to ask: How could a man of such limited talents come to be so widely known and seemingly so important to so many people?
Bert Parks did matter to a lot of television viewers. Some older viewers surely remember him from his early days as a quiz show emcee on radio and TV. Parks started on radio in the late 1940s and moved to TV in 1950 as the medium was making its way into America's living rooms. At one point, before the quiz show scandals of 1957, he was appearing in 12 different network TV shows a week, including "Stop the Music" and "Break the Bank."
It was at the height of his TV fame in 1955 that he was asked to serve as master of ceremonies for the telecast of the Miss America Pageant, a post he held for 25 years until he was forced to retire in 1980. Parks did have one other major triumph in his career: as Professor Harold Hill in "The Music Man" on Broadway in 1960 and '61. But it is as emcee of the Miss America Pageant that most of America remembers him -- in a tuxedo and patent-leather hair, smiling that chamber-of-commerce smile and singing "There She Is" as another tearful Miss America was crowned and started her Cinderella stroll of triumph down the glittery runway.
Parks understood the pageantry of the event as it came across on the small screen to viewers in the late 1950s. "This is the biggest Cinderella story in America, and it should be played that way," he said.
Parks did play it that way with lots of "--, nattiness and suave manner," as one critic said of his stage performance. There was also something of the sexually non-threatening uncle or, perhaps, court chaperon to the image of Parks surrounded by all those beauty queens.
But mainly Bert Parks was to the values of that rosy, optimistic era known as post-war America what the emcee played by Joel Grey in "Cabaret" was to the darkness of prewar Germany. He was representative, which on TV is often a lot more important than being talented. In fact, there is no more important a talent (if you want to call it that) for an emcee to have than being representative of his audience. He represented the up side of what we wanted to believe was possible for a man in America who wore a smile on his face and shine on his shoes, as surely as Willy Loman stood for the down side.
Miss America pageant officials discovered the depth of the connection between many TV viewers and Parks when they dumped him in 1980 at age 65. Parks was angry. Ronald Reagan had just been elected president. "He's five years older than me and he could run the country," Parks said of Reagan. "But I was too old to run a beauty pageant."
But Johnny Carson and others understood the attachment to Parks -- even though for some younger viewers he had become an object of gentle mockery for his old-time TV look and ways. Carson led a chant, "We want Parks! We want Parks!" on the "Tonight" show when news of Parks' dismissal was announced. The pageant was not the same without Parks.
Parks' ending was not an especially happy one. He jokingly said the firing was like being "hit by a golden blackjack" and that he was "busier than ever" after it happened. But the work was emceeing the All-American Glamour Kitty contest, the U.S. Man of the Year contest and a Purina Dog Chow event. He also did guest shots on "The Love Boat," "WKRP in Cincinnati" and "Roseanne." Parks was invited back in 1990 to sing -- or rather lip-sync -- "There She Is" for the 70th anniversary of the pageant. His lips were not in sync with the soundtrack, and he forgot to introduce some of the contestants.
But Parks kept a stiff upper lip. He said the flubs on the Miss America show were his fault. Of his dog shows and TV appearances, he said, "If it isn't double-X-rated and not degrading, then nothing is too crazy for me, sweetheart, nothing."