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Somewhere, Bert Parks is smiling


I first met him a dozen years ago in Atlantic City. They hadn't built the casinos yet and the Miss America Pageant was the only reason people showed up in September.

He had a small suite at the Holiday Inn. He had an ocean view, though the ocean, like the sky, always seemed to be gray and forbidding.

On the coffee table in his room there was a gigantic basket of fruit accompanied by an adoring little note from the president of CBS.

Back then, Bert Parks was somebody.

He came to the door wearing black and white loafers, white pants with a razor-thin pinstripe and a dazzling white shirt open at the throat.

As soon as Parks saw the photographer with me, he leaned forward and spread open his shirt.

"A little more decolletage, hmmm?" he leered.

I liked him immediately. He was everything the Miss America Pageant, which he hosted for 25 years, was not: Funny, self-deprecating, and human.

"My friend, my friend," he said, putting a hand on my shoulder and drawing me into the room, "I am like a cinder in the public eye."

I noticed his cufflinks. Together, they spelled out an obscene phrase.

"And you can't print it!" he shouted. "Nobody would believe it! Not of me!"

Nobody would have. He was a household name, a fixture, a cultural icon. America's best-loved ham, winking his way through the pageant every year.

"It is like Russian Roulette up there," he said. "I've got 50 amateurs behind me and two hours of prime time. One year I had a girl who tap danced on her head. She did, she did! She got on her head and two stagehands held a board above her and she tap danced upside down! Then we had a girl who came out with a horse. I think the horse won."

Nobody else at the pageant ever joked. About anything. Under the iron rule of Albert Marks Jr., the chairman of the Miss America board, the pageant operated with a suffocating earnestness.

Parks, however, was allowed to get away with what he wanted. The pageant had no choice. In the public mind, Parks was the pageant.

"It is the grandma of all pageants," Parks said. "We have imitators. We have Miss Universe. Miss World. I am waiting for Miss Alcoholic America."

He pointed to the huge fruit basket on the coffee table. It was overflowing with oranges, apples, jellies and salt water taffy. It stood at least three feet high. "Look at that," Parks ,said. "It's so nice, it's almost vulgar."

Which was precisely what Parks was accused of being when he started out in quiz show television. He hosted about 20 different shows, possessing what TV critic John Crosby called "a smile you could read by."

And then he got the Miss America gig in 1954, the second year the show was televised. He was the first person to sing "There She Is, Miss America" and he and that song were the only things people remembered about the pageant from year to year.

"People forget I played in the 'Music Man' on Broadway right after Robert Preston," Parks said. "But look, [the pageant] gives me instant recognizability. People see me and it's always, 'Hey, Bert!' and they sing: 'There he is . . . Bert Parks!' I'm grateful for that, very grateful."

Albert Marks dumped Parks in 1980, saying America wanted a younger image, a younger face on the screen. Parks was 65.

I called Parks at his home in Connecticut the next day. "They said they wanted a change of face or whatever," he said. "But after 25 years do you think they could have called to tell me? Do you think they could have done better than to send a goddam letter?

"Who can you remember that has lasted 25 years and whose show was in the top 10 every year. Who? I'll do all right, though. I'll do fine. I have done a 'WKRP in Cincinnati.' I was very good. Excellent! I was so good, I wrote myself a fan letter and answered it!"

You could not keep him down. He was too much a showman.

In 1985, Marks extended an olive branch. He asked Parks to come back and sing "There She Is, Miss America" at the end of the show.

Parks, true to form, told him to shove it.

"Can you believe those bastards called me up and asked me to come back and sing it?" he told me. "And then I was supposed to disappear into the woodwork again? Can you believe those bastards? Can you?"

Albert Marks died in 1989 and the feud ended. Parks came back to the show in 1990. He flubbed some names and it was not the most polished of performances, but most people didn't care. It was good to see all those teeth again.

Parks died last Sunday at age 77.

But I've got to believe that the next time a contestant takes the stage in Atlantic City and tap dances on her head, somehow, somewhere, Bert Parks will be smiling.

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