One Last Wave


ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- When dawn broke yesterday over this jilted city in South Jersey, even the sea gulls shrieked their indignation. Locals en route to work and longtime tourists strolling the boardwalk muttered over that strumpet, Miss America, who after 84 good years was leaving them for God knows where.

"It's unjust, it's unfair, and it's a horrible thing to do to Atlantic City," said Sondra Mitchell, a retiree who lives in town. "I know we put out money and money, millions -- millions! -- for her. We did everything for her."

They had treated her like a lady: All they wanted was a peek at her pretty pair of slippers.

"Show us your shoes! Show us your shoes!" was the residents' chant during the annual parade that preceded the pageant, where queenly women sailed through the city on floats, wearing gowns so long that their feet were seldom visible. But then they would reveal their shoes, hiking up silken skirts to reveal footwear that grew increasingly elaborate over the years: Miss Texas wore stirrups; others affixed palm trees, faux-sundaes, glitter-dusted snowmen, tiny plastic bananas and -- thank you, Miss Maryland -- plush crabs.

Only residents and visitors were privy to these untelevised moments, which illustrate the kind of intimacy that arose over the years between beauty queens and their host town. It's this closeness that people here say they will miss the most, after Thursday's announcement that the pageant will be staged elsewhere (no one knows yet precisely where), ending an eight-decade-long romance between the city and its pretty symbol.

And a romance it truly was. The regional tourism bureau once presented the pageant with a plaque thanking Miss America for "her love affair with Atlantic City," a liaison that endured as both American institutions came of age, then later clung together through tough times.

A union deteriorates

The bitterness felt locally now is like an ex's ire, summed up in the word a local paper used to describe the suddenly defunct partnership: Divorce.

As is often the case when storied unions collapse, money was an issue. Last year, Atlantic City gave the nonprofit pageant some $720,000 in subsidies, but it still wound up about $500,000 in the hole. Although hundreds of locals donate goods and services to the competition each year, "quite frankly, we're after the big money now," said Art McMaster, chief executive of the Miss America Organization. A new home city must foot the whole bill, or the organization can't survive.

And -- although pageant organizers profess lingering fondness for Atlantic City -- there's also the problem of national appeal to consider. Since the show's small screen supremacy in the 1950s, its television ratings have come crashing down like waves on the Jersey shore. ABC dumped the pageant last fall after its viewership dropped to a record low of 9.8 million.

For months it failed to secure new network support, finally seeking asylum in the cable-only (and Nashville-based) Country Music Television, which will carry the show in January instead of the traditional September. That broadcast may include new narrative elements, such as a reality show format, and McMaster felt that it also needed "to start fresh" in terms of location, perhaps in a setting more in sync with the channel's Southern-leaning audience.

Several cities have "wanted to get their hands on Miss America" in the past, McMaster said. But, at this point, no one knows where she will turn.

When Miss America -- in the unlikely form of the balding, mustachioed McMaster -- pleaded Thursday to be released from the remaining two years of the pageant's contract with its longtime venue, Boardwalk Hall, the board of directors of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority was stunned. No one fanned their eyes, the way beauty queens do when they're about to cry. For a long time, in fact, no one reacted at all.

Then the questions poured. Why can't you stay? What's two more years?

But when Miss America bared her soul, and revealed her financial predicament, the city acted as a gentleman would, and let her go.

They'll always have the memories.

A pageant is born

The pageant was started in 1921 by an enterprising group of boardwalk businessmen hoping to extend their summer season. The city -- which turns 150 this year -- was at that time transitioning from a hoity-toity resort for Philadelphia's elite to a vacation destination for the Eastern Seaboard's hoi polloi, according to Jeffrey Vasser, head of the city's visitor's authority. A beauty pageant jibed perfectly with this new image, and when the first winner appeared in what one of the town's many Miss America shrines describes as "a demure skirted swimsuit" (which closely resembled a potato sack), she was so well-received that a tradition began.

It was a natural collaboration; "Atlantic City" even rhymes with "queen of femininity" -- at least well enough for the purposes of the pageant's famous song.

The town and its crown princess blossomed together, both peaking in the 1940s and, especially, the 1950s, when the pageant entranced its first television audiences, and the resort basked in free national exposure. The competition -- which added talent and personality components -- eventually became a scholarship contest, a way for women from places like Meridian, Miss., and Anoka, Minn., to pay for college, and maybe impress a Broadway producer in the process.

Along with lining the boardwalk, locals participated in the annual production as ushers and electricians, chauffeurs and chaperones. Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi was 5 years old in 1946 when she was chosen to carry the ermine-trimmed velvet robe of Bess Myerson, the reigning Miss America.

"It was a huge event," said Gold Levi, who now lives in New York. "It was so exciting in those days and so vital. It garnered great good will, good press."

The relationship's tenor changed in the 1960s and '70s, when both bathing beauty and the boardwalk fell into decline. As cheap air travel and the advent of air-conditioning ravaged the beach resort, the Miss America pageant also began to prance out of step with American culture, promoting its disputable status as a "scholarship competition." Feminists staged protests against the pageant on the boardwalk, which itself, Vasser said, grew seedier with each passing summer.

Ultimately, the city snapped out of it. In the late 1970s, casinos revived the town, attracting shopping malls and upscale restaurants. Now, with or without the pageant, "September is peak season for us," Vasser said. "The casinos are still bringing in their high rollers."

Hometown nostalgia

Of course, Miss America has never been one to wager, which is why many local businesses say that the pageant's departure won't hurt them. As far as the rest of the boardwalk goes, she doesn't eat fudge or funnel cake much, either.

"The pageant is no longer a germane part of the [city's] economic structure," Gold Levi said.

Residents' extreme reaction to the news is "more nostalgia" than anything, she said.

This town is big on nostalgia. On one street, quotes from Miss Americas past are engraved on sidewalk tiles edged with roses, which, in light of Thursday's news, are starting to look a little like tombstones. Yesterday morning, a mime impersonating the Statue of Liberty -- whose headdress Miss America's crown was initially designed to resemble -- pouted on the margins of the boardwalk. Outside a western-themed casino, a sad country ballad filled the air:

Your touch, your kiss, your tenderness

Your blue eyes burning with fire ...

You could almost hear the collective "humph" from passing locals.

But, no matter where she lands next, locals say Miss America will always have a home in Atlantic City. For now, her corporate headquarters will remain here, and the next Miss America -- according to the pageant's so-called "separation agreement" -- is scheduled to make at least 10 local appearances, which Vasser counts as a great tourism draw.

"Everyone says Miss America's irrelevant, but everyone still wants to get their picture taken with her," he said.

Like lovers who have decided to remain friends, Miss America and Atlantic City will keep looking out for each other as they always have. When 5-year-old Gold Levi was gripping the beauty queen's train, feeling the crowd's eyes on her and the news cameras rolling, she tripped and fell over her mini high heels. She always remembered the way that Miss America juggled scepter and roses to make sure she was OK. To this day Gold Levi returns the favor, calling the now-80-year-old beauty queen every year on her birthday.

The city, she said, should be similarly solicitous -- even if, as rumors have it, Donald Trump's Miss USA competition one day takes its place in town, and even if this year's contestant, instead of frolicking as customary in the Atlantic surf, ends up stomping around in cowboy boots.

Who can say what Miss America's future holds? In Atlantic City, that would be Tina, resident tarot card reader. Her Psychic Shop on the boardwalk is pure Jersey shore honky-tonk, with a neon-lit palm in the window and a pile of mystical-looking crystals within. Tina consults the fates for a moment, and her eyes roll back into her head.

"She. Will. Go. To. Florida," the fortune teller intones at last. "And she's going to do great."

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad