People & Events: Bert Parks (1914-1992)
Bert Parks, speaking about his appeal to a local Atlantic City press reporter, said it best: "I'm utterly charming." Parks' eager, folksy appeal and vaudevillian ability to turn unexpected pratfalls into comedy served him well as the host of the Miss America Pageant for a quarter of a century. Born Bert Jacobson on December 30, 1914, in Atlanta, Georgia, Parks was entertaining his parents with Charlie Chaplin impersonations by the age of three. At 16, he was hired for his first broadcasting job by Atlanta radio station WGST. Parks moved to New York when he was 19. Blessed with the kind of rich resonant voice suited for radio, he worked first as a singer/straight man on The Eddie Cantor Show and then as a staff announcer for CBS radio.
In 1945 he won the job as host on the popular game show, Break the Bank, and became an emcee on numerous game shows, both in radio, as the host in shows such as Stop the Music, and on television as host of Double or Nothing between 1953-1955. By the early 1950s, he was a ubiquitous host of both daytime and primetime game shows and variety series. From 1950-52 he had his own daytime variety show on NBC, The Bert Parks Show. In the early 1960s he replaced Robert Preston as the title character in the Broadway hit, The Music Man and performed regularly in road companies of musicals. In 1975 he made his feature debut in That's the Way of the World.
Bert Parks virtually became an American icon as the host of the annual Miss America Pageant from its second telecast in 1955 until 1980, when he was fired by producers seeking a younger image for the show. Parks was known for his ability to put contestants at ease and for his talent helping contestants, all amateurs at being on stage, look their best. He presented himself as a father figure and helped give the show its wholesome image in the 50s and 60s. As Vicki Gold Levi, a historian of the pageant, said,
... he made you feel that he could be your guest at Thanksgiving dinner and he would just sit there and tell you all about Miss Alabama and all about Miss California. And he just was such an important ingredient of why the television show worked.
The pageant reached its climax every year when the new Miss America was crowned and Parks sang the show's signature song, "There She Is."
In 1979 organizers of the pageant were pressured to replace Parks, who was thought to be too old, too corny, and too sexist for the times. When Parks was dismissed, an unexpected outcry arose from the public. Public passion was flamed by the way in which Parks had found out about being fired. A letter was sent to Parks' home in Connecticut while he was traveling to Florida. The news had leaked to the press, and before Parks was able to open the letter of dismissal, he read about it in the newspapers. Parks was bitter and devastated. In protest, Tonight Show host Johnny Carson organized an letter writing campaign to reinstate Parks. The campaign was unsuccessful. The actor Ron Ely became the pageant's new host. In 1990 Parks made a nostalgic return to the pageant for its 70th anniversary, as a guest. He did not sing to the winner that year -- host Gary Collins did -- but Parks did serenade twenty-five former Miss Americas assembled on stage with the signature song, "There She Is." Although he received a standing ovation, the program was marred by gaffes and he was not asked to return.
Also in 1990, Parks made a much lauded cameo appearance as himself in the Marlon Brando film, The Freshman, where he sang a satirical version of "There She Is" to a lizard. In 1992, Parks died at age 77 of lung cancer. As the Miss America emcee, he had been loved by millions, and considered something of a national icon. His moment of serenading each year's winner evoked a debutante ball, a father giving away the bride, and a Cinderella story, all in one.
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