The Miss America Organization and Pageant Icons
The Miss America Organization
The Miss America Pageant and its sponsor, the Miss America Organization, has evolved from a beach-side showcase for frolicking bathing beauties to a competition that still includes bathing suits, but now emphasizes scholarships and social causes. In 1921 the winner of the first Inter-City Beauty Contest was crowned "Miss America," and she won a first place prize of $100. The first pageant had only seven contestants from cities along the East Coast. Although the number of contestants and the pageant's popularity increased throughout the decade, the event was closed down in 1927 due to growing criticism and charges of immorality, as well as a lack of financial support.
In 1933 organizers revived the pageant. By 1940, the pageant had regained its financial footing and respectability. It continued as a not-for-profit event; its official title became the "Miss America Pageant" and chose the Atlantic City Convention Hall as its permanent venue. The national executive director, Lenora Slaughter, shaped the modern pageant by adding features such as state competitions, the scholarship program, and a judging category based on personal interviews.
In the 1990s the pageant was reformed into The Miss America Organization, a not-for-profit corporation which comprised three distinct divisions: the traditional Miss America Pageant, the scholarship fund, and a Miss America foundation. The organization grants state franchises to one "responsible" organization in each state — usually the Junior Chamber of Commerce (Jaycees). The state organization conducts a state competition in accordance with all the rules and regulations established by the Miss America Organization. These include having a panel of Miss-America-certified judges. The state pageant organizations, in turn, are responsible for reciprocal franchising of "responsible" organizations within each state to sponsor local and regional competitions. The local, state, and national organizations all rely on a vast army of volunteers and financial supporters to work throughout the year.
Contestants at all levels of the pageant compete in four categories: talent, evening wear, interview and physical fitness. Further, every Miss America state titleholder must select a platform for a social cause that is important to her. She spends her year's service as a state winner advocating her issue. On the national level, Miss America also spends her year (since 1989, when the platform requirement was established) advocating her cause to the media, business people, public officials, and civic and charitable organizations.
The pageant competitions and the national broadcast are only one part of what the Miss America Organization does. The national and state organizations operate twelve months a year, raising scholarship funds from large and small businesses. The Miss America Organization's main mission is to provide contestants with the opportunity to pursue their professional and educational goals through monetary grants and awards.
On the national level, scholarships are distributed as follows:
Miss America, $40,000
First runner-up, $30,000
Second runner-up, $20,000
Third runner-up, $15,000
Fourth runner-up, $10,000
Each of the five semi-finalists also wins $8,000. Each of the other 40 contestants receives $3,000. The three preliminary talent winners get $2000 each. The three preliminary swimsuit winners gain $500 each. One non-finalist interview winner is awarded $1,000. There are a number of other scholarship awards on the national level, including ten Bert Parks non-finalist talent winners, receiving $1,000 each, and a newly established Steinway Music Scholarship of $5,000.
Since establishing the scholarship program in 1945, the Miss America program has distributed more than $150 million in educational grants, making it the world's largest scholarship program for women. Each year more than $30 million in diverse scholarships are made available to thousands of women who participate in local, state and national Miss America programs.
Lenora Slaughter Transforms the Pageant
From its inception, the Miss America Pageant wrestled with its image. In the 1920s, pageant organizers worked to make it a sophisticated event. But critics such as women's clubs and religious groups abhorred the display of the female form in public; it was not considered respectable behavior. Although Victorian values had relaxed, new freedoms for women — from the expression of more direct sexuality to winning the vote in 1920 — led to a general anxiety about women's apparently loosening morals. To make matters worse, most of the women who flocked to the pageant came with hopes of landing a Hollywood or stage career, cashing in on their good looks but raising questions about their morality. The growing criticism caused pageant officials to shut down the event in 1928.
The economic depression of the 1930s brought a more conservative understanding of "proper" femininity. The ideal of the frugal homemaker replaced that of the flapper. Before the pageant could be revived, organizers had to create an event that had a higher moral tone. In 1935 Lenora Slaughter was hired to produce an event that was respectable and legitimate.
Lenora Slaughter, a Southern Baptist and businesswoman, had made a name for herself in St. Petersburg, Florida, by working tirelessly at the Chamber of Commerce to put that town on the map. Slaughter came to the Miss America Pageant on a six-week leave of absence from St. Petersburg. She ended up staying, and in time would become director of the pageant, in a reign that lasted until 1967. The pageant became her passion. She would bring the most significant and lasting changes to its structure.
The newly revived pageant of 1935 marked the beginning of a concerted effort to attract an appropriate "class of girl" to represent the nation with the title of Miss America. Unfortunately, Slaughter's early years were plagued with scandal and notoriety. In 1935, a sculptor unveiled a nude statue of that year's Miss America, Henrietta Leaver. Later, Miss America 1937, eighteen-year-old Bette Cooper, changed her mind about becoming Miss America and escaped in the middle of the night.
Slaughter initiated an all-out crusade to improve the pageant's image. First, she banned contestants who held titles that represented commercial interests, such as newspapers, amusement parks and theaters. Contestants were required to carry the title of a city, region, or state. This distanced the pageant from the crass practices of other pageants where the connection between money and women displaying themselves in public was obvious. The contestants now had to be between 18 and 25 years old, and never married. And while in Atlantic City, they had to observe a 1 am curfew and a ban on bars and nightclubs. Slaughter initiated the talent competition in 1938, introducing the idea that the contestants could be judged on more than beauty.
Slaughter did not stop there. At the time, theaters, swimming pools, state fairs, and amusement parks ran local pageants. She persuaded local Junior Chambers of Commerce (Jaycees) to become sponsors, allowing parents to feel their daughters were in safe hands. Further still, Slaughter persuaded socialites from Atlantic City's upper strata to act as hostesses and chaperones for the young women when they were in Atlantic City. A pageant judge once asked Slaughter what to look for in a winner. "Honey," she said, "just pick me a lady."
Slaughter's most significant legacy is the Miss America scholarship program. "I knew that the shine of a girl's hair wasn't going to make her a success in life," she wrote in her autobiography. Prizes before Slaughter consisted of such things as a fur coat, a Hollywood contract, or the chance to earn money modeling. In offering opportunities for advancement through education, Slaughter fashioned a pageant that appealed to middle-class sensibilities. Slaughter sat down and personally wrote about three hundred letters to businesses asking for college scholarship money that could be offered as the prize for the Miss America title. She initially raised $5000, and in 1945 the Miss America Pageant became one of the first organizations in the country to offer college scholarships to women. Lenora Slaughter died in December 2000 at the age of 94. By the time of her death, the Miss America Organization was the single largest contributor of scholarships to women in the United States.
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.