September 1, 2005

Miss America has fallen off the runway

Staff Writer

Kay Wright has seen every Miss America Pageant since 1935.

"My brother took me when I was a kid," she remembers. "I would sit on his shoulders."

Kay, who lives in Pleasantville, remembers when the pageant was held on the Steel Pier, before it moved to what is now the Boardwalk Hall in the early 1940s. Her oldest daughter, Linda, a nurse at the Atlantic City Medical Center, started attending pageants even earlier.

"I was pregnant with Linda when BeBe Shopp was crowned," she said. "I was sitting in a box with Bebe's father. It was pretty exciting."

Both Linda, and Kay s other daughter, Barbara, competed in local pageants. Through the years Kay has built floats for the boardwalk parade, created banners, designed sets, judged many Miss America preliminaries and run her own small pageant competition to select a representative to Miss Atlantic County for the Pleasantville Yacht Club.

Will she attend the 2006 pageant?

"It depends on where it is and the date," she says with a sigh of frustration. The pageant has been a very important part of her life. But attending may not be convenient anymore.

Kay is one of the many people that the Miss America Organization hurt deeply with the surprise announcement that it will be leaving Atlantic City.

Thousands of women through the years (and hundreds of men) have volunteered their time and talents to make the event run. Underline that word volunteered because expanding the paid staff at the pageant seems to coincide with the downward spiral.

Current pageant director Art McMaster made the entire situation a lot worse by repeatedly lying about the intentions of the pageant. Three or four times in the six weeks before last week s announcement, McMaster assured reporters that there were no plans to hold the pageant anywhere else.

It reminds you of the NFL's Baltimore Colts, leaving in trucks after midnight and heading for Indianapolis with no advance notice.

But despite the dishonest way he went about it, McMaster just happens to be the guy in the big office when a major change was forced. If guys like Leonard Horn had acted on suggestions 10 years ago - televising the pageant s preliminary nights and changing the night of the final, among them - maybe the pageant's television value would not have disintegrated so fast.

Instead, Miss America (or whatever they may call her) will receive her crown in January on CMT (Country Music Television), pre-empting re-runs of The Dukes of Hazard, CMT s biggest prime time show.

Pageant officials tried so hard to spin this entire situation that they must have become dizzy. They wanted us to believe there was a real competition for the right to televise this pageant after ABC declined to renew its contract. In all probability, CMT was about all they could get.

All of this makes you wonder if it is more important that Miss America be crowned on an existing network, executing whatever silly changes that network dictates, or that this scholarship program remain true to itself and control its own destiny.

Why not create the Miss America Network, a changing lineup of stations, especially those in the home areas of the state representatives, which would be generated each year by the pageant? Sort of a syndicated network. Then we could have something true to the traditions of Miss America and consistent with its goals.

Four nights of preliminaries. A televised parade. A returned emphasis on talent and the glamour of evening gowns. Platform issues? Sure, but maybe not as a major point of discussion on the stage.

What about Comcast? The Philadelphia-based communications company has the exposure to handle pageant coverage. And what about utilizing the Internet to cover the pageant, offering live broadcasts there, as well?

Maybe the Miss America people pursued these things. We don't know because they ran from the truth like it was a rattlesnake, telling us about all the TV offers they were weighing and how there were no plans to leave town.

An outspoken former Miss America - Leanza Cornett of Florida - said, "The definition of the ideal woman has changed. Change is the only way (the pageant) is going to succeed".

The definition of the ideal woman has changed - there is no more ideal woman. That's why the last 20 Miss Americas have been so different. While the pageant's scholarship program is wonderful, a life-changing opportunity for many women, it has been left in the dust by the NCAA scholarship program, which offers millions more dollars every year than Miss America. Athletic scholarships for women were not a realistic option 15 or 20 years ago.

You also have to be surprised at the decision by the board of directors of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority. Members have been quoted as saying they didn't want to be responsible for the death of Miss America. But shouldn't their first responsibility have been what is best for Atlantic City and the Boardwalk Hall? What they succeeded in doing was creating headlines all over the country that made it seem like the pageant was failing because it was located in Atlantic City - millions of dollars worth of bad publicity.

Miss America was, after all, not just a competition. It was a convention. And a pretty large convention. Thousands of "pageant people" came to the resort for a week that included daytime meetings, workshops and a trade show. After each night's competition there were parties. For decades, women have come from all over the country to dance with Joe Fagan at the Southern Ball.

There have been 11 young women from the area who competed in the Miss America Pageant. The most recent was Jennifer Farrell of Margate, Miss New Jersey 2003 and the first graduate of Holy Spirit to compete. Previously, New Jersey has been represented by three Ocean City High School graduates (Laurie Berchtold, Amy Fissel and Tricia Bowman), one Mainland grad (Mary McGinnis) and a Wildwood summer resident (Sue Plummer).

Two from Oakcrest (Debbie Lipford and Elaine Campanelli) competed as Miss Delaware; an Atlantic City grad (Joan Burachio) was Miss Nevada; and Ocean City s Michelle Harris was Miss Delaware. There was also Suzette Charles, Miss America 1984, a Mays Landing resident who attended the Philadelphia School of the Performing Arts.

There has been some talk from McMaster (can we believe him now?) of moving the pageant from city to city, like Miss USA and Miss Universe. Why not, those two pageants have been beating Miss America to everything the last 10 or 12 years. But operating this event without the hundreds of experienced hostesses will not be as easy as it must seem to the decision makers.

Atlantic City may not be without a pageant for long. Donald Trump has already expressed interest in bringing Miss USA or Miss Universe to town. It probably wouldn't be a permanent thing, but it would be successful. Because Trump knows how to promote and is surrounded by people who know how to entertain.

But it won t be the same.

When Labor Day rolls around and the summer visitors head home, it just starts to feel like Miss America time. The souvenir magazines start showing up in the stores and on the boardwalk. The newspapers begin to interview and photograph the young women as they arrive. Then the preliminaries, the parade and, ultimately, the final night.

That s all gone. Miss America has fallen off the runway. And it remains to be seen if she will ever get on her feet again.

For Kay Wright, and the thousands of local residents like her, things will never be the same again.