HAGERSTOWN -- The president of the board is hammering the edge of a temporary runway that juts out over the first few rows of the Maryland Theatre, preparing to swath it in a burgundy skirt and illuminate it with a string of white Christmas lights. The choreographer is rolling his eyes, belying the soothing "You will get this, you will get this" he is crooning, more to reassure himself than the 24 Misses splattered across the stage, some going right when he says left and others forgetting how to count to eight.
But he's right: They will get this. They always do. For 26 years, the show has gone on here. Batons twirl as they always do, voices trill prettily, ivories get tickled, bathing suits stay put, evening gowns and tears flow gracefully and Miss Maryland is crowned once again. This year's winner will be selected tonight after a final round of competition.
Somewhere down the road is Atlantic City and the Miss America crown, a Corvette and network television, Regis Philbin and the blinding lights of possibility.
But here at the state level, the car is a Camaro, the hotel is a Best Western, the appearances are at a shopping mall and the emcee is someone who announces you're going to play a piano piece by "Pro-ko-five." In the lobby, they're burning the popcorn and loudly hawking programs filled with ads from the local paving contractor and your orthodontist. On stage, the microphones squeak, some of the contestants' thighs even jiggle and no one cares.
Pageantry is what many in this western Maryland city of 38,500 would like Hagerstown to be known for. The other option, after all, is prisoners -- the state's largest concentration, with more than 6,600 inmates biding their time in three facilities here. Besides its Miss Washington County pageant, a Miss Antietam competition has also sprung up here to contribute another candidate for Miss Maryland.
That is the main event, and to date, the endpoint -- literally -- since no Miss Maryland has ever gone on to become Miss America. Yet, the organizers are quick to add.
"Hagerstown opens its doors to us," says David Jones, president of the Miss Maryland Scholarship Organization. A stockbroker here, Jones became involved in pageants via his daughter, Karissa, Miss Maryland of 1994. Now, he heads an all-volunteer board that spends the year between pageants planning those pageants -- everything from raising money for the scholarship awards to building the sets for the three days of shows that culminate with the crowning.
"This would be corny anywhere but here," says Mark Levine, owner of a McDonald's restaurant that every year serves up dinners, on shiny silver trays, to the contestants during their week of preparations. He is a second-generation Hagerstown McDonalds owner -- his dad started feeding and feting the contestants the same year they started competing in Hagerstown. "He even did a breakfast in bed for them," Levine recalls fondly.
Small town phenomenon
The state pageants that feed into Miss America tend to be embraced in the Hagerstowns, Bethlehems, Fresnos, Muskegons and Monroes of the country more than, say, the Baltimores, Philadelphias, San Franciscos, Detroits and New Orleanses.
For at least a week each year, Hagerstown is a place where you can wear a tiara safely and without irony; imagine doing that in, say, Takoma Park.
At this week's competitions, held in the glorious, gilt-cherub splendor of the renovated Maryland Theatre downtown, even the audience was dotted with tiara-wearers. Miss Delaware showed up in hers. All manner of contestants from the Miss Maryland Teen pageant were decked out not just in their rhinestone toppers but also their sashes. Much of the partisan audience -- a good number of them relatives and friends of the contestants -- wore little rhinestone-crown pins on their lapels.
Little girls even ask for autographs.
"I've met two Miss Americas," autograph-seeking Desiree Lake, 9, announces. She and her parents, Gary and Becky, are what you might call "pageantheads." They've seen 30 or 50 of them over the years.
The Lakes are qualified pageant judges -- "in three states," Gary says -- and they go to pageants the way other families go to the theater or an amusement park. They got hooked when an older daughter began competing and entered Miss Maryland one year.
In Hagerstown, the Lakes, who live in Bear, Del., judge unofficially along with the real judges, using the score sheets included in the $10 programs. On the first night of the preliminaries, they got it right: Like the official judges, they had rated Prokofiev-playing Diana Soriano (Miss College Park) first in talent, and the bosomy, long-legged Brandy Reese (Miss Lanham) tops in bathing suit.
"I just like to see them do their talents," Desiree says. "And I like to see how pretty they are."
She professes no interest in entering a pageant herself, but her ++ dad retains his hopes. "She does dance and play the piano," he says, "so we'll see."