One Last Wave

After 84 years, Miss America leaves home, and Atlantic City's boardwalk will never be the same.

August 27, 2005|By Abigail Tucker | Abigail Tucker,SUN STAFF

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.

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