17 September 2016
A Letter From Atlantic City
For two weeks before the crowning night, young women from all over the nation, all fifty states, the District of Colombia, and Puerto Rico, converge on Absecon Island, more specifically Atlantic City, to vie for the title of Miss America. This annual tradition only recently returned to these shores after a brief stint out in the desert in that other casino city for a few years, and it was a welcome return of the prodigal daughters to the businesses and residents of the island. Their presence, along with all the pageant attendants, the support staff, the ABC television crew, the contestant’s families, the state delegations, and many of the past Miss America winners fill the city for and extra week, extending the summer season past what is, for the locals, known as the traditional end of the summer but known to the rest of the world as Labor Day. The hotels are booked, Boardwalk Hall, the pageant’s home since 1940, gets camera ready, parties and events are planned, the entire week is parsed down to the minute for everyone involved, including when you sleep, eat, speak, and are shuttled from one event to the next. It’s a well run machine of organization, a testament to the devotion of all the volunteer committees attached to the Miss America Pageant. They are as tireless as the contestants, keeping them on schedule and delivering them from one party to the next event. For the locals, the perks range from the extra week of work to spotting a Miss America hopeful in a hotel lobby or walking into a restaurant or filming a promo reel for the network. You hear them trading sightings like baseball cards, who was seen where, how nice they were, how pretty they looked, it’s all part of the local tradition. Even the families of the contestants are treated like stars, you’ll hear the locals talk about meeting Miss Delaware’s mother and how nice she was, or Miss Michigan’s little sister who was very pretty, too. But, while sighting a contestant has a certain thrill, many of the locals learn who they are and take great pride in choosing who will win, place, and show on the big night, the real star power belongs to those who have won the crown before. Those women who have already walked the runway to the sound of Bert Parks singing the pageant’s anthem, There She Is Miss America, waving to the throngs of pageant worshippers in the Hall hoping not to lose the wobbling tiara only just bobby-pinned to their teased and coiffed hair. They are the stars of the week, that is, until the newest is crowned on Sunday night. Much has changed over ninety-four years, for both the country and the Miss America Pageant, and many of the former winners who return each year are from many of those different eras of our country, each representing the women of their age, from the 1950’s debutante era, to the 1960’s and 70’s where social mores changed and the pageant resisted, to the glamorous 1980’s and the pageant’s first real scandal, and then the updates and upheavals over the following decades where rules were relaxed, formats changed, revolving hosts, and virulent backlash for it’s antiquated ideas of womanhood and beauty. Yet somehow, the pageant has soldiered on, it’s sorority of winners increasing by one more each September, and it’s still filling the boardwalk for the parade and the Hall for the show. It’s a tradition steeped in another time, that’s still trying to find it’s footing in the here and now, but it is fanatically maintained by a cadre of devotees from around the country, keeping it alive, if not all that relevant. The historic Claridge Hotel, one of the last remaining “skyscrapers by the sea” as it was known in the Boardwalk Empire-era of Atlantic City, played host to many of the former Miss Americas for the week. One of it’s dark panelled meeting rooms served as a home base for the state delegations to throw small receptions, where the state representatives could meet and greet the former winners and sit for the obligatory photo-ops and selfies, with free food and drinks available to all the invited guests. And it is exclusive, the volunteers ensure that no one gets into that room unless their name was on the list, always just enough people to make it a nice gathering, never too many to make it uncomfortable or stuffy. The state delegates are always so enamored of the Miss Americas, and they, to their credit, are gracious and delightful, even though you know they’ve heard the same fawning speeches and accolades year after year, their smiles are genuine and their enthusiasm, if a bit forced, is still pure. For them to come back each year, many of them for decades, shows a certain love for the pageant, a devotion to what the pageant means for all of it’s delegates and fans, a fealty to what made them compete for the crown the year they won. Whatever your opinion of the pageant, to be Miss America is entry to an exclusive club, and they take that title very seriously. And it is serious. There’s a lot of money at stake. It is, after all, a scholarship pageant that doles out millions every year in all the local and state contestants. During the week, the preliminary contests are run at the Hall, with minor, usually local, celebrities and pageant professionals judging the girls over three days. The show you see on crowning night is the same one they do for the preliminaries, with different hosts, and it’s where they narrow down the field of fifty-two to a more prime time slot friendly top fifteen. There is a break during all this hoopla, but it’s not for resting, because that’s when they put on the Show Us Your Shoes Parade, where each contestant is showcased in a fancy convertible car from yesteryear, and local high school bands march by wearing their tall hats with feathers and woollen jackets, drumming and piping and tuba-ing all along the way. The baton twirlers, flag wavers, and synchronized dancers all delight the packed crowds along the boards as they do their thing, to cheers and chants and appreciative applause. Unlike many parades, though, this one is interactive, where you can approach the contestants and get a quick selfie, or boo them if they don’t show their shoes, although now the girls make sure to have tricked out footwear just for the parade, usually highlighting something relevant to their individual states. Kentucky’s might have a Derby theme, Florida might showcase the orange, Nevada usually has cards and dice, all heavy on the sequins, naturally. The floats and bands are all judged but no one really cares, it’s a lovely night out on the boardwalk celebrating Americana in all it’s kitschy splendor. The energy in the Hall is amazing on crowning night, state delegations are packed all over the arena and loudly cheer and wave signs whenever their state contestant’s name is mentioned. You’ll hear chants, call backs, noisemakers, it’s almost as if it’s a sporting event. The top fifteen are quickly whittled down to the top twelve after swimsuit, which are then pared down to the top ten after evening gowns, when we get to see the talent portion. Although two of them have no idea they are not in the top ten until the moment their name isn’t called to perform. The losing contestants all put on a brave face, say the usual platitudes of how lucky they are to be there, lauding the newly formed sisterhood they found simply by being there together, and then the cameras focus shifts and they are quickly forgotten. The dreaded pop-quiz question and answer portion is last, where they each get a question from one of the judges and have to come up with something on the spot. The questions are usually hot button issues or politically tinged, and never something answerable in twenty seconds of time. Many of them are adept at the non-answer, circuitous, non-committal, saying a lot without really saying anything. A future Miss America needs to be everything to everyone and choosing sides, especially in the social media age, is a definite no-no! Finally, a winner is crowned and she makes her way down the runway, clutching a bouquet of roses, wiping away tears, and basking in the gushing adoration of all the pageant aficionados and fans in the audience. The television cameras are off and the show is done. Boardwalk Hall empties it’s patrons into the balmy Atlantic City night as everyone goes their way, to after parties, maybe a nightcap, or most likely home to bed. It is Sunday night and the kids have school in the morning. At the former Miss Americas party, going on until late into the night, all the talk is about their newest member. Knowing glances trade back and forth around the room as each of them knows the year ahead coming to their new sister, and that furtive smile of knowing they all survived it in their own way. The mood is laid back, the gowns have been shed for more comfortable clothing, shoes are tucked under chairs, daughters and granddaughters are running around, pizza is ordered, final photos are taken, and they all promise to keep in touch until they see each other next year. Miss America week has come and gone and the city is experiencing it’s first few days free of tourists (shoobies, as they are called by the locals), pageant queens, and little girls in tiaras. Parking is once again plentiful all up and down the island, the stores and restaurants are no longer bustling with excess patrons so the locals can shop and eat in blessed peace. The balmy air still holds the summer heat but for all intents and purposes, the season is over here. After three months of hustle bustle, everyone is breathing a welcome sigh of relief. Many of the hotels and casinos are now preparing themselves for the long winter ahead, booking small conventions, trade shows, and the other events and functions that will bring some business to the city over the months to come. Life, as the locals know it, has returned to normal.