December 30 was the birthday of the late Bert Parks (Bertram Jacobson, 1914-1992).
When I was a kid in the 1970s, Parks was a sort of a lightning rod representing the worst in old school, moribund entertainment. He seemed flashy and insincere and frankly sort of repugnant. I used to share a clip here on Travalanche of Parks’ singing Paul McCartney’s “Let ‘Em In” that made one want to throttle him. Now that I learn some things about his background, though I soften somewhat. I see him within a tradition.
Parks was the son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe who settled in Atlanta, Georgia. This “Jew from the South” thing gave Parks a brassy Al Jolson/ minstrel man kind of energy that was beyond passe by the end of his career, but at least now we can see it had a logical origin. He broke into radio when still a teenager at the beginning of the 1930s. In 1933 he went to work for Eddie Cantor as his announcer and straight man on his variety show. From here, he went on to be a CBS staff announcer. From here he went on host game shows on radio and television. They included Break the Bank (1946-57), Party Line (1947), Stop the Music (1948-52, notorious for being the show that stopped Fred Allen), Double or Nothing (1952–54), Balance Your Budget (1952–53), Two in Love (1954), Giant Step (1956–57), Hold That Note (1957), Bid ‘n’ Buy (1958), County Fair (1958–59), Masquerade Party (1958–60), The Big Payoff (1959), and Yours for a Song (1961–63). And he had a variety program, The Bert Parks Show, in 1950. He also hosted the syndicated variety show Circus! in 1971.
All of this, except the last item, was way before my time, making his best known association, as host of the annual Miss America Beauty Pageant seem somewhat inexplicable.
Parks had begun hosting Miss America since 1955, and somehow he managed to hold on to the gig for a quarter century through inertia, I guess. He was, as we said, a throwback. And yet he was so closely associated with the pageant he almost constituted its brand. He sang the pageant’s theme song every year “Hear she comes, Miss America!” with such exuberance you could forgive some people for thinking it was the greatest thing in the world. But by 1979, when even disco was passe, Parks seemed a dinosaur and the very embodiment of what we have come to call The Oily Man. In that year the pageant did the unthinkable and let him go. There was a substantial outcry, but not one strong enough to change anyone’s mind, although they continued to use a recording of Parks’ voice singing the theme song as late as 2012.
In the post-Miss America era, Parks essentially made a living playing a parody of himself. In a 1980 episode of WKRP in Cincinnati he played Herb’s father, an oily character who wore the same loud, checked jackets as his son. He also spoofed himself on The Bionic Woman (1976), The Love Boat (1980, 1986), in the 1990 film The Freshman, and in a 1991 episode of Night Court.
Respect was never to be his portion. When Bert Parks passed away in 1992, the obituary in his hometown newspaper referred to him as “unctuous…a snake oil salesman”. It was a tough job, but someone had to do it.
To learn more about the history of variety entertainment please get No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,