A Century of Miss America

Labor Day, 1921 saw the launch of the first Miss America pageant (it fell on September 8 that year). It seemed fitting for us to mark the occasion in some way, as there is some overlap with our more usual beats on Travalanche and that august annual festivity, and we’ve had occasion to mention the pageant, some of its veterans, and its hometown Atlantic City many a time.

Fans of Boardwalk Empire know the layout of the resort during the era in question, the Jazz Age. It is interesting to compare and contrast it with Coney Island, NYC’s playground by the sea during the same era. Atlantic City had the nation’s first boardwalk, and Coney emulated it (as well as the signature wicker rolling chairs) during the ’20s. Conversely, back in the day, A.C. was more “amusement parky”, its many piers home to rides, games, bandstands and the like. (Once upon a time, Coney also had several similar piers, as well). Both Coney and Atlantic City had an Elephant Hotel. 

Performers who got their start performing at Atlantic City, include W.C. Fields, Rose Marie, Harry Carroll, Eddie White, and Martin and Lewis. Doc Carver’s Diving Horses were a mainstay for decades on the Steel Pier. 

The Miss America Pageant was a refinement of a promotion the town had run on the boardwalk the year before called The Fall Frolic. Plenty of pretty girls had participated in a boardwalk parade, but there was no contest component. The beauty pageant was introduced to sweeten the pot and attract even more attendees. As we wrote here, one of the founders and original judges was Mack Sennett, who’d created his own stable of bathing beauties. 

Henrietta Leaver, Miss America 1935

We have written about a couple of past Miss Americas, including Fay Lanphier (1925), who got a movie deal out of her victory; and Vonda Kay Van Dyke (1965), whose speciality was ventriloquism. Other contestants (runners up) I have written about have included Katherine Grant, Joan Blondell, Thelma Todd, Lois Nettleton, Carol Ohmart, Anita Bryant, Allison Hayes, and Patricia Barnstable. Gladys Glad, Norman Rockwell, and Russell Patterson had been judges. And naturally we’ve written about Bert Parks, who was the annual master of ceremonies when I was growing up, and Regis Philbin who succeeded him. 

Like most everybody, as a kid I used to tune in to the pageant year after year, and was inevitably bored to tears. No amount of contemplation has ever allowed me to grasp an enterprise that was ostensibly about physical aesthetics but somehow not sexual. As of 2018 they have done away with the swimsuit competition, making it theoretically now a talent contest combined with some sort of Socratic dialogue about ethics and the fate of the world? A) I’m not convinced that looks are no longer a factor, and B) why does it exist WITHOUT the swimsuit competition? Now it’s just a character and talent contest that excludes men, and it’s only a matter of time before somebody tests even that stricture. The trouble is, Atlantic City has been in a bad way for quite long while now, and they need SOMETHING. THis has always been the one night a year when all eyes were on Atlantic City.

For info about the current pageant check out the official Miss American pageant website here.