SI Vault
Pat Ryan
October 06, 1969
From the glorious round sounds of crooning Bert Parks, back to its banner-draped first winner, who was strictly flat, the Miss America Pageant has offered a star-spangled mixture of wholesome tradition, sport and hilarity for all
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October 06, 1969

There She Is, Miss America

From the glorious round sounds of crooning Bert Parks, back to its banner-draped first winner, who was strictly flat, the Miss America Pageant has offered a star-spangled mixture of wholesome tradition, sport and hilarity for all

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"Miss Americas do not perspire," the hostess said sternly.

Girls are forbidden to smoke or drink in public. At night chaperons from their states sleep in their rooms or suites. Each morning their Atlantic City hostesses pick the contestants up at their hotels and escort them throughout the day. For Miss America, the same strictures will prevail throughout the year of her reign. She can date only with her chaperon present, and she cannot marry without the approval of pageant officials. The Atlantic City hostesses are the social leaders of the community. "Our philosophy has always been the masses follow the classes," a pageant official once explained. Unfortunately, this statement proved all too true in 1937 when Miss Bertrand Island, N.J. was named Miss America. Her chauffeur during her week in Atlantic City was the scion of one of the resort's great hotel families. He was handsome and had a fine car, and on the night of her victory Miss America disappeared with him. Newspapermen took photographs of the empty throne the next morning.

In 1945 the pageant moved into its third phase. Talent was stressed for the first time and winners were rewarded with scholarships—$940,000 has been given away to date. The first grant for study went to Bess Myerson, who played Summertime on a flute and became the only Jewish Miss America. It was just at the end of World War II and she bought Victory Bonds, posed in her bathing suit in front of Old Glory and established in the public mind the Miss America type. After her came girls like Colleen Hutchins, whose brother Mel played for the Fort Wayne Pistons and who herself was to marry New York Knick Ernie Vandeweghe. She was a Sweetheart of the Mormon Church and stood 6'2" in her spikes. A reporter described her as a "lady Tarzan type if there ever was one." Apparently, she did not remind him of Jane. The 1948 Miss America was BeBe Shopp, who used to kill and clean the chickens for the family dinner. As Miss America she went to Europe, where she expressed some noncommittal views about bikinis. Upon reading her quotes in a newspaper, her father, a Cream of Wheat executive in Hopkins, Minn., raged: "Those stories about her sipping wine and discussing French bathing suits are false. A Communist may have written them to undermine the character of my daughter and all American girls."

The following year Miss America was Jacque Mercer, who, it was reported, enjoyed harrowing and discing fields. She married Green Bay Football Player Dick Curran. In 1951 came Yolande Betbeze, who had the braces taken off her teeth after she was named Miss Mobile. To the chagrin of the Catalina bathing-suit company, which was the pageant sponsor, Yolande refused to pose during the year in a swimsuit. Catalina, needing a more acquiescent showcase, pulled out and started its own contest, the Miss Universe competition. Atlantic City bided its time, saying nothing until 1956 when it announced that that year's Miss Universe had finished 14th in the 1954 Miss America contest.

The Miss Americas of 1955 and 1957, Lee Meriwether and Marian McKnight, both dated Joe DiMaggio, and everyone denied everything. But sports fans got their romance not long after when Sharon Kay Ritchie married a Walker Cup golfer, Don Cherry, and wore her tiara and Miss America gown at the ceremony. They were later divorced and she married Kyle Rote. Today her Miss America trophy sits on a shelf in the Rote study, along with her husband's plaques and mementos as an SMU All-America, a New York Giant, and a sportscaster.

In 1959 the winner was Mary Ann Mobley, a National Football and Southeast Livestock Queen and a drum majorette who had been popular during halftimes at Ole Miss. Her talent performance was noteworthy. She did a striptease to a torch song arranged by a church organist. She wore on her wrist a bracelet with a quote from St. Matthew, 17th Chapter: "For verily I say unto you, If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall move...." On winning she quoted a poem by Grantland Rice about home and declared, as Lincoln once did: "All I am...I owe to my mother."

So it has gone through the years. Call it homespun corn, but the Miss Americas have a small-town reverence that is sincere. "What do you expect," says Sharon Rote, "when you take a girl from the fields of Nebraska? I don't think it hurts a girl to be Miss America, or to compete for the title. If they never get beyond the local pageant, they are better people for the dieting, exercise and poise they have learned."

The education process can be extensive. Miss America hopefuls are sent to charm schools to learn to walk—"imagine your hair is tied to the ceiling." They get diction, makeup and laughing lessons. Daily five-mile walks tone their legs. Exercise routines trim their figures. Contestant measurements are never verified by tape measure in Atlantic City, but excessive claims are unwise. It is considered unladylike for a girl to have more than a 37�-inch bust. As for padding, Albert Marks says, "We won't permit anything obviously engineered, but we certainly don't investigate." A 153-page handbook called How to Win a Beauty Contest has been written by Miss America Jacque Mercer. Among the helpful hints: read fairy tales to children to put expression in your face, and practice smiling at lampposts and mailboxes.

Miss America contestants spend long hours perfecting talent routines. Some performances are good and some simply good for a laugh. Once Miss South Carolina diligently learned to play the pageant theme song," "There she is, Miss America," in three speeds, and she won the talent trophy. On another occasion a victorious Miss America was adjudged an accomplished pianist, though in fact she could only play Tea for Two. Only one contestant in Miss America history refused to make any pretense about having a talent. That was Vera Miles. Miss Kansas of 1948—who later as an actress starred in Psycho. She told the judges, "I have no talent except to marry and raise children." (True to her word. she has had three husbands and four children.) She was named a runner-up for the Miss America title.

In 1949 Miss Montana rode a horse onstage to demonstrate her equestrian skills. The frightened animal nearly toppled into the timpani, and ever since beasts have been barred from the pageant. Miss Georgia out: year was an archer. She broke four balloons out of seven with her bow and arrow.

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