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Pepsi-Cola, a longtime pageant sponsor, dropped the show this year. Pepsi distributors in various states still back local pageants, but Pepsi withdrew on the national level, a company spokesman says, "because the pageant no longer has big-city appeal. It is a waste of time, for instance, to try to do anything with Miss America in New York City."
This fact does not particularly disturb Miss America officials, nor does it bother the sponsoring civic organizations—Jaycees, Rotarians, Lions, etc., whose members come to Atlantic City for the pageant each September. These men, decidedly opinion makers in their own communities, are successful, and bluff with good humor. Pageant week is a full-dress affair. Wives are corsaged and stylish in celery, eggshell and banana lace. During the three nights of preliminaries (when the contestants compete in groups for talent and swimsuit trophies), as well as preceding the Saturday finale, coiffured women in evening gowns move down the Boardwalk toward Convention Hall, past the taffy shops, the frozen-custard stands, the chicken licken and 10� bingo parlors.
Several years ago Convention Hall was the site of the Liberty Bowl, and high school football games and midget auto races are still held there. A Kiwanis convention once had a horse race on the stage, which suggests the size of the place. As a result, though the dress is quite formal for the evenings of judging, a sporting-event atmosphere prevails. Many of the men are carrying binoculars—not to leer through; they are a necessity. There are Metlike banners of encouragement for the girls, cowbells and cheers (Go Go, Miss Wyo).
At Convention Hall the Women's Liberation Movement is picketing again, passing out handbills protesting Miss America's "image of sex, virginal prettiness, glory of war, mindless conformity, acceptance of racism and competitive spirit." Last year the group burned its brassieres on the Boardwalk. "These people seem bent upon making women less attractive through the questionable process of doing away with underwear," Pageant Chairman Marks declares. But this year the demonstration is not fiery at all, due to a restraining order issued by a local judge. Plainclothesmen with blackjacks infiltrate the audience, and hundreds of policemen in the balconies watch for trouble. None materializes, but the Other America has made its point. The Miss America concept is being assailed.
For many years the Miss America Pageant mirrored the national mood. It had its flat-breasted, no-holds-barred flappers of the '20s, its postwar salt-of-the-prairie girls, its decade of prosperity and plenty when Miss Americas and almost everyone else were college-bound. But recently the pageant has been out of step. The theme of the 1968 pageant was Cinderella, and Albert Marks' children, aged 15 and 17, asked him afterward, "What was all that about?"
Marks is businessman enough—the pageant brings $2 million a year to the city—to react to change. "I had the distinct impression we were not communicating with the people we wanted to communicate with," he recalls. So he ordered a more up-to-date approach for the 1969 show. It was billed the Sound of Young, and Marks points out carefully that the composers of the score, Glenn and Edna Osser, used five different kinds of rock music. "There was no acid rock, I'm damned if I'll allow that," Marks adds. Some other policies were also changed. Contestants were told dresses no longer had to hang to the knee, two inches above the knee would be permitted. And, a shocker, the outgoing Miss America appeared on national television dancing with a bare midriff. It was the first navel in pageant history. The show's new lyrics pounded strangely through old Convention Hall:
The sound is the beat
A whole lot of folks are refusing to face it!
And so the message went. Edna Osser wrote the lyrics in her bathtub, where she has written such successful things as the Campbell Soup commercial: M'm! M'm! Good...!
But the sound of young and the new beat did not come easily. The pageant feels it has moved to close its "generation gapping," but it has not gone over-board. Miss America entries wear hairdos—curled and sprayed stiff—that went out of style years ago. They wear old-fashioned swimsuits and three-inch heels, which few stores carry anymore. This year's Miss New York, who lives in a Buffalo suburb, told of spending days shopping for her shoes and dresses that could be let down far enough to meet pageant requirements. It was interesting, too, that when the contestants performing in a show called the Sound of Young were asked what kind of music they enjoyed, they replied almost to a Miss: "Henry Mancini, no rock...Percy Faith, no rock...Ferrante and Teicher, no rock...." In the talent competition the girls sang such things as Old Devil Moon, Makin' Whoopee and I'm Always Chasing Rainbows. And one of the competing pianists told of copying Lawrence Welk's keyboard form.