Atlantic City is desperate for something, anything, to slow its slide into economic ruin since massive loans from the state and complex development deals haven't worked. The odds of Miss America delivering a big enough payout aren't odds that the house would go for.
When Miss America announced she was leaving the city of her birth in November 2005, Atlantic City public works crews were quick to remove her plaque from the rose garden at the base of the expressway.
Seven years of separation, however, hasn’t diminished the affection many local residents feel toward the beauty pageant that began as an attempt to extend the summer tourism season 92 years ago.
“Here’s the biggest single icon of Atlantic City, and it’s coming back,” said local historian Allen “Boo” Pergament. “What a wonderful time for that to happen.”
The Las Vegas years weren’t kind either to Miss America, or to Atlantic City. Viewership plummeted from what was already a record low when ABC dropped the pageant from its prime-time slot in 2004, and so did the scholarship awards. Meanwhile, recession and competition from neighboring states have caused Atlantic City’s casino revenue to slide from $5.2 billion in 2006 to $2.9 billion last year.
Thursday’s announcement that Miss America will return in September inspired hope that the homecoming could turn things around for both the city and the pageant. The Miss America Organization has signed a three-year contract with ABC to continue broadcasting the pageant from Atlantic City.
“With Miss America coming home, I believe it’ll be an opportunity for both the destination and the pageant to grow together,” said Larry Sieg, vice president of marketing for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority.
A shoulder season boon
At its inception in 1921, when a 16-year-old with a talent for playing marbles was named the “Golden Mermaid,” the pageant was a financial boon for Atlantic City.
City commissioners at the time took the risk of spending $10,000 — the rough equivalent of $127,000 today — to draw tourists back to the beach after Labor Day in early September. The two-day celebration included a parade, a governor’s ball and a milelong “bathers’ revue” featuring young women in leg-exposing bathing suits. The bathing beauties competed for a $1,500 prize.
Mayor Edward Bader, for whom Bader Field was named, donned his own bathing suit for the occasion. The gamble, according to the Atlantic City Daily Press, paid off when more than 100,000 tourists came out for the event.
“We brought the people here by thousands, and if they wished to purchase anything, the merchants profited,” Bader told reporters. “I believe a big proportion bought generously.”
Putting a figure on how much the pageant will contribute to today’s Atlantic City is difficult.
According to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, it has not tracked the pageant’s economic impact during the event’s time there. However, LVCVA officials had said they expected the pageant to contribute about $9 million to the city’s economy.
The Miss America Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
Sieg said it’s too soon to have any estimates on the pageant’s financial impact.
“Certainly, it’s going to have quite an impact on the city itself,” he said. “We’re looking forward to a lot more visitors being able to come in after the Labor Day season.”
Miss America’s return coincides with a recent push for more nongambling activities in the city, including the creation of an Arts District and the renovation of Steel Pier, another Atlantic City landmark.
“It fits right into the marketing plan we have to bring in more signature events into the city that will draw people of many interests, not just casino gambling,” Sieg said.
Pergament, 80, of Margate, said a similar thinking led to the pageant’s creation and, after several years with no pageant during the Great Depression, kept it going for another seven decades.
“They were trying to make sure there was something for everyone in the family: youngsters, oldsters and everyone in between,” he said. “They made an effort, and the people came.”
Jim Lees, who served on the Miss America board for 30 years, said the event — which eventually expanded to 10 days — brought in millions of dollars to the city and could do so again.
“During the pageant parades, you couldn’t move in the city it was so packed,” he said. “Those people eat, drink and shop in the stores on the Boardwalk.”
When it left the city, Lees said, the pageant left a void that was hard to fill.
Joseph Kelly, president of the Greater Atlantic City Chamber, said the event brings in an audience that doesn’t necessarily go to the city to gamble or visit nightclubs.
“You’ll see the diversity in the audience, from folks who’ve gone to many Miss America pageants to young kids, who might be at their first,” he said. “It’s a really nice, family-oriented event, which is very healthy for the marketplace.”
The chamber, which represents 800 member businesses, had always found ways to work Miss America into its marketing, Kelly said. One tradition he hopes to revive is having a beach event at which 53 local businesses sponsor the individual contestants.
“I always thought it was a nice way for a lot of businesses throughout the county to get involved in the pageant,” he said.
A national audience
Kelly, a native of Buffalo, N.Y., who has lived in South Jersey for about 15 years, remembers growing up watching the Miss America Pageant every year with his family.
“Back then, the family would sit around, make some popcorn and you’d be glued to the TV for the entire presentation,” said Kelly, 59. “You had your pad and do your selections, and you’d see who was selected the winner.
“For a lot of people, it’s got that sort of tradition,” he added.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the pageant regularly ranked among the most watched television programs of the year. In 1961, for example, it was watched by 19.6 million American households — an estimated 42 percent of the country — according to Nielsen.
Last month’s broadcast out of Las Vegas received a 4.5 rating, having reached 5.2 million homes. By comparison, the Super Bowl, often the most watched broadcast in a given year, had a 48.1 rating.
Miss America, however, appears to be regaining its audience. This year’s Las Vegas ceremony marked the pageant’s highest-rated broadcast since 2004, the year it was dropped by ABC and two years before it left Atlantic City.
And, despite the steady decline in viewers since the 1970s, the pageant has the potential to bring a national audience back to Atlantic City. Sieg said the national spotlight could finally end the misconception that the city’s Boardwalk was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.
“What you’ll see with Miss America coming home again is that the Boardwalk was unharmed and we’re open for business,” he said. “We’ll be able to welcome our guests, both old and new.”
After so much bad press, locals say, the pageant’s return could change the minds of tourists who’ve given up on the city.
“If Miss America is coming back, maybe Atlantic City isn’t dead,” said Richard Helfant, who participated in the pageant’s annual parade for three decades. “Maybe Atlantic City isn’t falling on darker times. On second look, maybe Atlantic City is on the rebound.”
Back with open arms
For decades, Miss America was an Atlantic City institution that marked a weeklong celebration at the start of what is typically a lean time for shore towns.
In addition to the audience it attracted to Boardwalk Hall and to televisions across the country, a legion of volunteers took part in the festivities, including an annual parade.
In 1978, the first year for casino gambling in the city, 200,000 spectators watched the parade and a half-hour fireworks show. Thirty marching bands participated, and three casino properties provided extravagant floats for the occasion.
Resorts International boasted a 16-piece orchestra accompanying G-string-clad showgirls. Caesars entered a Roman-themed float, complete with a live horse and chariot.
That kind of ostentatious display was par for the course in the golden age of the pageant, when many municipalities, businesses and schools also entered floats into the parade.
Lees, who left the organization in 1992, said Miss America was predominantly a volunteer-oriented event. The 68-year-old Margate resident said he hopes that will continue when it returns.
“Many people in Atlantic City were heavily involved in the pageant back then who, I’m sure, would come back and participate again,” he said.
One of those people is Helfant, who now serves as executive director of the Save Lucy Committee, which is dedicated to the preservation of Lucy the Elephant in Margate. He had been involved in every parade since 1975, when he got his driver’s license and his first car, a 1975 Chevy Caprice.
“If there is a Boardwalk parade and citizens are invited to put their cars in, my car will certainly be in there,” said Helfant, who still owns a convertible, a 1995 Mercedes E320 Cabriolet.
The pageant inspired a great deal of loyalty and dedication among the locals who contributed to and attended the event, he said.
Helfant said Miss America inflicted “many wounds” in 2005 when it announced the show was leaving Atlantic City — back then, officials cited the more than $1 million in production costs — but that loyalty remains.
Coincidentally, he said, this year’s Miss’d America, the female-impersonator contest that began in 1993 as a tongue-in-cheek event for the behind-the-scenes employees and volunteers of Miss America, is scheduled for Sept. 21. It had previously been a January event.
Abbie Rabine-Aristizabal, who was first runner-up as Miss Massachusetts 2001 and now lives in Galloway Township, said the pageant holds a great deal of nostalgia for people.
“It was, of course, a dream come true, as it is for most young ladies, to compete in the famous Atlantic City convention center and walk down that runway,” she said.
Pergament said he’s hopeful Miss America can help get Atlantic City “back in the limelight, where it belongs.”
“I don’t think there’s a heart of anyone who’s lived in Atlantic City before or now that isn’t joyous over this news,” he said.
(c)2013 The Press of Atlantic City (Pleasantville, N.J.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.