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There's No Place Like Home?

September 8, 2005 By:
Carin M. Smilk, JE Feature
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There she was: Bess Myerson in 1945, the only Jewish Miss America to date
Normally, Suzanne Cohen would be gearing up for the big night. Come Labor Day, she'd be enmeshed in all things glamorous, in all things related to the Miss America pageant.
She would be reviewing her schedule, fine-tuning the 54 hours of time she'd offer over eight days as an official pageant hostess. She'd be meeting and greeting the representatives, ages 17 to 24, from all 50 states - plus the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands - as part of the food/beverage or security crew, two areas she's worked with since she started volunteering 13 years ago.

But along came an official decision on Aug. 25 that after 84 years as a southern New Jersey institution, the entire shindig was leaving, and that its new production date would be in January, not September.

And now, this 70-year-old has some time on her hands.

"My whole street has emptied out," said Cohen, who lived in Lafayette Hill until she moved down the shore, to Margate, N.J., about 22 years ago. "There's nothing to stay for," she explained, referring to the annual parade of contestants down the Atlantic City boardwalk the night before the Saturday-evening main event at Convention Hall.

"I loved seeing the girls all dressed up, getting to know them, eating with them," noted Cohen, who said she was one of maybe a dozen Jewish hostesses of the 130 or so who directly assist the contestants. "We watched over them, went with them, made sure no one got too close to them, especially after 9/11. We were very, very cautious with the girls; some had never even been away from home before."

While she'll miss the pageant and all of the work involved, she also remarked that the city will miss the business: "I don't think they'll realize how business will hurt until later. I think tourism will suffer. And I think a lot of young girls are very disappointed."

Why break so many hearts? Because, said those closest to the operation, Miss America was breaking the bank!

'The Show on the Road'
"It was a strictly financial decision," insisted Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America Organization, which will remain based in Atlantic City but hold the pageant events elsewhere. "The revenues just aren't there anymore. People think we wanted to take the show on the road, but that's not true."

McMaster explained that last year, it cost more than $1.2 million to produce the two-hour televised show (down from its typical three-hour format), most of that for the very unglamorous necessities of labor, lighting, set design and the building of the runway. Though Atlantic City offset that with about $700,000, it left Miss America footing the rest of the bill.

While the show has been losing money for years, added McMaster, it didn't even sell out the 12,500 seats of the newly renovated (and renamed) Boardwalk Hall in 2004; then, in October, ABC decided to drop the pageant due to declining ratings.

(Indeed, the lure of the cameras took their toll: Last year, guest singer Clay Aiken didn't even finish the theme song made famous by longtime host Bert Parks, "There She Is, Miss America," once the show cut to a commercial.)

Cable channel Country Music Television picked it up on the condition that the program be revamped and moved, most likely to a venue with a "plug in, play and go" capacity, said McMaster.

And that gain - probably somewhere in the South, according to Jeffrey Vasser, executive director of the Atlantic City Convention and Visitor's Authority - will in some ways be Atlantic City's loss.

"It was a sad day for the city; she's been a fabric of this community for nearly 85 years," said Vasser, acknowledging the emotional impact of Miss America's flight from the hometown she was born in back in 1921.

But, he quickly added, "the city has changed. It doesn't fit her profile anymore. Miss America has a very traditional value base, and maybe it will be better in Tennessee or Arkansas or Alabama, where Miss America purists are and where TV ratings have always been the highest."

In fact, he mentioned the idea that the pageant might rotate cities, akin to the Olympics, and earn potential bids in the process. What was a bad hand over the years could prove to be a royal flush.

And in that light, he went on to describe the city's new focus on gaming and high-end entertainment - part of a campaign with the slogan, "Atlantic City: Always Turned On" - toward the gambler and away from the family.

"We didn't make any money off Miss America," he said, "and, in fact, had to turn down other concerts and live events for it. Miss America no longer served the purpose she was born for - to extend the Labor Day season. Now, we're all-year - a 24/7 venue."

To be fair, Vasser is well-acquainted with Miss America's charms. His mother, Marilyn Ross, was part of the pageant in 1954, the first year the program went on-air. She served as the ultimate hostess: Miss Atlantic City.

"She was the first face on TV" - and a Jewish face, at that - "she welcomed the show," relayed Vasser, who grew up in Atlantic City and understands the power of the pageant. "As a kid, I used to sit during the parade with my mother and grandmother, reviewing the contestants. My mother's still a judge with the Miss America Organization."

Vasser explained that it was the Convention and Visitor's Authority board of directors that released the organization from its contract, which was to last through 2007.

"Look," he said, "we knew they were having serious problems. We voted unanimously to let them out of their contract. We knew it was the right thing to do, like a parent letting their kid go off to college far away. We were convinced they might have died here, and we wanted to give them the opportunity to survive."

'It Was in Our Backyard'
But that fails to counter the disappointment of Ellen Goldblatt, who remains sad that such a longtime tradition has ended. Over the years, she's cheered on the girls at the parade and even attended some of the preliminary competitions.

Last year, the Broomall resident went to the actual pageant in Boardwalk Hall for the first time, not an insignificant thing for a woman whose mother's maiden name was Bess Myerson.

She was not the Bess Myerson - the only Jewish woman to have won the Miss America title, back in 1945 - but a Bess Myerson nonetheless.

"When Bess Myerson won, my mother really got into it," Goldblatt, 61, said of the pageant. "My mother was very thin and beautiful, very striking, and when Bess won, a Jewish icon, it became very important to her. She watched it faithfully."

Goldblatt said that she herself never made plans on pageant night, staying home to see the show from start to finish, not even having friends over to watch with her because "it was too distracting."

"It was nice that such a big event happened in our part of the world," she said. "It was a Philly tradition. It was in our backyard."

Jean Kohl took that notion a step farther, saying it was "like the heart of Atlantic City."

But, she then lamented, "in all places, traditions seem lost these days. All over the country, they're just not important any more."

The Philadelphia native, who relocated permanently to her seasonal apartment house in Atlantic City seven years ago, said she's been connected with the pageant ever since she was little: "We came every summer to the shore and never went home until after the Miss America parade. It was always part of my life."

She recalled the Bess Myerson moment, though she was just a girl at the time.

But for the past 20 years, she's been much more involved: She has served as a volunteer on the pageant's official parents' committee. A self-described woman "over 70," her role was to help situate the families of the contestants when they came into town the week of the show.

"We made them comfortable in a strange place," said Kohl, explaining that the 12-women committee (with the help of their husbands) aimed to feed and entertain the parents, even taking them on a sightseeing/shopping day trip. Activities took place daily from the Monday or Tuesday the parents arrived until Saturday night. They ran a hospitality room for families and organized a dinner party for them on the night of the pageant. And that was after compiling and sending them an extensive booklet on South Jersey, chock full of municipal phone numbers, social contacts and hotel information.

"It's been a wonderful experience - it's been great - and I'm going to miss it," she continued. "There were so many people involved - the seamstresses and hostesses and food servers, all volunteers; they never got paid. I've met so many people … there isn't a state in the U.S. that I could visit and not know someone.

"I don't think a tradition like this should have left."

So how does someone like Vasser salve the hurt feelings and placate the long faces in Jersey these days - many of them senior, female and Jewish, who rue Miss America's fate so far from home?

"Tell them I'm really a mensch. Tell them I didn't want to kill Miss America. She's a brand that needs to be reinvented."

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