For many, Atlantic City and Miss America were forever linked. Now only the city by the sea is confident in its future.
The Miss America Pageant has left the state—for Vegas, no less—and we seem to be telling it to take its double-sided tape and stick it.
By Josh Sens
Unlike later contenders for the crown, the first Miss America, Margaret Gorman, had no special talent on the ukelele, no heartfelt plans to save the world. A bathing beauty by the standards of the era, although she hardly would have rated as a Baywatch babe today, she captured the title in 1921 solely on the strength of her appearance.
At 5-foot-1 and 108 pounds, the sixteen-year-old high school junior from Washington, D.C., had blue eyes, blond ringlets, a slim, boyish body, and a strong dose of modesty. While some of her opponents paraded on the Atlantic City beach where the contest was held bare-legged in violation of local decency laws, Gorman wore long stockings and a chiffon bathing costume that broke around her knees. Gorman spent a year as Miss America and decades trying to live down the publicity. She came to detest the beauty queen label and the pageant that brought her fame. By the time she died, in 1995, the event, born as a beauty contest, had morphed into something more, though what it is today is not very clear.
In recent years, once proud Miss America underwent a series of face-lifts. Her desperate attempts at reinvention came to a head this summer, when the Miss America Organization announced that it had struck a deal with cable’s Country Music Television network, whose entire subscriber base of 77 million isn’t much larger than the pageant’s TV audience of 30 years ago. The pact with CMT punctuated a painful year in which the pageant—long decried by feminists as sexist, long dismissed by critics as irrelevant—lost its $3.2 million TV contract with ABC. When the network, citing flagging ratings, pulled the plug on its annual Miss America broadcast, it left the pageant in dire straits. Rumors spread that pageant organizers would try to drum up interest by shifting to a “reality” format—a flash of Fear Factor brought to a stageful of Stepford smiles. Miss America officials refute this, insisting they would never turn their backs on tradition. But already they have broken from the past. In August, they announced that Miss America would leave Atlantic City, the only home she has ever known, and in November they revealed the Aladdin Resort & Casino in Las Vegas as her final destination, with the first pageant at the new site set for this month.
More changes are sure to come. Most pageant observers agree that if she is to survive, long-unyielding Miss America needs to make concessions to contemporary culture—a culture that puts Paris Hilton before Miss Pennsylvania but that might pay attention if Miss Pennsylvania were to strap on a thong bikini and gobble down a plate of worms. “There always has been, and there probably always will be, a core of fans who are loyal to Miss America, so in that sense it’s a party with a base,” says Gerdeen Dyer, founder and editor of the online publication pageant.com. “The question now becomes, What do you do to reach beyond your base? How far are you willing to go?”
Encounters with reality always have been hard to swallow for an event deeply rooted in the unreal. Eighty-five years ago, when Gorman won what was called the Inter-City Beauty Contest, the New York Times hailed her as the “type” on which the “hope of the country resides.” Pageant organizers took the lead and actively promoted the image of Miss America as womanhood perfected—There she is, Miss America/ There she is, your ideal—even as real life interfered. Early mini-scandals—Miss Alaska of 1923 was actually (gasp!) a New York resident—were papered over by sharp public relations. Later mega-scandals—Vanessa Williams became the unwilling subject of (double gasp!) a Penthouse spread—were resolved by beheading the reigning queen. Never mind that the outfits Williams wore in the layout would today be considered too tame for an MTV shoot, or that her replacement, Miss New Jersey Suzette Charles, went on to date heavyweight prizefighter Mike Tyson, a romantic choice not entirely in keeping with the image of the girl next door.
“What I always stressed was that Miss America needed more reality, not less,” says former Miss America Organization CEO Leonard Horn. “If we were going to connect more deeply with the public, the contestants needed to compete as individuals, not as who they felt they were supposed to be.”
Sincere or not, the image projected by the pageant played just fine in the Ward Cleaver climate of the 1950s, when Miss America began its long, successful TV run. But as that climate changed, the pageant proved resistant to social Darwinism, an anachronistic animal threatened by extinction but reluctant to evolve. For every bra burned in protest outside Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, event organizers sounded the same reply: Miss America was about scholarships, not swimsuits, about helping young women fulfill noble dreams. “The problem is, no matter how often you say that, you cannot change the fact, despite the talent segment and the other niceties they throw in there, that you are judging women on the basis of their looks, passed down genetically, and that in the end you crown a queen,” says Matt Zoller Seitz, a cultural critic for the Star-Ledger. “A queen—come on! Isn’t this America?”
If Miss America officials had a hard time seeing the pageant as much of the world did, they had just as much trouble seeing beyond Atlantic City itself. Over the years, the birthplace of the contest was often home to many board members and event organizers, who, as volunteers, didn’t draw a salary and were therefore difficult to boss around. Their loyalty to their city never wavered, even as local casino operators soured on the pageant, less than thrilled to give free rooms to non-gambling Goody-Two-Shoes when they could have reserved them for high rollers.
Pageant industry experts say that Miss America missed a golden opportunity in 1989, when ABC’s parent company, the Walt Disney Corporation, offered to underwrite the pageant. Under the plan, Miss America would have relocated to Orlando, but pageant officials refused to budge. Their hesitation, industry experts say, exposed Miss America as what it was: an organization that had outgrown its leadership, national in scope but controlled by small-town politics.
Whatever the case, the pageant lost a chance to marry into a major TV network as its rival, Miss USA, did at NBC. “I wanted the deal with Disney, but some people in the organization never would have let Miss America leave Atlantic City,” Horn says. “I was once accused of trying to drag the organization kicking and screaming into the 21st century. Well, that’s exactly what I was trying to do.”
The 21st century is now here, with its wardrobe malfunctions and reality shows and online celebrity soft porn, and many people wonder whether Miss America still has a place. For every critic who complains that the pageant is too sexist, too corny, too concerned with skin, there are others who gripe that the show doesn’t go far enough, that it lacks both the sex appeal to satisfy base interests and the substance to qualify as compelling TV. The question is how to find a middle ground, assuming that some of that ground exists. After decades spent ignoring the outside world, pageant officials are scrambling to catch up on what they’ve missed. In recent years, they’ve tried tinkering with the show, adding reality-lite elements such as up-close-and-personal snippets and coffee-klatch conversations with contestants. One year viewers were given a say in picking the winner. Another year the organization polled the public as to whether the swimsuit segment should go; the vote was a landslide, and the swimsuits stayed.
Once confident of her social standing, the cocksure beauty queen is now concerned with what everybody thinks. “For years Miss America operated with a fortress mentality,” Dyer says. “They’ve been so resistant to adaptation, and now I wonder whether they haven’t swung too far in the opposite direction. It seems almost desperate: What if we do this? Or how about this?”
But perhaps this concern comes too late. Horn says that the pageant “lost an entire generation of viewers” in the 1960s and ’70s when it failed to shift with changing social currents; today’s typical viewer is a woman in her fifties. The show, critics say, was also hamstrung by its musty adherence to an outdated format and by being pigeonholed on Saturday night. A treasured time slot 40 years ago, when evening TV-watching was an American family tradition, Saturday night is now regarded as a ratings dead zone, a time when young viewers have better things to do.
Last September, ABC’s broadcast of the Miss America Pageant attracted 10 million viewers, the smallest audience in its history but still larger than any show has ever drawn on CMT. Pageant officials have put a bright face on their deal with the country music network, saying it was just what Miss America needed: a growing cable network under the hip umbrella of MTV, with the muscle to market the pageant to a younger crowd. Art McMaster, current CEO of the Miss America Organization, says that CMT has pledged to air the pageant live and in repeat broadcasts and to cross-promote the show by including contestants in other programming such as music videos. The CMT deal, McMaster says, “does not signal the death of Miss America—far from it. This is actually the beginning of a new evolution.”
Just how far it will evolve is another matter. The pageant will have to strike a delicate balance between its prim traditions and the prurient demands of present-day TV. The challenge it faces was apparent at last year’s contest, when the swimsuit competition featured bikinis so skimpy that Miss Washington refused to put hers on. McMasters insists that the pageant would “never do anything disrespectful to the girls” or to alienate its fan base. And, he says, just because the show will air on Nashville-based CMT doesn’t mean contestants “will be parading around in cowboy hats.”
Whatever course this month’s two-hour show, which airs live on the 21st, sets for the pageant’s future is anyone’s guess. “It will be interesting to see if Miss America can create an identity for itself outside of Atlantic City,” Dyer says. “There has never been a major pageant so closely identified with a specific location. The words Atlantic City are even in the theme song.”
Last summer, as rumors swirled about the pageant’s imminent departure, city officials and pageant organizers engaged in a public love-fest, with each side pronouncing its hope that the partnership would endure. “People here are connected to the pageant at the hip,” Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Susan Ricciardi said at the time, “and that’s something that’s hard to place a value on.”
Even as Miss America trades the September sands of the Jersey Shore for Nevada’s dessert, as long as she remains under the wholesome, family-oriented auspices of CMT, it seems safe to say that her next winner won’t be appearing on Fear Factor. There’s no need. The future already looks scary enough.
Freelance writer Josh Sens lives in Oakland.
It’s a long way from the Bluebird to the Borgata, as a local revisits old haunts and hits new hot spots.
By Jack McCallum
On a warm summer night in 1968, I stood outside the Bluebird, a dive on South Carolina Avenue in Atlantic City. I was hoping that a public library card, carrying only my name, would get me in. My friend Joe Cirigliano was already inside. We had a plan: one nineteen-year-old at a time, so we wouldn’t blow our cover. The Bluebird bouncer looked at me, looked at the card, looked back at me, smiled, and said, “Eh, what the hell.”
Atlantic City, where I was born in 1949 and visited regularly through my early twenties, was an eh-what-the-hell kind of town. Known elsewhere as the wholesome home of the nation’s first boardwalk, the Miss America Pageant, and the Steel Pier, the place had an all-American aura to the outside world. But to us, A.C. had a gloriously seedy underbelly—whorehouses and card games with police, politicians, and crooks. Bars such as the Bluebird and Opus closed only from 6 to 7 am, to sweep out the drunks and mop the floors. A.C. was the place where a kid could drive fifteen miles east from Mays Landing to get in mild forms of trouble.
By the time casino gambling arrived in the late 1970s, Atlantic City was gasping on life support. It’s hard for a traditionalist who revels in the old A.C. to admit, but quarter-slots, Donald Trump, and all-you-can-eat midnight breakfasts saved the city from extinction. Saved, though, is a relative term. “Atlantic City is out to change those ingrained perceptions of the city,” says Susan Ricciardi, one of the city’s enthusiastic tourism boosters. The new A.C., she says, is trying to lure those free spenders who jet into town for extended gambling/shopping/pampering stays, not the Greyhound-stiffened fixed-incomers who are in by 10 am and out by 8 pm, down a roll of quarters but full of turkey and gravy from the carving station.
There’s a new mantra in town: “Always Turned On.” I heard about the new Atlantic City from my sister, Pamela Scott, who still lives in Mays Landing—about the ultrahip Borgata; the Quarter at the Tropicana, the three-story, 200,000-square-foot indoor entertainment area that includes restaurants, shops, spas, and an IMAX theater; the retail outlets along Michigan Avenue known as the Walk; and the beachfront Nikki B’s, which lends a kind of Margaritaville ambience to a place that always spelled buffet with a small b.
The question was, Should a guy who marveled at the long-gone diving horse on the Steel Pier, bought his black high-top Chuck Taylors at Hy Mallin’s on Atlantic Avenue, and swilled beer at the Bluebird spend a weekend in the new A.C.?
Eh, what the hell.
The Trop has modeled its $280 million expansion after a streetscape from 1940s Havana, whose principal familiarity for most Americans is from the scene in Godfather II in which Michael Corleone plants the Judas kiss on his brother Fredo. The theme makes sense: This was the Havana before Castro showed up with fatigues, a beard, and a plan to spread the wealth. In this Havana, amigo, capitalism ruled.
I’m not much of a shopper, but I can report that the Quarter is tastefully appointed and cool, a refuge from the clamor and clang of the casinos. So bring money and spend it. There are upscale boutiques but hardly an air of pretension; Jake’s Dog House (“cool stuff for dogs”) lures shoppers right along with Mondi and White House/Black Market. At Chez Lingerie you can buy your woman a pair of underwear with a Don’t Gamble message sewn into the crotch. And as you walk the Walk, you can study the tributes to Miss America posted on poles along Michigan Avenue. They can send the old pageant to Vegas, but they can’t kill it.
William Gormley understands. The Republican state senator whom South Jersey has sent to Trenton for more than three decades—the guy I shot baskets with at the county prison in Mays Landing, where his late father was the warden—Gormley is as responsible as anyone for super-charging the new Atlantic City. The improvements at the Trop were a product of tax-credit legislation he got passed in 2001. But as bullish as he is on the new A.C., his all-time favorite photograph shows his late mother in a modest swimsuit riding a float as one of the background beauties in the 1925 pageant parade along the Boardwalk. “Things had to change around here,” Gormley says, “but I still have a lot of nostalgia for the old Atlantic City.”
You could pinpoint the symbolic death of the old A.C. to June 10, 1973, the day an electrical fire destroyed the 500 Club on Missouri Avenue. The New York Times carried the story on page 1. At its zenith in the 1940s and ’50s, the 500 defined the martini-in-the-morning insouciance of the Rat Packers and an A.C. that truly was always turned on. Frank Sinatra was the club’s headliner for many years. Martin and Lewis conjoined their acts there in 1946. Jimmy Durante, Sophie Tucker, Nat “King” Cole, Vic Damone, Zsa Zsa Gabor—they all played the Fives. Once every few years, when my father could cadge a couple of tickets, my parents would get dressed up and take in the Sinatra show at midnight, forgetting for one glorious night that he owned a small grocery store in Mays Landing and that she was a housewife and waitress. The only surviving nod to the 500 is a small sign designating Arkansas Avenue as Martin & Lewis Way. You can’t miss it; it’s right next to Planet Hollywood, which is now boarded up.
Old stomping grounds—the Fives, the Bluebird, Capt. Starn’s and Hackney’s, those family joints on the inlet where they fried up flounder and slathered on the tartar sauce—always get stomped eventually. That’s just the way it is. But in some ways, A.C., casino-dominated skyline notwithstanding, still looks and feels like it once did. If you can ignore the neon and parking garages, the parallel avenues that run through the city—Pacific, Atlantic, Arctic—conjure a 1950s vibe.
The basic difference between A.C. and Vegas is that before the casinos came along, there was a there in Atlantic City. In Vegas, they blew a hole in the desert and, before you knew it, Dean Martin was chasing waitresses at the Sands. But entire generations lived in Atlantic City before the casinos popped up, and so evolved a fabric of definable life that still exists. Jitneys still run along Pacific, the avenue closest to the Boardwalk; it used to cost a quarter but has gone up to two dollars. Folks in the small row-homes on Arctic still sit on the stoop, arguing about politics and the economy. And Atlantic between Pacific and Arctic is still the heart of old A.C. From my room at the Trop, which, like most casinos, bridges both Pacific and Atlantic avenues, I can gaze at a sign from the Chelsea Baptist Church—Christ Died for Our Sins, which doesn’t specify whether legalized gambling is one of them. Across the street from Chelsea Baptist is Our Lady Star of the Sea, which sounds more like a canned provision than a church. But even here history lurks; after partying until dawn one night at the 500 Club, a bosomy, star-crossed celeb named Jayne Mansfield stopped by Star of the Sea to pray.
The city’s postmodern fathers—those who ushered in the casino era and those who want to widen the appeal of A.C. today—never have much to say about the down-market neighborhoods outside the casinos, the ones the gambling proponents promised would be rebuilt and thriving as a result of the industry’s commitment to the community. Rhetoric now unneeded, they pray to break the bleak scene. But you can’t just dynamite entire blocks—except when they did it 25 years ago to create casino space between the Boardwalk and Pacific Avenue. Yet even the more decrepit areas of Pacific provide an ancillary service to the casinos. At Cash for Gold and Dinero por Oro, hard-luck losers can divest themselves of priceless family heirlooms for another go at the tables.
I personally have no intention of ever stopping in at, say, Omar and Abdullah’s Hair Bazaar on North Carolina, but meandering along Atlantic yields a freedom you don’t feel at high-end boutiques. Hop in the car, head north on Atlantic for a mile or so, turn left onto New Hampshire, and drive until you hit a redeveloped area—a couple of restaurants, fishing boat rentals—called Gardner’s Basin, beloved by locals, largely ignored by tourists. The Back Bay Ale House is a watering hole for the old-school crew, not the binge-drinking newbies; get there early, because the barstools are filled by 11 am. Or stop in at the Old Waterway Inn at sunset and order the fried baby lobster tails—what, lobster can’t be fried?
My wife and I even had one of those shocking moments that debunk childhood myths. We had heard that the old diving bell from the Steel Pier lay in state near the basin, so we asked the crusty old guy who rented fishing boats where it was. Without looking up, he screwed on a disdainful look and pointed a gnarled finger behind us. The mini-craft languished aground unceremoniously, 100 feet away. We studied its cracking blue and white paint and each marveled in shocked silence, My parents allowed me to go into that?
It seems the new A.C. has won people over. Younger jet-setters don’t know or care much about what pre-dated them and the older generation at last sees what the city was supposed to be when the idea of casino gambling was first floated. “They could have given up, and they did just the opposite.” says my sister, who has been known to open her purse—and my brother-in-law’s wallet—in the Quarter.
Dave Coskey, who got his first post-college job in A.C. at WAYV radio in 1981, says he’s “fascinated” by the growth. “I don’t believe that Atlantic City gets the credit that it deserves,” says Coskey, president of marketing for Comcast-Spectacor, which owns the Philadelphia 76ers and Flyers. “I’m sure there are some people who don’t like many of the changes that have taken place. But through change, Atlantic City has managed to evolve and keep pace with an ever-changing and highly competitive tourism industry. Atlantic City was a top tourist destination in 1905, as it is today in 2005. What other city can make that claim?”
I figured I could get a strong dissenting view from Chris Ford, an Atlantic City sports legend who played at Villanova, then in the NBA, most notably for the Boston Celtics. He was born and raised in A.C., and over the years we’ve shared a few curmudgeonly comments on the subject of casino gambling. But even Ford, who maintains a summer home next-door in Margate, gives the new A.C. its due. “The city is really starting to do a great job,” Ford says. “We take friends down to the Quarter and the Walk all the time. Of course, it’s taken the city a long time to get to this point—much longer than the locals wanted.”
My only complaint about the new A.C. is that it doesn’t embrace the old. Why can’t Gardner’s Basin be retro-cool? Why not turn the diving bell into the Liberty Bell? When I ask the concierge at the Trop a question about Dock’s Oyster House, she wrinkles her nose and says, “Hmm, I heard of it but I’m just not sure…” Dock’s, about four blocks from the Trop, has been around since 1897, pre-dating even Bert Parks. It’s one of A.C.’s treasures. On the night I go there, I can make my half-shell choice from moonstones, Cortes Island, or Simpson Bay. They also put those round OTC crackers—my mother called them Trenton crackers—on every table.
For more of a taste of the old A.C., stroll down Arctic. Angelo’s Fairmount Tavern, which features roasted peppers, garlic on everything, and lots of attitude from the staff, is the avenue’s best-known Italian restaurant. But Angeloni’s II on Georgia, a white-tablecloth place with 30 bottled beers and a way with a breaded pork chop and mozzarella dish, is just as good.
The king of Arctic, though, is White House Subs, where lines form an hour before lunch. Every entertainer, politician, or well-known athlete who passes through A.C. hits this pepper-and-proscuitto palace and ends up in a mug shot on the wall; Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio, who hung out together at the 500 Club, are all over the place. In most A.C. culinary reviews, White House Subs is listed among the top five establishments, which sounds like a snide commentary on A.C.’s dining scene. While a certain hoagie culture does define South Jersey, White House deserves its rarified position based on merit alone. If I had twenty meals left to consume in this vale of tears, one would be at White House; go with the special Italian, heavy on the onions and hot peppers.
And if I had only ten meals, one would be at Chef Vola’s, a place so decidedly retro that, when I walk in, I expect to see Sinatra and his cronies sitting at a back table. Defiantly anonymous, Vola’s sits amid a dark stretch of real estate on South Albion Place near the boardwalk, its entryway marked only by a small statue of the Virgin Mary. You make your reservations—they had better be far in advance in peak summer—with Michael Esposito, the out-front member of the family that has owned Vola’s since 1982. It’s the ultimate spot for old-timers and new-fabs, a bridge between the old A.C. and the one that’s always turned on. Bring cash and a bottle; they don’t take plastic and have no bar. The cast of The Sopranos ate there while in A.C. for a shoot. “We honor the privacy of the stars,” Esposito says, “but we don’t push the regular diner out to make room. Everybody knows they have to have a reservation.” That’s not so easy, considering that Vola’s phone number is unlisted, as it has been since it started dishing out pasta to the regulars in 1921. Its reputation has spread by word of mouth and adoring reviews. Fifty-five tables are jammed into an intimate downstairs space, the whole effect being that of a 1920s supper club where somewhere along the way, perhaps, somebody’s brains got splattered into the osso buco during a disagreement about moonshine distribution. But Vola’s, a BYO, is actually the friendliest of places. It’s impossible not to engage your neighbor in conversation—about the veal sausage, the crab cakes, the banana cream pie made by papa chef Louis, the friendliness of the Esposito family, or just how cool you feel for finding your way here. You can troll the Internet for the number, pal. I’m not giving it out.
The new Atlantic City is hot, but the old A.C. is pretty great too. If you can’t find it in the veal at Chef Vola’s, drink in the delightful, sublime, and ridiculous Boardwalk mix. The rolling-chair drivers still push you down the boards, slapping palms as they pass each other and say, “I love this job.” Convention Hall, that magical place where my parents took me to see the Ice Capades, is still here, a refurbished show palace so exquisite, it deserves, at the very least, a pro-sports tenant. The Steel Pier is still here too, albeit as a glorified arcade in the blinding glare of the Trump Taj Mahal. A sign reads No Vulgar Tee-Shirts at Steel Pier. Supply your own punchline.
I walk north along the four-mile boardwalk one cloudy day, in the province of gulls, the occasional fisherman, and gamblers with no reason to go back inside a casino. A saxophonist plays a mournful version of God Bless America. It’s an Edward Hopper moment; as I listen, I connect with my past.
But as I gave in to my present, I think, Eh, what the hell. There’s a vodka mojito with my name on it back at Cuba Libre.
Jack McCallum is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated and co-author of the novel Foul Lines, to be published in September.Click here to leave a comment