Miss America Through the years

Miss America parade

Want to enter a float in the Miss America parade? That will cost at least $2,000.

Having the Miss America Organization’s professional float designer build one for you? The cost will quadruple, to $8,000.

But those options are not even a possibility for many in the large Jewish community of South Jersey, who say they can’t attend the parade at all, because its return to Atlantic City coincides with Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Hebrew calendar.

Miss America Organization officials say the ABC television network gave them limited dates for scheduling, leaving them no choice but to hold some portion of the events in tandem with the holiday. The high costs, they say, are necessary to produce a show that is grander, more polished and worthy of the competition’s anticipated return to Atlantic City.

But those explanations are little comfort to a number of loyal locals who say they can’t help but feel snubbed.

“You’ve got to have the people with sand in their shoes. It’s not going to be what it always was,” said Harriann Bernstein, of Atlantic City, who for years helped organize the loudest viewing area at New York Avenue, where the gay community gathered. “I think they think they’re going to do Broadway on the Boardwalk.”

A little rowdy, a bit campy and always full of sparkle, the “Show Us Your Shoes” parade that preceded the Miss America Competition each year was nearly as much of an Atlantic City staple as the competition itself, drawing thousands. Locals say while the pageant was for the beauty queens, the parade, with its largely home-sewn feel, was for the community.

In past parades, Miss America hopefuls rode in convertibles and donned outrageously gaudy shoes akin to adult craft projects that celebrated their talents or home states. And while many casinos skipped the parade as time went on, with just one or two each year entering floats, many local organizations and loyal followers supported the parade with homemade float creations year after year.

But as Miss America prepares to return to Boardwalk Hall in September, those most familiar with the parade have detected some changes they aren’t thrilled about.

During the last Atlantic City parade in 2004, float entries cost $200. That fee now has been inflated to $2,000 or more. The $2,000 package earns a group the right to build its own float — with a theme that must be approved by the organization — and incur the associated costs. For $4,000, the organization will provide a float base that can be enhanced, and for $8,000 the organization will have its professional float designers build a float for the group.

Other acts, such as marching bands and civic groups, pay $200 to $500 to march, but gone are the days when there was friendly competition with prize money handed out by the Miss America Organization for the best acts. Instead, there will be a performance space in front of Boardwalk Hall.

And no longer is there a dedicated group of locals organizing the parade. Instead, the organization has hired Emmy award-winning producer John M. Best and the team from JM Best Entertainment and Under the Sun Productions to put on the updated spectacle that will descend on the Boardwalk at 5 p.m. Sept. 14.

Sharon Pearce, interim president of the Miss America Organization, said it’s fair to say the parade will not be the same as in years past. A higher quality of entertainment also costs more, she said, noting there will still be significant local participation, with hundreds of local singers and dancers in an opening number.

Increasing the quality of entertainment was long discussed before Miss America left town. Segments of the parades in the 1950s and 1960s were aired on the evening news, increasing its stature. The 1957 parade had 112 units, including 42 floats and a dozen Philadelphia Mummers string bands. By contrast, the modern installments at times had closer to 20 floats and a larger number of drill teams and high school bands.

Some who have called for the larger productions of years past might get their wish this year.

“The cost of doing business and producing an event this large requires significant investment,” Pearce said. “In order to raise the level of entertainment value for the parade, as well as the television value, we have taken a different approach this year that also includes the float entries. The floats will be very elaborate and created with specialized themes. Each will be tailored to the participating organizations and corporate partners.”

That’s all well and good, but what about the groups that supported the parade when there wasn’t so much corporate backing, asked Vince McGrath, a part-time Philadelphia resident who organized a float with sponsorships from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for seven years. The group’s entry — one of the first to include female impersonators — received several awards, according to The Press of Atlantic City archives.

“When they couldn’t get anybody else to do floats, the everyday businesses and groups like ours supported them, and now they’re giving us a slap in the face. A couple of years I paid for everything just to get the float and bring out the people to ride on it,” said McGrath, who was dismayed by the entry fee when he attempted to enter the Florida float again this year. “Everybody clapped for everybody no matter if you were gay, straight, whatever you were. That’s why I came back every single year. Not this time.”

The Chestnut Neck Boat Yard in Port Republic and Century 21 Frick Realtors in Galloway Township had similar reactions. The businesses, both past winners in float categories, said they won’t be entering floats this year.

Frick Realtors owner George Frick at first didn’t believe the entry fee could be correct. He called the Miss America Organization to confirm the cost and see whether it could be negotiated. He was told it could not.

“That price is just outrageous. They should be calling around to the old groups and asking if we want to participate,” Frick said. “We really enjoyed doing it, but I don’t know how they think they can come back now, with the economy the way it is, and expect people to participate at those prices.”

As for the conflict with Yom Kippur, Pearce said the the timing of the parade was less of a decision and more a consequence of unavoidable scheduling issues. The Miss America Competition always has taken place on a Saturday night, but once the organization saw the conflict with Yom Kippur, it worked with ABC to move the broadcast back a day to Sunday, feeling it was more important that the competition itself not conflict with the holiday.

“Had we left the schedule as it was, both the parade and the competition would have conflicted with Yom Kippur observance,” Pearce said, noting all preliminary and other mandatory competition events do not conflict with the holiday.

Yom Kippur begins at sundown Sept. 13 and continues until sundown Sept. 14. Rabbi Aaron Krauss, of Beth El Synagogue in Margate, said Yom Kippur is a sacred day on the Jewish calendar devoted to prayer and introspection. Traditional Jewish followers will fast for more than 24 hours and abstain from the distractions of modern electronics.

“The only way to handle it is not to attend the parade,” Krauss said. “The people who did speak to me were concerned, but they would have no options other than not going.”

That will be the case for Bernstein, one of the longtime parade volunteers. She said as much as she’s enjoyed the parade, she would never miss Yom Kippur. The same is true for Carol Rimm, of Margate, a longtime co-chairwoman of the pageant’s former press committee. Rimm said she doesn’t like the conflict with the religious observance, but she understands the organization needs to continually change its practices to remain current.

“I don’t know what went into the decision-making, but it’s a decision that, for me, is difficult to defend,” Rimm said.

“Aside from the scheduling, I’m aware that things were done differently once they went to Las Vegas,” Rimm said. “The girls don’t need their hands held anymore, and things change.”

Contact Jennifer Bogdan:



@ACPressJennifer on Twitter

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More than 30 years’ experience reporting and editing for newspapers and magazines in Illinois, Colorado, Texas and New Jersey and 1985 winner of the Texas Daily Newspaper Association’s John Murphy Award for copy editing.

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