Don’t try telling Miss America Organization CEO Sam Haskell that everything is bigger and better in Las Vegas.
For him — and the rest of the team working to bring the pageant back to its birthplace — that’s just not true. Now head of the organization that just traded in the glitz of the Las Vegas strip for the smaller casino town with ocean views, Haskell has one word for the production that will take over Boardwalk Hall in September: super-sized.
It’s a word he said several times to a mix of pageant officials, television producers and local officials during a recent catered lunch on the Musician’s Balcony in Boardwalk Hall.
By some measures, it’s undeniable.
When a new Miss America is crowned Sept. 15, she’ll be on a stage nearly twice as wide as the stage at the pageant’s former home at Las Vegas’s Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. Instead of the live Las Vegas audience of 7,000, she’ll be looking at a Boardwalk Hall crowd of more than 10,000 — one that organizers insist will be sold out, with a waiting list to boot.
But Haskell says there are other reasons the pageant is back in Atlantic City. Those reasons have less to do with seating capacity and more to do with tradition and appreciation — things that couldn’t be duplicated in Las Vegas.
“There were 100 other things going in Las Vegas. We were just one thing,” Haskell said. “It all feels much more special here, like a warm blanket being wrapped around us. It was colder in Vegas. There was no blanket.”
With the pageant’s return home, expectations are high. Miss America staff along with television writers, directors and producers arrived in town last week to begin scouting Atlantic City locations, from the docks to the Boardwalk, that will be used in the broadcast.
Also making her way through the city was reigning Miss America Mallory Hagan, who said she’s already planning her outfits for the pageant and is looking forward to bringing a modern Miss America back to Atlantic City.
“It’s given me a real sense of the history and tradition that was here because it was my first time here right after I won,” Hagan said.
Throughout the September pageant, two 40-foot-tall screens on either side of the stage will constantly display views of the city. Next to them will be 30-foot-tall circular screens showing archived Miss America moments through the decades.
Producer Tony Eaton, of Tall Pony Productions, has put together the show through the pageant’s years in Las Vegas but found himself introduced to Atlantic City for the first time last week as he saw the new canvas for the pageant.
“I feel anointed in Atlantic City lore since I’ve been here the last couple of days,” he said. “If you think of those hand-tinted postcards from back in the day, from Atlantic City’s heyday, that’s the lens through which we look at what we’re going to be doing here.”
Exactly which locations throughout the city will be featured in the broadcast won’t be disclosed before the pageant. By last week, however, Eaton already had a short list of some of his new personal Atlantic City favorites. Among them: The Irish Pub on St. James Place and White House Sub Shop. Next up was dinner at the Knife & Fork Inn.
“We’re here to make everyone look good, especially Atlantic City,” Eaton said.
Faced with putting on its second pageant in nine months after Mallory Hagan was crowned in January, organization officials are challenged with sorting out judging panels, creating rehearsal schedules and setting up appearances in a short amount of time. The return of the Miss America parade on Sept. 14 will take almost as much work as the pageant itself, Haskell said. The parade is a challenge organizers haven’t faced in years as there was no parade component in Las Vegas.
In recent years, a team of 350 volunteers throughout the nationwide organization have been on hand at the pageant. But this year’s production is expected to use the help of 500 volunteers, with the additional help needed specifically for the parade, officials said.
More than 40 of the 60 living former Miss Americas are expected to return to Atlantic City for the celebration. Prior to the pageant will be a one-hour “20/20” special titled “The Road to the Pageant” featuring six contestants’ journeys, interviews with former Miss Americas and imagery of Atlantic City.
All of that is encouraging for the state, which is banking on a significant economic boost from the pageant. Before committing $7.5 million to keep the pageant in Atlantic City for three years, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority commissioned a study predicting a $32 million economic impact from the pageant as volunteers and spectators flock to the resort.
“We intend to make this an economically viable proposition,” CRDA Executive Director John Palmieri told the group over lunch at Boardwalk Hall. “The study demonstrates we’ll be able to achieve that for the city and the state.”
Pageant officials suggest they want results that could lead to an extended stay in the resort as well.
“I know it sounds odd, but what we can have in Atlantic City is really something we couldn’t have in Las Vegas,” Haskell said.
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