Eighty-four years passed before Miss America decided to leave Atlantic City, but it took just six weeks of conversations to get her back.
The Miss America Organization has agreed to return the pageant to its birthplace this September for a three-year run broadcast on ABC.
Financial terms of the deal and the cost of putting on the show at historic Boardwalk Hall remained shrouded Thursday as the parties have not yet signed a contract. Dates haven’t yet been set, but officials confirmed that the return of the pageant will also mean the return of the Miss America Parade, once again giving spectators a reason to call out, “Show us your shoes.”
“No matter what it costs ... I don’t think you can put a price tag on what it means to Atlantic City,” Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno said at the announcement. “The value to Atlantic City and the state of New Jersey is priceless.”
It was that attitude, officials said, that led the speed of Thursday’s announcement — just six weeks after Guadagno met with Miss America officials. The push originated with Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson at a December meeting in Trenton with Gov. Chris Christie. Aware that the pageant’s contract with the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority was due to expire, Levinson said it was an opportunity the state should seize.
“I tried to impress upon the governor — and anyone that would listen — that this is a part of the fabric of our area, that Miss America is as much as part of this area as the beach and Boardwalk,” Levinson said. “The amount of exposure that Atlantic City gets on national TV, the international exposure we get, is incredible. It’s simple. Bring it back.”
Fast forward a few days and Levinson was connected with Guadagno. She requested a meeting with Miss America officials through an acquaintance, who happened to be the pageant’s head of security.
“I said, can you get the CFO and the president of the Miss America Pageant on the phone? And can you get them here now, because we want to have a seat at the table. We want to be in the fight,” Guadagno said. “We may not win the fight, but we wanted to be in the fight.”
Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America Organization, was ready to listen.
“When the very first call came in from the lieutenant governor, I was ... shocked. I was like ‘wow’. This may very well happen,” McMaster said. “It was always my dream that this would return here. ... We are back to the city where the Miss America Pageant began, where the Miss America Pageant was raised, and where the Miss America Pageant belongs.”
Miss America got her start in Atlantic City in 1921 when leaders were looking for reason to keep visitors at the shore after Labor Day. The pageant gained popularity, eventually coming in as the most-watched show of the week in 1990s. By 2005, however, the organization asked to be released from its contract with the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, saying it had become too costly to produce the show in the aging structure whose difficulties with high-labor costs have been well-documented.
The pageant's headquarters never left the area. They are located in Linwood, where they moved in 2007 from Atlantic City.
Producing the show in Atlantic City will be more expensive than in Las Vegas, particularly because of a slow setup process for Boardwalk Hall. In Las Vegas, pre-production setup took about 12 days, but it’s expected to take closer to 20 days to prepare in Atlantic City, said John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which will execute the contract with Miss America.
“We had them (the Miss America Organization) come to Boardwalk Hall and examine the setup to see what the differential would be in term of cost,” he said.
Financial incentives to bring the pageant back to Atlantic City could come from CRDA and the Atlantic City Alliance, a nonprofit marketing organization created by state legislation, Palmieri said. The CRDA is funded by parking fees and 1.85 percent of casino revenue. The alliance is funded and operated by the casinos.
When the pageant left Atlantic City, ACCVA was providing $720,000 of the more than $1 million in production costs.
Alliance CEO Liza Cartmell stressed that no matter what the financial incentives are, the return to the city will come in the amount of publicity gained by the resort as a result of the pageant. A primetime television audience will all have a front-row view of the city’s nongambling attractions — the focus of the alliance’s “Do AC” campaign, she said.
Israel Posner, executive director of the Lloyd Levenson Institute of Gaming, Hospitality and Tourism at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, said bringing the pageant back is a major move for the city, particularly because it’s likely to conjure up feelings of nostalgia for those who remember pageants of the past.
“Unlike other resort destinations, Atlantic City is a city of history. It’s a city where icons matter,” Posner said. “This is a city that’s really engulfed in its past. What you need is the collage of the old and the modern to move it forward.”
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