Bert Parks had stood guard in front of the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel for more than 14 years without incident.
Arms outstretched and holding one of Miss America’s iconic crowns, the life-sized bronze likeness of the man known as Mr. Miss America was ready to provide a “crowning moment” to any traveler curious enough to see whether she ... or he, for that matter ... might fit under the sparkling crown.
That was, until earlier this year when Bert disappeared from his perch in the tea garden outside the hotel. With news that the pageant would return to its birthplace in September, his disappearance sparked concern as people began to wonder where the pageant’s longtime emcee had walked off to.
Would he return? Was he OK?
He is, but he nearly could have suffered a different fate, hotel developer Tom Scannapieco said.
“We woke up one morning and found that Bert was leaning at about 45 degrees. Some vandals tried to steal it for scrap metal. They probably figured, ‘Look at this. It’s all bronze,’” Scannapieco said. “He’s anchored into a concrete base. He came loose, but they couldn’t take him.”
Cathleen Kiernan, a spokeswoman for the Sheraton, stressed there’s no way to know for sure whether Bert was the target of thieves, as there were no security cameras aimed at the statue. She suggested the 6-foot-tall bronze man also could have been loosened from his base during Hurricane Sandy.
Whatever the reason for Bert’s near brush with the ground, he’s now resting inside a hotel meeting room, wrapped in blankets. It’s a nice bed of sorts, hotel staff joked.
The Sheraton is revamping its extensive collection of Miss America memorabilia as the pageant approaches, and Bert’s pedestal will be fixed. He’ll be spruced up and returned in June to his rightful spot with the kind of pomp and circumstance he deserves, Kiernan said.
His return apparently is more highly anticipated than anyone at the hotel realized. After the January pageant in Las Vegas, two Miss America contestants showed up at the Sheraton hoping to pose for photos with Bert. After asking around about the tuxedo-clad likeness, staff obliged, taking him out of storage and propping him up for the women, said Janet Espenshade, an interior designer who put together the hotel’s collection.
“It’s shocking because all these years, no one has ever asked any questions about Bert,” Scannapieco said. “Now everybody wants to know how he’s doing and where he is. It’s absolutely amazing.”
The landscaped circle outside the hotel now hosts an empty concrete block and nearby plaque where the 400-pound statue once stood. According to The Press of Atlantic City archives, the statue was valued at $30,000 at its unveiling in 1998. Sold as scrap metal, however, Bert would yield only about $860. Bronze is priced at $2.15 per pound, according to American Auto Salvage & Recycling in Mays Landing.
At 25 years, Parks was the longest-running host in the pageant’s history. He was booted in 1980 in an attempt to lure a younger demographic, but returned to host one last time for the pageant’s 70th anniversary before his death in 1992.
He famously sang the words, “There she is, Miss America,” each year as the song titled “Miss America” proved to be a hit. It won’t be used in the September pageant, apparently due to a lawsuit filed by the widow of Bernie Wayne, the man who penned the song.
Bert’s statue has been outside the Sheraton since September 1998 — less than a year after the hotel opened its doors. Scannapieco was at a trade show when he met Arizona-based artist Snell Johnson and asked whether he’d be up to the task of sculpting the statue. A convicted con artist, Johnson rose to fame as a sculptor after his release from prison and created the massive bronze lion at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. He died in 2001.
The statue was crafted with the permission of the Parks family, who approved the monument as it was created. Scannapieco came up with the idea to set up the statue with sensors in the hands. When someone was underneath the crown, “There she is, Miss America” would begin to play.
“We didn’t want it to be too obvious. We thought it should be high enough that a woman would say, ‘Maybe I can fit under that,’” Scannapieco said. “There’s no flashing neon light telling you to go see Bert and hear his song.”
Over time, the sensors stopped working. They should be repaired before the statue returns to the tea garden, Scannapieco said.
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