Miss America is once again leaving Atlantic City.
For much of the past 100 years, the Miss America pageant was a mainstay of the social and business life of the region, coalescing the community around an annual event that required an army of volunteers.
“It was something we looked forward to every September. We had a camaraderie with all of the contestants,” said Charlotte Berger, 90, of Egg Harbor Township, a volunteer from 1988 until the pageant left for Las Vegas in 2005. “We have a group of former hostesses, and we get together. We feel like sisters.”
For the second time in its history, the event has left the region, this time for Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut, leaving many to reflect on Miss America’s impact locally.
Miss America is once again leaving Atlantic City.
For Bill McCullough, of Margate, who runs McCullough Models, the pageant is in his blood.
“Our family had a box for all four nights for about 40 years,” said McCullough, the brother of former Egg Harbor Township Mayor James “Sonny” McCullough and son of modeling agency founder Marie McCullough.
“My grandparents had it first,” he said. “We entertained every night with friends, family and business associates. It was always fun.”
His mother was a hostess, and the modeling agency even sent volunteers to help contestants with hair and makeup in the 1970s and ‘80s, he said.
“To get on (the hostess committee) was another whole deal,” McCullough said. “You were interviewed — it was more of a big social thing to be part of it.”
Berger said hostesses were used for a variety of work, everything from accompanying contestants around town to serving on committees that handled press relations, check-in and parking, and security.
She was on the committee that worked with police and security to make sure contestants and others stayed safe.
In 1988, her first year volunteering, entertainer Kathie Lee Gifford was part of the show and the security committee had to be on the lookout for someone who was stalking her, she said.
“Everyone loved what they were doing,” Berger said. “We were sad when they went to Las Vegas, but I had some friends who went to Las Vegas to volunteer.”
ATLANTIC CITY — Thousands of visitors walk the Boardwalk every day, looking for the perfect landmark to take a photo.
Joanne Kenny, of Margate, made the trip to Vegas to volunteer and will travel to Connecticut to see the pageant, she said.
She now volunteers as a hostess to the judges for the Miss New Jersey pageant, she said, because the Miss America Organization became less interested in having hostesses as volunteers once they returned to Atlantic City in 2013.
Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold-Levi, 78, believes there were many heydays for the pageant in Atlantic City.
“To me, the notable eras are when there were things that were relevant,” she said. “Other people might say production numbers or pageant events, but I think it’s when Miss America hit several accomplishment marks.”
Such accomplishments included turning the cash prize awarded to winners into a college scholarship; crowning women of diverse ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds and sexual preferences, as well as those with disabilities; and pushing through public backlash during the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Gold-Levi’s Miss America memories date to the 1940s. With her father as the official city photographer, she had access to many of Atlantic City’s major events.
In 1945, she served as page for Bess Myerson, the first Jewish woman to wear the crown.
“I still remember the white satin costume and the buckle shoes,” Gold-Levi said.
Myerson’s crowning not only helped begin the era of diversity within the pageant but pushed forward the notion the pageant would focus on education.
Gold Levi recalled Myerson even wearing a university cap and gown during the pageant festivities.
The pageant continued to add notches to the crown, as Gold-Levi said, by crowning the first black Miss America, Vanessa Williams, in 1983, requiring contestants to support an official platform and creating the Miss America Foundation to manage scholarships.
McCullough’s favorite memories are of seeing former modeling students of his compete in the pageant.
One girl came to school when she was 14. I really liked her, read her resume. I said, ‘I think this girl could be Miss America.’ It was Suzette Charles,” McCullough said.
Charles, then of Mays Landing, became Miss America 1984 after Williams gave up her crown in the midst of a controversy over nude photos.
Gold-Levi’s participation in the pageant continued over the years, as a spectator, parade participant and a preliminary judge in 1997.
“I’ve always said the emphasis should be on the women. I just hope are they happy and are they being treated right through the organization, because you have to be very disciplined to do it,” she said.
Over the years, the pageant has changed and evolved for the times — a necessary progression, Gold-Levi said.
“I remember Bess wore the crown, the gown, the velvet cape, the furs and carried a scepter. … That kind of pageantry wouldn’t work today.”
Nevertheless, “the pageant has always been beloved,” said Gold-Levi. “We’ll miss it.”
Staff Writer Lauren Carroll contributed to this report.
The screen door slams each time one more neighborhood kid filters into Danielle Fletcher’s Indiana Avenue home. Fletcher hustles around her kitchen, putting french fries in the oven, frying chicken on the stove and cutting watermelon into slices.
For Fletcher, whose 17-year-old son K’vaun was killed in 2016 by a stray bullet, these monthly dinners aren’t just for feeding the youth in her neighborhood. It’s keeping them away from the negative influences she says they’re exposed to every day.
“You can come to Aunt Danielle’s house, you can get a plate, you can play basketball, you can watch TV, you can play video games, as long as it keeps them off the streets,” she said. “That’s my main purpose.”
In Atlantic City, where one in four residents is under 18, structure and opportunities for young people are lacking. Many believe creating more programs and better utilizing the ones in place should keep young people out of trouble in a city where six of the seven fatal shootings this year involved people 21 or younger.
Jim Johnson, special counsel to Gov. Phil Murphy and author of the state’s transition report on Atlantic City, has said in meetings with the community that the city’s 10,000 young people are “the forgotten” and “the invisible” citizens.
“It’s a lot of broken promises in Atlantic City,” said Domanique Townsend, 24, who helps run the nonprofit Peace Amongst Youth with Fletcher and her mother, Kelly Cors-Atherly. “That’s why a lot of youth now, they’re to the point where now they need more action.”
Just steps across the street from Fletcher’s house is the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Complex, one of four schools that house the city’s recreation programs.
The building hosts recreation five days a week in the winter and four days a week in the summer. But the doors were once opened longer.
In the wake of the city’s 2015 fiscal crisis, rec program hours were reduced and the department faced major staff cuts, dropping at one point from about 50 employees to about four, a move that saved the city $2 million annually, according to previous reports.
Institutions dedicated to helping youth, such as the Police Athletic League and the Boys and Girls Club, have since expanded their influence in the city, but Mayor Frank Gilliam said in June the Rec Department plans to roll out new and existing programs in the fall.
Many young people still sense a gap in opportunities.
“All we probably can do is play basketball and probably football, but otherwise there’s not enough to do here,” said 14 year-old Quanirah Montaque.
Like most of the 14-year-olds in Fletcher’s house, Montaque talks about wanting more fun and games: an arcade, a roller-skating rink, a trampoline park and maybe a “Fortnite” video game competition.
The young people in their early twenties whom Fletcher feeds are also hungry for more constructive opportunities and employment.
“All there is to do is to survive. Keep your head above water,” said 22-year-old Ronald Laws, who said he has lost a majority of his childhood friends to gun violence or incarceration and was himself a gunshot victim in 2016.
A survey of 812 Atlantic City youth between fourth and 12th grades conducted in February by the nonprofit Search Institute showed 53% were adequate or thriving, meaning they have assets to make positive life choices. However, 47% were considered challenged or vulnerable.
According to the state’s transition report, more than a third of the city’s children live below the poverty level and must confront crime and deprivation.
“They act like it’s our fault when they’re failing us,” said 21-year-old resident Jaquan Campos. “We’re not failing ourselves. We’re doing what we know, what we see.”
Youth in the survey scored lowest in “constructive use of time,” the need for opportunities — outside of school — to learn and develop, and “positive identity,” the need for young people to believe in their own self-worth and to feel they have control over the things that happen to them.
Michael Bailey, who has worked with the Police Athletic League since 1982 and served as recreation director in 2016, said the city is doing a lot with its hands tied with regard to funding.
“The reality is that parents need to find out the programs that are available and get their child in a program that suits them. Often people say there is nothing for the youth to do in Atlantic City. But in actuality there is plenty for the youth to do,” he said. “They need to discover the services and to take advantage of them.”
But in Bailey’s experience, programs are only half the equation.
“It does help when children see that you’re interested in their overall being, not just them coming and throwing out a basketball,” he said. “It’s not always about programs. It’s about caring.”
For Atlantic City to improve the lives of its youth, part of that caring means rebuilding trust that has been lost in the past several years.
“Even after we speak, they’re not going to listen till it’s too late, and then they’re going to say that we never spoke,” Campos said. “No, you just weren’t listening.”
For Kyle Schuster, a 22-year-old studying marine biology at Stockton University’s Atlantic City campus, life is good at the college’s beachfront dorm.
For the kids who piled onto Fletcher’s couch in May, making fun of each other playing video games and taking turns talking about what they want to see in Atlantic City, they will have to wait on the next promise.
“After today, right? These kids are going to talk about what they told you and then they are going to look forward to it,” Townsend said. “They’re going to go back, they’re going to talk about it and then they’re going to wait for it.”
Ask people between the ages of 65 and 75 to name the music event that defined their tie-dyed generation, and most will answer, “Woodstock.”
Not everyone, however.
Fifty years ago, two weeks before Woodstock happened in August 1969, a sellout crowd of more than 120,000 showed up at Atlantic City Race Course in Mays Landing for the three-day Atlantic City Pop Festival.
On Aug. 1-3, Philadelphia-based Electric Factory Concerts staged an event that featured 30 acts ranging from A (Airplane, Jefferson) to Z (Zappa, Frank). In between, fans watched artists like Janis Joplin, Santana, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Joe Cocker and Iron Butterfly.
“It was a pretty amazing scene, with hippies and everyone else,” said Ocean City’s Mike “Monk” Monroe, 67, who was at the concert. “And the music was incredible.”
The concert happened in part because Herb Spivak decided to take a trip to the shore one winter day.
Spivak, who had created Electric Factory a year earlier with brothers Jerry and Allen, Shelley Kaplan and Larry Magid, was cruising on the Black Horse Pike toward his vacation home in Ventnor in early February 1969 in a white Cadillac convertible he had bought for his wife.
Magid, who owns a home in Longport, had come up with the idea of an outdoor festival for South Jersey. When the racetrack appeared off to the side, Spivak veered off the road.
“I had no intention of going there when I started driving,” said Spivak, 87. “But there had been an outdoor festival at a racetrack in Miami, and that was on my mind when I saw the race course. I said to myself, ‘You know what? Let me pull in and talk to some people.’”
Track owner Robert Levy happened to be there that day, and Spivak pitched the idea of a three-day music festival.
Levy initially turned him down, thinking the track had no open dates that summer, but another track official walked by and mentioned the track would be closed for the first weekend in August as it started to prepare for a harness-racing meet.
“Mr. Levy asked me how much they would get and I told him 17.5% (of the gross),” Spivak said. “He said, ‘You got a deal!’ I told him my lawyer would get in touch with his lawyer to work out the details, and he said, ‘I don’t need any lawyer. Let’s just shake hands on it.’ So that’s what we did.
“We didn’t have much of a budget back then. I borrowed money from my attorney’s father and started rolling. It was a very grassroots kind of promotion.”
A woman who was a spectator at several Electric Factory Concerts served as the model for a poster, which has since become a collector’s item. Manager David Kasanow and another employee grabbed some posters and tickets and traveled up and down the East Coast in his mother’s Volkswagen Beetle, hanging posters in windows and giving away tickets on radio stations.
Spivak said he booked Joplin, paying her $20,000 and two cases of Southern Comfort. Magid went to work on booking the rest of the acts. He filled the schedule with an interesting variety of music that included jazz drummer Buddy Rich; blues guitarist B.B. King; folk artists Tim Buckley, Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills and Nash; pop artists like Creedence and 3 Dog Night; and rockers such as Cocker and Little Richard.
“We had the idea of having a festival that was different than any other,” said Magid, 76. “We had a few different genres. And we tried to keep the flow going, so it would be compelling and the people would want to see every act.”
To accomplish the feat, organizers used a revolving stage. One performer would play while the other set up behind them. When one was done, the stages were rotated by hand so there was only a 15-minute break between acts.
The strategy worked. Lured by the list of performers and low ticket prices — $15 for all three days or $6 for one day — fans poured into Hamilton Township from all over the country. Traffic on the Black Horse Pike was crammed. Hotels, motels and nearby campgrounds were filled.
In Ocean City, almost a dozen surfers skipped the waves on 16th Street, piled into Monroe’s red van, relaxed on the shag carpet interior and took off for the racetrack.
“I was only 14 years old and my mother was livid, but she let me go because my brother, Pete, was going,” said Sandy Ordille, 64, who lives in San Diego. “I remember Barbie (Belyea) and I were sitting on the grass inside the gate at one point, and this big school bus with a hippie flower pulls up. People were climbing onto the roof and then jumping the fence to crash the festival.
“Some guys were trying to pick us up, and we took off. I ran down the dirt horse track and wound up behind a bunch of huge trucks. Jefferson Airplane was on the stage and one of the guards pulled me up and let me stand to the side. I was 15 feet away from Grace Slick and just stood there in awe.”
The organizers sold 120,000 tickets — 40,000 for each day — but more than 5,000 people found a way to get inside without paying.
They found a camping area on the far reaches of the track. In the morning, they would jump the fence and run down to the infield. Because of the heat and humidity, they would also jump into the lake on the infield to cool off. Track workers helped out by spraying water from fire hoses into the crowd.
“We called the area where they were staying ‘Ripple Hill’ because that’s what those kids were drinking,” Magid said with a laugh at his Longport home.
Local fans got their first experience with the hippie culture.
Atlantic City resident Barbara Brown, who was 15 at the time and getting ready for her sophomore year at Oakcrest High School, attended the first day of the festival Friday and quickly realized she had to make some wardrobe changes before she returned Sunday.
“On Friday, I felt too straight and looked too clean and out of place with so many hippies around me,” Brown said on Facebook. “On Sunday, I wore scruffier bell bottom jeans and a wrinkled flower-child looking top. I walked around our yard barefoot before we left so I would have dirty feet. My hair was long and straight, and I purposely didn’t wash it. I added some beads and a headband. I felt less out of place, and I had more fun.”
Organizers had to adjust to some problems over the weekend.
The festival was to be a coming-out party of sorts for Carlos Santana and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Santana blew the crowd away during his set, but CSN did not perform because they didn’t think they were ready for such a large crowd. Instead, they made their debut at Woodstock, though they returned to ACRC in 1974 for a one-day concert with Santana.
Joni Mitchell didn’t sing for long. She was into her fourth song Friday, got angry and frustrated that the crowd wasn’t paying attention, and walked off in tears.
“We wanted to get her on and let her sing her hits before things got too crazy,” Magid said. “We told her that this was not a concert, that it was a festival, but she didn’t listen. The same thing happened to her at another festival later.”
Rock guitarist Johnny Winter was another act who never performed. He was booked to play at 3 p.m. the final day but showed up much later. According to Magid, it was because Winter, who died in 2014, was an albino and couldn’t be in the sun for very long.
Magid was also pressed into service as one of the emcees because the person scheduled to perform that duty on at least one of the days had indulged himself to the point where he was unable to take the stage.
Something good came out of it, however. Barbara “Mickey” Moran was in the crowd and took notice of Magid, who was living in her apartment building in Philadelphia.
They will celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary next month.
“My only regret was I didn’t get to see Janis Joplin,” Mickey Magid said. “I went to the festival with my friends Ben and Connie Cohen. Ben had converted an old ice cream truck into a camper, and I stayed with them at Mays Landing Campground. We were supposed to be there the whole time, but Connie was nine months pregnant and went into labor on Saturday and we had to leave. Their daughter (Rachel) was born on Sunday.”
Joplin, who died 14 months later of a heroin overdose, was the main star of the event.
She took the stage at 8 p.m. Sunday and dazzled the crowd.
There was time for one more act before the 10 p.m. deadline. Magid had to choose between Winter and Little Richard and had a feeling Little Richard would come through.
It had started to rain, and the crowd began to trudge through the mud toward the exits. Little Richard strolled out wearing a sparkly vest and made them stop in their tracks.
“He absolutely tore it up,” Spivak said. “He sounded better than ever.”
Sadly, there are no audio/video recordings of the festival, save for a grainy, 20-second clip on YouTube of Joplin singing.
In a way, that makes it even more special for the people who were there. It adds to the mystique of what was a magical weekend at Atlantic City Race Course 50 years ago.
“To borrow a phrase from the era,” Monroe said, “the whole thing was ‘mind-blowing.’”