They were the women who were not meant to be seen or heard. They shadowed the young competitors and helped zip their dresses, arrange press interviews and show them the best that Atlantic City had to offer.
Former volunteers of the Miss America Organization’s defunct Hostess Committee played by a certain set of rules, fulfilling their duties out of the limelight. Many local women served as hostesses for years. But that all changed when the competition departed Atlantic City and found a new home in Las Vegas in 2004.
“When we were in A.C., we were more involved with contestants. We’d see them at breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Betty Paxson, of Absecon, said. “It’s a whole different ballgame today. There are no committees and there are fewer women who volunteer now.”
About 60 former hostesses and competition volunteers traveled from all over the country to the Mays Landing Country Club in March for the 10th National Hostess Club reunion. Some had kept in touch, while others reunited for the first time in years. Their lives are going in different directions now, but they all still had one thing in common: the Miss America competition.
Marie Nicholes, of Galloway Township, grew up in Atlantic City. Her family lived on Georgia Avenue, which was blocked off every year so contestants’ cars could park near Boardwalk Hall. Before she became a Miss America volunteer, something she did for more than 25 years, she was first a spectator.
“My grandfather would walk with me to the corner so I could watch the contestants enter the building. The cars would then drive around the corner, park on the left side of Georgia Avenue and the hostesses would walk to the convention hall corner,” she said. “As a child, we sat on apple baskets to watch the parade on Georgia Avenue.”
Corinne Sparenberg, of Linwood, also grew up in Atlantic City, and she started volunteering for the Miss America Organization at a young age. One of her earliest positions was a junior assistant hostess, which involved supporting the senior hostess in caring for a Miss Florida pageant contestant. She continued to volunteer for 33 years, mostly as the national hostess chairwoman. But her first pageant was her most memorable.
“What the winners used to do, after they were crowned, was get put up in a suite at their hotel. Once, we were going into Caesars, onto the escalator that went to the second floor. She had a long train on her dress and it got caught in the escalator. I had some safety pins and was able to help her out for the rest of the night,” she laughed.
Sparenberg has many great memories of Miss America. “But what I appreciated the most were the hostesses and the fact that they gave up two weeks every year,” she said.
Volunteering for the competition was like having a full-time job, but without pay and with 80-hour work weeks. Volunteers would only be considered if they lived within a 25 mile radius of the city because of all the back and forth between home and the pageant.
In 1983, Paxson got her foot in the door to work on Miss America committees in charge of seating, planning excursions to other parts of New Jersey and caring for contestants and their families. Volunteers didn’t just sign-up, though. Getting on a committee was a competition itself.
ATLANTIC CITY - The curtain rose, and the strains of "Lady In Red" floated through the air.
“The way it worked then, you had to have somebody who was already a hostess fill out an application for you, and then you’d have an interview,” Paxson said. “You would sit and talk with the membership committee, because it was a big commitment. Basically two weeks out of your life, your whole life was Miss America.”
In spite of the stress and time, the women lived and breathed Miss America. Barrie Jane Tracy, of Brigantine, joined the organization as a volunteer on the parents’ activities committee around 1980 and later became a national board member. She helped organizers plan activities and events for the family members of contestants.
“We entertained 300 people a night,” she said. “We had a hospitality room at Conventional Hall. We’d do a night on the Boardwalk, take people to Smithville. On that Saturday night we had a dinner dance at the old Howard Johnson Hotel, it was really nice.”
But when the competition moved to Las Vegas, it left many of the hostesses behind. In that first year, only a handful of the Atlantic City volunteers traveled out west to help look after the contestants. In subsequent years, even fewer were invited.
What used to be a network of nearly 200 volunteers dwindled down to a few.
Not all of the volunteers left behind gave up on the pageant world. When the women heard that the hostess committee would no longer exist in Atlantic City, they got together at Sparenberg’s home and voted to form their own committee, the National Hostess Club. Some continued working in the Miss America Organization and others refocused their efforts to work with the Miss New Jersey pageant.
Miss Georgia Carly Mathis strolling through the Pier Shops at Caesars? Miss Iowa Nicole Kell…
When the competition returned home to Boardwalk Hall in 2013, many of the hostesses hadn’t volunteered at the national pageant in nearly a decade. It was like seeing an old friend return home, but quickly realizing that she was not the same person.
“There was a recent picture in the paper of people that were hostesses. I didn’t know any of them. It’s very different than it was,” Tracy said. “But as always with changes, some are good, some of them are not good. You just have to hope for the best.”
Tracy, Nicholes, Paxson and Sparenberg are planning to attend next week’s Thursday preliminary competition night. They will watch as spectators now — faces that blend in with the crowds of family and friends cheering on the young women walking across the stage. Although they are no longer directly involved, they say it was all worth it.
“As a hostess, it was time-consuming, but fun and a thrill to meet and greet the contestants, getting to know them and their traveling companions,” Nicholes said, “and developing lasting friendships within the committee, which continue to this day.”