Live From Atlantic City:
A History of the Miss America Pageant
Before, After, and in Spite of Television.

by Armando Riverol, published 1992

book cover
Chapter III -- The Dire Thirties

In 1933, for unknown reasons, the pageant idea was taken out of "moth-balls" and given another chance at success. If the pageants of the 1920s were roaring, the newly-revived pageant of 1933 was depressing. For one thing, community involvement was minimal as were competition prizes. Miss America 1933, Marian Bergeron remembers:

1933 was a depression year and not the most productive time to become Miss America...[there was] very little [community involvement] in 1933. Survival was more important.

Although the newly-revived pageant of 1933 was under the direction of Armand T. Nichols who had been the director from 1924-1927, it did not get the full backing of the Hotelmen's Association as in the past. The city officials headed by Atlantic City mayor Bacharach, however, still endorsed the pageant. The Mayor, his wife, and Mr. Nichols, presided over the first day's nighttime event, An Evening Dinner Party, which began at 8:30 p.m. on September 5, 1933.

On this first day of the 1933 Miss America Pageant, and previous to the Evening Dinner Party, the main event was the arrival of the thirty beauty contestants from 28 states aboard a specially chartered train called the Beauty Special. Unlike Neptune's Arrival in 1921, the contestants' arrival in 1933 was not theatrical in form. It contained none of the staged pageantry or theatricality of the former. Unlike previous pageants, there was no massive water carnival or frolic; there was no Neptune and his court; there were no fireworks, blaring ships' cannons, party boats on the horizon, or greetings from factory whistles.

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Instead, the Contestants' Arrival was simply, as the name states, the contestants arriving in town—a non-monumental event minimized further by the small crowd waiting to greet them. What makes this arrival worthy of any attention or further speculation is that it presents a perfect example of how almost anything under the sun can be given importance, relevance, and recognition if properly promoted. What drew attention to this arrival, what separated it from the thousands of other yearly arrivals into Atlantic City, and what made it part of the Miss America Pageant events, was its coverage by the press. The arrival was a publicity gimmick. Because it was widely heralded by the press, and because it was given status as part of the pageant by the organizers, it was elevated in stature to a "happening." Consequently, the routine arrival of the contestants became an event -- "The Contestants' Arrival on the Beauty Special," a part of the Miss America Pageant. By definition, this event was a pseudo-event, or non-event because it was: a) created to be covered by the press, and b) relegated to a position of status merely by its being given status. In this respect, arrivals such as the ones made by presidents, popes, and other luminaries, can and do transcend the ordinary. Through careful orchestration, the non-events are elevated into the realm of mythic importance and relevance. Although the potential was there in 1933, such was not the case in the Contestants' Arrival.

Perhaps because of a lack of preparation; perhaps because of a lack of funds; perhaps because of lack of insight there was no visual or audio theatricality reported at the Contestants' Arrival in 1933. Some might argue that this missed opportunity, so full of promotional possibility, might have been like that proverbial door, which if opened can create institutions or social change; if left closed or half opened, on the other hand, can evaporate into dreams of "could have been." Perhaps if this publicity gimmick had been given more substance, form, and consequence, it might have evolved from non-event to event and further. Instead, it, and by consequence other successive arrivals, were dismissed as irrelevant and seen for what they truly were -- arrivals, a.k.a., non-events. If any lesson could have been learned, perhaps it was that a pseudo-event/publicity stunt taken only half way has as much promotional value as no promotion at all.

to paraphrase a colloquial saying: imagine if someone staged your arrival, and nobody came? Though "thousands" is not exactly nobody, compared to the throngs of the 1920s the awaiting masses were sparse indeed. Upon arrival, the contestants were given a whirlwind tour of the city, after which they made a brief appearance on the Boardwalk in front of The Auditorium which, incidentally, was opened in 1929. After this personal appearance, they retreated to the Ritz-Carlton Hotel for some rest. The girls were reported to be extremely tired after the trip.

Part of the reason for this fatigue was the manner in which they had arrived in Atlantic City. In previous pageants, the contestants had been sponsored by local newspapers. The 1933 contestants were sponsored by carnivals and amusement parks. As part of the arrangement, many had to participate in a seven-week vaudeville tour. Maybe it was from their exhaustion or as reported, "it may be the depression," in any case, the 1933 contestants were reported to be more reserved than those in previous pageants.

The Evening Dinner Party held that night in honor of the contestants and thirty visiting newspapers was attended by a crowd estimated to be between 500 and 1,000 strong (or weak by previous standards).

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The girls entered the reception held at the Gateway Casino on the arms of uniformed members of the Morris Guard. Previously warned by the Master of Ceremonies, announcer Norman Brokenshire, that their every move was being watched by the judges, the girls walked across the ballroom on the arms of their escorts while those attending the function applauded.

On the second day of the 1933 Miss America Pageant, two main events were held. The first was a bathing suit competition held that afternoon. At the competition the attendance was reported to be only a "few." The contestants dressed in bathing suits paced across The Auditorium's stage in front of the judges. Although the judges' scores would not be announced, they would, nonetheless, figure in the final selection tallies. After the Revue, the girls went to see the move Ghost Train.

The evening's events began at approximately 8:30 p.m. with a Fashion Show by 30 "mannequins" at The Auditorium's ballroom stage. this show was staged by Stanley Moore, "famous style creator." At approximately 9:30 p.m., the beauty contestants rolled down the Boardwalk in Rolling Chairs from their hotel for the beginning of the Beauty Ball.

The Ball began with the introduction of the contestants in evening gowns by Garnett Marks. At a signal from the band, the contestants appeared from the wings, stage left. One by one they walked to center stage where they met their "nattily uniformed" escorts who had entered stage right. As the contestant and the escort met, the guardsman bowed, presented the contestant with a rose, and arm in arm promenaded around the stage before the judges. After "all the audience had seen their all," the band struck up a waltz. With everyone joining in the dance, the Beauty Ball had begun. Between 2,000 and 3,000 people attended the function.

The third day of the pageant was the first day of actual competition with preliminary evening gown eliminations scheduled for 8:00 a.m., the Bathers' Revue scheduled for 10:00 a.m. and the evening gown competition scheduled for 9:30 p.m.

Organization was perhaps not a main component in the 1933 pageant. In the previous day's photo session, three girls had forgotten their bathing suits. The Bathers' Revue, like the photo session, was delayed in starting by two hours because one of the judges, Gladys Glad, overslept. To make matters worse, Miss New York State, Florence Meyers, while passing the line of judges screamed and collapsed on the floor because of a bad toothache. Besides the two hour delay and the toothache, The Bathers' Revue progressed it not blandly and uneventfully, at least without any further mishaps.

Unlike the Bathers' Revues of the 1920s, at the 1933 Bathers' Revue there were no teeming throngs. In fact, the revue was held indoors in The Auditorium that year instead of outdoors on the Boardwalk. Heading the Revue was Mayor Bacharach, Dr. David Allman, Chairman of the Pageant Committee, and Director Armand T. Nichols. The parade through the auditorium included twenty girls in white bathing suits riding bicycles, massed flags of the Morris Guards, the St. Louis Letter Carriers, a band from Kentucky, and the Inter-City Beauties on a float. The marchers paraded twice through the two lanes of seats in The Auditorium.

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The judging for the contest was done on the stage. The contestants would walk across the stage in competition before a panel of judges which, besides Gladys Glad, included Peter Arno, caricaturist; George White, producer of the "Scandals;" George Beucher and Russell Patterson, New York based artists, and two secret judges. The contestants were judged on personality, carriage, and figure. Prizes were awarded to the professional and amateur beauties in the Revue. no prizes were awarded to the Inter-City Beauties. The professional winner was Miss New York City and the amateur winner was Miss Atlantic City.

The Evening Gown competition actually began at 8:00 a.m. that morning with a process of elimination. It was reported that many girls broke into tears when they were eliminated. The evening competition at The Auditorium was met with a degree of controversy when it was reported that three women would be disqualified because they did not come from the states which they represented. The women in question were Miss Iowa, Miss Idaho, and Miss Illinois.

Approximately three thousand people attended the event which began at 9:30 p.m. The women again paraded in front of the judges at The Auditorium. The winner of the Gold Cup was Miss New York State, Florence Meyers, toothache and all.

The fourth day of the Miss America Pageant of 1933 included an ocean swim for residents and tourists in front of The Auditorium at 10:00 a.m., the Rolling Chair Parade at 2:30 p.m., a Fashion Review at 8:30 p.m., and a "Night of Merriment" at 9:30 p.m. Also included in the day's competition agenda for the contestants was a private elimination on The Auditorium stage.

The elimination took place before the seven judges and a "few privileged spectators." The elimination that morning consisted of the thirty Inter-City contestants parading twice in front of the judges in their bathing suits. This process was done in order to narrow the field down to eighteen.

That afternoon, The Auditorium doors swung open to eight thousand spectators attracted there by the scheduled Rolling Chair Parade. In 1933 the Miss America Pageant was held indoors, consequently, the "mere" eight thousand could not compare to the hundreds of thousands which lined the Boardwalk in previous years. Like the Bathers' Revue, the Rolling Chair Parade consisting of decorated chairs, beauty contestants, and bands wound up and down the aisles of The Auditorium in review. A feature of the Parade was the announced playing of the Star Spangled Banner by the $500,000 pipe organ. The organ in question only played ten bars and then broke down. The day was saved when the mailmen's band "took up the musical burden." The Rolling Chair Parade began at 2:30 p.m. At 8:30 p.m. "an elaborate fashion show" was held as a "warm-up" to the real event of the evening, The Night of Merriment.

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The Night of Merriment, a vaudeville song and dance show put on by local talent, began at 9:30 p.m. and played to a crowd of 4,000 people at The Auditorium. The Inter-City Beauty contestants were not involved at all, except for a brief appearance at the end of the show.

The fifth day of pageant activities, Saturday, September 9, 1933, began with an ocean swim in front of The Auditorium at 2:00 p.m. At 2:30 another fashion review was held in The Auditorium. Like the rest of the week's activities, these events existed as peripheral incidentals to the main event -- the crowning of Miss America 1933. That would take place that evening at 8:00.

The evening began with the contestants' entrance into The Auditorium. This entrance was similar to the Rolling Chair Parade in that the girls were "rolled" into The Auditorium on decorated chairs by Atlantic City Policemen. The girls rolled up and down the aisles and then up onto the stage.

Upon reaching the stage, the girls were placed in their chairs facing the audience. At this time, the judges were announced to the audience by master of ceremonies, Norman Brokenshire. They were: Gladys Glad, "one-time Follies beauty"; George White, Scandals producer; Peter Arno, caricaturist; Russell Patterson, Walter Thornton, and Hugh Walters, artists.

The entire group of contestants walked around in a circle in front of the judges. After this, the eighteen semi-finalists selected on Friday were announced. They were: California, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and West Virginia.

These eighteen were gradually eliminated. Two women were taken off the state leaving sixteen, then twelve, and finally four. The finalists were then taken off stage to change into evening gowns. While the girls were changing, organist Arthur Scott Brook entertained the audience on the newly repaired $1,000,000 pipe organ (priced at $500,000 in previous reports).

According to Frank Deford, the following scene occurred next:

Someone brought [Miss Connecticut] her high school gown, and she struggled into it, pulling it over her bathing suit. She did not know quite what was going on ... Miss New York State and Miss California, were also backstage changing. 'Nobody told me I was Miss America until they put the banner on me,' [Miss Connecticut] Marian [Bergeron] says.

The women returned to the stage in their evening gowns on the arm of an escort, a Morris Guardsman. Marian Bergeron, Miss Connecticut, now Miss America 1933, "walked into the lights, with two little pages holding her robe ... Armand T. Nichols, crowned her placing the diadem at a rakish tilt." The program ended at 10:00 p.m.

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Among the prizes miss America 1933 received were a Ford automobile, a wrist watch, and a trip to Bermuda. Reminiscing about her prizes and her reign, Marian Bergeron states:

Being a Miss America in 1933 gave you a better sense as to the pulse of the people in general. Prizes were not monetary, and of course, no scholarship money. Everyone shared and gave of themselves. It was a beautiful rewarding experience.

Although it might have been a beautiful experience for Miss America 1933, for the producers and organizers it was not. Armand T. Nichols complained of the lack of cooperation from everyone especially the Chamber of Commerce. Mayor Bacharach went on record as saying that no money had been made on the pageant. Whatever the case, the pageant was "discontinued after one year and a financial fiasco."

. . .

Most of this portion of the book is based on the Atlantic City newspaper daily reports; the author also personally talked with 1933 winner Marion/Marian Bergeron. The book contains 36 footnotes to references in this section of Chapter three.

From the Miss America website: Steel Pier owner Frank P. Gravatt and associate Eddie Corcoran enlisted the help of the Variety Club of Philadelphia to bring back Miss America. The new contest would be called "The Showman's Variety Jubilee." Corcoran hired Lenora S. Slaughter from the St. Petersburg Florida Chamber of Commerce for a six-week stint that lasted thirty-two years. Her immediate goal was to build interest within Atlantic City itself. The Boardwalk Parade was brought back with 350,000 people in attendance. The 1920's pageant mascot, "King Neptune," also made a valiant return. Fifty-two contestants, representing eleven states and forty-one key cities, took part. The Hostess Committee was formed. Three nights of preliminary competitions were staged. Talent was added as a judged category with twenty-five percent of the total score included towards the selection of Miss America. Although not mandatory, contestants were encouraged to participate and about half of them displayed their talents. The others relied solely on their interviews with the judges and the scores received in eveningwear and swimsuit competitions. Thinking she would take a chance at singing and tap dancing to "Living in a Great Big Way", Pittsburgh's Henrietta Leaver took top honors. Scandal soon again appeared in November when noted Pittsburgh sculptor, Frank Vittor unveiled a nude statue he made of his model, Henrietta Leaver who was then Miss Pittsburgh. Henrietta declared that she wore a swimsuit at all times and that her grandmother was present for each session, but the press went wild with the story anyway. However, the profits from the 1935 pageant were enough to reduce its previous financial deficit of 1933 by $5,000.

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