Miss America Pageant of 1933

Background music: 1955 "Miss America" theme song
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History: 1922 Miss America Pageant
History:    In 1920, the owner of the Monticello Hotel in Atlantic City convinced Atlantic City businessmen that a "Fall Frolic" would be a perfect marketing ploy to extend the business season past Labor Day -- a glittering parade with 350 beautiful maidens in gaily-decorated rolling chairs. The following year, the Atlantic City newspapers grabbed onto this idea, adding a two-day beauty contest with the winner receiving $100 and the title of "Miss America" (See also the 2002 PBS Miss America television program). The actual metamorphosis from newspaper stunt to full-blown glamour event took years from this meager beginning. The first pageants in 1921-1927 were small (1921 had only 8 contestants!), ran over budget ($1000 annually!), but were a boon for business.

The 1920's were "roaring" -- revealing fashions, bobbed hair, jazz, flappers, bootleg liquor (during Prohibition) and the enactment of women's suffrage. Just the change in bathing attire in five short years symbolizes it all -- those knee-length dresses with dark stockings in 1922 certainly belong to another era, while the suits in 1927-1933 are still in vogue! All these rapid changes were not without severe criticism. Due to societal pressures from women's social organizations ("modesty is being thrown to the winds by the Miss America scoundrels") and religious groups ("an exploitation," "damaging to the morals of men, women and children"), Atlantic City businessmen came to deplore the very idea they had conceived, and the pageant was cancelled in 1928. The Great Depression, starting with the stock market crash in 1929 and continuing for years, stifled the boisterous exuberance of the "Roaring 20's." Facing dire economic woes, Atlantic City businessmen decided to revive the pageant in 1933.

It had been six years since the last pageant, and the world and country had changed, as well as the contacts for the Miss America Organization. In the 1920's, almost all the state contests had been sponsored by newspapers. Newspapers had national as well as state-wide communication networks to ensure consistency of rules and guidelines. And, of course, since newspapers were the communication choice of the majority of the population (no television and little radio back then!), the newspapers supplied all the marketing and advertising as well, and probably at no cost to the pageant organizers. But the late 1920's and early 1930's saw a boom in the new radio technology. Not surprisingly, it seems that virtually all the advertising for the 1933 Miss America competition was by radio. In New York, Washington DC and Los Angeles 1933 newspapers, the only article found for upcoming state competitions was reporting on a contest in Virginia! Most of the newspaper articles were pictures and/or stories of the contestants already chosen at the state competition level. This had a profound impact on the state contests, as most were no longer sponsored by the newspapers either. Now many contests were held just in major cities, and were sponsored by carnivals, amusements parks, local merchants or theaters. In fact, only a handful of contestants out of 30 was chosen at a state contest sponsored by a newspaper. Often the contests in the major cities were followed by a state competition, to come down to one city winner to represent the state (which is why the 1933 Atlantic City newspapers refer to the contestants as "inter-City" beauties). Some contests were huge, involving thousands of entrants (Miss New York City had been chosen from 10,000 contestants); others seem to be very small, or perhaps even non-existent -- Eleanor Dankenbring's July 19th Valparaiso newspaper article states "she has received word that she has been selected as representative beauty queen for the state of Iowa," as does her Manning, Iowa article. It is not clear if there were any guidelines, much less rules, at least in Iowa!

Not every state joined in the pageant; there were only 31 contestants, and this included a Miss New York City and a Miss New York State! Originally, contestants were expected from all 48 states (July 19 Charlottesville article). There were definitely at least four more women expected in Atlantic City in September (the first article in the Atlantic City newspapers mentions 35 contestants); this probably included women chosen for their state who changed their minds. It is known that there was a Miss Indiana Frances Lininger who got married Sep. 2 instead (Valparaiso and Gary newspapers), and in Charleston, WV they had expected representatives from Nevada and Colorado (ad). It is surprising that women everywhere were not clamoring to participate, given the economics of the times. The prizes promised were grand: "Wealth and many honors await the 'Miss America' this year. She will receive many valuable prizes and a cash award as well. In addition, she will have opportunities to pursue a theatrical career." (Charleston Daily Mail, July 14, 1933). And added to this promise of fortune were the promises of fun, fame and glamour -- being treated like visiting "princesses," and promises of trips to many major American cities, and even meeting President FDR. As far as I can tell, there were no yacht trips, and the contestants probably did not meet the President; I found one contestant who did meet FDR (President Roosevelt) -- Miss Wisconsin Marie Huebner told me in 2004 that she made a special trip to DC after the competition with her chaperone (and FDR did receive them personally in the oval office!).

1933 MidWest contestant publicity shot -- Ellie second from right
Furthermore, it's not clear that the contestants anticipated having to work for all this fun and glamour! Since budgets were more than tight with the pageant receiving less support than expected, at least the seven Midwest contestants traveled together, and participated in beauty parades as well as talent performances to raise money. The seven-week "Whistle Stop" train tour started on Thursday, July 20th: "Miss Dankenbring will leave on Thursday for St. Louis, Mo., where she will meet other beauty queens of the central west, and then travel to A Century of Progress Exposition for several days. From there the party will go to Radio City, New York City, and thence to Atlantic City." (Valparaiso, IN newspaper, July 19, 1933). The pace was demanding: the seven Midwest contestants arrived in Charleston, WV the end of August for seven appearances in just three days. Several contestants, including Eleanor Dankenbring, sang and danced the popular but risqué "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" as their act on this tour.

This was probably the start of the residency flap which ensued. Miss Missouri must have been stunned to see the Miss Illinois contestant -- it was no other than fellow Missourian Lillian Kroener, whom she had just defeated about one week earlier in the Miss Missouri contest! Yes, Lillian lost in Missouri on July 14th, so went to a cousin's home in Illinois and tried again! I have not been able to locate Miss Missouri Marie Marks or her family (the Miss Missouri pageant did not even know they had a contestant in 1933 until I sent them photos!), to find out more information. I am confident that Marie Marks must have mentioned this situation to some fellow contestants, and this is what led to the subsequent disqualifications of three Midwest contestants -- Idaho, Illinois and Iowa. (Note that after the pageant, Lillian was very outspoken about her participation, even writing an article for the May 1934 "Romantic Confessions" magazine, where she admitted "I was a fraud -- a phoney! But it wasn't my fault.")

1933 MidWest contestant publicity shot -- Ellie on far left
Since both of the group pictures are of the same Midwest contestants, it is likely that these were promotional shots that were handed out as advertisement for the performances, or perhaps signed for a fee as a memento. They were probably taken in Chicago, as apparently these eight met there and attended the Exposition (1933 Chicago World Fair). In addition to the group shots, there were also individual shots of each contestant. Each contestant had photographs taken in evening gowns and in bathing suits, to be used in the pageant by the judges to aid them in their selections.

Perhaps as the last stop on the "Whistle Stop Tour," the eight Midwest beauties joined up with the other 23 state contestants in Washington D.C. the night before the pageant was to begin. There are no newspaper reports indicating that they were received by President Franklin Roosevelt, although the Midwest beauties did previously have a reception in their honor given by the governor of Charleston, West Virginia. All 30 beauty contestants performed the evening of September 4th at Chevy Chase Lake, a nightclub in the northwest suburbs. This newspaper ad was run on this one day only, and the pageant began the following morning! Although it is rather shocking to see a 25¢ admission and 10¢ a dance, in 2006 dollars these would be $3.25 and $1.30 respectively.

1933 Miss America Pageant: September 5-9

All 30 contestants with organizer Armand Nichols - click on picture for a larger view or here for closeup of left side with Ellie - click here for list of contestants
(Misses Maine and Oklahoma are missing from the photo -- Maine had no bathing suit and Oklahoma was in the hospital -- the 30 here include Miss Atlantic City who was not a competitor)

1933 Miss America Pageant book -- schedule, ads and pictures of organizers -- click for details
A specially chartered "Beauty Special" train carried the contestants to Atlantic City, by way of Philadelphia. In the early 1900's, Atlantic City was a fashionable summer retreat for the affluent residents of nearby cities. The wives and daughters of the social elite would escape the heat (no air conditioning in those days!) by retreating to summer homes on the beaches in the southern suburbs -- elegant Victorian mansions and beach cottages. Thus, you can imagine the excitement of the contestants, most of whom had never been outside their own home state -- this would be as exotic as a trip to the French Riviera! But their arrival was not met with the extreme fanfare of previous pageants. In the 1920's there was staged pageantry -- massive water carnival, King Neptune and his court, confetti, fireworks, blaring ships cannons, etc; in 1933 the arrival was transformed into a publicity gimmick only by the press reports, but not due to any visual or audio theatricality.

Upon arrival, the 31 contestants were given a whirlwind tour of the city, after which they made a brief appearance on the Boardwalk in front of the Auditorium. When the Atlantic City Convention Hall was completed in 1929, it was the world's largest convention facility, and its ballroom was larger than even New York's famous Radio City Music Hall. The majestic structure between the ocean and Pacific Avenue was also the largest building in the world without roof posts and pillars, and its pipe organ is still the largest in the world today. It must have been overwhelming! Afterwards, the 31 tired but excited contestants retreated to the newly-built and fashionable Ritz-Carlton Hotel to rest. (Reference the Atlantic City newspapers). For at least the MidWest contestants, this was their first view of an ocean, and probably for almost all of them, it was their first time in a hotel!

The first formal event was held that evening -- a dinner party at the Gateway Casino in honor of the contestants and 30 visiting newspapers.

1933 Ellie in her Miss America competition bathing suit
On the second day of the pageant there was a bathing suit preliminary judging, where the contestants paced across the Auditorium stage in front of the judges. After the Revue, the girls went to the motion pictures theatre to see the British comedy-thriller "The Ghost Train."

1933 Ellie in her evening gown
In the evening there was a Fashion Show at the Auditorium's ballroom stage. At 9:30 pm the contestants were rolled down the Boardwalk in decorated Rolling Chairs from their hotel for the beginning of the Beauty Ball. At a signal by the band, one by one the contestants walked to center stage where they met their "nattily uniformed" escorts who had entered stage right. As the contestant and escort met, the guardsman bowed, presented the contestant with a rose, and arm in arm promenaded around the stage before the judges, to big rounds of thunderous applause by the audience. The band struck up a waltz, and with everyone joining in the dance, the Beauty Ball had begun.

The third day of the pageant marked the first day of actual competition. The Bathers' Revue was to begin at 10 am. Unlike the Bathers' Revues of the 1920's (1925 Bather's review picture), at the 1933 Revue there were no teeming throngs; in fact, the revue was held indoors in the Auditorium instead of outdoors on the Boardwalk. The parade through the Auditorium included 20 local girls in white bathing suits riding bicycles, massed flags of the Morris Guards, the St. Louis Letter Carriers, and a band from Kentucky. Each contestant stood on a decorated float which was pushed twice through the lanes of seats. However, the Revue was delayed over an hour when one of the judges overslept, and the first beauty queen, Miss New York State, collapsed as she finished walking in front of the line of judges and spectators! Prizes were awarded only in the professional and amateur divisions.

9/5/1933 Misses VA, PA, hostess Atlantic City, NYC, MD, NJ, DE and NY (see caption)
"After the judging, the girls were whisked back to their hotel where they made a hasty change to street clothes before being hurried off again to Hackney's Restaurant where they lunched upon lobsters brought in by airplane from Gloucester, Mass." (Atlantic City Press, Sep 8, 1933). At that time, Hackney's was the world's largest seafood restaurant! The main dining room could seat 3,200 patrons! And Gloucester is still renown for their lobsters. Undoubtedly, this was the first taste of lobster for most of the contestants; surely lobsters were unobtainable in the Midwest.

1933 Ellie in her evening gown
1933 Miss West Virginia Mildred Fetty in her rolling chair with her pet fox!
The evening gown competition began at 9:30 pm. In front of approximately 3000 spectators, the women walked across the stage before a panel of judges. "Poise, personality, carriage and figure are the points upon which the girls are being judged." (Atlantic City Press, Sep 8, 1933). Miss New York State, an early contest favorite, won this segment of the pageant, which by tradition is second in importance to the final selection.

The third day marked the first mention of residency concerns. Friday's newspaper states "...it was learned that a theatrical concern, sponsoring a pair of eastern beauties, had charged that the three western girls did not live in the states they represented." Actually, ten telegrams had been hurredly sent out, and seven returned. The other 21 contestants must have known, or just happened to have, documentation with them -- for instance, Miss West Virginia brought with her a letter from the governor.

The fourth day started slowly, with the contestants being allowed to sleep later than usual after the previous day's competitions. The first event scheduled was an ocean swim with residents and tourists at 11 am in front of the Auditorium.

1933 Miss New York City Elsa Donath on her decorated float
The Rolling Chair Parade at 2:30 pm consisted of decorated chairs, beauty contestants, and bands which wound up and down the aisles of the Auditorium in review before the 8000 spectators (as compared to the hundreds of thousands of spectators who lined the Boardwalk for the parades of the 1920's - 1925 picture). The audience had the pleasure of hearing the famous $500,000 (an incredible amount in these Depression days) pipe organ play. "That is, it played 10 bars of the 'Star Spangled Banner' and then broke down. The mailmen's bands took up the musical burden." (Atlantic City Press, Sep 9, 1933) For a seat on the Auditorium Main Floor for the Rolling Chair Parade, spectators paid $1 a ticket.

Finally, the elaborate Fashion Review at 8:30 pm was a precursor to the main event of the evening, the "Night of Merriment" at 9:30 pm (also a change from the Boardwalk Mardi Gras of years past). A crowd of 4000 people came to watch the vaudeville song and dance show performed in the Auditorium by local talent, with the tired Beauty contestants only making a brief appearance at the end of the show.

Misses Maine, Connecticut, Mississippi, Delaware, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Kentucky at the judging
On this day there had been a secret elimination before just the judges and a few privileged spectators to narrow the field down to 18 semi-finalists known only to the judges. "The girls themselves do not know, but some of them are fearful that the judges may be partial to the more sophistical type of beauty." (Atlantic City Press, Sep 9, 1933). Miss Ohio, who was one of the less sophisticated entrants, and Miss New York State were the popular choices as main contenders for the crown.

On Friday, Day 4 at 10 am, when pageant director Armand Nichols could wait no longer for the telegrams for the three Midwest contestants, "their names were simply omitted from the ballots given to the judges" (Ric Ferentz, MAO historian, Feb 23, 2002). "'If I am disqualified it is up to the committee to announce it,' said Miss Eleanor Dankenbring, 18-year old blonde'" (Atlantic City Press, Sep 9, 1933). Furthermore, Eleanor Dankenbring did feel that the judges were not above trading blindness for favors, as mentioned years later to her daughters (also confirmed by the family of Miss Michigan Barbara Strand). And as if this were not enough, there were rumors of Mafia chicanery: "two 'Italian-looking thugs' threatened the judges - it's New York tomorrow night or else." (Ric Ferentz, MAO historian, Feb 23, 2002). (Mafia influence was high in Atlantic City, the port of 40% of all the smuggled liquor during Prohibition.) This allegation was supported by Judge Russell Patterson.

Another morning free! The fifth and final day began with an ocean swim in front of The Auditorium at 2 pm. Then at 2:30 another Fashion Review was held in the Auditorium, all building up to the main event -- the crowning at 8 pm.

Finally, at competition Day 5: "Before the coronation ceremonies started, it was officially announced to newspapermen, but not from the stage, that four girls had been disqualified." On the final night, Miss New York City withdrew complaining the pageant was not on the "up and up." (Atlantic City Press, Sep 11, 1933).

Miss Connecticut crowned Miss America, first runner up Miss New York State, second runner up Miss California, and the court. Miss Virginia (not pictured) was fourth.
The evening began with a grand entrance into the Auditorium - again the women were "rolled" into the Auditorium on decorated chairs, this time pushed by Atlantic City policemen. Clad in bathing suits, the 29 contestants were rolled up and down the aisles and then up onto the stage. Upon alighting from their rolling chairs, the beauty queens paced in a circle in front of the judges who sat on the stage with their backs to the audience. The 18 semi-finalists selected the previous day were announced. Further eliminations reduced the semi-finalists to 16, then 12 and finally 4.

The four finalists were taken off stage to change into evening gowns, while the audience enjoyed the first ever public concert on the magnificent pipe organ. Marion Bergeron, Miss Connecticut, was crowned at 10 pm, despite reputed pressure from Atlantic City racketeers for their pick of Miss New York.

Postscript Notes:
(1) The winners in the 1920's had been crowned in their bathing suits, and when the pageant began anew in 1935, they again were crowned in their bathing suits. It was not until 1948 that Miss America reinstated the evening gown coronation.
(2) "The winner of the contest, who will be crowned 'Miss America' will be rewarded with a trip to Europe, a new automobile and other gifts." (Valparaiso newspaper article, July 19, 1933). Marion Bergeron in fact received a Ford automobile, a $1000 wrist watch, and a trip to Bermuda. Her movie screen audition prize was cancelled by RKO, supposedly when her tender age (15) was discovered (but perhaps because RKO had expected one of their two NY contestants to win it -- they gave it to Miss NYC anyway).
(3) All in all, the 1933 pageant was a financial and marketing disaster. Even on the coronation night, Armand Nichols "declared he would hold contests elsewhere due to lack of cooperation." (Atlantic City Press, Sep 11, 1933). Plans for 1934 were shelved, but the pageant was revived once again the following year. The 1935 pageant reinvented itself with an elevated public image designed to combat the ill publicity which dogged the 1933 pageant, managed a profit (as did its successors), and Miss America has continued non-stop to today, turning into a true American icon. In November 2005 it was announced that after 84 years in Atlantic City, the contest would be moved to Las Vegas, with the first contest there in January 2007 -- Las Vegas having the "glitz and glamour" the Miss America Organization was seeking. The Miss America Organization itself stayed in Atlantic City.
(4) It was not until the first televised pageant in 1955 that the song "There She Is, Miss America" was written and sung by Bert Parks. Lyrics: There she is, Miss America. There she is, your ideal. The dreams of a million girls, Who are more than pretty, May come true in Atlantic City. Oh she may turn out to be, The queen of femininity. There she is, Miss America. There she is, your ideal. With so many beauties, She'll take the town by storm, With her all-American face and form. And there she is, Walking on air she is, Fairest of the fair she is, Miss America.
(5) The residency issues probably surfaced due to Miss Illinois, who had tried out in Missouri and lost; Miss Missouri surely recognized her. Catching wind of this, the RKO sponsors of the two NY contestants then insisted for proof of residency of all the contestants. 10 out of the 30 remaining women in the contest (Oklahoma withdrew for medical reasons the first day), did not have proof and telegrams were sent out to home-town mayors. Seven came back in time, but three did not and these three contestants were disqualified -- Miss Illinois who lived in St. Louis, MO; Miss Idaho who lived in Spokane, WA; and Miss Iowa who lived in Manning, Iowa (the Manning Mayor was likely unfamiliar with her name or disapproved of the contest).
(6) Miss Arkansas was also disqualified as it was learned she was married. It should be noted that there had been several other married women who competed locally -- both of the first two Miss Philadelphias (who represented Miss Pennsylvania, prior to Geraldine Glassman) had been disqualified in August when it was learned they were married (see 8/31/1933 Newark, Ohio article).
(7) No attempt was made to verify age in 1933, even though the rules stated that not only must the women be single, they must also be between the ages of 16 and 30. The winner was 15, and at least four other contestants were 15 and 14. When the contest was revived in 1935, the minimum age was raised to 18, and Marion Bergeron was not invited to attend as the 1933 winner (note she would now be 17, still too young to compete!)
(9) The newspaper articles that carry a picture of six women visiting the nation's capital are dated September 8th and 9th. It is assumed that this picture had to have been taken on September 7 or earlier, but September 7 is still mid-contest. Thus, it is assumed that this photograph was taken on the side-trip to DC on Sep 4th, and these six women did not visit the White House and meet President Roosevelt. (Danville, VA - Sep 8; Connellsville, PA - Sep 9; )
(9) The information in newspapers should be used with due caution. The two articles found for Miss Indiana, both really just marriage announcements, differ in their description of the qualifying contest. The Valparaiso paper says she was "recently named Miss Indiana in an Indianapolis contest" while the Gary newspaper reports "she was awarded the title in a Galveston, Tex competition while she was a resident of Gary of few years ago." Newspaper articles also reported erroneously on who came in second and who came in third (see 30 contestants page).
(10) The Pageants in 1921-1933 were more inclusive than those in 1935 and after under the helm of Leonora Slaughter, who specified that only "White" girls would be qualified. The earlier contestants included children of recent immigrants, American Indians, Latina women, women of Southern Italian descent, and Jewish women (even Hassidic Jewish women) -- virtually all disallowed under the new criteria when the Pageant was reinstituted in 1935: rule seven ("contestants must be of good health and of the white race") and genealogies (required until the 1940s) effectively excluding all minorities.
(11) Armand T. Nichols, a wealthy insurance broker and former Hotel man in Atlantic City, had been the director of the pageant in 1924-1927, and directored it once again in 1933. He was unmarried, and had gotten a lot of bad press in 1925 for saying that beauty contestants were dumb!

In summary, out of 50 expected contestants (48 states plus the District of Columbia and New York City), only 35 were actually selected and only 31 showed up in Atlantic City. Out of these 31 contestants, one withdrew for medical reasons, one was disqualified for marital status, one was disqualified-withdrew for professional status, three were disqualified for residency status, and at least five were underage! No wonder they skipped a pageant in 1934 and then hired a strong organizer who designed and enforced many rules!

I started on this quest in 2002 when I decided to look for the families of the other seven MidWest contestants for whom I had the two group pictures. When looking for Miss Illinois, I found Daryl Schabinger of the Miss Illinois pageant, and he was not only interested in Miss Illinois, but in all the contestants, which led me to expand my search. Without the computerization of the 1930 census data, newspaper articles, online genealogy query sites, and even the online auction forum ebay, I would never have located any of these women, and certainly not all the pictures and memorabilia. --Donna Hay, 2009

Bibliography: Live From Atlantic City: A History of the Miss America Pageant, by Riverol; Miss America, the Dream Lives On, by Angela Osborne, 1995; Miss America Organization website; Ric Ferentz, Miss America Organization historian; 2002 PBS Miss America television program; Atlantic City Press newspapers Philadelphia Inquirer newspapers. Listing of other newspapers throughout America.