ATLANTIC CITY — After eight years of dallying in Las Vegas, the Miss America pageant will be back in September where it started, in Atlantic City. It’s a big deal for the seaside resort. Founded in 1921 and on the boardwalk for 84 years, the contest left for Vegas in 2006. Although the move managed to lower the median age of television viewers from 58 to 37 — a fact that returned the broadcast to prime time on ABC — the contest’s family appeal was a bit of a disconnect with the Vegas scene.
“The prodigal daughter is back,” said Vicki Gold Levi, cofounder of Atlantic City’s Historical Museum and a pageant judge in 1998. Her affection for Miss America began when she was a 5-year-old page to the 1945 queen, Bess Myerson. “She was the first Jewish Miss America and I was the only Jewish page,” Levi said. “People are thrilled that it’s back, especially the parade. Miss America is deeply imbedded into the cultural history of Atlantic City.”
While the crowd-pleasing Show Us Your Shoes parade is set for Sept. 14, and the competition for Sept. 15, there are plenty of close encounters of the Miss America kind to be had whenever you visit.
The best place for a dose of pageantry is the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Hotel (2 Convention Blvd., www.shera
tonatlanticcity.com), where an impressive array of crowns and gowns resides year-round, along with more than 400 historic photos, many on loan from Gold Levi’s private collection. The retro photos are everywhere, blown up in the lobby and decorating the hotel’s 502 guest rooms.
The Miss America theme was the brainchild of Tom Scannapieco, hotel developer and owner, who opened the property in 1997. Collection curator Janet Espenshade is working to add new themed street-facing windows to the display in time for the pageant. “Miss America is our royalty,” said Espenshade, who spent a year sourcing and re-creating original Miss America gowns and accessories.
“We are the closest thing there is to a Miss America museum,” said Espenshade, “and we love for visitors to come take a look.” The lobby is home to eight mannequins, seven wearing a replica of a winning gown and one showcasing the current reigning queen’s dress, which is switched out every year. There’s a flapper style worn by Margaret Gorman, the 16-year-old first winner in 1921, with the gown of each subsequent decade making quite the fashion statement, from Lee Meriwether’s demure white 1955 taffeta to the current queen’s slinky white off-the-shoulder number. Ada Duckett, the Texas-based designer of pageant wear known for inventing the “magic swimsuit,” which won its wearers more swimsuit competitions than any other in pageant history, re-created the gowns to the finest detail. There’s also a Golden Mermaid statue re-creating the rare first trophy and 29 actual shoes from the shoe parade on display in the hotel’s Shoe Bar, including the ballet slippers that Heather White-stone wore when she won the talent competition in 1995.
Although a new self-guided walking tour of Miss America hot spots is still in the planning stage, visitors can wander along the landscaped Rose Walk on Michigan Avenue, which stretches from the Convention Center and Tanger Outlets to Atlantic Avenue, where a series of plaques pays tribute to contest winners.
Finally, no self-respecting pageant geek can leave town without visiting the Tea Garden in front of the Sheraton, where a bronze statue of the late Bert Parks, longtime pageant master of ceremonies, presides. Stand under the crown Parks is holding and you’ll hear a recording of Parks singing the famous line “There she is . . . Miss America,” words to make anybody feel like a winner.