For more than 80 years, the Miss America Pageant was synonymous with Atlantic City, but in 2006, the annual event moved to Las Vegas, where it took place again this year.
How ironic that Atlantic City, the East Coast’s answer to Las Vegas, has lost one of its oldest attractions and sources of identity to what once was its only domestic competitor for casino gambling dollars. Even for those of us who love the Garden State, it is another sign that New Jersey is destined to be a second-class state.
As far back as 1876, Benjamin Franklin described New Jersey as “a beer barrel, tapped at both ends, with all the live beer running into Philadelphia and New York.” Over a century later, we are a state of 8.7 million people, yet we have no major television station of our own, so we must rely on network affiliates from New York and Philadelphia.
New York, and to a lesser extent Philadelphia, are the standards by which we judge quality. How many New Jersey businesses use descriptions such as Broadway-quality theater, New York-style pizza and authentic Philly cheese steaks to attract customers? There’s also the matter of the two “New York” NFL teams, both of which have played their home games in New Jersey for over 25 years. Likewise, most of the stars of MTV’s popular Jersey Shore television show do not even hail from the Garden State.
In Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, we have one of the entertainment industry’s biggest attractions. Yet, at Governor Chris Christie's inaugural ball, he had to settle for a Springsteen tribute group called “The B Street Band” because the new Governor and his supporters were unsuccessful in their attempts to get the real Boss to perform.
And when Teresa Scanlan of Nebraska was crowned Miss America on live national television last Saturday, the event once again took place outside of New Jersey (even though the Miss America Organization is headquartered here in Linwood).
As for me, I’ve had two brushes with the pageant in my career. In 1978, my wife’s cousin, Paula Pope, was Miss New York. At the time, I was a young reporter with The Montclair Times, so I obtained press credentials to cover the pageant, hoping to impress all of the relatives who were traveling from New York for the contest. As it turned out, my “press seats” were a few rows behind all of theirs and they graciously made room for me, so I could sit a little closer.
Paula did not win. The crown went to Susan Perkins, Miss Ohio, instead.
A few years later, I had my second encounter with the pageant when I was working for The Aquarian Weekly, a New Jersey music and entertainment publication. Although most of my time was spent interviewing the likes of the Grateful Dead, Pat Benatar and Phil Collins, a publicist friend of mine asked if I would write a story about the current Miss New Jersey, Suzette Charles, who was a singer. In keeping with New Jersey’s stature, she had finished second in the pageant for Miss America 1984. I agreed to do the interview; she and I had a nice conversation, and I wrote a short piece about Suzette for The Aquarian.
Several months later, the reigning Miss America, Vanessa Williams, resigned amidst a controversy over nude photos that were taken of her before the pageant. As the first runner-up, Suzette Charles became the new Miss America. But again New Jersey was short-changed. Because Williams resigned ten months after winning the crown, New Jersey’s Suzette Charles’ reign as Miss America lasted only seven weeks.
Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of the Hall Institute. A former State House reporter and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media, politics and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonlineand follow him on Twitter.