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Miss America packs her sash for Vegas

Pageant leaves longtime Atlantic City home for a glitzy new venue
/ Source: The Associated Press

There she is. And there she goes.

After 84 years of being crowned and serenaded on the Boardwalk, Miss America is dusting off her tiara, packing her sash and trying her luck in Las Vegas.

The Miss America pageant will leave memories of a crooning Bert Parks and a jilted Atlantic City, N.J., in its rear view mirror as it heads West, trying to revive its sagging fortunes in the city of second chances.

The Aladdin hotel-casino on the Strip will host the 85th annual Miss America Pageant — the first time the nation’s beauties will strut their stuff anywhere besides Atlantic City.

“What we wanted to do is find a new host city that has all the glitz and glamour Miss America is known for,” said Art McMaster, chief executive of the Miss America Organization, the nonprofit charitable group that runs the annual event. “Obviously Las Vegas is right at the top of this list.”

The pageant has been dogged by financial troubles and slipping viewer ratings in recent years. It lost $1.7 million and was dropped by ABC last year, leaving Miss America without a network TV contract for the first time since 1954.

It chose another city of slot machines and showgirls as the site where it will try to rejuvenate itself. The cable channel Country Music Television will air the proceedings from Las Vegas Jan. 21.

Paul Villadolid, vice president of programming for Nashville, Tenn.-based CMT, said Las Vegas was chosen because it has a record of putting on first-class shows and for its energy.

“There’s a lot of excitement in the city, and we hope to infuse that into the pageant,” he said. “Las Vegas echoes our vision to attract a broader and younger audience.”

McMaster pulled the event from Boardwalk Hall in August, citing high production costs, and said it would be held in January instead of on its traditional post-Labor Day date.

Then pageant officials went looking for a host city that would pay for the right to hold the annual competition. McMaster said more than two dozen cities courted Miss America.

Organizers would not discuss the deal completed this week, but said it was for one year only.

McMaster said it was too soon to tell if Miss America would settle permanently in Las Vegas. “We’re not ruling anything out,” he said.

Since 1921, the pageant has been a proud product of Atlantic City, which used the parade of polite, earnest beauties to keep tourists around in the seaside town past Labor Day.

To some the choice of Las Vegas was an odd one for an organization that leans more toward country hokum than “What happens here, stays here” revelry.

Up until 1997, Miss America contestants weren’t allowed to enter a casino while they were in Atlantic City because Miss America organizers worried how it might look.

“When I think of Vegas, I think of the showgirl image, and I don’t think it’s necessarily the environment that Miss America has always touted being,” said Miss America 1993 Leanza Cornett.

Villadolid and McMaster insisted that the move to Sin City won’t taint Miss America’s image. McMaster said he plans to keep contestants too busy to spend time or money in casinos.

Villadolid said CMT’s production intends to “preserve and celebrate” Miss America’s values, but he and McMaster acknowledged the move will necessitate changes.

Fans have likely seen the last of the Miss America parade, in which all 52 contestants rode down the Boardwalk in convertibles before throngs of spectators.

And Miss America’s victory dip in the ocean, when the winner frolicked in the surf for gawking photographers, would be impossible in landlocked Las Vegas.

“We’re not going to have the same traditions as we had in Atlantic City,” Villadolid said. “We’re anxious to come up with some new exciting events.”

Lee Meriwether, Miss America 1955, called it a “heart tug” to see the pageant leave New Jersey. But she’s optimistic a new venue will draw new fans and help launch new traditions.

Meriwether said she never liked the dip in the ocean much anyway.

“It was such a tease, I thought. That’s really the only time Miss America appears in a swimsuit during her reign. You go out in the suit for the frolic, and that’s the last time you wear it, honey,” she said.