The reason I was in Atlantic City at the time was that my wife was acting as the official escort for Miss Nevada, Judy Wadsworth. I was on hand to send releases back to the Reno papers. I first became involved in the Miss Nevada Pageant the year before through my friend Merv Gardner. I had met Merv because he was an active member of the Reno Lions Club which held their regular meeting in the Skyroom of the Mapes Hotel where my office was also located. In ’57, his Lions Club was sponsoring Loni Gravelle for the title of Miss Reno. She won that title and went on to win the Miss Nevada contest.
Back to Atlantic City, the pageant itself was one of the greatest productions I had ever seen. The Convention Center was jammed to the rafters, and we had seats beside the long runway upon which the girls paraded. Judy Wadsworth gave a stirring rendition of Joan of Arc that was well received but the title went to Mary Ann Mobley, who dazzled the audience with her exciting dance performance.
Many years later Mary Ann acted as a hostess for the pageant itself.
The original Atlantic City beauty contest was first created to lengthen the summer season in Atlantic City by a week following Labor Day. It was primarily one-third talent, one-third appearance, and one-third answers to the MC’s questions. It truly attracted serious and beautiful young ladies who were going on to pursue their education. It was a very wholesome affair because it awarded mainly scholarships to the winners. Over the years after Parks left the stage, it began to lose its appeal. Finally in a desperate effort to keep the show alive it was moved to Las Vegas and featured more of the bathing suit segment. Today it is held in Vegas and doesn’t get the TV ratings the original used to post.
Another famous contest that was held during those days was the Mrs. America Pageant. It featured women who had mastered the various skills it takes to be a housewife. Most of the sponsors for Mrs. America were cooking and utility companies. In 1959 I chanced to be watching a local TV afternoon show when it was announced on that particular program that the Mrs. Reno portion of the Mrs. Nevada Pageant which would eventually lead to the Mrs. America Pageant was still open for entries. The main thing that caught my attention was that the Mrs. America event would be held in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., my last hometown. Knowing of my wife Ann’s prowess as a homemaker, I immediately picked up the phone and put her name in contention. She handily won the Mrs. Reno portion and went on to win the State crown which was awarded in Las Vegas. The trip to Ft. Lauderdale was memorable especially on the ride from the airport to our hotel. The conversation on the bus turned to how many children various competitors had until finally a male voice shouted out, “What is this a breeding contest?”
The contestants were placed in several hotels alphabetically. So, we were in one with the “N’s” such as New York, New Jersey, and Nebraska. The contest was held in the local Convention Center which was not equipped with air conditioning at the time and was a sweltering place in the hot and humid Florida summer. While the wives were engaged in baking, sewing and table setting, the worried husbands were playing golf on the local links. While my wife prevailed by winning several categories, the contest was aimed at older, middle-aged women, and the eventual winner was a gray-haired grandmother who closely resembled Betty Crocker.
This Florida contest was not Ann’s first outing as a Queen contestant because she had previously run as a Miss Rodeo and Miss Nevada hopeful.
An interesting side note in ’59 was that Dawn Wells represented Nevada in the Miss America Contest and she and Ann were paired together in many civic outings in Northern Nevada.
Another contest that received a great deal of publicity in the 1960’s was one held by the St. Mary’s Guild that named a Queen of St. Mary’s Hospital. About a handful of prominent women were nominated for the honor and the votes were accumulated by the dollar amount the contestant raised. Additionally, each contestant was given two men who acted as her primary fundraisers. During the long period of time the contest was held, the two-man team was busy creating fundraising events. As the race neared its end at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks, the ladies nervously waited backstage for the announcement of the winner. My wife and the wife of Ben Dasher, whose name was Helen, were neck-in-neck during the final moments. Dasher and I were busy taking contributions to the committee and Ann’s “Angel” was Raymond A. Smith of Harold’s Club. Just before the final amounts were tallied he made a generous contribution that pushed Ann over the top.
Next week I will comment on some of the many beauty contests that were sponsored by the Reno Chamber of Commerce in that glamorous era.
Harry Spencer is a Reno freelance writer.