Atlantic City, the "Boardwalk Empire," is in high gear with the return of the Miss America Pageant. To listen to locals, it would seem as if Miss America were kidnapped back in 2006 when the venue was moved to Las Vegas.
"Miss America has a history of being here," said my waitress this morning. "She was born in New Jersey and it is only right that she is coming home. And, really, Miss America is about education and scholarships as much as bathing suits. Not like those other trashy contests. Miss America has class."
The emotional range stretches from sentiment to possessiveness.
"She belongs right here and we are never going to let her go again," my jitney driver explained. "I don't know who the idiots were who let her go but they're gone now."
Just a little history: The Miss America pageant began in 1921, in Atlantic City. Appropriate for a beach destination and community, it was to be the "Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America" with a popularity award as well. And, back on September 8th, 1921, over 100,000 people came to the Boardwalk to watch the contestants (big by any standards but hefty for 1921.) I'm not sure how many people will line the Boardwalk today, September 14th, 2013, but I will be in the crowd. I have a ticket, and, I believe, I even have a seat.
The Boardwalk has been gearing up for days. Park benches along the route were marked with yellow tape after being varnished. Every trash barrel for miles is covered with clear plastic wrap, the kind they sometimes put on suitcases going overseas. When I asked a local cop why, he looked at me like I was really, really dumb. And, as he spoke, I realized just how dumb my question had been.
"Boston?" he asked, in a voice he otherwise saved for five-year olds. "The Marathon?"
Oh, yeah, I realized. This is not paranoia. This is not Homeland Security gone wild. Miss America is another iconic American ritual and celebration. Of course there will be tight-tight-tight security.
For locals, the pageant in Boardwalk Hall (an institution in itself) is not the only focus. It is the Parade. While the Pageant has been televised since 1954, the parade has not. But ABC will be broadcasting a parade special, and the goal of locals is that it becomes a well known and beloved as the Rose Bowl Parade or Macy's Day Parade.
This may take a while. Ratings peaked for the pageant in the '60s when it was the highest-rated program on television. But enter feminism, and civil rights, and the traditional values of the pageant took quite a few hits. Attempts to revitalize and revamp did not really improve the situation. With a serious shift to highlight the educational benefits (Is the Miss America Pageant really the largest source of scholarship funds to young women in the U.S.? Uhh, yes.), talent, equal ethnic opportunity, intelligence (there women have pretty darn high GPA's), the focus is no longer on only the physical. Of course, without the bathing suits and ball gowns it would be a nationally staged equivalent to a job interview. And what fun is that?
But back to the Parade. The "Show Us Your Shoes" Parade. With over 4000 people (in the parade) and 15 floats and 15 marching bands, Kool and the Gang ... and the 53 women who are competing for the title. It will roll along the Boardwalk for over two miles. And there will be people lining every foot of the way.
Every contestant will have a pair of flamboyant, wild and wonderful high-high heels that generally represent some aspect of their state. This year there will be one exception, as Miss Kansas, only the second contestant ever in the history of the pageant to be in the military, will be wearing her uniform and boots. Not cute, not sexy, but worn with pride and loyalty.
And those are feelings that really stand out here in Atlantic City this Miss America weekend. People are proud. They are grateful to have their "girl" back in her home town. And their loyalty runs deep.