At Large with Tom Williams >> Here she comes – Miss America

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Jean Goudie headed to Las Vegas in January with mixed emotions. She was always excited to be part of the Miss America Pageant. It had been part of her life for decades. But that excitement was tempered by the realization that this would probably be her last pageant.

Goudie, formerly Jean Serber until she married legendary basketball coach Bob Goudie, was going to Las Vegas to help train new volunteers to take her place in the pageant. Going away from home for two weeks every January had taken its toll. This would be her farewell.

Then, less than a month later, the pageant announced that it would be returning to Atlantic City for three years beginning in September. It was coming back to Jean.

“It’s just wonderful,” Goudie said. “I really didn’t want to give up the pageant. It was just too far away. Now it’s come back home and I can stay involved.”

Goudie believes people in the Atlantic City area have a passion for Miss America. That passion was missing in Las Vegas. The town is too big and too many other things are going on at the same time, she said.

There will be changes when Miss America comes back to the Boardwalk. In Las Vegas everybody stayed in the same hotel. In Atlantic City the pageant will likely return to its procedure of spreading the state representatives over all of the resort hotels. They will have a bigger theater for the show and that big runway. And they will be able to produce a parade that does more than circle around a driveway.

That will please Kay Wright of Pleasantville, who used to sit on her brother’s shoulders as a child when the Miss America Parade was something new. She has attended religiously since, including all of the pageants in Las Vegas with her daughters Linda and Barbara. They were building up lots of frequent flier miles. Now they can see the parade and the pageant without leaving the county.

Lou Barthold directs the Miss New Jersey Pageant, which will be held again this year at the Ocean City Music Pier from June 10-15. He’s happy the national competition is back where it started.

“Obviously I'm excited with the return of the Miss America Pageant to Atlantic City,” Barthold said. “Atlantic City is the home of the Miss America Pageant and in my opinion it should have never left. Since the announcement I have received nothing but rave reviews and good comments on the pageant’s return. Everyone seems to be as pleased as I am. It’s hard to believe that it’s been nine years since the pageant went to Las Vegas. We now know that it’s back to AC for the next three years and hopefully far beyond.

“Ocean City is the home of the Miss New Jersey Pageant. We are only a few short miles south of Atlantic City and welcome with open arms the return of the national pageant to our area. It’s estimated that this return will bring in approximately $30 million to Atlantic City – a much needed shot in the arm to a city that’s been struggling the past few years. In my opinion this return is a good thing for everyone concerned.”

Barthold is correct. The pageant will be a shot in the arm for Atlantic City. What it really amounts to is a large convention. Not only do the pageant contestants descend on the city but so do thousands of others from all over the country. And, of course, millions more will watch on ABC.

And that is the key. Miss America is not coming back to Atlantic City for nostalgic reasons. It’s returning for financial reasons. And hoping it can get better TV ratings.

The only question is, what kind of pageant will be returning to Atlantic City?

Will it be a production that worries about including all the latest trends and is coupled with a terrible show like the 20-20 pre-pageant show that aired on ABC last month? Or will it be a show that draws on the tradition of the pageant and returns to its unique position among live broadcasts? It needs to be progressive, not old-fashioned, but built on tradition.

One of the reasons shows like American Idol and Survivor have achieved success is that they cover many weeks, allowing viewers to develop favorites and tune in to see if they succeed. Miss America hasn’t done that. For the most part, potential viewers don’t see these young women until they show up on the Saturday night telecast.

Put the preliminary nights on ABC Family. The Boardwalk parade, too. Let people get attached to these young women so that they are anxious to see how they do on Saturday night.

Miss America has tried many tricks during the last decade or so. They inserted quiz shows into the competition, let the contestants vote, shortened the talent competition, separated the women into teams for competition – so many things that didn’t make any difference to potential viewers. In fact, they probably chased many away.

The Miss America Organization has changed thousands of lives in its long history. Its scholarship program, though now second to the NCAA in scholarships for women, is a worthwhile undertaking. So is its recent association with the Children’s Miracle Network.

Returning the pageant to Atlantic City makes Jean Goudie happy. It makes the Wright girls happy. It makes Lou Barthold happy. There are, as Goudie said, a lot of people in this area with passion for the pageant.

Let’s hope Miss America gives these people the pageant they are passionate about, not the one they saw in Las Vegas the last eight years.   

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Words of Wisdom: “There are things you can’t do in life. You can’t beat the phone company, you can’t make a waiter see you until he’s ready to see you and you can’t go back home again.”  (author Bill Bryson)


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