Miss America, Atlantic City's prodigal pageant, is coming home, and the spectacle that became synonymous with the New Jersey seaside resort is being assured all is forgiven after a six-year fling in Las Vegas.
The pageant will be back where it started 93 years ago and where it was a fixture until 2006, when organizers moved to Nevada in the hopes of attracting a younger TV audience.
"It was always my dream that this would return here," said Art McMaster, president and CEO of the Miss America organization. "Sadly, this organization went west for a while. That sadness is over. We are back to the city where the Miss America pageant began, where the Miss America pageant was raised, and where the Miss America pageant belongs."
Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson, who worked with Gov. Chris Christie's office to entice the pageant, said having Miss America anywhere but Atlantic City just felt wrong.
"Can anyone separate the Mummer's Parade from Philadelphia, or the Rose Bowl from Pasadena?" he asked. "Miss America is Atlantic City, and she's coming home."
New Jersey's lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno, made the official announcement Thursday morning inside Boardwalk Hall, the historic arena in which the pageant will take place during yet-undetermined dates in September. She said Atlantic City and the pageant have a handshake agreement to move back here for at least three years, but said final details have yet to be ironed out.
One thing is for sure, though: the contestants will don elaborate footwear and participate in the traditional pre-pageant Boardwalk parade, in which spectators yell out "Show us your shoes!"
The announcement came the same day that another Boardwalk icon, Trump Plaza, was sold to a California company for $20 million, the lowest price ever paid for a casino in the beleaguered resort city. Boosters spun it as a heartening sign that the city was still attractive to investors.
Guadagno said no taxpayer money was part of the incentives offered to lure Miss America back to New Jersey. Liza Cartmell, president of the Atlantic City Alliance, said her casino-funded group is among those providing financial incentives, but would not say how much it might contribute. She said individual casinos are contributing as well, and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority could use some of the funds casinos are obligated to pay to it for Miss America-related purposes.
Guadagno and Cartmell said the return of the pageant is expected to generate at least $30 million in economic activity for Atlantic City and the surrounding region. But the psychological boost, and the free publicity of having the national broadcast set in Atlantic City, is priceless, they added. Cartmell said 6,000 to 7,000 people associated with the pageant will need hotel rooms, meals and other expenditures during their time in Atlantic City.
"We will be showcasing all the attractions we have in Atlantic City," Cartmell said. The pageant contestants "will be climbing the lighthouse, they'll go to Gardner's Basin, they may go dolphin-watching — all the fun things people do when they come to Atlantic City. The amount of free media for us is great."
The Miss America pageant left Atlantic City in 2006 after deciding it was just too expensive to stage its production there. It went to Las Vegas, where the current Miss America, Mallory Hagan, was crowned last month at the Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino. Hagan will have her reign cut short when the pageant is broadcast in September, but will be paid for the full year, pageant officials said.
The move to Las Vegas came amid sliding TV ratings for the pageant, as it tried to interest a younger demographic and incorporating elements of reality television programming.
McMaster said the content of the show is still being worked on, adding he expects a mixture of modern television elements and traditional pageant staples such as evening wear and swimsuit competitions, and talent competitions. The format is being jointly developed with the ABC television network, which will broadcast the pageant for the next three years, he said.
The Miss America pageant started as little more than a bathing suit revue. It broke viewership records in its heyday and bills itself as one of the world's largest scholarship programs for women. But, like other pageants, it has struggled to stay relevant as national attitudes regarding women's rights have changed.
The contest originated in 1920 as the Fall Frolic, which became the Inter-City Beauty Contest the following year. In 1921, a high school junior named Margaret Gorman was one of approximately 1,000 entrants in a photo contest held by the Washington Herald. She was chosen as the first Miss Washington, D.C., and her prize was a trip to Atlantic City, where she won the top prize: the Golden Mermaid Trophy.
The next year, Gorman was expected to defend her title. But when the Washington Herald selected a new Miss Washington, D.C., Atlantic City pageant officials didn't know what new title to award Gorman. Since both titles she won in 1921 — Inter-City Beauty, Amateur and The Most Beautiful Bathing Girl in America — were considered somewhat awkward, it was decided to call her Miss America.
The pageant was conceived by the Businessmen's League of Atlantic City as a way to extend the summer tourism season in Atlantic City for another week, being held the weekend after Labor Day weekend, when temperatures were generally still warm.
Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC