WITH WIMVIACIILATE TUXEDO, A piano-keyboard smile and a paean to the promise of regal beauty, Bert Parks became an annual American institution. For 25 years, as millions of Americans tuned in to witness the coronation. Parks warbled “There She Is” on the Atlantic City stage to a tearful parade of rose-bearing Miss Americas. And though the Miss America Pageant was enormously hokey, and ultimately as dated as a debutante ball, Parks shrewdly grasped its perennial appeal. “You’re rooting for the hometown girl,” he once said. “It’s the Cinderella story that satisfies our urge for royalty.”
Even at his death last week at age 77 (of lung cancer, in La Jolla, Calif.), Parks remained synonymous with the show that had unceremoniously dumped him back in 1980. He was eventually replaced by TV personality Gary Collins, husband of the 1959 Miss America, Mary Ann Mobley. Parks felt no personal animosity toward Collins; indeed, he remained close friends with both Collins and Mobley. But he was intensely bitter about his dismissal, which inspired a letter-writing campaign organized by Johnny Carson. As Parks later said in a blistering interview, “This was when Ronald Reagan, who’s five years older than me, was elected President. He could run the country, but I was too old to run a beauty pageant. Now is that sick or what?”
Parks made a nostalgic return to the event in 1990 to a standing ovation. He otherwise occupied himself during the “80s by hosting a tugboat competition and a dog show, as well as by parodying himself in his lone feature film role in The Freshman (1990) with Marlon Brando.
Still, he had more to show for his 60-year career than a great, annually renewable one-night stand. Born Bert Jacobson in Atlanta (he eventually changed his name to make it fit a marquee), Parks began announcing at a local radio station at 16. Blessed with the kind of rich, resonant voice ideally suited for radio, he became a singer on The Eddie Cantor Show.
During World War II he served as an infantry captain in the China-Burma-India theater. In 1943 he married Annelte Liebman. (Wed for 48 years, they had three children: twin sons Jeffrey and Joel and a daughter, Annette Jr., all of whom were with their mother at Parks’s bedside when he died.) In 1945 he won the job as host of the popular game show Break the Bank and soon became a fixture on radio (as emcee of Stop the Music) and TV (as host of Double or Nothing from 1953 to 1955). He had his own daytime variety show on NBC, The Bert Parks Show, from 1950 to 1952, and appeared on Broadway in the early 1960s as Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man.
By this time he was already something of a national icon as the Miss America emcee, and his sonorous voice and velvety touch were in large part responsible for transforming the pageant into a moment of national mythology. On the practical level, it also fell to Parks to cover the gaffes inevitable in a live telecast. Leonard Horn, chairman of the contest, remembers the moment when Bert “was carrying a baton for a number and was trying to make an entrance but couldn’t find an opening between the curtains. With his baton in hand, he crawled underneath the curtain and began marching across the stage. It was so Bert Parks.”
As the tone of the pageant shifted and by the late ’70s emphasized brains and accomplishment as well as beauty, officials saw Parks’s courtly manner as out-of-date and perhaps a shade patronizing. Not so the many women whom he nurtured through the trial of competition over the years. Says the 1958 Miss America. Marilyn Van Derbur Atler: “Its the end of an American tradition. Some people put their stamp so indelibly, no one will ever take their place. That was Bert. And,” she adds, “I sure will miss him.”
DORIS BACON in Los Angeles