June 12, 1978 12:00 PM

There they were: Misses America—seven alumnae of the annual Atlantic City rites, onstage in Birmingham, Ala., triumphantly hoofing their way through a revival of Follies. Masterminding the improbable gathering was James Hatcher, who once produced a Miss America Reunion Pageant for CBS and is now director of the University of Alabama’s Town and Gown Theater in Birmingham. “I talked to Lee Meriwether [Miss America, 1955] and Marian McKnight [1957], and they thought doing this would be fun.” He recruited five other winners and mailed scripts to the erstwhile queens last March.

Rehearsals posed problems. None of the women were professional dancers, so choreographer Don Liberto took them back to the basics. “I always thought I could do anything,” cracked McKnight, wife of actor Gary Conway, “but when it came to tap dancing I had to change my philosophy.” Hatcher was undismayed. “I am truly an optimist,” he confided. “It never occurs to me that something won’t work.”

Living together in an inn near the theater, the seven thrived in the sorority atmosphere. “There were no prima donnas,” explained BeBe Shoppe (1948), whose 17-year-old daughter danced in the show. “The man who did our hair wouldn’t take the job until he saw that we weren’t pills.” Housemother for the group was Marian Bergeron (1933), who won her title when she was only 15. “It was just a personality-and-bathing-suit competition then,” she recalled with a giggle. “We didn’t even have Bert Parks.”

Meriwether, a regular on TV’s Barnaby Jones, was the only card-carrying performer, but the others had proved themselves in the past. Bergeron sang with Rudy Vallee’s band, Jean Bartel (1943) was in opera, and Barbara Walker (1947) had her own television show in Memphis. All seven had learned the arts of survival. “It’s just amazing,” said Walker, reflecting on the aches and pains of rehearsal, “that we’re all still living and in good health.”

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