By Jane Rieker
Updated January 21, 1980 12:00 PM

The backlash was instantaneous and fierce. Switchboard operators at Pageant headquarters in Atlantic City were suddenly “up to here” in irate calls; a Texas deejay proposed a petition and bumper-sticker drive; a Kentucky town mounted a postcard campaign; and Johnny Carson himself incited a nationwide “We Want Bert” protest, all within 48 hours of the fateful announcement that Bert Parks had serenaded his last Miss America.

“I think I’m in the same league with Khomeini and Brezhnev,” said a stunned Albert Marks Jr., the Atlantic City investment broker who, as Pageant chairman, took the heat for what may have been the decision of the TV sponsors and NBC. “Without saying that anyone is too old—and I don’t want to say that because I don’t want to hurt the man—we thought it was time to make a change, to maintain a modern, contemporary image. We play to 85 million people, and the great bulk of those people are between 12 and 50.” History will record that Marks is 67, two years older than Parks.

Ageism, in any case, bothered Bert less, he claims, than the graceless way in which he was fired. He had just returned from his 65th-birthday party when a reporter called and broke the news; Marks had apparently missed the peripatetic Parks with both a letter and a message on his answering machine. “I always figured I would know when it was time to quit,” says Bert, nursing his shock at home in Hollywood, Fla. “When you can’t keep that two hours live, when you feel you’re not better than ever, you know it’s time. But last year I felt better about the show than in all the 25 years I’ve been doing it.” Wife Annette, a former dental hygienist, also thinks his public dismissal was shabby. “Everyone deserves to keep his dignity,” she says.

The blow is plainly softened by the outpouring of support from fans, but Parks says losing the job, which paid him $18,500 a year, is no tragedy. “I am sad about the loss of the Pageant and what we call the Pageant family,” he says, “but Miss America took just five days out of my year.” He’s booked for a lucrative bundle of radio and TV commercials, recently wrapped a guest spot on WKRP in Cincinnati, and last week was off to L.A. again “to play some kind of sex doctor on The Love Boat.”

And what of Bert’s Pageant successor? Marks says he is looking for a host “between the ages of 30 and 45, low-key but very recognizable.” The search may not be easy. One leading contender, Mac Davis, reportedly demanded $75,000 and was turned down. Ed McMahon, though 56, says he got and rejected a bid from the Pageant. And the other favorite, John Davidson, took himself out of the running in the bluntest possible terms. Referring to the Miss America anthem (“There she is …”) that made an institution of Bert Parks, Davidson snorted: “I wouldn’t sing that lousy song for a million dollars.”