Young & Fearless

Susan Page
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Wednesday - May 31, 2006
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Watching the finale of American Idol last week, I discovered you’re never too old for revelations.

First of all the show was on May 24, which happens to be my birthday (a date, by the way, I share with Priscilla Presley, Patti LaBelle and Bob Dylan, all entertainers of various and dubious distinctions, and all older, I might add).

But enough about the birthday. I’m past the age of fanfare or surprises. Spending the evening with husband Jerry rooting for Katherine McPhee (I was a McFan), which we’ve been doing most every week for the past four months, was McFine with me.

As we watched the culmination of weeks of performances and eliminations, I wondered out loud: How do these kids have the guts to get up on that grand stage at the Kodak theater in Los Angeles and sing before thousands and thousands of people - not to mention judges? I pondered the date a little longer, and then it hit me. Almost exactly 40 years ago, at age 19, I did a similar thing.

Atlantic City, N.J., 1966, was the “Hollywood” of my experience. The famous Boardwalk was crowded with Labor Day “weekenders” down from Manhattan to relax and revel at the shore for one last summer hurrah at one of the East Coast’s most popular resorts spots. But there was another attraction that jam-packed the hotels and filled the seats of the famed Atlantic City Convention Center that holiday: the Miss America Pageant - the American Idol equivalent of the day. And I was there.

Can it be 40 long years ago that 50 of us state “queens” gathered in that famous spot to compete for the most-coveted title in the land? The Super Bowl hadn’t even been invented yet, and color television technology was still a work in progress, as ground-breaking then as plasma screens and high-definition TV are today.

Bess Myerson, a former Miss America and our TV hostess, bragged, “This year’s pageant is brought to you for the very first time in ‘living’ color.” Symbolizing the astounding technological leap from black and white, the NBC peacock showed off its tail feathers in various hues of pink and green all bleeding together. But it was still color; the country was in awe.

Burt Parks, the permanently grinning, ebullient emcee, was the pageant’s Ryan Seacrest - on speed. No teleprompter to make him eloquent and smooth, Parks guided the live two-hour telecast from swimsuit to evening gown to talent competitions with witty (often corny) aplomb and a stack of 4-by-6 cards. Occasional bloopers only made the show and the comedic Parks more endearing.

The Miss A pageant didn’t seem schmaltzy then as many deem it now (and as some dub Idol). In those days, tradition was honored, and this beau-ty/talent/scholarship contest was, at age 45, as American as it got. It actually started as a bathing beauty contest and tourist attraction in 1921. The first winner, only 16, around the same age as Idol contestants Paris Bennett, Lisa Tucker and Kevin Covais, didn’t win for her talent. All Margaret Gorman, Miss America 1921, had going for her was that she looked good in a bathing “costume” and was a dead ringer for movie superstar Mary Pickford.

By 1966, “my year,” the Miss America pageant, the country’s most-watched TV special in America, touting 30 million viewers, was a time when programming choices were few (Neilson reported 43 million during the Idol finale with the final episode of Lost competing hard for the audience). But 30 million and a convention center for a small-town West Texas college student at 19 was like landing on the moon. I was a Kellie Pickler: naïve, down-home and likewise uneducated on the gastronomic value of calamari, escargot or anything else that wasn’t Tex Mex or Southern.

And that brings me back to my birthday revelation:At 16 or 19 or 21, we do things that, upon reflection at this age, astound us. Performing a scene from Gone With the Wind (I hear you laughing already) on a huge stage before more people than lived in my home state of Texas was not much more than a really “neat” thing to do like everything you do for the first time. I could no more wrap my under-developed brain around it any more than I could my mouth around fried squid.

In retrospect, I see that the Idol contestants are no different than I was a lightyear ago.

They’re just more talented.

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