Behind The Crown

Every June the newly crowned Miss Hawaii makes headlines, but behind the scenes two men make the pageant happen, and prepare the winner for Atlantic City

Katie Young
Wednesday - June 09, 2005
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Behind the beauty queens who have held the title of Miss Hawaii are two men — men who continue to volunteer their time and talent year after year. Their commitment ensures that Hawaii’s only locally televised pageant stays fresh and rewards the exceptional young women who compete in it.

This year’s Miss Hawaii Scholarship Program at the Hilton Hawaiian Village airs live at 7:30 p.m., Friday, June 10 on K5 (and repeats 10:30 p.m. June 11 on K5). It also marks three decades that both Miss Hawaii executive director Thom McGarvey and executive producer Raymond Abregano have been involved with the pageant.

“With everything that goes into putting together the production numbers and doing the pageant, we always tell each other we’re not going to do it again next year,” jokes Abregano, who is also a full-time English teacher at Saint Louis School. “But here we are, 30 years later.”

McGarvey, who has a degree in music from USC,
plays the piano while this year’s Miss Hawaii
contestants sing along

Every year when the new Miss Hawaii is crowned and viewers watch her tearfully take her first walk down the runway donning the crown, backstage McGarvey, Abregano and pageant associate director Muriel Anderson are in a happy huddle — high-fiving and hugging one another.

“It’s wonderful to see everything come together and materialize that night the new Miss Hawaii is crowned,” says McGarvey, who is also the programming manager for ‘Olelo Community Television. “We’re backstage congratulating each other because it’s over, but really, it’s just starting.”

That’s because the day after the new Miss Hawaii is crowned, she confers with McGarvey, Abregano and Anderson, preparing for the September trip to Atlantic City and the Miss America pageant.

The three become advisers, supporters and confidantes for Miss Hawaii in all her future endeavors.

“All summer long we just talk,” says McGarvey. “We get a conversation going so they don’t feel intimidated.”

Abregano keeps the Miss Hawaii contestants
on their toes with lively production numbers

When Miss Hawaii 2003 Kanoe Gibson was preparing for the national pageant, Abregano and McGarvey would meet with her at the Ala Moana Center food court to practice trivia questions.

“I got this game, it was social studies trivia for 9-year-olds,” says Abregano. “It turned out at Miss America that three of the eight questions asked were from that trivia. Kanoe tied for first place in that phase.”

Gibson was also first runner-up for Miss America.

McGarvey and Abregano have become pros at finding unique ways to encourage our Miss Hawaiis and troubleshoot problems that come up both locally and nationally.

“When there are mess-ups, and there will be mess-ups, you just pull through and act like it was part of the plan,” says McGarvey.

After 30 years, both McGarvey and Abregano have quite a few stories to tell. There was the year when there were 15 contestants, too many to fit into one night of TV programming. So they held a preliminary night on Thursday and were going to name the top 10 on live TV on Friday. Rewriting the script took longer than anticipated, and McGarvey drove up to the Hilton Hawaiian Village with the finished script just in time for a relay team to run it up to Abregano, who flew on stage and handed the script to emcee Howard Dashefsky just as he said, “The top 10 are …”

Airing Miss Hawaii live also leaves room for other mishaps, such as when Traci Toguchi, Miss Hawaii 1995, was performing her talent as a contestant.

“Tracy can really belt out a song,” recalls Abregano. “She was singing You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman and she got to that part where the song really culminates. For some reason, a taxi cab company must have been on the same frequency as the cordless microphone because all we heard was Traci singing and then the cab dispatch guy. So it was, ‘You make me feel like a natural woman … Pick up at the Hilton Hawaiian Village.’”

Toguchi had to perform her talent all over again.

One of McGarvey’s funniest memories was from a time when he was the public relations manager for Hawaiian Airlines, which took over the struggling pageant in 1975 from the state Jaycees.

“Miss Hawaii, Gail Thomas, had her gown for Miss America made in Hawaii,” recalls McGarvey. “The night before she left for Atlantic City, she was trying the gown on and we realized it was completely see-through. So the designer was going to put another lining under it, but I would have to fly the dress up to Gail by the Sunday deadline.”

Planning to fly up and return home the same day, McGarvey packed light: just some toiletries, a change of underwear and clothes — and Thomas’ dress, which was covered in bugle beads and packed into McGarvey’s bag.

“I was trying to get on the plane because I was running late, but the agriculture inspector insisted on opening my bag for some reason. So this guy is looking through my bag and he sees the dress and makes this face. He looks up and says to me, ‘Got any fruits?’”

On the national level, year after year, Hawaii has continued to garner praise, say the two, for our top-notch local pageant as well as a Hawaiian segment Abregano produced when Miss America 1992, Hawaii’s first national winner, Hawaiian Airlines came up with the money to take a troupe of dancers, both male and female, as well as kumu hula and musician Robert Cazimero, to Atlantic City.

Word traveled fast that the “Hawaii group,” the men in particular, were dancing in malo.

“People were saying ‘The male dancers are nude!’” laughs McGarvey. “And suddenly the rehearsals started getting more and more crowded.”

“When the men got down to their malo, all 50 contestants forgot their steps because they were just watching the guys,” adds Abregano.

The production, titled “Hawaiian Paradise” drew media attention and praise from The New Yorker magazine.

Miss Hawaii has continued to represent the state well at Miss America. After Carolyn Sapp became Miss America in 1992, Angela Baraquio also won the title in 2000. There have been three top-five finalists from Hawaii and 17 semi-finalists, including winners in both the talent and swimsuit portions of the pageant.

Abregano and McGarvey couldn’t do it without the
help of associate director Muriel Anderson

“At the time Carolyn Sapp was crowned, more than half of the states never had a Miss America,” says McGarvey. “And we’ve had two.”

McGarvey and Abregano say they look at the Miss Hawaii Scholarship Program also as a way to promote Hawaii.

“In fact, one of the real highlights for me regarding the program has nothing to do with the pageant,” says McGarvey. “Last year, the state Legislature introduced a joint resolution to name Miss Hawaii as the official hostess for the state. It was signed by Gov. Lingle. It is such a humbling thing for us because it meant that they recognized Miss Hawaii at a level that we had always put her at. She isn’t just a beauty pageant queen. She sometimes travels more than Miss America does, representing our state.”

Locally, the community has continued to support the Miss Hawaii program. Every year, the Hilton ballroom sells out at 1,700. And as far as competing for viewership, the two say they’re lucky because in Hawaii, someone is always related to or friends of a contestant so they tune in.

Abregano says his own “Nielson rating” is conducted the next day at his weekly trip to the swap meet where people comment on the production numbers, who entered and who they think should have won.

“People spare nothing,” laughs Abregano.

After this many years with the program, even though Abregano and McGarvey don’t always appear on stage, people still recognize them as being involved with Miss Hawaii. The Miss Hawaii program is also a yearlong endeavor for the volunteers, who put together every aspect of the program — from securing prize donations to scholarship monies and more.

In 1976, the pageant awarded a total of $5,000 in scholarships; today, scholarships and grants given to contestants total $290,000.

Local organizations band together, too. The Hilton Hawaiian Village is the official home of Miss Hawaii and has been for the past 20 years. Other local businesses also support the pageant with everything from donating flowers for the set to a Mercedes Benz that Miss Hawaii drives for the year.

Abregano’s own high school students even volunteer their time to help build sets and act as escorts for the contestants. They also act as critics as the girls practice their various talents in front of a live audience.

“They’ll say, ‘Is she going to sing that song? It’s so old. That’s junk,’” says Abregano. “But that’s how I get my ideas as to what’s current. I get them from my students.”

Keeping things current is how Abregano says Miss Hawaii continues to be a success year after year.

There was some talk earlier this year that Donald Trump, owner of the Miss USA/Miss Universe pageant system, had mentioned that he might buy out the Miss America system and combine the two. But McGarvey says it’ll likely be a cold day in hell.

“What happened was the contract for ABC ran out this year for Miss America,” he says. “So the organization is looking for another broadcast station to do it. Because there has been no announcement as to which TV station we’re going to be with, there have been all kinds of rumors going around.”

Although McGarvey and Abregano note their good relationship with Hawaii USA pageant director Takeo, who they say is also one of the major designers for Miss Hawaii, the two pageant systems have little in common.

“For one thing, the Miss America organization is a nonprofit. We don’t charge the girls to enter the pageant and we don’t charge a franchise fee for each state.”

The one change McGarvey says he would like to see in the future is to devise ways in which the audience members can know more about each contestant.

“I think this is something they’ll try to do with Miss America, and technology will make that all possible,” he says.

The women who have come through the Miss Hawaii program note that Abregano and McGarvey have truly made their reign a time to remember.

“What goes into making the show is incredible,” says Carolyn Sapp, Miss America 1992, who won her Miss Hawaii title on her fourth try. “To have the local show be so watched on a national network is such a coup to them. It’s really a class act all the way. Winning Miss Hawaii for me was just as beautiful an experience as winning Miss America.”

Angela Baraquio Grey also tried three times before winning Miss Hawaii, and became Miss America in 2000. Baraquio was the nation’s first teacher and Asian to be named Miss America.

“During my year as Miss Hawaii, they worked with me to prepare for my Miss America interview, helped me find a physical trainer and decide which talent I wanted to perform,” she says. “Their consulting proved to be invaluable to my eventual victory.”

Miss Hawaii 2003 Kanoe Gibson notes she was a little intimidated when she first met McGarvey because he seemed all-business.

“But I quickly realized his seriousness is just a pure passion for the Miss Hawaii Scholarship Program,” she says. “He made sure I went to Miss America with the best of everything. His true character was revealed after I came home without the Miss America title and he continued to support me in all I did. He’s always made me feel that I am so special.”

Gibson, as do others, also notes Abregano’s gregarious personality.

“Ray is hilarious right off the bat,” says Gibson. “And under all that humor is the most kindhearted and hard-working man. He is the reason the Miss Hawaii pageant is so appealing every year. He brings the program to life. During my travels I heard from numerous people in other states that the Miss Hawaii pageant was the best they had ever seen or been to.”

McGarvey says the program continues to succeed because he, Abregano and Anderson each have their own kuleana and their own strengths. The two men note that Anderson, who is also a manager with the Hawaii Tourism Authority, keeps them both on track and they couldn’t do it without her.

Miss America 1991 Carolyn Sapp (center)
says Abregano and McGarvey put on a class
act pageant

McGarvey, who was raised in Virginia Beach, has a music degree from USC in Los Angeles. He came to Hawaii in 1969 and worked as an entertainment editor for the Maui News and as a programming manager for KMVI Radio. He came to Oahu in the late ’70s as the public relations manager for Hawaiian Airlines and became involved in Miss Hawaii when the airlines took over the franchise in 1976. It was the first time the Miss America organization had granted a franchise to a business.

“The airlines took the pageant over to get it back on its feet with the intention of putting the program back into a community organization later,” says McGarvey. In the late ’80s Hawaiian Airlines turned it over to the Miss Hawaii Scholarship Program but still remains a major supporter.

Abregano, who was born and raised in Wahiawa, has always been in love with the arts. He used to stage plays in his back yard in the Ewa Plantation and charge people 5 cents to see the productions.

At one time he wanted to become a priest and went to school to study to be a brother. Right before he took his final vows he decided not to pursue that career, and instead became a teacher and continued being a part of various drama productions.

Abregano was also on Maui in the ’70s, teaching at Saint Anthony School before he moved to Oahu in 1982 to teach at Saint Louis.

He became a part of the Miss Maui pageant and would come to Oahu every year to help the contestant with Miss Hawaii.

“I didn’t know anything about pageants. I hated them with a passion, but I loved doing stage productions,” admits Abregano.

So he treated the Miss Maui pageant as a play, not a pageant. He does the same with Miss Hawaii today.

Abregano spends his free time dancing for Robert Cazimero in Halau Na Kamalei, which he has been a part of for 20 years. McGarvey likes to play on his grand piano when no one else is around, and is also his condominium association president.

Abregano and McGarvey, the men behind Miss Hawaii, produce quite a show for thousands of viewers. After three decades with the program, they say they’d prefer to stay behind the scenes, finding their greatest joy in watching young women accomplish something for themselves.

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