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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Boardwalk Memories: Atlantic City and Beauty Contests

Archivists are frequently baffled by the handwriting and personal, even idiosyncratic, notations in documents. When cataloging color transparencies by Donald Sultner-Welles for the NMAH Archives Center years ago, we relied largely on his labels on envelopes and other containers. They were usually helpful, but frequently incomplete, cryptic, or open to misinterpretation. I was amused in finding that our project manager had misunderstood his notes on a 1950s photograph of friends. He identified the subjects and added in capital letters “ME.” She thought that was a postal code, indicating that the photograph had been taken in Maine, and misfiled it. But I remembered that zip codes and state postal codes did not go into effect until the 1960s (it turns out to be 1963), and even during the early years of postal codes—if you argue that the captions might have been added years later—people had not yet abandoned the established state abbreviations, such as “Ind.” for Indiana, not IN. These abbreviations are still preferred in Library of Congress subject headings and other authorities, incidentally, for anything other than addressing mail. I concluded that he clearly meant “me,” not Maine, since he was shown in the photograph, and there was no historical reason to attribute the location to Maine.

Other captions for Sultner-Welles images are intriguing when they omit significant information, such as with the photograph below.

Photograph by Donald H. Sultner-Welles. "George Buzby, Atlantic City" With Bert Parks, ca. 1964.  Chromogenic color transparency, 2-1/4" x 2-1/4".  Donald H. Sultner-Welles Collection, Archives Center, National Museum of American History.
When I inspected a slide identified as “George Buzby, Atlantic City” among the Sultner-Welles color trasnparencies, I looked closely at the two other figures in the photograph. I knew Buzby was a friend of the photographer. Then what to my wondering eyes should appear but the face of Bert Parks, sublime and severe? The two men were shaking hands. I knew which was Buzby, since I was certain that the man in the middle was Bert Parks. You may ask, who is or was Bert Parks? He was important enough to be Google-able--in the words of Wikipedia, “an American actor, singer, and radio and television announcer, best known for hosting the annual Miss America telecast from 1955 to 1979” and considered an American “icon” by many. One of Parks’s primary tasks was to sing the theme, “There She Is” (Miss America: Your Ideal), when the winner was crowned. You can view these momentous occasions on YouTube. I can’t recall ever seeing a Bert Parks movie, but his face was familiar from the Miss America beauty pageants. Bert Parks, crooning that song, was the most memorable part.

Furthermore, the fact that Sultner-Welles identified the location of the image as Atlantic City strongly suggests that it was made at some iteration of the Miss America Pageant from 1955 to 1979. From that I postulate that the young woman whose waist his arm encircles might be a Miss America contestant. Admittedly, other possibilities abound.

Other Archives Center resources are Miss America-specific, including the personal papers of Lenora Slaughter, who revived the pageant in 1935 and served as its director. Two other collections were donated by winners of the Miss America crown, the Miss America 1943 [Jean Bartel] Photographs and the Miss America 1951 [Yolande Betbeze] Papers. A number of smaller beauty pageants, including high school, college, and other local contests, are represented in Archives Center collections.

American Legion Pageant at Lincoln Colonnade [paper photoprint,] 1947. Photograph by Addison N. Scurlock.  Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, NMAH. Note the "Miss Americanism" sash worn by the figure at right.
Another reason for my interest in the Miss America pageant was a personal high school memory. While I was a junior at Goshen High School in Goshen, Indiana, a recent graduate was awarded the Miss Indiana title. She was therefore eligible to participate in the Miss America contest. It was the greatest, most exciting, thing that had ever happened to our school, if not the town! The school decided to send the marching band to Atlantic City to cheer our candidate on, and I remember many evenings watching outdoor band rehearsals. She didn’t win the grand title, and therefore Bert Parks never crooned that corny song to her, but she did receive a special civics award as the contestant with the most enthusiastic hometown support.

Given this personal history and my chronic inability to delete that goofy song from my brain, it was an odd feeling to encounter this Sultner-Welles candid photograph of Parks so unexpectedly in the collection; and odder still that the photographer, who was something of a celebrity-hunter, identified only his friend and the location, not the famous host or the event.

David Haberstich
Curator of Photography, Archives Center
National Museum of American History  

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