Nov. 9, 2021

"ON THE BOARDWALK--IN ATLANTIC CITY...."

It was Saturday night, the final night of the 1958 Miss America Pageant.  

On the famous boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey, Convention Auditorium was packed, not one empty seat.   Lining the tiered bleachers in military splendor, West Point Cadets stood at attention as they, like the audience surrounding them, waited for the crowning of the new Miss America.  

The pageant’s master of ceremonies, Bert Parks, formally attired in black tie and tails, stepped to the microphone.  “The last of our top ten finalists to perform her talent tonight is Sally Miller, Miss Arkansas. A lyric soprano, Miss Miller will sing the aria “Caro Nome” from the Opera “Rigoletto.”

Eugene Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Conductor, raised his baton, nodded, and the aria’s musical introduction began.   Multiple spotlights searched-then captured me- center stage. Pausing for only a second, I moved down the marble staircase--took three steps forward--and position myself in front of the standing microphone and the pageant judges.  As the orchestra struck the last note of the introduction and strains of the violins slowly faded in the background… I began singing.  It seemed I had rehearsed this moment every day of my life.  For six enchanted minutes I sang in one of the world’s largest auditoriums with an audience of thousands watching, listening; for six show-stopping minutes I performed live before millions, on national television.   

I sang the Italian lyrics as if Verdi had written each word especially for me, my voice scaling the high notes with the greatest of ease.   Years of practice, professional training, and rehearsals, prepared me to make the most of every performance and, as the aria’s dramatic finale was ending, I purposely held the last note-- high C--a few seconds longer.  Too quickly and it was over; all was silent except for my pounding heart.  Then, like a choir of cymbals crashing in unison, the air exploded with applause.   

 Bowing my head, I sank into a full curtsey, my heavy satin gown falling in folds around me. Rising slowly, I looked above the footlights to see the entire audience on its feet, honoring me with a standing ovation. The little girl inside me whispered, “You were born for this moment!”   

Also applauding, Bert Parks moved from stage right to stand beside me.  Leaning close, he said, “The audience loves you Miss Arkansas; they won’t stop clapping!”  Three curtsies later, applause wrapping me like a warm blanket, I exited the stage.

Everybody can’t be a winner. I don’t recall feeling disappointed when Miss Mississippi won the title of Miss America 1959. Earlier in the evening, performing before an audience of millions, I achieved my crowning moment.

The next day, an official pageant envelope appeared under my hotel door. The enclosed letter announced I had been chosen for next year’s Miss America Pageant’s Court of Honor and would be a featured entertainer each night of the pageant. The pageant committee also selected Anita Bryant, Miss Oklahoma 1958, for the Court of Honor and assigned us to room together.

Without waiting, my official chaperone, Dorothy, announced her own surprise.  Dorothy and her husband, an Arkansas State Senator, owned a newspaper in Brinkley, Arkansas.  As a newspaper editor, my chaperone received press privileges, including an official press badge and a seat in the press box beside the runway.  And, Dorothy got to vote in the national press’s exclusive beauty contest.  The national press had its own behind-the-scenes pageant to choose three contestants, each with a specific attribute:  most-exciting breasts, most fantastic butt, and best-looking legs.

With great ceremony, my chaperone whipped out a printed copy of the National Press-Official Winners for 1958 and placed it in my hand.  There, in the middle of the page, in a swimsuit photo beside the category Best-Looking Legs…. was ME!   I could hardly wait to show the page to my brother’s friend, the one who insisted on calling me “Bird-Legs!”

Such sweet revenge, in more ways than one.