Miss America and Atlantic City: The odd couple consider divorce

Tuesday, December 25th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ Like saltwater taffy and the Boardwalk, the Miss America Pageant has been synonymous with Atlantic City for what seems like forever.

Long before casinos arrived in town, the pageant helped put the city on the map. It was started in 1921 as a publicity event and today its annual September spectacle draws millions of TV viewers.

But does Atlantic City still need Miss America? And does Miss America need Atlantic City?

It's starting to sound like a breakup.

Officials of the Miss America Organization say it has become too expensive to continue staging the event at Boardwalk Hall and want $1 million in new subsidies.

The Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, which already underwrites the production with $678,000, is refusing to contribute any more money.

Now Miss America Pageant CEO Robert Renneisen Jr. is threatening to move the whole operation to Nevada, Florida or Connecticut, site of the big Mohegan Sun casino, places where he said it would turn a profit.

Some people are aghast at the thought.

``It plays a big part in how Atlantic City is seen,'' said firefighter and lifelong resident Nick DeMarco, 52. ``A good class of people are brought into the area every year. It's good publicity for the city.''

``If the pageant leaves Atlantic City, it would be a historical tragedy. They go together like America and apple pie,'' said Vicki Gold Levi, 60, an author and former pageant judge. ``The values of the pageant would exist wherever they put it, but everybody would lose something.''

But to others, the only surprise in the possibility of the pageant and the city parting ways may be that it took so long to happen.

Casinos long ago eclipsed Miss America as the city's claim to fame, and image-conscious Miss America officials have been reluctant to allow their crown-wearing ``ideal'' to associate with what they see as Atlantic City's seamy new industry.

It wasn't until 1997 _ nearly 20 years after the first casino opened _ that Miss America contestants were even allowed onto the casino floors of the 12 gambling halls.

That ruffled the feathers of casino executives, particularly because they are expected to provide rooms for all 50 contestants.

Most casino-hotels provide eight rooms; four for contestants and four for their traveling companions or chaperones. Some provide only one room per contestant, requiring the contestant and chaperone to share.

The free rooms come at a time of year when the casinos could easily fill the space with free-spending gamblers. More than 30 million people visit Atlantic City a year.

Most hotels also give $25-a-day meal vouchers to contestants and the chaperones.

In addition, the fans, family members and state pageant officials who arrive after Labor Day every year for the 12-day lead-up to the televised pageant finals aren't known for being high rollers.

For its part, the city of Atlantic City hasn't been a big promoter of the pageant. For more than 75 years there was no Miss America museum, no monument, no physical structure anywhere in the city that told visitors they were in Miss America's home.

In 1997, a Miss America Rose Walk _ a sidewalk embossed with square bronze plaques for each Miss America _ was unveiled. In 1998, the Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel opened with display windows full of Miss America memorabilia, its courtyard host to a statue of former host Bert Parks.

``Atlantic City isn't a partner with the pageant and hasn't been in a long time,'' said former pageant CEO Leonard Horn. ``The pageant is completely on its own in Atlantic City. The only industry in town is at best neutral with regard to whether it's there or not.''

He calls the divorce of Miss America and Atlantic City inevitable.

``It'll be healthy for the Miss America program,'' Horn said.