As promised, here is my follow-up piece to the first “Quest for Rhinestones” I published last month where I chronicled the various Misses Crawford County that my mother Susan Abercrombie was privileged to pimp mentor and later chaperone through their various public appearances and during their collective shots at the Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. I must first, however, correct some inconsistencies that appeared in my earlier post.
Kathy Stevenson, from lil’ ol’ Harmonsburg, PA, was the first Miss CC from our area (and right down the road from chez Abercrombie); however, neither my sister nor I remember if my mother had any responsibility for her crown. Regardless, she did the area proud. Additionally, Sandy Steiger was a runner up at Miss Pennsylvania and I know this for a fact because she told me so, and not in a “Did-you-forget-that-I-too-was-also-almost-Miss-Pennsylvania?” way, but more like a “Good-grief-I-was-so-relieved-not-to-win” way. Apparently the quest for rhinestones carries with it some measure of burdensome responsibilities, because I recall a conversation with my friend Jane who was a First Runner-Up at the Miss Indiana Pageant in 1980-something. I had asked her what was going through her mind as she stood on that stage after the judges had carved away the Indiana contingent to just two, and one of them was about to become Miss Indiana. She told me she kept thinking, “Please don’t pick me, please don’t pick me” and was hugely relieved to not be the one going to Atlantic City that September.
Her talent? Jane is a musician. Not a gymnast. Hm.
For me, though, growing up inundated with the whole Miss Crawford County Culture was intoxicating. During our youth, my sister Becky and I were more than just fascinated with the pageant; we, in fact, lived it every Sunday afternoon in our bedroom with our Barbie dolls and one or two of my brother Jamie’s GI Joes that we had lifted from his closet. First, we had to set the stage for the pageant. This involved making a mock-up of the real Miss Crawford County stage, which was, in reality, picnic tables lined up in a ‘T’ festooned with linen skirts to hide the fact that they were picnic tables. This runway was situated adjacent to a flatbed trailer that was also decorated thusly to hide the fact that it, in all likelihood, had served as a conveyance for some manner of farm implement in its off-season life. The picnic tables and flatbed trailer were placed in the middle of a dirt racetrack that would, in the days after the pageant, host a stock car race and various harness races.
Once Becky and I had constructed our pageant stage, it was time to dress our Barbies in their evening gowns for the Evening Gown Tableau. This was reminiscent of the first “Tableau” of the actual pageant where each contestant, in her evening gown and white gloves, would be escorted out of the Cadillac convertible that had ferried each prospective queen to the Crawford County Fairgrounds. Thus the need for the GI Joes. I only had one Ken doll, and he was too refined to do anything but serve as Master of Ceremonies. The camo-fatigued GI Joes did the heavy lifting. Among our toys, we didn’t have anything that resembled Cadillac convertibles, so there was much imagination to be rendered during that portion of the bedroom Barbie pageant, though during one make-believe pageant I think I had each girl arriving on horseback, courtesy of our collection of Johnny West horses.
During the actual pageant, which began with the contestants alighting from their vehicles, the Evening Gown Tableau introduced the the waiting crowd to each contestant, and it was at this point that the more savvy and serious-minded audience members could begin their own process of elimination, whittling the contestant number from 20-25 down to the top ten. Those top ten girls would get to perform their talent. For Becky and me, this was a waste of time because we already knew who the top ten were going to be because, you see, the Sunday paper the previous week had included an enormous spread featuring all of the contestants, their bios, their talent, and a senior-picture quality portrait of each young lady who was vying for the title. Becky and I would painstakingly pour over each girl’s CV and make our initial list. My dad also took this opportunity to weigh in with his pronouncements of who the losers would be by pointing to a picture of an unfortunately un-photogenic or just genetically sorry-looking young girl and call her a “poor soul”. He also had a knack for picking runners-up and winners by virtue of their last names, which was a puzzlement to me at the time.
But it wasn’t until Mum took us with her to the two pageant rehearsals during “Pageant Week” that we would know exactly who was going to be on that top ten list.
The pageant rehearsals took place at the fairgrounds (which is how I know what the stage and runway really looked like) before everything was decorated for the big night. Miss Arita Lee Blair, as director of the pageant, was in charge, and with her cat-eye spectacles and skunk-striped hair, she made more than one girl cry during the rehearsal process, so much so, that I’m surprised any of them ever made it to Monday night without peeing in her pants. Becky and I would watch in rapt fascination as Arita Lee, her wrecking-ball-like demeanor frightening the ugly out of everyone in her midst, would halt the proceedings–usually at the point where the girls would traipse awkwardly down the runway for the fourth or fifth time–and screech into her bullhorn using her best whisky-tenor voice “Do it O-ver!”
Note: For those of you who are having trouble visualizing what Arita Lee looked like, rent the movie Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. She’s Baby Jane.
Arita Lee even managed to scare the tinkle out of Becky and me. Late one afternoon during rehearsals and tired of sitting, we stood watching from the first rail of the grandstands whereby Arita Lee loudly and emphatically shrieked into her bullhorn in what I can only imagine was a fit of unbridled frustration at the audacity our failure to promenade properly, “Will the Abercrombie girls please sit down!”
Back in the safety of our bedroom, we acted out the contestants’ talents, all of which were, of course, some type of gymnastic floor exercise, in what was known as the Talent Tableau portion of the pageant. This was followed by the Swimsuit Tableau. Owing to a lack of proper pageant wear, each Barbie contestant modeled either in her talent togs or bare-naked during the Swimsuit Tableau. Everyone was a winner here because doesn’t Barbie look good even when she’s naked?
In the actual Swimsuit Tableau, each Miss Crawford County contestant was outfitted with a modest, matronly one-piece solid-color Jantzen swimsuit (most likely purchased in downtown Meadville at Mayfair or The Crawford Store) featuring an armor-like front panel that erased any suggestion of the 1960s-1970s version of a camel toe. In real life, at that time, girls were wearing bikinis to the beach, but at the Miss Crawford County Pageant, the goodies beneath the swimwear were just as cleverly disguised as Barbie’s were–with or without clothes.
Of course, the highlight of the real-life Miss Crawford County Pageant (as well as in our bedroom Barbie version) was the crowning of the queen. But first, the previous year’s winner had to take her final walk down the runway as Miss Crawford County to the dulcet tones of K.K. Roberts singing, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face”. K.K. Roberts, whose most indelible feature was his prolifically long and wiry eyebrows, served as the Master of Ceremonies at the Miss Crawford County Pageant, and in my six, seven, and eight year-old mind, I imagined that he was Arita Lee’s boyfriend because he was the only one she was nice to during the whole rehearsal ordeal. In reality, she was probably nice to him because he was the only one in Meadville who knew the words to any Broadway tunes.
Once the real pageant was over, my dad, usually in a state of inebriation equal to his bagful of sarcastic remarks about what he considered to be the most wasteful hours of his life, would take us home, reveling only in the glory of his innate ability to have, once again, picked the winner and the runners-up. Too bad he wasn’t a betting man–over the years, he could have changed the fortunes of our family with the over-under.
As for the bedroom pageant, all things came to a screeching halt once Jamie discovered the missing-in-action GI Joes or Becky and I collapsed in a fit of giggles over the pitiful pageant performance of the one Barbie whose hair Becky had cut off the previous summer (in retrospect, I should have dyed a skunk stripe in that doll’s hair and made her pageant director). Then my dad would come in our room threaten us with an ass-beating for having a giggle-fest when he had to get up and work in the morning.
For us, time seemed to stand still until the next August when we could once again bask in all things Miss Crawford County and dream of the days when we would begin our own quest for the rhinestones.