Quest for Rhinestones, Part II

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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.

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Quest for Rhinestones

sharonstoneharpersbazzar

I have come to terms with the fact that I will never be Miss Crawford County.

There was a time, oh, about forty or so years ago, when the whole idea of being Miss Crawford County was a mainstay of my childhood fantasies. That and having a horse. And blue hair.

For the uninitiated–those of you who did not grow up in Crawford County Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 70s–the Miss Crawford County Scholarship pageant was held the first Monday of the opening of the Crawford County Fair. Young ladies between the ages of 18 and 23 were eligible to be nominated as a contestant in the scholarship pageant, a precursor to the Miss Pennsylvania Pageant, the winner of which would go on to the Super Bowl of beauty pageants, Miss America. You see, to the Abercrombie girls, Miss America was the only legitimate beauty pageant. Forget your Miss Teen Something or other, or Miss USA, or even Miss Universe. For us, the only real pageant was Miss America, and to get to the Miss America pageant, you had to first become Miss Crawford County.

My mother, little go-getter that she was, became involved in Miss Crawford County when she pimped some of her former students as contestants. When I say, ‘pimped’, I don’t mean it in the literal sense (c’mon!), for Mum made absolutely no money for her involvement, but her machinations toward getting her girls to wear the crown were no less committed. She was the original pageant coach before anyone had ever heard of such a thing.

I forgot to mention that other thing that set the whole Miss Crawford County to Miss America Pageant experience apart from the others: The Miss Crawford County contestants had to have a talent. They had to perform. My mum’s girls’ talents? Duh. Gymnastics. And, unless you’re one of the twenty or thirty people on the planet who haven’t read The Gym Show by yours truly, Linesville-Conneaut-Summit High School was the only game in town featuring a gymnastics team.

Her first successful queen was one Sandy Steiger who became Miss Crawford County in 1965. Her talent? Gymnmastics. Then it was the 1969 queen Connie Williams–again, gymnastics. She followed that with the 1970 queen Cindy Styborski. Now, here’s where it gets a little fuzzy. Cindy Styborski was an outlier–she was from Cambridge Springs High School, but her talent was still gymnastics. Don’t ask me how that all came about–I was only seven–but I distinctly remember Mum sitting at our kitchen counter gluing silver glitter onto a pair of canvas gymnastics slippers as part of Cindy’s costume. Who knew that girls from Cambridge Springs could tumble?

Apparently, the Miss Crawford County Scholarship Pageant director Miss Arita Lee Blair, the dance doyenne of Crawford County, felt that Mum’s success at pimping pumping out queens was a talent that would be best served as the Official Chaperone for Miss Crawford County. You see, Miss Crawford County, as ambassador to the entire region, was often called upon to make public appearances. No young lady of such sterling virtue as a Miss Crawford County could be seen out at the Kiwanas or Jaycees without a proper chaperone. Who knew what manner of dirty old Rotary Club men were going to ogle our virtuous Queen? That’s where Mum came in. Arita Lee (who by that time in her life was certifiably batshit crazy) felt that if Mum was good enough to turn out winners, she would be good enough to make sure the winners were properly behaved and the beastly male-dominated environs in which our queen were subjected to were on notice: Don’t mess with Miss Crawford County.

Nineteen seventy-one ushered in the first of Mum’s queens to be chaperoned, Janet Mead from Conneaut Lake. Her talent? She played the piano. While it wasn’t gymnastics, evidently my mother felt she could work with Janet (even though I’m sure she privately felt that piano playing–a lesser talent–was best left to the buck-toothed and the cellulited-thighed, neither of which Janet was). Apparently her chaperoning talents paid off–Janet was second runner-up in the Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. Not bad for the tri-state area.

The 1972 Miss Crawford County was Jan Amboyer. I don’t recall what her talent was, probably because she wasn’t a gymnast (and probably the reason why she didn’t place). The following year, Becky and I were big enough girls to attend the 1973 Miss Pennsylvania Pageant. Our girl Lori Doutt from Conneaut Lake didn’t place, but she was cute and perky, and I wanted to wear my hair all the time the same way she wore hers that night–piled on top of her head in big, loopy curls.

sharonstone

The 1973 pageant experience was Mum’s last, and I don’t know if Miss Crawford County was ever the same after that. Ask Sharon Stone–she was Miss Crawford County 1976. Sharon’s talent? A dramatic reading of the Gettysburg Address. I was there and in my naivete I thought she was perfectly awful. Another of my mother’s early protégés Alice Gillette was, in a cruel twist of unfairness, first runner-up and I still to this day think she should have won. Her talent? The perfect trifecta of gifts–she sang, played the flute, and performed a gymnastics routine.

Sharon didn’t need to be Miss Crawford County to go where she was headed.

In Part II of “Quest for Rhinestones”, I’ll outline Becky’s and my humiliatingly hilarious experiences with Miss Arita Lee Blair and the Miss Crawford County Pageant fantasy. Stay tuned.