Past Times

Pageant royalty in abundance for beauties past

Susan Kay Woodall (center) became Miss North Carolina when Maria Beal Fletcher took the 1962 Miss America title.
Susan Kay Woodall (center) became Miss North Carolina when Maria Beal Fletcher took the 1962 Miss America title. N&O File Photo

This week the N.C. Museum of History opens a a sumertime lobby-case exhibit in recognition of the 80th anniversary of the Miss North Carolina Scholarship Pageant. In 1961, writer Hugh Mulligan took a light-hearted look at the opportunities a young lady had to become royalty.

The United States, the world’s foremost democracy, annually crowns more queens than ever trod the red plush carpets of Westminster Abbey or batted a badminton bird back at Elsa Maxwell.

More indeed, than ever sat on all the thrones of all the kingdoms of antiquity or ever will sit from now to kingdom come.

So far in 1961 an estimated 130,000 comely commoners, reared in the rudiments of a republican form of government, have cast aside their antimonarchist heritage to vie for such scepters as the Hod Rod Queen, Texas Turkey Queen, Rural Electrification Queen, Queen of the Drake Relays, Potato Chip Queen, Mushroom Queen, Louisiana Yam Queen, Queen of National Cherry Blossom Festival, Sweater Queen, Bow Tie Queen, Hasbrouck Heights High School Homecoming Queen and queen of just about everything else from asphalt tile to zinc sinks.

Last month in Charleston, W. Va., 133 teenagers turned out to seek the title of queen of the Kanawha County Baton-Twirling Festival before an audience of 12,000. For one county in West Virginia this was a commendable turnout, but it was only a drop in the beauty bucket compared with the 60,000 who sought the Miss America crown in city, state and national eliminations and the uncounted thousands who competed for such major – as far as money and prestige goes – titles as Miss Universe, Miss World, Miss Dixie, Miss Sun Fun and Miss Reingold.

No phase of American life, animal, vegetable or mineral, is safe from the snares of resurgent royalty.

The Angus Queen for instance, is a pretty girl and not a purebred cow. So, too, is the Hereford Queen, the Guernsey Queen, the latter reigning by sufferance of the Hampshire Meat Hog Conference.

Cotton may still be king in the South, but the bulk of the press notices go to his queen, the Maid of Cotton, who is not to be confused with the Maid O’Corn or the Maid of Maple Syrup or Niagara Falls’ Maid of Mist or the AFL-CIO’s Union Maid….

There’s an Azalea Queen, a Gladiolus Queen, a Potato Blossom Queen, a Rhododendron Queen, as well as assorted queens of grapes, wine, wool, linen, tea, coffee, sugar, tobacco, watermelon, plywood, gum spirits of turpentine, hosiery, corsets, guided missiles, dates, figs, hamburger, hot dog, mustard, sauerkraut, pickles (both dill and kosher) and, to put the finishing touches to a royal repast, a toothpick queen.

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“Pretty” Peggy Townsend was Washington D.C. Cherry Blossom Queen in 1939. Library of Congress Photo

Some queens are crowned in ceremonies so informal that the only royal attendants are the press agent who dreamed up the title and the bored photographer hired to record the coronation for posterity. The only contest involved takes place in the press agent’s mind as he tries to decide which model or which starlet would care to be known henceforth as the Pencil Week Queen or the Smoked Salmon Queen.

Others, like Miss America and Miss Universe, wade to their lucrative thrones through a sea of televised hyperbole and they are crowned in ceremonies just a shade less elaborate than the ascension of Elizabeth II.

North Carolina’s Maria Beale Fletcher, whose recent enthronement as Miss America will earn her $70,000 in personal appearance fees plus a $10,000 college scholarship, came into her royal inheritance at the end of a week-long pageant that was budgeted at $375,000 and personally presided over by an advertising agency vice president.…

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Maria Beale Fletcher is the only Miss North Carolina to go on to win Miss America. N&O File Photo

Time was, back in the uncomplicated 1920s, when a beauty won her crown by prancing down a wooden runway in a bating suit and submitting her specifications to the scrutiny of tape measure-wielding judges.…

Miss America still promenades its contestants in a bathing suit, but makes amends by giving equal points for evening gown judging and twice as many points for the talent demonstration.

The Maid of Cotton contest, the most sedate of all, is judged in private, far from the eyes of leering males. Not so the Queen of Burlesque….

Miss Correct Posture, so her publicists attest, is chosen by the National Chiropractic Association on the basis of X-rays of her spinal column.

The Miss Rheingold contest, sponsored by New York’s Liebmann Brewery and worth $50,000 in modeling fees to the winner, is democratically judged by beer drinkers within a 100-mile radius of New York who are invited to stuff the ballot box at their local tavern in behalf of their favorite lager lass. The N&O Oct. 15, 1961

Read more stories from local and state history and send us your own stories on the blog Past Times, newsobserver.com/past-times.

Teresa Leonard: 919-829-4866, @lizardlodge

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