09/21/1992 at 01:00 AM EDT
THE SCRATCHING AT THE DOOR OF THE suite at the Memphis Marriott awakened Miss America 1990, Debbye Turner. Alarmed, she picked up the phone and dialed her chaperone, Ellie Ross, in the adjoining room. "Someone's trying to break in," Turner whispered. Ross, a grandmother of two, jumped up and flung open the suite door. Miss America screamed. Ross gasped. Before them stood a post-midnight marauder—starkers.
Security guards arrived just in time to watch the streaker flee into the night. "I'll never forget that face...all that red hair," says the normally unflappable Ross, who in 15 years as Miss America's traveling companion has had several more frightening moments. With Carolyn Suzanne Sapp, Miss America 1992, Ross was caught in a hotel fire in Falls Church, Va. She was trapped on a burning plane in 1982 with Elizabeth Ward. And she withstood a crash landing in the Greek Islands with Susan Perkins, Miss America 1978. Ross escaped all those disasters unscathed.
Now, after 16 Miss Americas (two in 1984, when Vanessa Williams
was replaced by Suzette Charles), 2 million air miles and seven sets of luggage, Ross will end her reign Sept. 19, when Sapp crowns her successor (NBC, 10 P.M. ET). Ross' replacement will be Bonnie Sirgany, 53, formerly the Pageant's junior chaperone. "I feel the girls should have a younger person," says Ross, now 65, who says there was no pressure from the Pageant to give up her title. Her "girls," though, don't agree that younger is better. "Ellie was like a mom away from home," says Kaye Lani Rae Rafko, Miss America 1988. Adds Kylene Barker, Miss America 1979: "She didn't hover or tell you what to say. She just sat back and didn't get uptight."
Even for someone as cool, calm and congenial as Ross, the job wasn't a cakewalk. She had to get Miss America to her planes on time and ensure that the $1,000 rhinestone crown was always within easy reach. And she had to play bad cop—for instance, staring down male autograph seekers who requested "Thanks for Last Night" inscriptions on Miss America photographs and telling hosts of events that while Miss America would love to stay for an additional 15 minutes, she couldn't.
Ross was to the boardwalk if not the Pageant born. She grew up in Atlantic City, one of six children of Mae, a homemaker, and her husband, Peter Sharpe, a doorman at the local Apollo Theater. While she never aspired to the crown of crowns—"too far beyond my reach"—she was named Miss Shriner in 1947, winning a trip to L.A. and a screen test. Back home, she married Bill Ross, a government employee (they divorced in 1982), and raised their daughter, Lisa Strother, now 42, while she worked part-time as a florist and volunteered as a hostess for the Miss America Pageant. In 1977, Ross was invited to become a chaperone. "I thought it was a wonderful opportunity to see the country," she says.
Some sights Ross didn't anticipate. At an autograph session with Susan Akin, the 1986 titleholder, a supplicant detached his artificial leg and deposited it on the table for a signature. "No legs," decreed the chaperone. "We're only signing pictures today." Then, of course, there were the compromising photos that cost Williams her crown, an abdication Ross endorsed. "Miss America should be a role model," she says. "But Vanessa was so hurt."
Now Ross looks forward to holing up in her one-bedroom Somers Point, N.J., condo, cleaning closets and catching up on correspondence with former Miss A's, many of whose photos grace her den wall. But don't expect her to exit humming that familiar ditty "There She Is." "I've heard that hundreds of times," says Ross. "I don't want to hear it again for some time."
ROCHELLE JONES in Atlantic City