And the Winner of the Miss America Pageant for 1990 Is...Bert Parks, Back from His Crowning Indignity
updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT
As it has happened, those people have seen Parks more in 1990 than in the entire previous decade. Besides his pageant stint, Parks has a much-lauded cameo appearance (singing a satirical version of "There She Is" to a lizard) in the Marlon Brando film The Freshman. "We got along real well," says Parks of Brando. "The man has a real great sense of humor.... He said he really was a fan of mine."
Still, his current revival hasn't erased Parks's bitter memories. It was his 65th birthday-Dec. 30, 1979. "I had just come home from a surprise party when the phone rang," he remembers, as he sits on the sofa in his sprawling Greenwich, Conn., home. The caller, a wire-service reporter, had an even bigger surprise. " 'How does it feel to be fired?' he asked. 'Fired from what?' I wanted to know. 'The Miss America Pageant,' he replied. I simply couldn't believe it."
And with good reason. After all, the Miss Americas came and the Miss Americas went, and in that sea of bathing suits, ball gowns and batons, one presence stood out, that of the guy in the black tux, Parks himself. Still, the pageant was seeking a younger look. "This was the [time] Ronald Reagan, who's five years older than me, was elected President," Parks says. "He could run the country, but I was too old to run a beauty pageant. Now is that sick or what?"
America thought so. "I may have been the male Jane Pauley of my day," Parks says about the hoopla surrounding his dismissal. Ironically, though, getting fired also made him rich: Soon his annual income soared to a whopping half-million dollars, with a host of new assignments including the Miss Glamorous Kitty Pageant, the Coast-to-Coast Shower Sing-Off and even a tugboat contest. Of this array, Parks laughs, "You have to wear many hats in showbiz."
His very first must have been a bowler, since at 3 he used to entertain his mother, Hattie Jacobson, and father, Aaron, an Atlanta merchant, with Charlie Chaplin impersonations. As a young singer he changed his name to fit a marquee. At 16, he was hired for his first broadcasting job by Atlanta radio station WGST. His pay was $7 a week. Later, TV beckoned. At one point Parks emceed 12 shows a week. "Today the game is the whole thing," Parks has remarked. "The emcee's personality is nothing."
Well, not quite nothing. After all, the same showman's exuberance that catapulted him to fame is restoring him to Miss America this year. However, at home with Annette, his wife of 47 years, Parks turns down the wattage. The couple, who have three grown children—twins Jeff, a banker, and Joel, a TV writer-director, 44, and Annette, 41, a radio reporter—and two grandchildren, still live in the home they built in 1956, and Bert relaxes by gardening or puttering with electronic equipment.
Earlier this year Annette suffered a mild heart attack, but "she's fine now," Bert says. She notes that living with him has been wonderful but challenging: "He's very volatile. It's like sitting on a volcano, you never know which way to jump. But Bert is a happy person within himself." "We've had a beautiful life," Parks beams. And whether he's hosting Miss America or Miss Glamorous Kitty, he keeps his perspective. "Who cares if it's cats or dogs?" be asks. "If it's done with a sense of humor and it's tongue in cheek, people love it."
—Marjorie Rosen, David Hutchings in Greenwich