You may have heard the recent announcement that the Miss America Pageant is returning to Atlantic City in September after a seven-year affair with Las Vegas. You probably also heard an accompanying “Meh” from almost everyone.
It’s understandable. Miss America dates back to 1921, the era of Downton Abbey. Its sea of rhinestones, big teeth, bigger hair, and mascara caked on like coal dust seems a bit, well, antiquated in an age when televised competitions center on eating dirt on a Fijian island, creating a soufflé from Pixy Stix, or losing 150 pounds in 10 weeks.
But the truth is that Miss America’s return is important. Critics lament its dusty morals and declining TV viewership, but miss the point: Miss America is at least something different. And right now, Atlantic City needs all the different it can get.
When I worked in Atlantic City back in the late ’80s, casino executives openly lamented the pageant’s return every year—all of those milk-drinking puritans from the Midwest pouring into town, taking up their hotel rooms and walking past their roulette tables. Now there are just empty hotel rooms, period. Which is why you have a situation in which Revel—a gorgeous property by any objective measure—has declared bankruptcy less than a year after it opened.
Caught in a hangover from its early “Happy Days Are Here Again” (ironically, the song Vanessa Williams sang to win Miss America in 1983) casino flushness, Atlantic City is trying to recoup. It’s realized it has to broaden its offerings, attempt to recapture some of the razzle-dazzle of the diving-horse girls and Glenn Miller if it has any hopes to survive. And we should be on board for that. Because make no mistake: If Atlantic City dies, it’s not going to be pretty for anybody.
So here’s my advice: Go. (Though the odds of a Philly-girl crowning aren’t good. Our last winner was in 1940.) Submerge yourself in something that’s not only silly and slightly ridiculous, but also old-school, bizarrely charming and—most important—something else to do in Atlantic City. And for God’s sake, book a room at Revel.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of Philadelphia magazine.