(b. 30 December 1914 in Atlanta, Georgia; d. 2 February 1992 in La Jolla, California), radio and television game show host and actor best known as the master of ceremonies for the Miss America Pageant.
Parks was born Bert Jacobson, the younger of two sons of Aaron Jacobson, a merchant, and Hattie Spiegel. Between 1926 and 1932 young Bert attended Marist College, a prep school run by a Catholic order. His introduction to the entertainment world came while he was still in school through local singing gigs, which led him to change his name. He landed his first broadcasting job at the age of sixteen with WGST in Atlanta, earning $7 a week. By the time he left the station two years later he had graduated to chief announcer and doubled his salary. In 1933 Parks went on to New York City, where, lying about his age, he auditioned for a staff announcer’s position at Columbia Broadcasting Corporation (CBS) radio. He was promptly hired and at eighteen became the youngest network announcer in the country. Remaining with CBS until 1939, Parks, in addition to announcing, acted on the radio Western Bobby Benson. His big break came with the Eddie Cantor Show, in which he served as straight man and occasionally as vocalist in addition to staff announcer. By the close of the 1930s Parks was also emcee for the Xavier Cugat Show and announcer for the Camel Caravan series.
Love and war added a new dimension to Parks’s life. He enlisted as a private in the U.S. Army in 1942, and a year later he married Annette Liebman, a Columbia University student whom he met on a blind date. Soon thereafter he was shipped overseas, where he served as an infantryman in the China-Burma-India theater. For the next two years he was involved in reconnaissance operations establishing underground radio communications behind Japanese lines, including three months in enemy territory operating a wire recorder. Ever the showman, he found time for announcing on the weekly army radio programs. Parks was discharged from the army in 1945. By this time he had risen to the rank of captain on the staff of General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stillwell and had won a Bronze Star. Settling in suburban Greenwich, Connecticut, Parks and his wife had three children.
In 1946 Parks became the host of the CBS radio quiz show Break the Bank, and he added Stop the Music in 1948. The latter show was so popular that it beat the perennial National Broadcasting Company (NBC) favorite, the Fred Allen Show, in its time slot. In 1949 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), upset about what it considered the questionable morality of giveaway shows, started an investigation that for a time threatened to drive them from the air. But the investigation soon blew over, much to the chagrin of Fred Allen, who lamented the rise of “scavengers” over “entertainers.” Parks took the shows on to television, where he had a phenomenal run during the first half of the 1950s in Balance Your Budget and Double or Nothing. Parks appeared on radio through the American Broadcasting Corporation and on television with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The key to the success of these shows was not the game itself, which was rudimentary in the extreme, or the prize money, which was meager by later standards, or the stage presence of the contestants, who were stolidly middle class and, by all appearances, in awe of the new medium of television. Rather the shows’ appeal lay with the looks and personalities of the emcees.
Darkly handsome, his greased-down hair suggesting the Hollywood stereotype of a Latin lover, Parks had what the TV Guide critic John Crosby called a “smile to read by,” all of which added a sense of glamour and excitement to the rather drab stage sets of the time. Always ebullient, ever solicitous, Parks considered it his job to put his guests at ease, particularly the women. A film of one of the Break the Bank programs shows him gushing continually about “how wonderful” it was to be on television. He was in essence a gatekeeper between an old-style Middle America, with its rock-solid Protestant values, and the post-World War II world of consumerism. Ipana toothpaste and Vitalis hair cream were his early sponsors. Parks had no undue modesty about his contribution. As he told the New York Post in a 1964 interview, “If I dropped out of a show it was through.” He even turned down The $64,000 Question in 1955 because he feared the amount of prize money would draw attention away from the host.
In the late 1950s, however, Parks’s star as a game show host began to dim. His frenetic style was wearing less well with viewers and advertisers, who now leaned toward a more low-key approach. That and the general disfavor game shows encountered in the wake of the Charles Van Doren scandal (in which it was revealed that some quiz show contestants were given the answers beforehand)forced Parks into an unwanted retirement for ten months. He staged a comeback with the more subdued Bid ’n Buy in 1958, followed by two more television shows, County Fair and Masquerade Party, plus a radio show, Bert Parks Bandstand. But by this time Parks had found his lasting claim to fame. In September 1955 he began his long association as host of the Miss America Pageant. The pageant had been televised from Atlantic City, New Jersey, for the first time the year before, but in his debut as host Parks introduced the signature song There She Is, with which he serenaded the winning contestants through 1979.
Parks’s explanation for the pageant’s appeal was simple. Frank Deford, in his book There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America (1978), quoted him:
It’s corny. Let’s face it. It’s corny and it’s basic and it’s American. But in this sick, sad world a little fairyland is welcome and refreshing.… There are a lot of nice people out there beyond the big slick areas—and these are good, straight people for the most part.… They have a great longing for normalcy, as so many of us do, Miss America buys them a piece of that dream.
For a quarter of a century Parks’s slick homeyness was the one constant presence in the Miss America Pageant. His bronzed visage, accentuated by his crisp tuxedo, stood in sharp contrast to the ail-American appearances of the contestants, but this enhanced the image of the young women as symbols of small-town innocence. With his rendition of There She Is, partly Las Vegas lounge act, partly paean to an idealized version of American womanhood, Parks evoked both sexual desire and avuncular concern, feelings no doubt shared by much of the audience.
By the 1960s Parks was living in Hollywood, Florida, and indulging in his favorite pastimes, boating, swimming, and golfing. Although his salary as emcee never exceeded $18,500, Parks’s Miss America Pageant connection led to numerous career opportunities. He had no regular television shows after 1962 but instead turned his attention to acting, appearing in the summer circuit tours of Mr. President and Damn Yankees. He also had television guest star roles in Burse’s Law, Ellery Queen, and The Bionic Woman. But his turn on Broadway in the title role of Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man in 1960–1961 gave Parks his greatest satisfaction. He appeared in 330 performances to generally positive reviews. Newsweek praised him as “expert and thoroughly likeable.” Parks considered this chance to act, sing, and dance on stage “the single greatest experience of my life.” His role as a city slicker who injects a measure of excitement into a small American town was not really much of a stretch. It was after all a role he had been playing all those years on radio and television, especially in the Miss America Pageant.
Despite the phenomenal popularity of the pageant, which placed consistently among the year’s top shows in the Nielsen ratings, by the late 1960s its version of the American dream was vigorously challenged. As Sports Illustrated noted, feminist critics assailed it for what they considered its “image of sex, virginal prettiness, glory of war, mindless conformity, acceptance of racism, and competitive spirit.” It received unwanted publicity when female protesters showed their ire by burning bras on the boardwalk in Atlantic City. The pageant director, Albert A. Marks, tried to make the pageant more contemporary. He allowed “soft rock” in the performance numbers and shortened hemlines for the contestants. The latter drew a wail of protest from Parks, who thought miniskirts made it harder to pay the proper homage to America’s queen. As the show’s emcee, he bore much of the brunt of the criticism. One writer called him a “high camp figure of dated views and purpose.” During the 1970s rumors of Parks’s dismissal were heard from time to time, and he had a short stint as television emcee on Circus! But not until Parks’s sixty-fifth birthday did Marks decide that the personality, age, and image of the emcee required a change. Parks, who learned of his firing from a reporter, was bitterly disappointed, and his firing became a minor cause célèbre. The Tonight Show host Johnny Carson launched a “Bring Back Bert” campaign, and a former president of the National Organization of Women offered to assist him in an age discrimination suit.
Parks meanwhile basked in his newfound role of discarded icon. Larry Flynt, editor of Hustler, offered him $10,000 to reveal his sexual fantasies, but Parks wisely turned him down. Meanwhile Parks guest starred on television and served as host for a number of lesser pageants, in which he was the center attraction. In 1990 he appeared in the Marlon Brando movie The Freshman, spoofing his image as Miss America emcee by serenading a Komodo dragon with There She Is in the climactic scene. He also belted out a campy version of Bob Dylan’s Maggie’s Farm, an improbable coming together of Middle America and the counterculture that won him rave reviews. His real experience as emcee, however, ended on a sour note. Invited back in 1990 for the seventieth anniversary of the Miss America Pageant, he rambled on about how the contestants should be called “ladies” and lost his place while announcing the names of previous winners, a gaffe that was all too evident on national television. It was his last major appearance. Parks died of lung disease on 2 February 1992 in La Jolla, California. At the very least, the normalcy that he had always championed was with him to the end of his days.
Segments from Parks’s quiz shows and the Miss America Pageant are at the New York Museum of Television and Radio. In teresting interviews are in the New York Post (6 Sept. 1964) and the New York Herald Tribune (22 Feb. 1959). Frank Deford, There She Is: The Life and Times of Miss America (1978), provides useful background material on Parks. He is profiled in Current Biography 1973. See also A. R. Riverol, Live from Atlantic City: The History of the Miss America Pageant Before, After, and in Spite of Television (1992); Sarah Banet-Weiser, The Most Beautiful Girl in the World: Beauty Pageants and National Identity (1999); and Ann-Marie Bi-vans, Miss America: In Pursuit of the Crown: The Complete Guide to the Miss America Pageant (1991). Informative articles are in the New York Herald Tribune (2 July 1958); the New York World Telegram and Sun (2 July 1958); the New York Sunday News (18 Feb. 1962); and Variety (16 Sept. 1972). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times (both 3 Feb. 1992).