After two rings the telephone answering machine in the Greenwich, Conn., house clicked in, and the recorded message said that this number 'has been changed temporarily" and all calls were being received at another number, giving a phone in Hollywood, Fla.
"Thank you," said the voice from Connecticut.
A husky voice, quite pleasant actually, and totally familiar. An old friend's.
After two rings the telephone answering machine in the Hollywood house clicked in, and the recorded message talked how "we can be reached" at the Beverly Hills Hotel Dec. 9 through Dec. 14, then at another California number Dec. 15 through Dec. 22.
"We'll be back Jan. 4," said the voice from Florida.
It belongs to Bert Parks.
So do the phones and the houses.
And, until Wednesday night, so did the annual Miss America pageant.
Not any more, though. After 25 years of singing, "There she is, Miss America. There she is, your ideal," Parks was dumped from the broadcast. Fired. Canned As in: There he goes.
It was shortly before 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon when Bert Parks picked up the phone himself, one of those phones where a clicking noise alerts you to yet another incoming call.
"I can only give you a minute," he said.
Immediately, the clicking started. In the space of that minute, maybe two, maybe three, the clicking was continuous, like the sound of crickets chirping.
"My reaction is -- what can I say?"
If you strained, you could hear sadness. There was no straining necessary to hear bitterness.
"Maybe after 25 years a phone call would have been better than a letter, or hearing it from an AP correspondent. I had no clue, no warning whatsoever. I saw it in the News this morning, and then everyone started calling."
But Bert, what's Miss America without you?
"It's their problem now. Apparently they don't think I'm needed."
"We weighed it for quite some time," said Albert Marks, chief executive officer of the pageant. A new decade started Bert had completed 25 years. It seemed timely. It's like any show-business thing, you have to institute some element of change to keep up interest. It was a question of judgment. We deal with youngsters. He couldn't have gone on more than two or three years more with this. He wasn't getting any younger.
Parks is 65.
"It's their prerogative to think I'm too old," he said. "I don't think I'm too old. Look, did you read that item in the paper where Merv Griffin was suggested to take my place? Is he a younger image?"
For 25 years Parks and Marks had been close friends. But, in reacting to the news that he was out as the host of Miss America, Parks said, "I never thought they'd pull off a trick like this. This is a little shabby, isn't it?"
Radio stations in Washington were receiving calls from listeners asking for a boycott of the pageant and its sponsors. David Kuhn, a disc jockey at WRAN in Randolph, N.J., launched a letter-writing campaign to have Parks rehired. And on "The Tonight Show" last night, Johnny Carson requested that postcards in support of Parks be sent to the pageant's organizers and led the studio audience in a rousing chant of "We Want Bert." o
Phyllis George, a former Miss America and now the wife of Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown, said "It came as a complete shock to me. I certainly think it could have been handled more gracefully. I co-hosted with Bert for nine years. He's an integral part of the Miss America pageant." Dorothy Benham, Miss America 1977, said, "It'll be different without him." Judy Ford Johnson, Miss America 1969, said "I always imagined him being there."
"I feel like Judas," Marks said.
Miss America without Bert Parks?
Just as Bert was beginning to get those disco dances down without looking like he needed a rhythm transplant or an artificial hip. Just as we were beginning to overlook the fact that he hadn't even a shred of talent and embrace him as an institution like some four-star general they wheel out for the coin toss at the Army-Navy game. Now who's going to gush and ga-ga and goo-goo over "those girls who are more than pretty, who come to Atlantic City?" Now how is Bert going to keep himself in the public eye? Where does he go from here? You can't honestly expect him to go from Miss America to "Bowling for Dollars." c
Albert Marks, do you have any idea how many people have grown up watching Bert Parks make a fool of himself year after year the weekend after Labor Day?
"That's your generation," Marks said. "Then there's a whole new generation behind you that doesn't know him from beans."
"Look, I feel lousy about it. I spent the whole night answering telephones. Hell, I didn't know it was going to happen like this. The New York Daily News broke it, source unknown. Apparently he hadn't gotten the letter I wrote him three weeks ago explaining it. It is a little tacky."
Marks didn't have the letter in front of him yesterday, but he said it went something like, "with all admiration and respect in the world, we have come to the conclusion that it is time for a change." He wasn't being invited back. The word was "regrettably."
So Bert didn't get the word until he saw it in the papers?
Gee, you must feel lousy.
Were the ratings bad?
"The ratings were solid and steady."
Was his health bad?
"Not at all,"
Did you try to call him?
"Yes, but he and his wife have been traveling."
Has he called you?
"No. I don't blame him. I'm sure he's terribly hurt by this, especially the circumstances. I imagine he's bitter at the moment. I would be too."
So why did you do it? What were the criticisms of him?
"The lack of a different approach each year. There was a certain sameness of his performance. Longevity was the principal criticism. That's a helluva thing to say, but it happens."
Well, what kind of person are you looking for to replace him?
"Somebody in Bert's image. Someone recognizable. Low-profile. Low-key. Will not upstage the girls -- the girls are the stars of the pageant. Bert fit it perfectly."
Then why not stay with Bert?
There was a silence at the other end of the phone. Something that sounded like nerves jangling.
"How long does it go on? Suppose he coundn't be with us? Look, I'm older than Bert. If I dropped dead tomorrow the pageant would go on, someone would take my place. But if something happened to Bert we'd have to go to one of our former Miss. Americas on immediate notice. We're looking for someone in the 30- to 45-year-old range."
The Bert Parks was too old?
"I don't want to call him too old -- a younger image at this time was strongly indicated."
Cue the pickup truck. Pick up Parks.
Parks received $18,500 for his week's -- work at the Miss America pageant.
Albert Marks knows that whoever takes his place -- John Davidson and Mac Davis have been mentioned; whenever a pretty face is needed they are mentioned -- will cost much more.
"I've got calls from agents with their tongues hanging out," Marks said.
"All night. All morning."
But not from Davidson, who took himself out of the running yesterday, saying, "I would never host the Miss America pageant because I wouldn't sing that song. I think it's a dumb, stupid, old-fashioned song."
Marks said that the decision to dump Parks was made by the pageant committee in conjunction with the main sponsors of the telecast: Gillette, Campbell's Soup and Kellogg's. Ralph Davis, a Kellogg's spokesman, said that a few months ago, in an annual review of the pageant, Marks "mentioned the possibility of replacing Parks to keep the show contemporary. We agreed with him." However, spokesmen for the other two sponsors said that their companies were informed of the decision after it was made, but before it was announced.
A statement from Gillette said, in part, "We had been pleased with Mr. Parks' performances," but allowed that the company "concurred" with the decision to replace him as host. Speaking for Campbell's Soup, Roger Duncan said, "We didn't initiate the discussion. It was the committee's decision, not ours." Gillette and Kellogg's will continue sponsorship of the pageant; Campbell's Soup will make its decision later in the year, as always.
Marks seem genuinely sorrowful over the way the news was made public, and he wanted to keep the door open for a possible return to the show for Parks, if it could be worked out. Marks said, "I could envision the circumstance where Miss America would be crowned and the host might say, 'How could we let anyone but Bert Parks sing the song?' And then Bert would sing, 'There she is . . .' Sort of a cameo. But I think as of today he'd turn me down flat."
At least Parks will watch the show.
"Why not?" he said yesterday.
Then, putting on his best bass voice, "Of course I'll watch. A part of me will be there."
In 1970, under instructions from the pageant committee, the question-and-answer segment of the competition was dropped. Perhaps you remember Bert asking the Miss America hopefulls something like, "If you went to the moon, what would you say to the people there?"
That aspect of the competition was eliminated, according to Marks, because too often the answers were "inane, embarrassing or unsatisfactory," charges that critics routinely leveled at the entire show. Trying to maintain a currency, the pageant began to incorporate comtemporary stylings, flashier production numbers, glittering costumes. This year a roller disco theme is planned. Unfortunately, America will not be treated to the spectacle of Bert Parks on wheels in this, his 65th year.
Twenty-five years ago, in an interview prior to his hosting the pageant for the first time, Parks said, "I can do a little bit of everything. I can sing a little bit, dance a little bit and tell a reasonably funny joke."
He wasn't laughing at all yesterday.
"I think America, in a way, is being cheated out of a tradition," he said."Not me, I don't feel cheated. I'm not that special. But I just think it's sad for all of us."