Once again the roulette wheel in Atlantic City spins, and once again the host of the Miss America Pageant is spun.
There he goes, Ron Ely.
There he is, Gary Collins.
And who better for an instant analysis than the man who was told "Bye-bye, Bertie" less than two years ago -- let's hear it from Bert Parks!
"Oh my God," Parks exclaimed at hearing the news yesterday morning. "You're kidding?"
If a last laugh is to be had, surely it belongs to Good Old Bert Parks, who got the boot in favor of Ely after 25 years of welcoming girls who were more than pretty, who came to Atlantic City. Parks said he didn't want to appear "self-serving," but he noted that "anyone coming in to replace him would have had problems." After thinking about it for a second, he said, "I guess Ely didn't quite measure up . . . They got rid of him awfully fast, didn't they? The microphone was hardly cool."
After just two years in the shadow of Bert's smile, Ely is out and Collins is in. Collins, the host of "Hour Magazine," TV's answer to still photography, does not come in as a stranger. His wife, Mary Ann Mobley, is a former Miss America, class of '59, so it's almost like Collins is part of the family. And the truth is that two years ago, when pageant director Albert Marks scuttled Parks, he first offered the job to Collins, only to be turned down then because, according to Collins, "the timing wasn't right for me."
"Gary knows the pageant as well as anyone," said Marks, who runs the pageant as if it were a banana republic. (He signed Collins to a contract on Friday before telling Ely he was fired.) "Gary's a folksy kind of guy, yet he can command a stage. Gary is lower-key, and his type is more desirable than Ron's. We just felt it was appropriate to change to the type of personality Gary projects. I don't want this to appear like it's a knock against Ron. Ron did a wonderful job for us. He's presentable and extremely good-looking, but he's not as folksy as Gary."
When Marks finally settled on Ely instead of Parks, he said that Ely was just what he wanted because Ely was "contemporary."
Now, apparently, "contemporary" is nice, but "folksy" is nicer.
Or, as Collins said yesterday, "This year's hot potato is next year's french fry."
It's an oven out there, Miss America fans.
Marks, who rather revels in his role as Mr. Autocrat of Miss America ("Miss America-Gate" is how he answered his phone yesterday), described the change as "no big deal." He said, "We've embarked on a policy of not getting locked into any individual personality for a long perod of time . . . I just wanted to change the face of the show and hopefully widen the audience." Marks said that Collins would have "a minimum of two years, in no event longer than five years" as host of the pageant.
One of Collins' pluses, according to Marks, is his ability to sing and dance. "Ron isn't the greatest singer and dancer," Marks said, "and he'll be the first to admit that." Marks admitted that the 1981 ratings were down "about 10 percent" from the 1980 ratings, when Ely -- the former TV Tarzan -- first took over for Parks. But he said that ratings had "nothing whatsoever" to do with the switch, and he continued to praise the work that Ely did.
Marks, however, implied that one reason for switching from Ely to Collins might have been that Ely was too hot for the pageant. "I wanted the show to be sexy," Marks said, "but not so obviously so." With the tall, lean, contemporary Ely on stage, some of the focus shifted away from the 50 contestants and onto him. As in, "Me Tarzan -- who Jane?"
"We have never done as well in the major metropolitan markets as we have in the smaller markets," Marks said. And in accentuating Collins' alleged "folksiness," Marks seems to be calling for a return to the more traditional bent of the Miss America Pageant, away from the hot city look of the 1980 and 1981 productions. Less got-to-go-disco, and more cone-pone.
"One of the areas I've been watching with sort of a critical eye is the temptation to turn the pageant in a more sophisticated direction and take the focus off the girls," Collins said. "I don't agree with that. The pageant is those girls. It may well be that in choosing Ron, Al went with the current trend but found it detracted from the traditional values. Ron certainly is a dominating personality. The key to this show is staying out of the way . . . I'm from Iowa. I think I represent a midsection of the country with my thinking, my sense of humor. Maybe I'm more traditional. You know, there isn't a big leap between 'traditional' and 'corn'; and whatever corn I have at my disposal, I'm certainly going to bring it to bear on the pageant."
The naming of Collins, who said he was "thrilled to death" to get the gig, was well-received all around. (You might say it got high Marks.)
Ely, who didn't know exactly who would replace him until a reporter called yesterday morning, said, "You say Gary Collins? That's a very good choice. I'd choose him myself . . . Gary may be folksier than me -- I don't know about that. But I think they made a helluva choice . . . Actually, I would have been surprised if they'd come back to me. I would have. I enjoyed it. I was delighted that they asked me to come back a second year. I didn't expect to go back, really. I went out there to do one show; I certainly didn't intend to do 25 years."
Parks, who answered his phone as if he'd just awakened from a 20-year sleep, said of Collins: "Oh, he's a nice man. A lovely man. He's a friend and the husband of one of my favorite Miss Americas. I'm sure he'll be very good. I wish him all the best . . . I haven't watched the show for a couple of years, but I'll certainly watch Gary."
Speaking of Parks -- who may be folksy but surely hasn't been contemporary for quite some time -- now that his replacement has been replaced, will there be some resuscitation of the Bring-Back-Bert Boom?
Collins, for one, would love to see Parks back in the spotlight. "I think that would satisfy a lot of people who felt badly about the treatment Bert received two years ago," Collins said. "I absolutely think that Bert is too important to that pageant not to be on."
But how to do the Bert redux without having Bert redone?
Perhaps a cameo?
"No cameos for daddy," Parks said. "Why should I? Why do a cameo on something I helped to create?"
Like we said, it's an oven out there.