As flash guns zapped, contestants sashayed on stage for the fashion show. Then came the vital statistics and the interviews. And finally, the crowd of 700, many of them older women who had braved the bus from Miami Beach, gasped in the hotel nightclub as their idol ripped open the envelope and crowned . . . The Winner: Miss Virginia!
"There she is," he crooned, as Norfolk insurance agent Luther Jennings clutched his pet cat and sauntered out to applause. "Miss Glamour Kitty of Ameeeerrica . . ."
Pouring sweat, the pancake makeup wearing thin, Bert Parks was back. For 25 years he sang the same tune to Miss Americas. Then, three years ago, the pageant dumped him for a younger man.
Now Bert was daring the comeback trail, crowning beauties with a tail, purring for felines fatales as the tuxedoed host of a pseudo-beauty contest sponsored by a cat litter company.
"If Richard Nixon can appear on 'Laugh-In' and say, 'Sock it to me,' I can have a few cats thrown in my face," said Parks, 68, clearing his throat before the show Friday night.
"We have to do these things once in a while. What's the worst thing they could say about me? 'The guy's flipped out'? I've been so damn steady for so long, why not?
"If you want to stay in show business, you've got to make a few waves, take a chance. A sympathetic audience will forgive me. I'm not going to hurt anybody. I'm not going to twist a cat's tail."
Cat litter is a dog-eat-dog business. At stake are the wallets of some 40 million cat owners and the $200 million they spend each year to sanitize, deodorize and pamper kitty witties in powder rooms across America.
The absorbent wonders of cat litter come from various clays mined from Death Valley to south Georgia. They are dried, crushed and hawked from supermarket shelves. Like salt, most vary little from brand to brand.
So how do you scratch out identity in a vicious marketplace? How do you inspire finicky cat owners to shell out $10 million a year and turn your small Philadelphia company into one of the seven top cats on the kitty pan hit parade?
How do you get sack after sack yanked off the shelves at Safeway and Giant, crowning you the hottest-selling brand in the Washington-Baltimore corridor? How do you make consumers believe you're the cat's meow, when, really, they're all the same?
A Miss America Pageant for . . . cats?
Thus the All-American Glamour Kitty Contest was born in the back rooms of Waverly Mineral Products 18 years ago, attracting 20,000 entries every year. Short essays, many in crayon, detail why any scruffy old alley cat deserves to be Glamour Kitty of America. Pedigree doesn't count. Only True Cat-Love does.
Ed Coogin, 65, Waverly's savvy executive vice president, figured Parks might be on the prowl, approached his agent and snared the celebrity for about $10,000, said one pageant official. In return, Parks agreed to stroke a few pussycats opening night and host the coronation "as a spoof," said Coogin.
"He was a little worried about it at first," said Coogin, "but there are 40 million cats in America and this is the most important thing in many of the owners' lives. People take this pageant seriously."
Meanwhile, nine finalists were winnowed out, awarded a year's supply of cat litter and a TV and flown to Florida for one week of all-expense paid tomfoolery, including fashion shows and a cat Olympics, where contestants try to coax grumpy Garfields through a maze. Catnip was allowed; but it rarely worked.
Cats will be cats.
" 'Ripley's Believe It Or Not' has been filming for two days, but I don't think we're that weird," says Libby Budroni, 25, a bubbly PR woman who pounds out press releases for the Hype-o-Rama in bare feet, a strawberry daiquiri in hand.
"We always get a lot of press because they think it's cute, but never like this year with Bert Parks. We've got ABC 'Nightline,' 'Entertainment Tonight.' Even the 'Tonight' show called. That's the 'Tonight' show with Johnny Carson! We've sent them videotapes for years, but they never called before. I was knocked out.
"They said, 'I know this sounds crazy, but do you have cats that do tricks?' I had to tell 'em, 'All we have is plain old house cats.' "
Owners ranged from a Washington, D.C., widow who credits her cat, Rusty Redskin, with making her want to live again after her husband died to Luther Jennings, 37, an ex-Vietnam medic who insists there's nothing sissy about owning a cat.
"Most of the people who get this far are normal, really nice people," says Budroni. "Only a few see it as a steppingstone to Hollywood."
For some who wandered out of the sun and eyed the posters in the Sheraton lobby touting Bert and pageant glossies of catatonic cats, it was a bad dream, the ultimate plastic pink flamingo-on-the-lawn nightmare, Americana run aground on the same white hot sands of North Miami Beach where dopers and refugees have also washed ashore. For Chuck and Linda Reid, however, it was a honeymoon.
Until he met Linda, Chuck Reid hated cats, a prejudice handed down from a father who popped felines with a slingshot from the bathroom window while a la commode and an uncle who boasted of wheeling his mail truck onto the sidewalk after any strays.
"I had a lot to overcome. I'm 43 and it took me this long to get close to a cat," said Reid, an auto body shop manager from Pennsylvania whose gray and white tomcat, Simon, freaked out onstage, clawing and scratching to escape the bright lights, rivaling the angst of one owner who locked herself in the bathroom some years back and refused to come out.
Simon is Linda's first cat, too. She always wanted one, but her father never met a cat he liked. After she married Chuck three months ago, Simon was adopted from an animal shelter, outfitted with a satin Philadelphia 76ers jersey and entered as Dr. J. A free honeymoon, said Chuck, outweighed any indignities.
"Do you feel silly, too?" he asked a reporter hot on the tail.
At the fashion show, Geno Russi, 34, a mustached college admissions counselor from Buffalo, N.Y., donned a mini-skirt and brown wig, turned cartwheels and smacked the judge with a kiss. He was posing as a cheerleader, a "Buffalo Jill" rooting for his cat, "O.J." Samson. For chutzpah alone, he was a favorite going into the finals.
His brother, Raoul, 38, a Buffalo cop who captured an armed robber after taking three slugs in the leg, owns a cat, too. "If a cat is acceptable to my brother, and there's nothing sissy about being a cop, then a cat is acceptable to me. It's macho to have a Doberman, but if you've got a 20-pound cat who will take a chunk out of your behind, who's gonna mess with you?"
His girlfriend, Robin Sydor, 25, urged him to enter after she made it to the finals with her transexual cat, Sanchez, last year. Sanchez became a she after a bladder operation, but went on to compete. "So many dog owners get really queer," Sydor says. "They talk in squeaky voices and treat their pets like children. Cat owners don't get as weird."
Luther Jennings of Norfolk dressed his cat, Leona, in a sailor's cap and tugged her about in a battleship on wheels. Back home, she wanders the office like a queen. If a clients get annoyed, "that's their problem," says Jennings, 37 and single. "The cat is my family."
For a lark, he ripped the entry form off a bag of kitty litter, snapped Leona's picture, mailed it off and walked away with the pageant. "I couldn't believe it when they called and asked, 'Where do you want us to mail the airline ticket?' Friends all told me to take her to a beauty parlor, but I brought her as is. She's never had a bath."
In the bar, Luther met a hazel-eyed South American woman on a business trip to Miami. He invited her to dinner and tried to explain what he was doing in town. At first, it didn't translate. Finally, Esperanza Cuellar of Bogota said she understood.
"Only in the United States do people have time to think about cats," she said. "We have other problems."
Rusty is a "born-again, Republican, Redskin cat," declares Josephine Hughes, 58, as she lays out on the bed his battle dress for the pageant finale: mini-Redskin helmet, jersey, pennant. Rusty's ready and so is Hughes in her matching gold collar.
"I watch all the Washington Redskins games with Rusty," says the D.C. ex-postmistress who credits religion, in-laws and Rusty with yanking her out of a deep depression after her husband died almost eight years back.
Childless, Jo and Bill Hughes, a computer operator for the Treasury Department, raised 10 cats together, lavishing attention on squirrels, birds, most any creature. Once, Bill smeared peanut butter on a miniature harmonica, tied it to a tree limb and snapped a picture of a hungry squirrel playing Bob Dylan.
"I just knew I'd never smile again after Bill died," said Jo Hughes. "Then I surrendered to God and got Rusty."
Life picked up. A sister-in-law urged her to enter the contest, and as she and Rusty sat transfixed before the TV triumph of the Super Bowl Redskins, she got the idea that would jet her to Florida and land her in The Miami Herald mugging with Bert Parks: "RUSTY REDSKIN!"
"I'm so happy," she said. "I feel so blessed."
"Cats are nicer than lots of people," said Joan Strong, 75, a former Tennessee legislator whose orange-striped longhair made it to the finals. "You know where you stand with a cat. My cat is my watchdog. She's on the windowsill the minute anyone gets within walking distance of the house."
Strong's daughter dispatched 23 post cards to her cats back home in Memphis to keep them abreast of the pageant. "The cats are my children now that mine are grown," said Georgiana Fulenwider. "I sleep with two cats and a dog. Those cats love me. They know my secrets. I know this sounds like I need a psychiatrist, but I tell 'em everything. They can't tell anyone.
"Cats are dear, gentle, loving. They take on the personality of their owners. Wouldn't it be wonderful to know what they really think?"
"I hate cats," whispered Bert Parks, coughing before the show, testing vocal cords that have never failed to invoke a swoon, throb a heart, bounce endless game shows along for a career spanning half a century. "Do you think I could be allergic to them?"
He sipped some water, the coughing stopped and he performed like a trooper, making the best of sour pussycat puns. The cat-loving crowd lapped it up like warm milk.
Instamatic in hand, Hilda Rhyne, an elderly fan who lives alone with eight cats, was waiting for Bert after the show. When food is scarce, her cats eat first. "I live for my cats," she said. "I'd rather go hungry than not feed a cat."
Come fall, they crowd into her living room to watch the Miss America pageant on TV. "But it just hasn't been the same without Parks ," she sighed.
Suddenly, a stage door opened and Parks popped out with his wife of 40 years, Annette. She wore a black gown. A gold charm dangled about her neck, a Valentine's Day gift from Bert proclaiming her to be a "10 and 1/2."
Parks stopped. Rhyne ran to his side. A friend clicked them together.
"I'll never forget this," said Rhyne, patting her blue scarf, on the verge of tears. "Oh, I could have put on one of my wigs if I'd known this was going to happen. I could have been so pretty."
Mary and George Kaufman, both 53, flew in from St. Petersburg for the show. He works as a maintenance man, she as a waitress at a yacht club. It is the second marriage for both. Together, they earn about $25,000 a year. Their cat, Bo-Run, made it to the finals last year.
"That was the high point of our life," said Mary. "Life had not been that lucky for us until we won the contest."
The Kaufmans plucked their cat from a sewer as a kitten "when he was cold and turning stiff and nursed him to health," said Mary. "He became our child in our middle years."
Work has been lean for Parks since Miss America, but he draws the line at "false teeth and laxative commercials," he said, combating one TV reporter's barbs with fiesty one-liners. He doesn't need the money.
"Hey, Bert Parks has been dealing with pussycats all his life," he bristled. "You think it's demeaning, don't you? But it's fun, fun, fun . . . a spoof. But don't think I'll be a cat man the rest of my life."
So why did you do it, Bert? Why did you get up on stage and ham it up with a bunch of cats?
"I'm still handsome and attractive and too vital to get lost. It's a matter of ego, something to keep me off the streets. An actress who was in a show with me was once asked, 'Why did you want to be an actress?' She said 'Anything to get out of the audience.' That's the way I feel about it."