Seventy-four-year-old Juanita Gibson sashayed across the stage in a silky, baby-blue evening gown. With microphone in hand, she explained why the song she was about to sing had special meaning for her.
"I've been a widow for 20 years," said the petite, robust Gibson. "And I have had suitors, good ones and bad ones. Finally a long, tall, brown-skinned man came by, but I lost him." She paused, looked around, then concluded. "Now I want him back."
With that, Gibson launched into "Bill Bailey, Won't You Please Come Home?" picking up speed and volume until she was crooning and then belting it out in a strong clear alto, and the audience was clapping and stomping to the beat. "Come home Bill Bailey! Come back to this fine, brown sugar frame!" she shouted after the last chorus. The crowd cheered wildly.
Gibson and five other women from Arlington and Alexandria were competing before an audience of about 200 Friday in an unusual beauty contest for women over 60, the Ms. Senior Virginia Pageant.
Like most beauty pageants, candidates in Ms. Senior Virginia 1986 were interviewed by judges; discussed their philosophies of life, appeared in evening gowns and displayed a talent on stage. Unlike most beauty contestants, the candidates were all grandmothers.
Carla Convery, 66, a past participant in Senior Olympics, performed an aerobics routine in the pageant's talent segment that seemed to leave everyone but her breathless. Beaming as she finished her last jumping jack, she blew the appreciative audience a big kiss. Dorothy DeHaven, 69, a member of a ragtime ensemble from Northern Virginia called the Good Time Band, played the piano, and Jean Blevins, 75, recited a Rudyard Kipling poem before a display of her oil, pastel and watercolor paintings. She told seniors in the audience to consider art for a hobby, something she called "wonderful for older people. It takes you out of yourself, so you don't notice aches and pains."
Sue Mortensen, 62, who graduated from nursing school at age 53, read aloud from Anne M. Lindbergh's book, "Gift From the Sea," and 68-year-old Jewel Evans displayed her watercolor paintings and ceramics.
In one-minute capsules on their philosophies of life, Gibson talked about "making our lives sublime" by contributing to others. Mortensen said, "People are desperately trying to find meaning in their lives . . . . It is in our self-interest to give to others." DeHaven stressed the importance of "people, involvement, achievements. What I give of myself, I get back 100-fold." The philosophies of the other three contestants also emphasized themes of altruism.
After the introductions and the talent and philosophy segments, three judges, all from Northern Virginia, conferred to choose a winner and first runner-up. Finally, it was the moment everyone had been waiting for.
"We took longer than we anticipated. Any one of the six would represent us beautifully," chief judge Bill Gress said, and the audience clapped politely. "But, we could only choose one," he said. "First runner-up is Jean Blevins!"
Blevins stepped forward. Gress paused, then, "The winner is Juanita Gibson!"
Gibson stepped beside Blevins to receive her trophy.
Betty Mullen of the Arlington Senior Citizen Center told the audience that she will arrange for a bus trip to the Ms. Senior America contest in Atlantic City April 1, and Blevins said she will be the first to cheer on the winner. "I'm so happy Juanita got it. We're all planning to go to Atlantic City," Blevins said.
Gibson's daughter Mildred, who was at the event to see her mother perform, said her mother was game to try anything. "At amusement parks she'll try the most daring rides . . . . Puts me to shame." Family friend Linda Jones agreed: "Nothing stops her."
Between segments of the pageant, volunteers served sandwiches to audience members, many of whom were waving to one another, greeting acquaintances and nibbling on pieces of the Ms. Senior Virginia sheet cake, all to the tune of easy listening music.
Maureen Donovan, director of Senior America Inc., said she helped found the nonprofit pageant, which now is produced in 20 states, because "we wanted to pay attention to older women. The contest is to give honor to women who have reached what we call 'the age of elegance.' . . . It is a search for the gracious lady who best exemplifies the dignity, maturity and inner beauty of all senior Americans."
Donovan added, "This pageant is not just for the contestants. The hope is that contestants will inspire the audience. This is an educational program, as much as it may seem more theatrical."