ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Up front at the Miss America Pageant, the audience sees a sparkling production -- the curtains glitter, the backdrop twinkles and even the floor shines.

Behind the stage, though, the 51 contestants share one dressing room crammed with table-top mirrors. The stars of the televised production change in hastily constructed plywood dressing rooms; on the doors, their names are scribbled on masking tape instead of engraved on golden stars.

If the contestants expected to see the glamor of the entertainment field, they have received an eye-opening lesson this week.

The man hired by the pageant to set up and break down the stage is proud of the production, however. Since 1949, Dick Mason has watched the pageant grow from a nontelevised contest to a live spectacular with enough lights to power Pittsburgh for 12 hours.

The Miss America Pageant started as a beach-beauty publicity stunt held on the Boardwalk in 1921.

"Now it's become a television studio," Mason said. "Let's face it -- it used to be a stage show."

Mason said one significant change is that contestants nowadays use fewer props. He recalls at least one contestant who rode a horse, and one ice skater who had to have a portable rink. Judith Ford, who went on to become Miss America 1969, hit her head during a trampoline practice session and knocked herself out, he said.

Mason also said the show is quickly outgrowing the need for a live orchestra. Most of the performance's songs are taped, he said, and even many of the contestants prefer tapes.

The 32-foot canvas backdrop came from an old NBC studio in Brooklyn, Mason said. The stage set and 120-foot runway, once made of wood, are now mostly reinforced steel, he said. The cost of the set -- not counting the labor to set it up -- is more than $1.5 million, he said.

The revenue from the sale of 30-second television commercial spots, however, pays for 90 percent of the production costs.

This year, Mylar "tinsel" hangs from the top of the stage. Hanging down in the middle of everything is a giant screen designed like the evening gown Kellye Cash wore on the night she became Miss America 1987.

This year's set, like many previous years, contains many steps. Mason, asked if they are made wider to accommodate the contestants, said pageant officials assume the women are adept at walking down stairs without looking down.

Behind stage in the contestants' dressing room, the hostesses have adorned the walls with homemade signs: "Everybody's a winner," and "Be yourself -- no one can ever tell you you're doing it wrong."

Racks are jammed with garment bags holding the contestants' sequined, feathered and silken dresses. Hostesses stand by with needle and thread; hairdressers and makeup artists are at the wait.

"You pull up zippers and button buttons," said hostess Marion Fitzpatrick, waiting in the empty dressing room for some action. "You kind of get caught up in the excitement."

In the corner of the dressing room is a television, the one sign that not everyone will leave Atlantic City a winner.

"After they name the 10 finalists, the other girls stay back and watch the TV monitor," Mason said.

For his part, Mason said he is too busy to pay much attention to the contest itself.

"I never get to know any of the contestants," he admitted. "When the top 10 are picked, I say, 'Who are they?' "