Tip # 1: Bring binoculars. Even though they have giant screens for the thousands in attendance, there is lot happening on the very big stage, and all around the hall, that's a lot more interesting than what is being shown on national TV.
Tip #2: If you have ever wanted to dress up-up-up, whether Hollywood club scene to formal ball attire, this is your chance.
It was a visual picnic just standing in the security lines outside Boardwalk Hall. Svelte long-legged 20-somethings posed in short-short-short dresses in tight-tight-tight glittery material and high-high-high heels. To say the attire was skimpy is being generous. In contrast were the more refined options: long gowns that showed a refreshing return to chiffon, and made me think there must be wedding receptions in progress off in some back rooms.
Then there were the girls, from toddler to teen, many decked out in elaborate mini-pageant dresses and make-up, draped with their own titles. It was hard to tell with some whether they were 12 or 17, while others were clearly just kids playing dress-up and having a ball.
Laila Haley, 11, Miss Illinois Pre-Teen, is the latter. She's here with her mom and dad. They left Peoria at 9:30 Saturday night, arriving in Atlantic City just in time to grab their hotel room and get changed for the pageant. She wore a cute dress, and proudly sported her title and mini-crown. No make-up, no pretense. When I caught up with her at 11:30 p.m. post-pageant she was wired and chatty. Coming from Viola, Illinois, a town of about 900, Laila was quite taken with Atlantic City, the ocean, the huge hotel (the Tropicana in the Boardwalk) and the whole pageant scene... a little girl in awe of the big girls.
'They are all so smart," she said. "And so much talent."
Laila spoke with a maturity and self-assurance that seemed older than mere 11. And, from the comments of her parents, this is clearly Leila's show. No one at home is pushing her to compete. She wants to do this. When I asked if she saw herself coming back, she did not hesitate.
"Oh, yeah," she said. "I am coming back for sure."
But back to the pageant: In the hour prior to broadcast, the state factions got louder and rowdier. Signs started popping up, like a political convention. O-H-I-O flashed across the hall. Arkansas had their letters out of place and had to reshuffle. The regional states made the most noise: Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, New York, New Jersey. The crowd got worked up by hosts, loyalty levels challenged, states pitted against states as far as who could show the most spirit. The frenzy mushroomed.
"So, who's gonna win this pageant tonight?" and "Here we go. C'mon people. Look alive now. Suck it up." The stands started chanting ... 7-6-5-4-3-2- 1. Co-host Lara Spencer was on a roll.
Most states took a hit right at the beginning when the semi-finalists were announced. They'd barely showed their faces (among other body parts) when they were relegated to perch on a side of the stage and watch the lucky girls move forward.
The broadcast part of the pageant was choreographed to the minute, down to co-host Chris Harrison being roundly boo-ed when he cut off a contestant for overstepping her response time. And watching a production of this magnitude being "put on" is a trip in itself. Cameramen scurry about. Costumes change out in minutes. The logistics and detail is mind-boggling.
During commercial breaks, there were Miss America memory 'games.' More crowd interaction and engagement. All the unscripted stuff.
I was sitting behind a woman from Nebraska that had studied the contestants the way some folks study the line-up in the Kentucky Derby. She knew respective strengths and weaknesses, talent and scores. I watched her face turn twist a little as the five finalists were announced.
"Were they what you expected?" I stage whispered. Not that it was necessary to whisper as people were yelling, but certain conventions die hard.
"No," she said. "I expected ....".
And then she detailed who had been on her finalist list and why and how the judging was skewed and what accounted for that process. It was quite instructive.
The choice of the five finalists poked holes in some state balloons. The noise narrowed in on the states of the finalists. And, then, abruptly, it was over. A minute or two of angst and it's Miss New York. The win was unexpected as rarely do states win two years in a row (poor Miss New York for 2015 now has no chance.)
I heard very little whining as I left the Hall. Miss New York had done a bang-up job with her talent. Bollywood was a new one... and delightful. Her energy and enthusiasm was contagious. She spoke in her Q&A about diversity as the future of the pageant.
The very near future as it turned out.
After the pageant, I chatted walking along the Boardwalk with Frank J. Ferry, long-time Atlantic City native. Frank's maternal aunts, Helen and Dorothy Kirby were in the original Court of Honor back in 1921. An attorney, he's written a book released last January on Nucky Johnson ("Nucky: The True Story of the Atlantic City Boardwalk Boss"). Frank briefly described how Nucky was the political power (albeit somewhat corrupt) back in the 1920's with the dream and tenacity to get the engineering marvel that is Boardwalk Hall created. Without Boardwalk Hall, the Miss America pageant might not have endured. But without Miss America (alluding to the past several years when she was spirited away to Las Vegas), Boardwalk Hall lost some of its heart.
"It's great to have her back," he said. "And they did a fine job with the staging. Did you notice that the backdrops behind all the glitz in front were old scenes of Atlantic City? They belong together... Miss America and Atlantic City."