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May 22, 2005

From left, three former Miss Santa Cruz County Pageant winners, Diane Wagner (1972), Yetta Bach (1925) and Carolyn Stoner Thompson (1971) share laughs at a Miss California Pageant reunion held recently at the Cocoanut Grove in Santa Cruz. (Dan Coyro / Sentinel)

Miss California Pageant united the community and served as a platform for protest


Sentinel correspondent


It’s an institution with 81 years of glitz and glamour, as old as the Giant Dipper, forced out of Santa Cruz under controversial circumstances in 1985, yet it remains one of the largest women’s scholarship funds in the country.

Some local historians consider the departure of the Miss California Pageant a major turning point in Santa Cruz history, when the "Atlantic City of the West" made way for a progressive college town brimming with activists and rabble-rousers.

Once considered a major social and economic asset to the Santa Cruz community, the pageant, now held in Fresno, is nearly forgotten in the town where it began in 1924.

But those who devoted years of their lives planning and celebrating the annual event have not forgotten. About 100 former participants in Santa Cruz’s Miss California Pageant reunited at the Cocoanut Grove’s Sun Ballroom on May 13. Among the attendees: several organizers, former contestants and a host of behind-the-scenes volunteers now living their golden years in the Santa Cruz area.

The intimate crowd enjoyed cocktails and reminisced about the black-and-white photographs framed in the hallways and posted on a large collage adorning the entrance.

"It’s been almost 20 years since I’ve seen these people," said Deborah Elston, assistant coordinator of the reunion and current executive director of the Miss Santa Cruz County Pageant.

For Elston, her experience with the pageant is familial in many ways.

"When I was 13, my mom was a hostess; my dad was on the board of directors. It was truly family," she said.

Now her attentions are turned toward Miss Santa Cruz County, and the special bond she shares with contestants.

"I call them ‘my girls,’ because it ends up being family," she said.

Charles Grebmeier, a former producer responsible for the telecast of the Miss California Pageants from 1967 to 1984, also helped coordinate the reunion and presented a screening of footage taken over the years.

Grebmeier says he enjoyed the spectacular aspects of the pageants. He designed sets, selected music, and even experimented with laser art in the ’80s.

"There was a very warm feeling in Santa Cruz when (the Miss California Pageant) happened," he said. "I enjoyed the people more than anything."

Grebmeier said the technical aspects of filming a live event were a major factor in moving the Miss California Pageant out of Santa Cruz. He also acknowledged the protests became worrisome disruptions to the pageant, helping pave the way for the move.

"It became a touchy thing," he said.

‘Myth California’
Over the last few decades, the title of "Miss California" has become synonymous with "Myth California," a series of counter-pageants led by local feminist activist Ann Simonton and her Praying Mantis Brigade in the early ’80s. Named after the female insect that devours its male mating partner, the group staged the demonstrations to protest "the objectification of women and the glorification of the beauty myth."

Simonton, a former model of 11 years who once donned the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine, began to question the beauty industry in the mid-70s, and took a fierce stance against beauty pageants in particular.

The Myth California Pageant was a full-scale extravaganza in its own right, where women paraded around in their own sashes and clogged Church Street in front of the Civic Auditorium, the site of the Miss California Pageant. The last of the Myth demonstrations occurred in 1985, when protesters threw a bucket of "the blood of raped women" on the auditorium’s steps.

Simonton served 15 days in jail for participating in the demonstration. She was arrested wearing a bathing suit made from pieces of beef. Of the suit, she told The Associated Press at a protest several weeks later, "How can pieces of meat be taken seriously?"

Oddly enough, Simonton say she misses the Miss California pageants.

"For six years running we were making international news," she said. "There were important discussions about what beauty means in our culture, which is not happening anymore."

But before The Praying Mantis Brigade jumped onto the scene, the National Organization for Women staged its own pageant in 1973.

Carolyn Swift, director of the Capitola Historical Museum, was one of the NOW organizers involved in the pageant/protest. It was billed as the "Ms. California Counter Pageant," purposefully using "Ms." as an alternative to Miss or Mrs.

Swift claims the NOW protests were not specifically aimed at the Miss California Pageant itself, like the Myth pageants, but at women’s liberation.

"Part of our attitude then was to say ‘hey, come with us and do something different.’ We really thought these women would want to come with us," Swift said.

But to most women of the Miss California Pageant, this type of liberation wasn’t needed, said Harriet Mainis, who became involved in the pageant in the early ’70s and served as a hostess (or personal assistant and fund-raiser) to the contestants. She was the first female president of the city’s Downtown Business Association in the mid-70s.

"Most of them came for scholarships; it wasn’t about beauty, swimsuits and things," Mainis said. "I loved helping other women with their careers, and that’s what this was about."

Different emphasis
The Miss California Pageant began officially awarding scholarship money to contestants in 1945. Ever since, supporters and participants of the pageant have been keen to stress the term "scholarship program" rather than "beauty pageant."

The Miss Santa Cruz County Pageant, like Miss California, began in 1924. Elston says that in the past 11 years, the Miss Santa Cruz County Pageant has generated at least $92,000 in scholarships. This year’s winner, Rebecca Jackson of Aptos, received $5,000. Even non-finalists earned $650 in scholarships just for competing.

If a contestant goes on to compete at the state level, the stakes get higher. Last year’s Miss California, Veena Goel, won $10,000 on the platform of overcoming eating disorders. It’s been 50 years since a Miss Santa Cruz — Barbara Harris — won Miss California.

"(The Miss California competition) is not a beauty pageant," Elston maintains. She says that what originated as a bathing beauty contest has now "grown and evolved" into something "far removed" from a competition based on beauty standards. Now, she says, the contestants must have a solid platform, or social cause, to speak about before the judges.

And although the women are still required to parade in their swimsuits, they now do it before judges rather than an entire audience.

Yetta Bach, who became the second-ever Miss Santa Cruz County in 1925, was also in attendance at the Miss California reunion. Escorted by her son, William Levin, the 95-year-old looked as fit as ever in her Chanel-inspired jacket and short, wavy hair.

"I feel honored that I had the experience," she said, "but I was too young for it all."

Bach, known then as Yetta Haber, said she "fibbed a little" about her age and began volunteering at 15. Her son William claims that many of the judges originally wanted Haber as the first Miss Santa Cruz. But it was by the insistence of a Leask’s Department store manager that his employee, a fellow contestant, win the title as a way of gaining publicity for his shop, William said.

Marla Novo, collections manager at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, has begun work on a Miss California exhibit set for August 2006. She says that the more she researches the pageant’s history, the more she can trace the community involvement and the importance the event once held in the city.

"Whatever your views, it’s a major part of Santa Cruz history," she said. "It’s a testament to their solidarity that the pageant continues."

Contact Amity Bacon at llabarth@santacruzsentinel.com.


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