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Ex-Miss America Host Bert Parks Dies

February 03, 1992|JULIE TAMAKI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LA JOLLA — Bert Parks, the entertainer who serenaded American beauty queens for over two decades with his rendition of "There She Is, Miss America," died Sunday at Scripps Memorial Hospital.

Parks, 77, died in his sleep of an inoperable lung disease, with his wife and children at his side, a family friend said.

While many Americans knew Parks as an actor, singer, dancer and emcee with a big smile and flamboyant style, he became an American institution from 1955 to 1979 as host of the Miss America Beauty Pageant.

Fans who had embraced him as the embodiment of the pageant were outraged when he was fired from the show in 1979. Pageant organizers and sponsors decided that it was time to give the broadcast a more youthful image. Parks, who had just turned 65, learned of his dismissal from a reporter who called for a comment.

"This was the (time) Ronald Reagan, who's five years older than me, was elected President," Parks said in a 1990 interview. "He could run the country, but I was too old to run a beauty pageant. Now is that sick or what?"

Bitter at first, but always the optimist, Parks made a comeback, which he attributed in part to the support of his fans.

His disgruntled fans included talk show host Johnny Carson, who urged his viewers to protest the decision through a "We Want Bert" campaign. Parks' career and pocketbook took an upward surge as he received a flood of job offers and interview requests after his dismissal, including invitations to host a number of other pageants.

In 1990, over a decade after he was fired from the Miss America Pageant, Parks accepted an offer to celebrate the show's 70th anniversary. It was a rough evening for Parks, then 75, who fumbled through his performance when his cue cards were scrambled.

But those missteps did not keep him from winning a cameo role in the 1990 film "The Freshman," with Marlon Brando. Parks played a lounge lizard who donned a sombrero and spoofed his role in the Miss America pageant by singing "There She Is" to a Komodo dragon.

The role that gained Parks fame on a national level for a quarter of century began in 1955 when he became the host of the Miss America Beauty Pageant during its second televised broadcast.

As pageant host, Parks helped in the selection and coronation of 25 beauty queens, who through mascara-filled tears accepted the honor that meant thousands of dollars in prizes, guest appearance fees and scholarship money.

Pageant director Albert Marks, who hired and later fired Parks, told US magazine in 1979: "I chose him because I knew he would never try to upstage the girls."

After the firing, however, there was little doubt in Parks' mind about his impact on American society as the pageant's host.

"I am the father of them all," he said in 1983. "I have always been a legend."

The end of his reign as the pageant's host, which earned him $18,500 annually for the five days of work, marked a new chapter in his career, which included guest appearances on "WKRP in Cincinnati," "The Love Boat" and a series of commercials.

He also began to emcee other pageants, including Miss Young International, Mrs. America Pageant, the Mother/Daughter Pageant, the U.S. Man of the Year Pageant, the Purina Chow dog contest and the Miss Glamorous Kitty Pageant.

"Who cares if it's cats or dogs?" he told People magazine in 1990. "If it's done with a sense of humor and it's tongue-in-cheek, people love it."

"Mr. America," as Parks was at times called, was born Dec. 30, 1914, in Atlanta. He performed Charlie Chaplin impersonations for his parents, Aaron and Hattie Jacobson, at age 3.

Parks launched his broadcasting career at 16 when he landed a $7-a-week job at radio station WGST in Atlanta while attending Marist College, a Catholic prep school.

In 1933, Parks went to New York and lied about his age to get an audition with CBS as a staff announcer. t 18, he was the youngest network announcer in the country.

Parks remained at CBS for six years, becoming the announcer on the Eddie Cantor and the Xavier Cugat radio shows.

After the United States' entrance into World War II, Parks joined the Army and rose from private to captain. He served overseas in the China-Burma theater, where he made eyewitness reports of battles and earned a Bronze Star. After the war he moved to Greenwich, Conn., where he kept a home for decades.

After the war, Parks returned to CBS radio where he became quizmaster of the popular giveaway show, "Break the Bank."

Acting followed broadcasting when Parks replaced Eddie Albert for 462 performances in the lead role of the "Music Man" on Broadway during 1960-61.

"That was the greatest success of my career," Parks said. "I had a chance to sing, to act, to dance, to do all the things I never have a chance to do on television. It's the single greatest experience I've ever had."

He is survived by his wife, Annette Liebman, whom he met on a blind date and married in 1943; twin sons, Joel and Jeff, a daughter, Annette, and two grandchildren. Funeral services are pending.

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