The (Miss) Universe in its hand
For years, Long Beach seemed to have conflicted feelings about women’s bathing suits.
In 1920, a city public safety commissioner with the ironic name of William Peek ordained that adult swimwear must, among other things, “completely conceal from view each leg from the hip joint to a line around the leg one-third of the way to the knee.”
The regulation was repealed, but in 1926, when Long Beach held a “bathing beauty parade,” a local minister called the City Council “vampires of human flesh.” (This was meant as a criticism; vampires weren’t as popular as they are nowadays.)
Long Beach, with its population of transplanted Midwesterners, was conservative. But the city also felt overshadowed by its big neighbor Los Angeles, and its leaders were always “fishing for that sure-fire attraction . . . something to put the town on the map,” wrote author Bill Hillburg.
They found it in 1952, and it involved women’s bathing suits.
What happened was that Miss Alabama, the 1951 winner of the long-established Miss America competition, had refused to wear swimsuits on her promotional tour, saying she wanted to be taken seriously as an opera singer.
This was not music to the ears of Miss America’s sponsor, Catalina Swimwear. So Catalina decided to start its own pageant, Miss USA/Miss Universe. Swimsuits required.
And Long Beach agreed to pay an annual fee of $30,000 a year to host the “glamour tournament,” as one columnist called it.
Of course, over the years, Miss USA/Miss Universe would have its own controversies.
One South American candidate was found to be a native of Van Nuys and the “personal assistant of a contest judge,” wrote Hillburg in “Long Beach: The City and Its People.”
On another occasion, it was learned that the Miss Universe winner from Peru was 17, one year under the contest’s age limit.
A suspenseful four-hour conference followed. The winner “was kept in her room while her formal Coronation Ball began without her,” the Times said in 1957. Finally, officials ruled there was no fraud, “inasmuch as, in Peru, any person older than 17 years and six months is generally -- and legally -- considered to be 18.”
Another year, a Tokyo doctor told newsmen that he had given Miss Japan a “bust-enlarging plastic injection” beforehand. He added it was no big deal; he had performed the same procedure for many actresses.
But Miss Japan and her mother vigorously denied the report. Oscar Meinhardt, the Miss USA/Miss Universe producer, said he would honor the mother’s word. Besides, he told the Times in 1959, while “there is something in the rules against falsies,” no mention was made of injections.
The case that gave Miss Universe officials “globe-sized headaches,” in the words of Times columnist Art Ryon, was the revelation that the 1957 Miss USA was really a missis. Her annoyed mother-in-law spilled the beans.
Under questioning, Miss USA told the press that her first marriage had lasted just a day before it was annulled.
But she couldn’t deny that her second marriage was for real, inasmuch as she had two children.
She had pulled the ruse, she said, to win a modeling contract so she could feed her family. She lost her title after one day, making her ineligible to compete for Miss Universe.
By the late 1950s, relations between Long Beach and Catalina Swimwear were deteriorating. Catalina grumbled that the city’s annual $30,000 payment was too low.
And Catalina was not happy when various nations “agitated to replace the swimsuit competition with clothing more ladylike and less revealing,” author Charles Queenan wrote.
Catalina’s contract expired in 1959, and the company floated Miss USA/Miss Universe to Miami. Today, Donald Trump owns the two pageants.
Long Beach didn’t get out of the beauty business right away, though.
In 1960, the city founded a new annual event, the International Beauty Congress, and put up signs at the town’s entrances declaring it the “International City.”
Swimsuits were banned in favor of skirts and native costumes. Several countries, including Iran, participated for the first time.
Some entrants regretted the change. “The playsuits in this contest are fine for girls who have thin legs but . . .” said one Miss Austria, her voice trailing off.
With the de-emphasis on revealing outfits, “scandal was at a minimum but so was public interest,” wrote authors Larry Meyer and Patricia Kalayjian in “Long Beach: Fortune’s Harbor.”
Then too, “There she is, Miss International Beauty” doesn’t easily roll off the tongue.
Long Beach canceled the pageant in 1967.
“International City” signs can still be found around town.
From our mailbox:
A Feb. 14 “Then and Now” column referred to comic Lenny Bruce’s hoax performance as a bad singer on TV’s “Rocket to Stardom” talent show in the late 1950s. Reader Sid Skolnik adds:
“I saw the Lenny Bruce fiasco. There was a heavy rain that night and he arrived wearing a big yellow poncho. When it became clear to the director that his performance was a farce, the cameramen were told to swing away from him, but he saw what was happening, got into a crouch and kept running and bobbing to stay in front of the lens. Hilarious is an understatement.”