An American icon and a symbol of a more wholesome time, Bert Parks will always be remembered for his yearly rendition of "There She Is
" as the host of the Miss America Pageant
. Besides his famous role, however, he was also a versatile actor, singer, and dancer.
Born on Bert Jacobson on December 20, 1914 in Atlanta, GA, he showed an aptitude for show business early. At the age of three, he was entertaining his parents with a wicked Charlie Chaplin impersonation. As a young singer, he changed his name to Parks to fit a marquee. Parks earned his first radio job at the tender age of 16, broadcasting at Atlanta radio station WGST. Once he turned 18 he moved to New York City to further his career. His rich, resonant voice made him a natural for radio. In 1933, he became the country's youngest network radio announcer when he took a job with CBS.
Parks worked as a staff announcer with CBS until the United States entered World War II. He served as an infantry captain in the China-Burma-India theater, earning a Bronze Star before returning home and settling in Connecticut. He re-entered showbiz as the host of the game show Break The Bank in 1945. In 1948, he was chosen to host the more popular game show Stop The Music. Both would later migrate to television, widening Parks's popularity.
It certainly did widen. In the early 1950s, Parks could be seen on nine different television shows, including game show Double or Nothing and his own variety show, The Bert Parks Show. His big break came, however, when he was asked to host the second television broadcast of the Miss America Pageant. Parks' talent for putting the competitors at ease and his wholesome, friendly demeanor were a big hit with the viewers. He would host the pageant for the next 25 years.
Parks expanded his repetoire even more in the next decade. In 1960, he replaced Robert Preston in the role of Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. He performed the role 462 times that year, and fell in love with musicals. "That was the greatest success of my career," he later told the New York Times. "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." In the 1960s, he would tour in Damn Yankees and Mr. President without forsaking his yearly Miss America duties. In the 1970s, he made guest appearances on many hit TV shows, including The Bionic Woman, Ellery Queen, The Love Boat, and WKRP in Cincinnati. He also played the role of the ringmaster in the syndicated show Circus.
By the end of the 1970s, though, Parks' appeal appeared to be diminishing. The officials at the Miss America Pageant decided they needed a fresher face to host the show. They thought his courtly manner and fatherly affection was too corny and too sexist for a program that was clawing desperately to keep up with the times. Parks learned of his dismissal on December 20, 1979 - his 65th birthday. "I had just come home from a surprise party when the phone rang," he later remembered. The caller, a wire-service reporter, had another surprise in store for Parks. "'How does it feel to be fired?' he asked. 'Fired from what?' I wanted to know. 'The Miss America Pageant,' he replied. I simply couldn't believe it." Apparently, the news had been leaked to the press before Parks could receive a letter of dismissal.
The firing caused an unexpected outcry from the public. Tonight Show host Johnny Carson started a letter-writing crusade to reinstate Parks. Despite the thousands of letters that poured into the Miss America Pageant offices, the campaign was unsuccessful and Tarzan actor Ron Ely became the new host. Ironically, Parks's dismissal also made him rich. Soon after, his annual income from endorsements soared to $500,000. He hosted everything from the Miss Glamorous Kitty Pageant to the Coast-to-Coast Shower Sing-Off. He kept busy in the 80s hosting a dog show and a tugboat competition.
Parks made a short-lived return to the world of pageantry in 1990, when the Miss America organizers invited him back as a guest. He serenaded 26 past winners with the song that he made famous. The nostalgic appearance, however, was riddled with embarassing mistakes, and Parks was not invited back. Also in 1990, he parodied himself in a cameo appearance in the Marlon Brando film The Freshman, singing "There She Is" to a lizard.
Bert Parks died in 1992 of lung cancer in La Jolla, CA, at the age of 75. He was survived by his wife, Annette; twin sons, Joel and Jeffrey; and a daughter, Annette Jr.
"Bert Parks." Newsmakers 1992, Issue Cumulation. Gale Research, 1992. Reproduced in Student Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group. December, 2000. http://galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/SRC/
Cagle, Jesse. "A career of serenades and smiles." Entertainment Weekly, Feb 14, 1992 n105 p44.
Goodman, Mark. "Last song for Bert." People Weekly, Feb 17, 1992 v37 n6 p111-2.
Rosen, Marjorie. "And the winner of the Miss America Pageant for 1990 is ... Bert Parks, back from his crowning indignity." People Weekly, Sept 10, 1990 v34 n10 p120(2}