Remembering Bert Parks
When I dropped out of a show, they were through,” Bert Parks once boasted of his early radio days. He wasn’t far off. His baroque, circus-barker voice, full of gusto and ham, defined a generation of radio and TV announcers. But most people knew him for his 25-year tenure as host of the Miss America Pageant — the avuncular showman who crooned ”There She Is” as the winner promenaded down the runway. And in 1979, when the pageant dumped him in favor of former TV Tarzan Ron Ely without so much as a Swatch watch — Parks actually learned he had been fired from a reporter — he provided a spirited counterattack. He bitched loudly and justifiably. So did the public: Even the chronically noncommittal Johnny Carson encouraged Tonight Show viewers to write letters. It may have been a little sad, the way Parks clung to the job, but his sense of showmanship never failed him. If anyone was going to poke fun at Parks, who died of inoperable lung disease on Feb. 2 at age 77, he wanted to be the one to do it.
After being fired, Parks took his hosting know-how on tour, sending himself up at a beauty pageant for cats and presenting beauty contestants dressed in Chock Full o’ Nuts coffee packages in TV commercials. In the 1990 comedy The Freshman, he got out his black tie and sang ”There he is, your komodo dragon” to the regal endangered lizard about to be served at Marlon Brando’s banquet.
Parks had an uncanny ability to tune in to his audiences. Born in Atlanta, he became — at age 18 — the country’s youngest network radio announcer when CBS hired him in 1933. In 1945 he signed on as host of the quiz show Break the Bank; Stop the Music followed in 1948, and he took both shows to television. At his peak in the 1950s, he was host of nearly a dozen game and variety shows on radio and TV each week. He avoided New York’s frenetic nightlife, however. At the end of each day, he headed off to his sprawling Greenwich, Conn., home, where he and his wife, Annette, raised three children, twins Joel and Jeffrey, 45, and Annette Jr., 42, all of whom survive him.
By the late 1950s, Parks’ bombastic style had been replaced by the more subdued manner of a new generation of hosts, so he took his vocal cords to Broadway. He followed Robert Preston and Eddie Albert in the role of silver-tongued flimflam man Prof. Harold Hill in the original The Music Man in 1960, and toured in other musicals (Mr. President, Damn Yankees), never forsaking his yearly Miss America duties.
In 1990 he returned to the pageant in a cameo appearance to serenade 26 past winners. Though the appearance was riddled with embarrassing gaffes — because his cue cards were out of order, he failed to give some of the women’s names — it was clear he hadn’t lost his moxie. Better to remember him years earlier, crooning with all his heart to the tearful girl wearing the crown. Better, too, to think of him singing his trademark tune to that komodo dragon. Bert Parks always made sure he had the last laugh.