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December 20, 2014

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Q+A: Miss America chief Sam Haskell III talks pageant’s return to Atlantic City

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Miss America Organization

2013 Miss California Crystal Lee, 2013 Miss Mississippi Chelsea Rick, 2013 Miss Nevada Diana Sweeney, 2013 Miss Rhode Island Jessica Marfeo and 2013 Miss South Dakota Tessa Dee are the Miss America Pageant’s first STEM Scholarship Program finalists. They are pictured in Atlantic City, N.J., on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013.

2013 Miss America Pageant: Welcome Ceremony

The 2013 Miss America Pageant welcome ceremony in Atlantic City, N.J., on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. Launch slideshow »

After nearly eight years in Las Vegas, the Miss America Pageant has packed its tiaras and gowns and headed home to Atlantic City — and was welcomed back there with a new three-year, $7.5 million funding commitment. Miss America came to the Strip in 2005 when Atlantic City could no longer afford to underwrite the labor and production costs.

It’s fair to say that the pageant, with Margaret Gorman winning the first title in 1922, was floundering and nearly on its last legs in 2004. Robert Earl, then head of Planet Hollywood, stepped in and offered the contestants a new home with support from our Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

With the support, the pageant carried on, and eight women were crowned in Las Vegas: Jennifer Berry, 2006; Lauren Nelson, 2007; Kirsten Haglund, 2008; Katie Stam, 2009; Caressa Cameron, 2010; Teresa Scanlan, 2011; Laura Kaeppeler, 2012; and this year Mallory Hagan, who will only have an eight-month reign before the new Miss America is crowned on Sept. 15.

“It’s the return of the prodigal son,” one New Jersey official said Tuesday at the welcoming ceremony. “It’s back in the city where it all began. It should never have left. Atlantic City is its true home.”

Leaders from the state, including Gov. Chris Christie and local government officials, joined with tourism groups and hotels citywide to provide the new financial support.

“We are thrilled to be back, and our contestants are beyond excited about this historic return to the birthplace of Miss America,” Miss America Organization Chairman Sam Haskell III said.

Christie commented: “It’s a great tradition in our country, and it’s always been associated with Atlantic City.”

Lara Spencer of “Good Morning America” and Chris Harrison of “The Bachelor” and “The Bachelorette” will serve as hosts of the pageant on ABC. The day before, Miss America brings back the Show Us Your Shoes Parade along the Boardwalk with 15 floats, 4,000 participants and the 53 contestants, including our 2013 Miss Nevada Diana Sweeney, in convertibles.

Hundreds of schoolchildren and New Jersey and Pennsylvania choral groups also will be featured in 10 production numbers that include a performance by Kool & The Gang.

There’s no denying that the excitement for Miss America’s return is statewide, and in Atlantic City when I was there last weekend, people were talking about the pageant and its support from state and local officials and hotel-casino execs.

I talked at length in an exclusive interview with Sam about the move to and from Las Vegas and how this year’s pageant will be different than the one at Planet Hollywood eight months ago.

2013 Miss America Pageant: Winner Mallory Hytes Hagan of New York

Miss New York Mallory Hytes Hagan, 23, the winner of the 2013 Miss America Pageant at PH Live in Planet Hollywood on Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013. Launch slideshow »

With just two weeks to go, how different is this going to be for you and the pageant compared with the past seven years in Las Vegas?

Well, everything is so much larger here and so much more ambitious. It’s a huge challenge when you’re producing a major telecast from a hall that seats twice as many people as we had in Las Vegas and producing and staging a parade that 200,000 people are attending. We’ve got it all under control; it’s coming together beautifully, but it’s going to take a lot of work.

The challenge was that we produced our last extravaganza just eight months ago. We have hundreds of volunteers plus 16 members of the board and their committees to execute the vision. So there’s a lot of pressure doing two in the same year. Let’s just say this one is super-sized!

You’ve agreed to an initial three-year deal with Atlantic City. You’re getting many incentives plus the free use of Boardwalk Hall. You’ve said you’d like to be here for the 100th anniversary in seven years. So I guess that means that we won’t be seeing you back in Las Vegas for a long time.

Well, as it stands now, Atlantic City is our home. It was the birthplace of Miss America. I can’t think of being anywhere else. They have embraced us so incredibly, and it is my goal to keep this going. I can’t tell you how wonderful they’ve been to us. That doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate all that Las Vegas was to us.

It was wonderful to be there, but this is where we belong, and they’re just treating us so beautifully and with so much attention and appreciation. How can I not like that? The financial support is bringing us more sponsors, and thus more scholarships can be provided.

We understood that we were just one of 30 big events a week in Las Vegas, so we never got the attention that we now get in Atlantic City. It’s a metropolitan area with a small-town feel. Miss America is a child of Atlantic City, and returning that child home gets everybody telling our story. We didn’t have that in Las Vegas, and that’s the No. 1 and main reason that this became the preferred home.

There are nice things about the seven years you spent in Las Vegas because you were at a point where, regrettably, the relevance of the pageant had gone down, the network telecast had been dropped. It looked as if Miss America was over, but you’d stepped in to save it. You managed to get Las Vegas to help you with that recovery?

Las Vegas played a very important part in our history, and the eight Miss Americas who were crowned there all have a special tie to Las Vegas, as do we. Las Vegas was there for us when we suddenly found ourselves without a network, and we produced the show for Country Music Television, then for the Learning Channel. Plus, the relationships that we had with Robert Earl and you, Robin, and tourism officials.

I had three Miss America board members who live in Las Vegas who are very special to me. I never, ever said anything but kind things about our time in Las Vegas. All I want everyone to know is that we have found the place where we really need to be. While I appreciate the time that we spent in Las Vegas, we’re back where we belong.

2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler of Wisconsin

2012 Miss America Laura Kaeppeler, 23, of Wisconsin. Launch slideshow »

How important was Las Vegas to you, the organization and that period of time? Exactly how good was Las Vegas to you in what appeared to be the darkest hour?

I think that the support that we got from Las Vegas at a time when we really needed it is something that we’ll always appreciate. It’s a wonderful city. The people there are wonderful. They were very supportive of us, and I’ll never forget that. It was time for Miss America to go home, and I’m just so glad that they wanted us to come home.

Our return to Atlantic City is not the beginning of our pursuit of relevance. That began eight years ago when I took the helm and knew we had to appeal to a younger audience. It started with the six-episode reality TV series on the Learning Channel. My daughter complained that Miss America girls didn’t sign up for that, but this generation has grown up with reality television.

After two years of the reality TV show, we had the median age of viewers drop from 58 to 37, and that got us to ABC. There was a method to my madness, and it worked. I don’t have to do reality anymore, but our music and choreography is very 2013,

How different will this year’s pageant be? Will it be larger than what you did in Las Vegas?

Yes, everything is much larger — the sets are larger — but the actual running sequence of the show will be very similar. Our opening parade of states will run eight minutes and will show all the contestants in beautiful locations here in Atlantic City. We always have a surprise or two. We have two panels of judges this year, which is different than what we did in Las Vegas.

We have an expert panel, which will judge the preliminaries and choose the Top 15, and then we have our celebrity panel, which will judge the finals. The production aspect is much larger and the hall is much larger, and we’re playing to 15,000 people as opposed to 7,000 in Las Vegas. It’s going to be just incredible.

We have an 80-foot runway this year from the stage. It is probably one of the things that our fans missed the most during our time in Las Vegas because we could not use a runway there. The runway is Miss America, and it’s back. Part of our production will be on the runway, and the girls will walk it to model their gowns, their swimwear. Our Miss Americas will be on it, and then of course the new Miss America will be crowned walking that runway.

2011 Miss America Teresa Scanlan

Miss Nebraska Teresa Scanlan, 17, waves after being crowned 2011 Miss America during the Miss America Pageant on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2011,  at Planet Hollywood. Launch slideshow »

Tell me how Miss America now helps Atlantic City because it is a revival of the city and your organization.

Yes, I think it’s a win-win for us. Miss America, the girl, will be a spokeswoman for Atlantic City in everything she does. We’re going to help enhance tourism and help them hold on to tourists past Labor Day like they used to do decades ago. It’s going to be great for both of us. When you create a win-win situation, there’s nothing to do but just smile and say thank you.

1971 Miss New Jersey Lynn (Hackerman) Weidner now lives in Las Vegas and was hostess for the seven years. She had to say goodbye eight months ago and now has to say hello again but back in New Jersey — an interesting coincidence?

I don’t think so at all. Lynn is a board member of the Miss America Organization, and it doesn’t matter if she’s in Las Vegas or Atlantic City or Orlando or Detroit or Los Angeles. As a board member, she always wants what’s best for Miss America, and she is as supportive of me and the move back to Atlantic City as anyone has been. She loves her Las Vegas home, too. We all love Las Vegas, but she is completely behind this move; she’s thrilled about it.

MISS NEVADA A FINALIST: Our 2013 Miss Nevada Diana Sweeney was named at Tuesday’s welcome ceremony as one of five finalists in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) scholarship program being offered for the first time this year. The scholarships allow participants to pursue careers in science and math.

The two winners, to be announced today, will each receive a $5,000 scholarship. Diana competes against Crystal Lee, Miss California; Chelsea Rick, Miss Mississippi; Jessica Marfeo, Miss Rhode Island; and Tessa Dee, Miss South Dakota. U.S. Department of Education officials are the judges. The scholarship competition drew 35 percent of the contestants this year.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.

Follow Vegas DeLuxe on Twitter at Twitter.com/vegasdeluxe.

Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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