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The Yellow Brick Road to the Bowl—Part 4

Updated: Nov 22, 2019

By Elizabeth Gracen:

For those who are just joining this series of posts, start here!


Finally, I found myself at the end of the yellow brick road to the Hollywood Bowl. Greeted by our host, the one and only Thomas Lauderdale, maestro of Pink Martini, our vanload of Miss Americas shook his hand at the Bowl backstage entrance for a Friday afternoon rehearsal. I’d been told that Thomas was a “collector.” With boyish good looks and keen eyes that flashed a mind like a steel trap, I saw his excitement grow with each new introduction. You could tell that he was mentally placing our names with the year we were crowned Miss A, committing each face to memory—a shiny, new collection.

Poloroid taken on Thomas Lauderdale's vintage camera. Thomas in front wearing Miss America crown. Miss Americas (Front row, left to right): Maria Beale Fletcher (1962), Heather Whitestone (1995), Laurel Lea Schaefer (1972), Katie Harmon Ebner (2002), Cara Mund (2018), Nicole Johnson (1999), Jacquelyn Mayer (1963) (Back row, left to right): Carolyn Saap (1992), Elizabeth Ward Gracen (1982), Kellye Cash (1987), Erica Dunlap (2004), Vonda Van Dyke (1965)

We were led backstage to a modest cubbyholed set of rooms, somehow exactly what you’d expect from a well-oiled machine of a venue. Almost utilitarian, it is a study of form follows function, with an airtight policy of “no filming” due to union mandate. This alone would be the most difficult rule to abide for all of us. How can you not want to take a selfie in such an environment?

What happened backstage during performance nights in our sequestered Miss America dressing room was very different than what transpired two floors above us on that iconic Hollywood Bowl stage. Every room had a small monitor to view the live show each evening, but it was virtually impossible to quell the noise to listen with a dozen or so excited beauty queens chatting away. Awaiting our performance of “I Am Woman,” we spent our time signing posters, rehearsing, and reminiscing as our anticipation grew. By the time we stood in the wings and awaited our turn, we were giddy.

Our old Miss America headshots flashed on the big screens as Katie Harmon Ebner announced each of our names in turn to join her. That first night was a blur for me as I stepped onto the stage. I vaguely remember noting the conductor, Thomas Wilkins, his baton at the ready for the Hollywood Bowl orchestra, and I did my best to register the faces of everyone on the stage, trying my best to take it all in—but honestly I don't remember much that first night. Fortunately by the next night and again at our last performance on Sunday evening as we danced the conga on the ramp out into the audience for the finale, I finally felt comfortable enough to make eye contact with individuals in the crowd to see their genuine surprise and bewilderment at this odd collection of women shimmying to Brazil just for them.

Because the event was so grand and off the charts in terms of variety and sheer quantity of people involved, I've made an attempt to organize the event into categories to portray the scope of what the French would call "le spectacle" of our Hollywood Bowl weekend. There is no access to the complete concert for any of the three evenings when we performed, so I’ve cobbled together videos that highlight the enormous talent and variety of the artists we were lucky enough to share the stage with that weekend.

The Oz of It All

Like setting foot in the Emerald City, the cast of characters found in the confines of the Bowl are varied and too numerous to count. From the performers, the Miss As, and the backstage crew and producers to the season-ticket patrons whom we rubbed elbows with after each performance and the some eighteen-thousand people we performed for each night . . . it was a fantastic dream of faces and dynamic personalities, all sparkling and as glamorous as I envisioned at the start of this adventure.

None of it would have been possible without the"great and powerful" genius of Thomas Lauderdale. Inspired by music from all over the world that crosses the genres of classical, jazz, and old-fashioned pop, Pink Martini and Lauderdale’s musical “collection” that weekend presented a good-old-fashioned variety show on steroids. Here’s a short video that lets Thomas speak for himself to explain the origins and mission of the “little Orchestra” called Pink Martini.

The gracious and ultra-talented China Forbes was the elegant frontwoman of Pink Martini and has been with them since their inception in the early 90s. She has written many of PM’s hits: Sympathique, Lilly, Clementine, Let’s Never Stop Falling in Love and Hey, Eugene. It was thrilling to share the stage with her. Bottom line—if you ever get the chance to see China Forbes perform, do not hesitate to go.

The Collection

Each night—while the Hollywood Bowl audience settled in, opened their bottles of wine, and finished off their upscale picnic meals—a different opening act kicked off the show. On Friday night, The Violent Femmes took the stage, performing their hits and setting the nostalgic tone of the evening. Saturday night brought La Santa Cecilia to the stage to open the show with their unique hybrid of Latin culture, rock, and world music.

Can I tell you how cool it was to be in the same elevator as Booker T and his band? When his Stax Revue hit the stage that evening to open the show on Sunday, the architect of Memphis soul set a cool, jazzy tone, and when they played his classic "Green Onions," I knew we were in for an exciting evening.

And now to the main event.

Sometimes you meet someone who defies a simple description—a bigger-than-life personality, multi-layered, mysterious, wildly talented, perverse, and ever-so funny. Such was the beautiful Meow Meow. Greeted with, “Oh, it’s the Miss Americas!” every time we saw her, it was impossible not be pulled into the Meow Meow Revolution orbit. Providing the comic relief for the weekend, Meow Meow’s performance of Ne Me Quitte Pas, pulled audience members to the stage as she held the crowd in the palm of her hand all three evenings. It was a lesson in consummate performance art, her comic timing attuned to the moment, shifting with the rhythm of each particular night, her powerhouse vocals ringing out into the Hollywood Hills. I adored her.

I was late to the game to realize that NPR correspondent Ari Shapiro, host of All Things Considered on NPR, was an amazing singer; his smooth, clear vocals rivaled only by his warm personality and bright smile. Needless to say, he charmed the Miss As and officially has a fresh batch of fans. A staple performer with PM, his vocals can be found on a handful of PM albums: Splendor in the Grass, Joy to the World, and Get Happy.

Although I didn’t spend much time with the following performers, each a consummate artist in their own right, I made a point to catch their individual performances during the three-night gig. Here is a taste of their unique gifts: Kathleen Saadat, the Von Trapps, Jimmy Herrod, and Ikram Goldman.

Last but certainly not least is Edna Vasquez—my newest fascination. Upon hearing her first performance Friday night of "Solo Soy," I was hooked. I may have actually scared her when I saw her on Saturday evening and told her that I had spent my Saturday “cyber stalking” her on YouTube and listening to her recordings. She thanked me graciously, but I recognized a flash of caution in her eyes. Vasquez is a unique individual with an inspiring story and impressive talent.

And now, we’ve finally come to the Miss Americas—an eclectic sorority formed from an odd shared experience. An old-fashioned American institution that started with a bathing suit competition in Atlantic City in the early 1920s, the organization has had a rocky road to survival, its television viewing numbers dwindling with each year’s broadcast. If you’re aware of the drama that has surrounded the MAO as of late, you know that there has been an internal war for the heart and soul of Miss America. Due to major upheaval within the system, two camps have emerged to fight for what they believe the competition should represent. One camp believes in the traditional bathing suit competition and a basic judging criteria based on the same traditional guidelines that have endured throughout the organization’s history. The other camp, which happens to be the camp currently in control of the organization, holds a progressive belief that the MAO can be a platform to cultivate, support, and launch the future leaders of America—an updated, rebranded, relevant organization that awards scholarships based on “empowering young women across the country to be the best they can be through leadership, talent, communication skills and smarts.” This philosophy does not require a young woman to be paraded around in a swimsuit nor does it require she be judged on her outward appearance in any form. As a former Miss A, I have placed my feet firmly in this progressive camp, and in truth, it is the only reason that I am associated at all with the MAO again, having been away from it for almost thirty years.

To be honest, a weekend with a dozen former Miss As gave me reason for pause when I was first invited to attend. Perusing the list of names confirmed for the Bowl event, I quickly realized that I would be spending the weekend as a loner amidst a majority of formers from the opposing camp. Potential drama indeed in the land of Oz. I really wanted to capture more footage of Lee Meriwether for my MS. MERIWETHER documentary, and there was the “singing at the Hollywood Bowl” bucket list item to check off, but would it all be worth it? Could I just pull up my Spanx and get on with it and not care if I was given the same cold shoulder I had received by some of these ladies in Atlantic City less that a year ago when I attended the competition? It wasn’t quite akin to Dorothy braving peril to snatch the broom from the Wicked Witch of the West, but I certainly had no idea what would happen over three days in a potentially unfriendly gathering.

Much to my relief, my fears were quickly assuaged. Maybe it was the magic of the Bowl itself, or maybe it was Thomas Lauderdale’s romantic fascination with our novel group that kept us civil and light, refusing to engage with our philosophical differences. Miss Americas were trained to be charming and solicitous, and as a whole, I believe we all share the ability to “take the temperature of the room.” I didn’t stay at the Hotel Roosevelt where most of the formers were housed, and I honestly didn’t mingle at length with those who had kept me at arms length in Atlantic City the year before, so I have no idea what they talked about or what they thought of me. All I know is that I felt part of the “sisterhood” that weekend. We were our best selves and happy to take the stage together and sing a song that somehow spoke truth to all of us. My gratitude goes out to all of them for showing their love to Lee backstage. The footage I have of them at Lee's feet, expressing their admiration of her, will be a highlight of the documentary, and I am grateful to have them be part of the film.

Miss America turns 100 next year, but there is no guarantee that the institution will last much longer, let alone another hundred years; but for this one magical weekend, none of that mattered. We were together, singing, dancing the conga, reveling in the music and joy of the event, surprised at the warm response from the performers and audience to see us together on stage. It’s hard to describe the sensation, so all I can do is count my blessings, thank Thomas Lauderdale one more time, click my heels together and whisper,

“There’s no place like the Bowl . . .

there’s no place like the Bowl . . .

there's no place like the Bowl.”

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