Wednesday, April 21, 2010


(Photo courtesy of and the Cliffside Park Free Public Library)

Seems April skies are in her eyes,
A living doll that talks smiling as she walks.
May she stay somehow sweet as she is now. 
Little Miss America take a bow.

-Gladys Shelley

          I clenched it tightly in my hand. So giddy was I with delight that I hopscotched around the perimeter of the crooked columns of puddles that lined the concessioned Midway careful not to ruin my new white patent-leather Easter shoes. With practiced theatrical flair, I lifted the skirt of my yellow-eyelet dress to protect its netted hem from the splishy-splashy-splatters my heels were unintentionally kicking up. A girl had to dress just right for a momentous occasion such as this, you know. Clutched between the fingers of my “Tinker Bell” nail-polished hand was the application to the “Little Miss America Pageant.”
          I have such fond memories of Palisades Amusement Park—Casper’s Ghostland, the Caterpillar ride, the Archie Hot Rod ride, the French fries with vinegar, the games-of-chance, but there are two moments that stand out most. The first is Bozo the Clown bending down as I sat in my stroller, his soft white-gloved hand tickling my chin, and telling me with his zany laugh that he loved my red hair. I remember feeling faint as my idol patted my head like a dog. The second moment is hugging that “Little Miss America Pageant” application to my heart.
For years, I waited patiently to make the five-year-old age requirement so that I could showcase my talent to the world. I had no idea what that talent was. I couldn’t tap dance; I couldn’t sing; and my attempts at cartwheeling resulted in the toe-heel destruction of many porcelain knick-knacks my mother had precisely scattered around the living room.  However, I knew that in order to “win it” I had to “have it,” and I was trying really hard to “find it.” (Four decades later I’m still trying to “find it.”)
          Unfortunately, my father did not share my excitement about the “Little Miss America Pageant.” To put it mildly, he didn’t like the idea of his daughter prancing upon a stage before a crowd of strangers. It didn’t help that my life goal at that time was to be a “go-go dancer” and I routinely paraded around the house in a blue leotard and white knee-hi “go-go” boots dancing to “Chika-a-Boom (dontcha just love it!)” Hey, I was a product of my times. “Laugh-In” was in, man; Goldie Hawn made dancing in a bikini with body-graffiti and boots cool. And Dean Martin’s “Golddiggers” turned T.V. into a party! 
It’s funny how a child’s brain disregards historical timelines. Some of my earliest memories are fractured moments woven together into stories that, in many cases, neglect any accurate historical sequence. For instance, I have no memory of “The Park’s” closing. Nada. None. All I remember is that in April of 1971 I held the application to the “Little Miss America Pageant” in my hand, and the next memory is of the park burning. As ludicrous as it sounds now, I was convinced that my father had a hand in it so that I couldn’t compete in the pageant. The family did nothing to dispel this rumor; in fact, they encouraged it throughout the years with not-so-subtle jabs such as, “The Park would still be standing if only you didn’t want to be ‘Little Miss America;’” and then they’d laugh.
This I remember: The fire started just as school got out. My mother drove me, my brother, and our friends to watch it from the top of Route 5, at the curve where it begins its descent to Edgewater. I stood, one mourner among many, watching the flames lick to ash all that was once familiar and sacred. I remember the resounding hiss and crackle of those icons of pleasure echoing as they collapsed; indelibly burning themselves onto the pyre of our collective memory.
As dusk began to fall, the flames slowed their ascent until there was nothing left but the intermittent sparks of burning embers. Standing there, shivering as night began to fall upon the cliffs of the Palisades, The Park did indeed finally close at dusk, and this almost-Little Miss America watched it take its final bow. 

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