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Reflections November 2015

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Bert and I

By Bill Levine

My cousin Bertie was most famous for hosting the Miss America telecast from 1955 to 1979, during the golden age of the pageant. No one cared back then that the talents of the 50 beautiful contestants ranged from baton twirling to baton dropping. In those days a contestant whose ad-lib answer was “wishing for world peace” was viewed as a statesman and not a bimbo.

A few years ago, spurred on by my budding genealogical interest and incipient old age, I conducted a brief search for my mother’s maternal family, but gave up when I found enough turn of the century “Mollie Jacobsons,” my grandmother’s name, to fill up a tenement block.

But one known twig of my mom’s maternal family tree has sprouted at least some muted excitement over the years. My mom’s cousin was Bert Parks, whose real name, was Bert Jacobson. Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1914, Bert was the Wink Martindale of the 1950s. He was host of more early TV game shows than you can shake a schtick at, 12 in all. Unlike your average ‘50s quiz show host Bert was scandal free maybe because his shows like “Party Line,” introduced in 1947, topped out with grand prizes of $5.

My cousin Bertie was most famous for hosting the Miss America telecast from 1955 to 1979, during the golden age of the pageant. No one cared back then that the talents of the 50 beautiful contestants ranged from baton twirling to baton dropping. In those days a contestant whose ad-lib answer was “wishing for world peace” was viewed as a statesman and not a bimbo. Watching the Miss America telecast was a big deal in those days, like a Super Bowl with Velveeta and Cheez Whiz, and of course with Bert emceeing it was a really really big deal in our den. But for me it wasn’t a wholly satisfying experience. Why couldn’t cousin Bert get us free tickets to the Convention Hall in Atlantic City, and backstage passes to meet the contestants in swimsuits? In fact, until very recently I was very disappointed that I never was able to glom onto Bert’s fame so that our kinship impacted my life.

Early on as a kid, I asked my mom for some tangible evidence that we were related to truly one of the great mediocre talents of mid-20th century America. She just gave me a shoe box. I rummaged through it and came up with a tenuous connection to Bert, a Christmas card from 1959 that just featured his kids. It wasn’t even signed “to my favorite cousin.” In fact it bugged me that Jewish Burt would even be sending out Christmas cards. In 1961 my parents went on a trip to New York, where they saw Bert, on Broadway as Harold Hill in The Music Man. They did go backstage to see Bert, in my significant absence. What’s worse, the only gift they brought back from the Big Apple was an UNSIGNED play-bill of The Music Man, with Bert on the cover, eschewing the minimum NYC kid’s gift of a Statue of liberty key chain.

The only benefit I ever enjoyed, until recently, as Bert Park’s cousin was to use the connection in those awkward ice-breakers that require you to provide an interesting fact about yourself. I was always able to underwhelm my fellow strangers with the fact that Bert was my cousin. This saved me from having to use my second most interesting fact which was that my Irish Terrier, Ginger, modeled a flea collar on the Channel 4 news show.

Then in 2013, Bert changed my life. I looked up his Wikipedia entry, having forgotten just when he was host of “Country Fair.” There in the first line was the revelatory blurb “Parks was born to Aaron Jacobson, a Jewish merchant who had emigrated to the United States from Latvia.” Latvia – my mom’s maternal family was Latvian. Bert had given me the gift of my heritage. What more could I have asked from him? I could only think of one thing. I wished he could have introduced me to Vonda Kay Van Dyke, Miss America 1965, my favorite Miss America because her talent was ventriloquism.

 

Bill Levine is an IT professional, aspiring humorist and confirmed freelance writer from Belmont, Massachusetts.

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