"There she is, Miss America. There she is, your ideal; the dream of a million girls who are more than pretty can come true..."
The theme song of the Miss America pageant has rung in the ears of the nation for decades. Begun in 1921, the beauty pageant was a ploy to bring business to the boardwalk in Atlantic City, NJ by giving patrons beautiful girls to look at. The event became an annual spectacle with girls from each state, between the ages of 17 and 25 vying for the crown based on the attractiveness of their features and how they looked in a bathing suit. Over time, the sexist aspect of the pageant saw the contest transform from a beauty pageant to a scholarship pageant where voting was based on the talent and vocal interviews of the contestants.
When we look back over a century of American women vying for the title of Miss America, we find several contestants hailing from Cranston, Warwick and Johnston. In 1935, Leona Mucha of West Warwick represented RI in the pageant. Born on Feb. 7, 1914, she was the daughter of Austrian immigrant Szczepan Mucha and his wife Salomea, a native of Poland. Along with her parents and numerous siblings, she worked in a local cotton mill, first as a sweeper and then as a comb tender. She eventually married Jakub Plaziak, who worked for Westover Fabrics in West Warwick. The couple resided with her parents and the former Miss Rhode Island took a job sewing at a garment manufacturing company. She died in Coventry during the winter of 1981.
In 1936, 17-year-old Mary Margaret Rogers of Johnston represented our state in the Miss America pageant. The daughter of Frederick and Ann (Duffy) Rogers, she lived with her parents on Elm Street and had several siblings. A former student at St. Xavier School, her father was employed as a sheet metal worker at a roofing company. She eventually married Gerald Godbout, a stock clerk at a retail store and they resided with her parents. Later, they removed to Maryland where Gerald worked as a cargo auditor for an airline. She mothered several children and after she passed away on May 14, 2010, was buried in Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring, Maryland.
In 1945, Cranston's Mary Stevens became a contestant in the pageant and sang "How Deep is the Ocean?" during the talent portion of the contest. Later that year, she performed vocals at the Arcadia Ballroom in Pawtucket as a special feature to the Don Mario Orchestra.
Eighteen-year-old Ann Louise Willis took to the stage during the Miss America pageant of 1958. The daughter of George and Evelyn Willis, her father was an artist, art educator and sign writer for a sign painting company. She, her parents and siblings resided on Elmwood Avenue in Warwick then Preston Drive in Cranston. She graduated from Cranston High School, where her nickname was "Willie." Active in many clubs, such as the Spanish Club, Class Council, Art Shop and Cheerleading, she was voted "Most Popular" and "Most Artistic." After being voted "Miss Congeniality" in the Miss America pageant, she used her prize money to enroll at the RI School of Design and then New York's American Academy of Dramatic Arts. In 1964, while performing in the play "Separate Rooms" at a playhouse in Penn., she met her future husband in costar Peter Ratray. She went on to appear in Broadway musicals, including "Mame" with Angela Lansbury. She and Peter then portrayed Jeanette McDonald and Nelson Eddy in the movie "Last Train to Hollywood" before he went on to star in the soap opera "Another World."
As the winner of the Miss Cranston pageant, Willis had gone on to win the title of Miss Rhode Island at the Warwick Musical Theater on the night of June 29, 1958. About 1,500 people came to watch the competition. During the talent portion of the pageant, she displayed two original paintings and recited two original poems. During the oral interview, she stated that her favorite television show was the Loretta Young Show and that she thought RI qualified as the nation's best vacation spot because "President Eisenhower enjoyed his golf here." Her prizes included a $500 scholarship, jewelry, clothing, luggage and a trip to Atlantic City the following Sept. to represent our state in the Miss America pageant. After many years spent on the stage and screen, Willis became a drama coach. She died at her New York City home on June 9, 2021.
Sally Saabye of Warwick became a Miss America contestant in 1960, displaying her talent for piano and pantomime during the competition. The 18-year-old had been academically gifted throughout her school years, winning many honors and accolades for her grades. In the fall of 1957, she had been chosen the "Sweetheart of 1958" by the Pawtucket Chapter of the Order of DeMolay. She went on to represent the chapter in that year's "Rhode Island Sweetheart" competition. She was a member of her high school's dramatic society, a football cheerleader, student council member and member of the newspaper staff. Previously, while a student at Slater Junior High School, she had been voted "Princess" of the school during a dance on the night of May 3, 1957.
The daughter of Baptist clergyman Edward Saabye and his wife Hope, an elementary school teacher, she resided with her parents on Varnum Avenue. She was a member of the Rainbow Girls and second vice president of the Pilgrim Fellowship at Smithfield Avenue Congregational Church. While preparing for the Miss Rhode Island pageant, she and 11 other girls made a tour of the state before competing for the title on the night of June 25, 1960 at Veteran's Memorial Auditorium. There, she took the crown and was placed in the running for the Miss America pageant. During her reign, she led the local soap box derby parade and appeared at numerous ribbon-cutting ceremonies and social events.
Judy Anderson of Belt Street in Warwick represented RI in the Miss America pageant of 1964. The 20-year-old performed vocals and a dance routine as her talent. The daughter of Walter Anderson, she was a sophomore at Rhode Island College when she won the title of Miss Rhode Island, beating out 10 other contestants. That pageant was held on the night of June 20 at the Warwick Musical Theater. Her prizes included a one-week vacation for two in Bermuda, a $2,000 wardrobe, a $1,000 scholarship and the use of a new car for one year. The pageant was attended by about 2,000 spectators.
In 1965, Maureen Manton of Warwick won the title of Miss Rhode Island. During the talent portion of the Miss America pageant, the 21-year-old presented a dramatic reading from the Diary of Anne Frank. The following year, she represented the state from atop a float depicting the ocean state's nautical attractions during the Lions International Parade in New York City. In the summer of 1968, she served as a judge at the Miss Pawtucket pageant. A graduate of Warwick Veteran's Memorial High School, she went on to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in Food and Nutrition from the University of RI.
Arlene Pinto of Warwick became a contestant in the Miss America pageant in 1968. The 21-year-old performed vocals and a dance routine to "Thoroughly Modern Millie." A graduate of Warwick Veteran's Memorial High School, she went onto attend the University of RI where she earned a degree in Secondary Education.
While none of the local contestants won the title of “Miss America”, their experiences in vying for the crown, their prizes and notoriety did indeed allow them to live the dream of a million girls.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.