A few years ago, spurred on by a budding interest in genealogy and incipient old age, I started searching for information about my mother’s maternal family. I gave up when I found enough turn-of-the-century women called Mollie Jacobson, my grandmother’s name, to fill a tenement block.
But one twig of my mom’s family tree that I did know has sparked muted excitement over the years. Her cousin was Bert Jacobson, whose stage name was Bert Parks, most widely known as the longtime host of the Miss America pageant.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1914, Bert hosted the Miss America telecast from 1955 to 1979, the competition’s golden age. In those days, no one cared that the talents of the 50-some beauties ranged from baton twirling to baton dropping. A contestant who wished for world peace was viewed as a patriot, not a cliché.
Watching the pageant on TV was a big deal for most families, and of course in our house it was a really big deal, though I never found it wholly satisfying. Why, I wondered, couldn’t Bert get us free tickets to Convention Hall in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and backstage passes to meet the contestants, preferably wearing their swimsuits?
As a kid, I asked my mom for tangible evidence that we were related to one of the great mediocre talents of 20th-century America. She gave me a shoebox with a Christmas card dated 1959, which featured just his kids. It wasn’t even signed “to my favorite cousin.” In fact, it bugged me that Jewish Bert was even sending out Christmas cards.
In 1961, my parents went to New York to see Bert play Harold Hill in The Music Man on Broadway. They did visit him after the show, but they didn’t get him to sign their playbill.
Until recently, the only benefit I really got from being Bert Park’s first cousin once removed was that it was a handy conversation icebreaker. It saved me from having to use the second most interesting fact about me, which was that my Irish terrier, Ginger, had once modeled a flea collar on the local news.
But in 2013, Bert changed my life. I happened to look up his Wikipedia entry to check something, and there in the first line was the revelatory statement “Parks was born … to Aaron Jacobson, a Jewish merchant who had immigrated to the United States … from Latvia.” So my mom’s maternal family was Latvian! Bert had given me the gift of my heritage.
What more could I have asked of him? I can think of only one thing: He might have introduced me to Vonda Kay Van Dyke, Miss America 1965, my favorite contestant. No baton twirling for Vonda; her talent was ventriloquism.