1956 Miss Universe contestants line up for a photo in Downtown Long Beach
It was the summer of 1952 and Long Beach was a buzz with excitement. The city had been chosen – over Catalina Island and Hollywood, no less! – to host the world’s first international beauty pageant. The most beautiful women in the world were about to descend on the city for the inaugural Miss Universe Pageant. And Long Beach was determined to use this opportunity to show the world – and the universe – that it was truly a great destination location, “combining all the advantages of a modern city with resort attractions,” as the official Miss Universe program read.
“[The pageant] was quite the thing; everyone looked forward to it,” recalls Long Beach native Bruce Johnston. “It was one of the few things [at the time] that Long Beach had to define itself.”
The Miss Universe pageant was founded after the winner of the rival Miss America pageant refused to pose for publicity pictures while wearing a swimsuit. Pageant sponsor Catalina Swimsuits pulled their sponsorship from the Miss America Pageant and decided to create their own beauty competition instead. Enter the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants, both debuting in 1952 in our beloved city.
It was mid-June, and the attention of the world was on Long Beach as contestants from across the globe began arriving.
“Saucy Aussie on Her Way,” the newspaper announced.
“Miss Alaska Doffs Parker for Sun,” another headline reads. (History lesson: Alaska didn’t become an American state until 1959.)
Even the policemen assigned as escorts snapped away with personal cameras as the curvaceous candidates descended from their Pan American Clipper, the Long Beach Independent reported. The city was intoxicated with beauty.
For the next week, Long Beach would be the “beauty capital of the world” with a full schedule of activities to entertain the girls and highlight the city. It was promoted as a weeklong, $1 million celebration. (That’s equivalent to approximately $9 million in today’s economy.)
Monday: Contestants report to Pageant Headquarters in Municipal Auditorium.
Tuesday: Newsreel and press pictures; Luncheon; Welcome Dinner
Wednesday: Beauty parade of 100 floats
Thursday: Aqua Show and fireworks in Rainbow Lagoon
Friday: Lions Club luncheon; Musical State show and selection of Miss United States
Saturday: Miss Universe Pageant
Sunday: Beach party, Coronation Ball Banquet, Grand Coronation Ball
Many of the week’s activities were open to the public, with tickets for various events ranging from 60 cents to $4.50. But it was the Beauty Parade on Wednesday that drew what seemed like every citizen of the greater Los Angeles area to Long Beach on that warm summer day.
Beginning at Alamitos and Ocean, the two-and-a-half hour parade featured the 71 contestants of the Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, each riding atop individual pastel-tinted floats.
In subsequent years, Bruce Johnston had a better-than-front-row seat for the momentous parade. His Boy Scout Troop was tapped to push the contestants’ floats up the street for the procession. Each Boy Scout was assigned to one Beauty Queen. Needless to say, the Boy Scouts very much looked forward to this event each year.
In 1952, the event drew a record crowd of 225,000 people. After all, this was the Average Joe’s chance to do a bit of his own beauty pageant judging. As the parade went west to American Ave. (now Long Beach Blvd.) and turned north to Seventh Street, the citizen judges began to announce their favorites – with whistles and catcalls.
Down to Pine Ave and around Rainbow Pier, the 91 floats continued their journey, serenaded by musical groups including the Long Beach Youth Band, Inglewood Boys Band and Torrance Accordionettes. However, when all the votes were tallied, the unofficial winner of the parade – as determined by the Independent – was Muk-Tuk, a six-week-old Husky puppy brought to the competition by Miss Alaska. The paper even highlighted his stats: 6” tall, 8” bust, 6” waist and 14” hips (including his full, fluffy tail).
As the week of festivities went on, the main event grew closer. The stakes were high. As a co-sponsor, Universal-International pictures announced that the winner would be offered a seven-year motion picture contract. Other prizes included a 5-foot, 150-pound trophy valued at more than $2,000 and the chance to wear the Miss Universe crown, an all-diamond nuptial tiara created for the Russian Imperial court that contained 1,829 flawless diamonds with a combined weight of 300 karats.
Finalists would be judged in bathing suit, evening gown and native costume. Much like a prizefight open for betting, the newspaper listed the contestant’s stats:
Belgium – Myriam Lynn, 25, 5’6”, 135 lbs, bust 35, waist, 25, hips 35, brunette – skiing, dancing.
Hong Kong, China – Judy Dan, 21, 5’5”, 118 lbs, bust 34, waist 23, hips 35, brunette – swimming, riding.
Peru – Ada Bueno, 18, 5’ 5”, 110 lbs, bust 35, waist 26, hips 36; brunette – swimming, ballet.
The pageant was sold out, standing room only. Almost 4,000 people packed the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium on Saturday night to see who would be crowned the most beautiful woman in the universe. In total there were 30 contestants representing every continent and all major nations (except for Russia, who was not invited to participate).
Miss Venezuela (Carmen Duijm) Float on Pine Ave. in 1955
It took two extra rounds of voting for the judges to agree on a winner. But when the final ballots were in, early Sunday morning, Miss Finland, an 18-year-old high school student who told the Independent she isn’t interested in boyfriends, was crowned the first Miss Universe. Miss Hawaii came in as the first runner-up, followed by Miss Greece, Miss Hong Kong and Miss Germany.
Ironically, Miss Universe wouldn’t remain a “miss” for long. While on a tour of the Philippines during her reign, she met and fell in love. She secretly wed in May of 1953 and had to “abdicate her throne” as Miss Universe.
The Miss Universe pageant continued to be a Long Beach summer tradition through 1959, when a disagreement between the city and the pageant sponsors caused the Miss Universe pageant owners to move the event’s location to Miami Beach.
Long Beach responded to the rebuke by creating their own “Miss International Beauty” pageant, boasting the largest group of international women to appear in any worldwide beauty contest. The rest of the city caught on to the “international” title and the Long Beach City Council began regarding Long Beach as an “International City,” a somewhat confusing slogan we still see on signs around town today.
Perhaps they should have gone with “Most Beautiful City in the Universe.”