Miss America 1955 Lee Meriwether earned the title during the very first televised Miss America pageant.

"They were doing it really catch-as-catch-can," Meriwether said of that early broadcast on ABC television.

Meriwether actually learned backstage she was the winner, something that only the television audience, not the audience in Boardwalk Hall, actually saw.

"I came out crying hysterically," she recalled, explaining that her memories of the event are only clear because she saw it later on the kinescope, a film of the televised program.

After her victory, she went on a speaking tour, traveling the country to talk about the competition and its benefits and sponsors.

And it started a career in film and television that she continues today.

"I was so fortunate," Meriwether said on a break from rehearsals from her latest play in California.

Meriwether said she used her scholarship money to pay for acting classes with the famed Lee Strasberg and became the first female editor on the "Today" show.

She appeared on the Philco Television Playhouse and later went on to play Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie.

Her best-known role was that of secretary and daughter-in-law Betty Jones in the 1973–1980 CBS series Barnaby Jones, opposite Buddy Ebsen, who became a lifelong friend.

Meriwether has continued to act. Just before this year's Miss America competition she appeared in the play "A Short stay in Carranor."

"It will be so good to come back to Atlantic City and see it again," Meriwether, now 78, said of the town where she was crowned on Sept. 11, 1954. "I've been looking forward to this."

The year she won, the contestants were on stage in rolling chairs for much of the broadcast.

"We were the scenery for a good part of the show," she said. She and Miss Florida learned to act like ventriloquists, she said, smiling and still managing to carry on a conversation on stage.

Meriwether said the competition and the win gave her opportunities to pursue her passion, acting, and more.

"What (Miss America) offers for young women, not just the ones who come to Atlantic City, is so much. The scholarships, the opportunities," Meriwether said.

The Philco Corporation and the ABC network televised the first live Miss America broadcast on Saturday, Sept. 11. Twenty-seven million viewers from coast to coast shared the thrills of the Boardwalk Hall audience as they watched from their own homes when California's Lee Meriwether captured the title for 1955. Bob Russell was the emcee. For the first time, the pageant also featured its first "Illuminated Night Parade" down the Boardwalk.

Load comments