By Raanan Geberer
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Often, fixtures of New York life that were once so commonplace that people rarely gave a second thought to them are now remembered only by an ever-decreasing number of older people.
One example of this is the Transit Authority’s “Miss Subways” beauty contest. Contestants’ and winners’ photos and biographies were posted in subway cars along with advertisements. The contest was satirized in the famed 1944 Frank Sinatra-Gene Kelly musical as “Miss Turnstiles” – but nowadays, most people who watch the movie probably don’t get the reference.
Until now, just about the only place you would be reminded of the “Miss Subways” pageant was at Ellen’s Stardust Diner, a Midtown Manhattan restaurant founded by actress and singer Ellen Hart Strum, a former Miss Subways from 1959. To this day, the walls of Ellen’s, which originally was located opposite City Hall, are adorned with Miss Subways posters.
Starting on Oct. 23, the Miss Subways contest will be front and center again at the Transit Museum in Downtown Brooklyn, when the next exhibition “Meet Miss Subways: New York’s Beauty Queens, 1941-1976” opens to the public.
One thing neophytes need tounderstand about the contest is that it began in an age where beauty contests were everywhere. The famous Rheingold Brewery of Brooklyn sponsored a “Miss Rheingold” contest that was similarly known to New Yorkers. And in both the Miss Rheingold and Miss Subways contests (after 1963), the winners were chosen by popular vote, with onlookers invited to write in or call (no emails in those days!).
If one looks at the Miss Subways winners, one is struck by the way the contest cut across class, occupational and ethnic lines. Samples of the posters show students, teachers, secretaries, an insurance broker-in-training, a medical technician, a commercial artist, a career Army professional, and several aspiring actresses and singers. One young woman merely described herself as “a doodler and a procrastinator.”
Both the first African-American Miss Subways, Thelma Porter, and the first Asian-American, Helen Lee, made their debut during the late 1940s – a time when minorities were not represented in mainstream beauty contests such as Miss America. Ms. Porter’s becoming Miss Subways was thought to be so important that it merited a feature in the NAACP magazine.
The contest petered out in the 1970s, partially because of the growing feminist movement, partially because the city’s fiscal crisis made it necessary to end non-essential expenditures.
For the exhibit, photographer Fiona Gardner and journalist Amy Zimmer tracked down former contestants, taking portraits in their new surroundings and recording their stories. Gardner first became interested in the campaign after seeing the many pageant advertising cards displayed on Ellen’s.
Gardner began a long-term project to create new portraits of the contest winners, reflecting the reality of their lives some 30 years later. On December 30, 2007, the New York Times City Section featured Gardner’s work in the photo-essay “Saw You on the E Train.” From April 14 to May 30, 2009, the Rush Arts Gallery exhibited her photos. Currently, Gardner and Zimmer are working on a book to be released this winter that will accompany the Transit Museum exhibition.
At the Transit Museum exhibit, original pageant cards will wrap around the room at ceiling level, as they would have been seen by straphangers years ago. Modern portraits by Ms. Gardner will hang below. And on On Thursday, November 29, at 6 p.m., City Lore’s Steve Zeitlin will speak with Fiona Gardner and a former contestant about the significance of the Miss Subways pageant as a form of urban folklore.