Fifty years ago tonight, Mary Alice Fox stood before 18,000 people at Convention Hall in Atlantic City and waited for her life to change forever.
In Sheboygan, young and old sat in the light of their flickering black-and-white television sets, fixed on channels 2 or 6. Across the nation, tens of millions more watched. They edged closer.
It was about 11 p.m. in Wisconsin, on Sept. 12, 1959. The deeply bronzed Fox had won the swimsuit competition earlier and prepared for iconic emcee Bert Parks to announce the final cut. Would the 1957 Sheboygan Central High School graduate become Miss America?
“I just wanted to make the top 10, but then it got to the point where I thought, ‘I could win this,’ “ Fox said in a recent interview.
Dressed in a ball gown, Fox held hands with her only remaining challenger, Lynda Lee Mead of Mississippi, as the suspense heightened.
“I tried to talk with Lynda Lee on stage — as I always do, I talked a lot — but she wouldn’t say a thing, she was so nervous,” Fox said. “She was the sweetest thing in the entire world.”
Parks announced Fox’s name next, as first runner-up, to conclude her heart-pounding ascent and one of the most riveting stories in Sheboygan history.
“I was the first from Wisconsin to make the top 10,” she said. “So it was a big deal at the time.”
Fox said she played it cool in the final moments.
“I’m always very comfortable in front of people,” she said. “And it was kind of dark after how many rows, and then you have a huge orchestra in front of you and a runway that goes out 40 rows. And you were familiar with it because we had already competed for three nights — evening gown, talent and swimsuit.”
Fox is now Mary Alice Schmitt and lives with her husband, 1954 Sheboygan North graduate Alton Schmitt, in Woodland Hills, Calif.
Although she was athletic, poised and striking, Schmitt’s ticket to Atlantic City was partly accidental. She had just completed her sophomore year at Valparaiso University and was recruited to enter the 1959 state pageant in Kenosha because Miss Sheboygan had gotten married.
“I wasn’t even Miss Sheboygan; I (had been) Sheboygan’s Bratwurst Queen of 1957,” She said.
The winner of that 1957 contest received a trip to Chicago, and there, at dinner in the Loop, a famous musician approached Schmitt and her friend Patty Zenk. Thus began her life in the public eye.
“He came over and said, ‘My, who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m the Bratwurst Queen of Sheboygan,’ ” Schmitt remembered. “Then he said, ‘Where did you girls get those beautiful tans?’ It was Elvis Presley who came over to meet the Bratwurst Queen. How about that?”
Schmitt was the one making the moves two years later at the Miss America Pageant. She muted her bright smile with black wax, wore baggy clothes and a floppy hat and threw her petite body across the stage in “a very clever, eccentric dance,” as an Atlantic City Press reporter described it. Her three-minute skit, set to Dixieland music, won over the talent judges and the crowd and put the crown within reach.
“It was a sorority act I had put together for a pledge meeting in college,” said Schmitt, who had had eight years of dance training with Helen Finst in Sheboygan. “Every piece I used, except for my shoes, was a personal moment. The old pants were those of my mother’s great-grandfather, who came over on the boat from Switzerland.”
She collected her first runner-up prize of $3,000 and embarked on a whirlwind year. Five hundred people welcomed her at Manitowoc Municipal Airport, after which she rode in a red convertible with Sheboygan Mayor John Bolgert and her business manager, Bob Richter, and waved her gloved right hand at thousands of fans along Eighth Street.
She was “stunning in a white V-backed sheath — prettier, if possible, than when she left,” The Sheboygan Press gushed, and she carried a spray of orchids in her left arm.
“I wasn’t aware of the parade or any of this until I landed in Manitowoc,” Schmitt said. “And then to have a reception at the Foeste Hotel. It was absolutely delightful.”
She then made a blur of appearances arranged by Richter, married Alton Schmitt the next summer and moved to California, where her husband worked as a nuclear engineer. She took acting classes at UCLA.
“I was in a couple episodes of ‘Green Acres’ as Eddie Albert’s secretary,” she said. “I did guest appearances on ‘Truth or Consequences’ in the 1960s. Most of all, I did (hundreds of) commercials because it gave me freedom to be here at home with the boys (sons Altie and Brad).”
Schmitt retired in November 2006 and celebrated her 70th birthday with Alton, Jim and Pat Schreiber and other longtime friends last month at the Paddock Club in Elkhart Lake. She also visited Richter in Sheboygan, and the pair looked at 50-year-old photos and discussed them as though little time had elapsed.
“I’ve never thought of myself as a celebrity,” she said. “The Miss America contest was just a fun time for me and for Sheboygan.”
(Published in The Sheboygan Press, Sept. 12, 2009)