AC Coin christens Miss Liberty

September 17, 2002 7:52 AM
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   ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP)-

   Brace yourself, Miss America fans: "Your ideal" is now a one-armed bandit.

   A Miss America slot machine-replete with bells, jackpots and Bert Parks singing "There She Is, Miss America"-is about to hit the market, and former winners are furious, saying the association with gambling will soil the pageant's image.

   Miss America 1943 Jean Bartel said former Executive Director Lenora Slaughter "would turn over in her grave if she heard about this decision."

   The reigning Miss America, Katie Harman, says the use of Miss America's likeness on a slot machine is demeaning, and former winners Leanza Cornett and Marian Bergeron agree.

   Others like the idea of marrying Atlantic City's original claim to fame with its current one. "Miss America Slots," developed by AC Coin & Slot and officially licensed by the Miss America Organization, will make their official casino debut Sept. 20 at Harrah's Atlantic City.

   AC Coin & Slot approached Miss America Organization officials with the idea and the pageant agreed in exchange for a licensing fee, which pageant officials say will be used to fund scholarships.

   Acting Miss America Organization CEO George Bauer would not specify the amount. He said the pageant would get "millions of dollars" in revenue from the machines over the next four years.

   The pageant struck separate deals to compensate the estates of Parks, who served as emcee from 1955 to 1980, and composer Bernie Wayne, who wrote the Miss America song.

   The 25-cent machine, with jackpots of up to $625, features a bonus round in which reels line up-head, torso and feet-to form the image of a Miss America winner. No likenesses of actual winners appear, however.

   Topped with a red velvet pillow and a version of the Miss America crown, the machine plays a recording of Parks-the longtime host-singing the theme song and also features a woman's voice giving Miss America trivia questions and answers.

   "Here's a business venture that's going to bring scholarship income to the Miss America Organization and did not require a financial commitment on our part," Bauer said. "Business-wise, it's a very sound decision. My views on the machine: It's legal, it's in a highly regulated industry, it's a game and it's optional," he said.

   The Miss America Organization, the tax-exempt charity that runs the pageant, has been searching for new revenue sources for more than a year. Last year, then-CEO Robert M. Renneisen threatened to move it out of Atlantic City if the state did not come up with new incentives. That effort has been shelved, though.

   For years, the pageant tried to distance itself from Atlantic City's casino-hotels, even while accepting free rooms for contestants and traveling companions. Until 1997, contestants weren't even allowed to set foot in the casinos. Some still feel Miss America shouldn't rub elbows with gamblers.

   "Does the Miss America Organization now want to be associated with gambling, and have its representatives' images on slot machines? My opinion is no," said Cornett, calling herself "mortified" by the idea.

   Miss America 1955 Lee Meriwether likes the idea-now.

   "When I first heard it, I went `Oh, no.' But I've done a lot of thinking about it. It comes back to the money being raised going to scholarships," she said.

   Harman, whose reign ends Sept. 21 with the crowning of Miss America 2003, said in February she opposed the idea but that she'd been told the machines wouldn't hit casinos until after she stepped down. In fact, they will be introduced at a Las Vegas gambling show Sept. 15, with Miss America 2000 Heather French in the promotion.

   "The challenge was to make a game with class and finesse, because Miss America is an icon," said designer Jerry Seelig, executive vice president of AC Coin & Slot. He said the machine will be a winner everywhere, not just in Miss America's hometown of Atlantic City. Women gamblers, in particular, will like it, he said.

   "What little girl didn't grow up wanting to be Miss America? Well, now she's our average gambler," he said