Friday, January 8, 2016

Who won the Miss Ghost America pageant?


"This calls for a beauty pageant!"

The marketing department at MGM must have been an interesting place to work during the early 1970s. The studio was probably grateful to have a brand like DARK SHADOWS in its stable, even if that relationship was fleeting. While the first film in the truncated series is credited with saving MGM from the first of many flirtations with bankruptcy, the marketing for the film underlined a profound lack of understanding of the property. The PG film was sold to audiences like an exploitation picture, its many taglines littered with double entendres that suggested sexual content that wasn't there.

If you have trouble reconciling this cognitive dissonance, it gets stranger: MGM also tacked on a series of beauty pageants to the promotion to help sell the film. I don't know who watched the dark, nihilistic HOUSE OF DARK SHADOWS and thought "beauty pageant," but that's inevitably what happened.

And when it did, it happened on a grand scale. Regional competitions were conducted around the country to find "Miss Vampire America," with the winners moving on the finals in Los Angeles. They even managed to rope Jonathan Frid, Nancy Barrett and Regis Philbin (?!) into the fun. You can read more about that competition HERE.

MGM must have liked the pageant idea, because they followed it with "Miss Ghost America" as part of the NIGHT OF DARK SHADOWS campaign the following year. Unfortunately for all involved, the DARK SHADOWS television series had already been cancelled by the time the competition was announced. Miss Vampire America had the chance to win a spot on an episode of the gothic soap; Miss Ghost America had to settle for an appearance on THE DATING GAME.

"Wait a minute ... you're not Jim Lange!" 
Here's the advertised elevator pitch for Miss Ghost America: "Contestants may compete in any attire or make up they feel will be consistent with the image of Miss Ghost America. They will be judged on the originality and imagination of their conception of Miss Ghost America and their potential qualities for television performance." 

John Karlen made an appearance at the Aug. 28 regional competition that year, held at the Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey. The winner was crowned Sept. 25 on FRIGHT NIGHT, a television horror show produced by KHJ-TV in Los Angeles hosted by "Sinister Seymour." Competing in that event were Kate Sarchet, the Los Angeles regional winner, Summer Robin Bartholomew of San Francisco. Nancy Bonsall of Philadelphia, Nytza Diaz of New York, Elaine La May of St. Louis, Layne Merrell of Dallas, Carolyn Norman of Charlotte, N.C., and Dianna Owen of Gary, Indiana.

I can say with absolute certainty that one of those women won the contest. I'm just not sure which one it is.

Newspaper accounts of the Sept. 25 event identified Kate Sarchet as Miss Ghost America. At the time, Sarchet was an 18-year-old student in UCLA's drama department. She later had small roles in Michael Ritchie's SMILE and Carl Reiner's THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS (where she's credited with playing "Hooker #2") before going on to get her Ph.D. in psychology. She sounds like an interesting lady.

And then there's Summer Robin Bartholomew, who'd go on to win the Miss USA Pageant in 1975. An obsolete Geocities website for the actress has a list of her credits, including one for "Miss Ghost America MGM." Sure, this might refer to the regional title (Bartholomew won the San Francisco event) but that credit muddies the water slightly.

Bartholomew was later a substitute "letter turner" on WHEEL OF FORTUNE in 1979, and auditioned for the spot full-time when it opened in 1982. She lost to Vanna White, but was hired as the hostess for NBC's SALE OF THE CENTURY in 1984.

So, who really won the Miss Ghost America pageant? Sacheen Littlefeather was the Miss Vampire America winner in 1970, but it was regional winner Christine Domaniecki who got the guest spot on DARK SHADOWS. Consequently, it's Domaniecki that history remembers as the pageant's winner (at least, for the few of us who still think about such things.) Finding out who got THE DATING GAME gig might clear things up, but 40-year-old game show records are a little difficult to find. Sarchet was most likely the winner of the national contest, but it's unclear if she's the contestant that appeared on THE DATING GAME.

But there's one interesting account of Miss Ghost America's game show appearance online ... though it doesn't identify the pageant winner by name. THE DATING GAME host Jim Lange died in early 2015, prompting writer/comedian Will Durst to share the following anecdote on Facebook.
"Was on the dating game in 1972. Won a date with Miss Ghost America. She was gorgeous. The other guys both looked like Mark Spitz. I had hair down to my shoulders, glasses and was wearing a white jacket with a psychedelic tie. Her face visually blanched when I came around the wall. The couple before us went on a date to Japan. We got to go to the zoo in San Diego. Jim Lange thought it was funny."
It gets worse!
"Miss Ghost America totally ignored me on the date and hooked up with the golf pro at the hotel we got a free round of golf at. Which left the chaperone and me to drink in the hotel bar. Drank so much. Missed the ride back to LA the following morning. And had to get back on my own. First national TV exposure was pretty miserable."

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