By Bartee Haile
An 18-year-old brunette from Tyler waited anxiously with nine other finalists for the winner of the “Miss America” beauty pageant to be announced on Sept. 12, 1942.
Ask any Texan how many young women from the Lone Star State have been chosen the most beautiful in the land, and the answer most likely will be two. He or she may even know they came from the same hometown and reigned four years apart in the 1970s, but hardly anyone remembers the first Miss Texas to take Atlantic City by storm.
Jo-Carroll Dennison may have been born in Arizona, but she was a Texan through and through. Her grandfather was a Panhandle pioneer, who drove cattle up the Chisholm Trail, and she grew up on the tent-show circuit entertaining small-town audiences.
By the time she reached her mid-teens, Jo-Carroll was tired of living out of a suitcase and wanted to put down permanent roots. Soon after graduating from high school in Tyler, she took a job as a legal secretary with former U.S. Senator Earle Mayfield.
When a local banker offered to sponsor her in the Miss Tyler contest, Jo-Carroll turned him down at first. “I refused until he told me they would buy me a new bathing suit for the occasion. Fate has a funny way of dictating your future. If I’d already had a bathing suit, I honestly don’t think I would ever had entered a beauty contest.”
Jo-Carroll’s looks, talent and stage presence were an unbeatable combination. She won the Rose Capital event, the East Texas competition and the Miss Texas contest. Before she knew it, she was on her way to Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Coming just nine months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the “Miss America” show opened with a mock air raid complete with shrieking sirens and a blackout. Spotlights swept across the ceiling of the Warner Theater in search of the enemy aircraft and finally lit up a tiny model plane sliding down a wire toward the stage.
The “all clear” sounded, and a voice announced, “It’s the Flying Fortress bringing the Miss America contestants.” The house lights went up, the curtain raised and 30 candidates from every corner of the country made their grand entrance.
For three evenings, the beauties tried to impress the judges with their talent and physical attributes. Jo-Carroll was the only one awarded two first prizes, winning the talent show on the second night and the swimsuit competition on the third.
The field was narrowed to ten for the fourth and final round. Wearing “a typical Western costume of doeskin chaps, checked flannel shirt and wide-brimmed hat,” the Lone Star lass sang “Deep in the Heart of Texas” one last time.
After parading in bathing suits and evening gowns, the finalists nervously awaited the judges’ decision. Third place went to Miss Michigan and second place to Miss Chicago, but the crown was placed on the head of Miss Texas!
“I’m too happy to say very much,” Jo-Carroll gushed into the microphone that carried her words across the nation, “but I love Atlantic City and I hope to do much to repay it for this honor. I want to thank the other girls in the contest who have been so kind to me.”
In a glowing description of Miss America 1942, a newspaper reporter admired her “dark brown, softly curling hair sweeping to her shoulders, brown eyes flecked with green and a smooth, creamy complexion.”
When her reign was over, Jo-Carroll signed a movie contract with Twentieth Century Fox. During her eight years in Hollywood, she married comedian Phil Silvers.
“Through Phil I met almost every well-known person in show business,” she recalled in a 1980s interview. “Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby and Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, all gave us a wedding party, which was pretty big-time stuff.
“But the luckiest part of all was that Gene Kelly and his marvelously talented and intellectual group of friends liked me as well as Phil. At Gene’s on any given night, folks like Judy Garland, Noel Coward, Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Fred Astaire might drop in and entertain or play charades or just talk.”
Jo-Carroll and Silvers went their separate ways in 1950. The bald comic tickled America’s funny bone as Sgt. Bilko on the hit TV show, while she worked in early television as a production assistant in New York.
Texans had to wait 29 years for another homegrown “Miss America.” Lone Star lightning struck twice as two girls from Denton, Phyllis George in 1971 and Shirley Cothran in 1975, conquered Atlantic City.
Jo-Carroll eventually remarried and returned to California to raise a family. She was later co-director of the Los Angeles Theatre Company and in charge of community relations for a hospice.
Speaking from her retirement home in Palm Springs in 2001, Jo-Carroll Dennison said, “Even now I am invariably introduced as ‘a former Miss America.’ After the inevitable question ‘What year?’ comes the question ‘What state were you from?’ And I answer with a special kind of pride, ‘I was Miss Texas.’”
“Unforgettable Texans” brings to life the once famous people no one remembers today. Order your copy for $24.00 (tax and shipping included) by mailing a check to Bartee Haile, P.O. Box 130011, Spring, TX 77393.