Little Miss Suffolk, Philharmonic

Published 10:32 pm Wednesday, October 2, 2013

By Frank Roberts

I recently went through a pile of old tapes and came across one I don’t remember seeing before. It is two hours of the Little Miss Suffolk competition, circa 1989.

The photography was somewhat dim, but the memories are bright.

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I shared the duties as host with Miss Suffolk. She was a charmer; I was adequate. It was a job I tackled before in a variety of locales. When I wasn’t on the podium, I was one of the judges in various areas of Hampton Roads.

It’s interesting to watch the beautifully gowned girls while wondering what they are doing these days. It was a mini-Miss America thing, with the youngsters parading, showing off their expensive gowns, and answering questions posed by the judges.

I knew two of the families — Mr. and Mrs. Gary Butler and Mr. and Mrs. Bennie Speight. The Speights are still very close friends. Their daughter, Pamela, was second runner-up, but for many years afterward she was one of the best-known teenage models, in demand for print work, runway stuff — constantly busy in many areas of Planet Earth. These days, she is busy teaching in Richmond.

She often accompanied me when I reviewed concerts, sometimes driving me home afterward. After a late night of reviewing and writing, I often stayed in what was dubbed “The Frank Roberts Room” in the Speight household, rather than drive back to Hertford, N.C., after a 13-hour day. Covering Suffolk was my regular job with the Virginian-Pilot. Covering the concerts was overtime.

The pageant ended with a gentleman whose name escapes me singing “Supercalifragilisticexpealidocious.” Wish they’d chosen “Always.” That’s easier to write.

Speaking of fest pretties, remember the year Elizabeth Taylor visited Suffolk? She was married to Sen. John Warner at the time. She wore little or no makeup, had gained some weight and looked a little frumpy. All those who could get close to her remember she was very sociable, pleasant and nice.

Warren Hull was a nice person. You must be a senior citizen to remember him. He starred in several grade-B movies, but is best remembered as the host of a radio quiz show called “Vox Pop.” It was the only USO show that ever deigned to visit Nome, where I was stationed for almost three years. Traveling with him was Vanessa Brown, a brainy beauty who began her professional career as one of the Quiz Kids.

Officially, I was in the Signal Corps. At night, I was disc-jockeying on WXLN, The Voice of the Arctic, alternating playing records, and the V-Discs that featured famous folks recording especially for Armed Forces Radio. I got that job when the gent on the air was getting discharged. I told the officer in charge about my previous experience, which included a job as a mail boy for the Mutual Broadcasting System in New York.

Thanks to that job, I knew two of the day’s most prestigious broadcasters. One was Gabriel Heatter, who was known for his line, “Ah, yes, there’s good news tonight,” a line that would not work these days. The other gent was the premier sportscaster of the day, Bill Stern. Both wrote letters of recommendation, with Heatter sending my commanding officer a lengthy epistle, including a few little fibs about my talent.

One of my first commercial radio jobs was in Fort Madison, Iowa, at KXGI. The owner was an ex-GI and hired only former members of the armed forces.

It was a great little town. It was there I thought I had a scoop interviewing Aunt Jemima. Turned out there were six Aunt Jemimas touring the country. I also worked a show with Jan Savitt, whose big band was popular those days.

We were in a club in Davenport. It was Hades hot, so I aimed a large fan toward the band and — whoa — the music flew all over the place. Savitt, a former first violinist for the New York Philharmonic, was not amused.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at froberts73@embarqmail.com.