Story by Lyda Kay Ferree, The Southern Lifestyles Lady. Photography by Darren Lykes, Lori Nunnery, and The Tennessean.
This year the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant, now called the Miss Tennessee Volunteer Pageant, will celebrate its 67th anniversary. Many of us remember attending the pageant four nights a year at Rothrock Stadium in downtown Jackson.
Jane Alderson, Executive Director of the pageant since 2007, also recalls the Rothrock Stadium days when the pageant was held outside on the football field. ”The stage was built on oil drums,” said Jane. “When it rained, you picked up your folding chair and ran inside the old Union University gymnasium with your chair,” said Jane laughingly.
According to Jimmy Exum, who has served as president and producer of the pageant for 51 years, Jack Smythe brought the Miss Tennessee Scholarship Pageant to Jackson from Memphis. Early Maxwell had the Memphis franchise on a temporary basis. The Jackson Jaycees obtained the rights from the Miss America Pageant in 1952, one year prior to staging the pageant in 1953.
Jerry Smith, husband of Ruth Ann Barker Smith of Trenton, who was the first pageant winner in 1953, remembers when the first Miss Tennessee Pageant was held at the former Jackson High School on Allen Avenue.
The pageant moved to the Coliseum in 1968 and remained there until Kellye Cash (Sheppard), now a resident of Milan, was crowned Miss America in 1985. Later that year the pageant moved to the Jackson Civic Center, where it has remained since that time.
“Sixty-seven years is quite a milestone,” says Jane. “There are several pageants that have had 75-year anniversaries. But it is a milestone in Tennessee in that both Tom Hensley and Jimmy Exum have held the franchise from the beginning.”
Q&A of Jimmy Exum
President and Producer of the Miss Tennessee Volunteer Pageant
VIP: What is the focus of the newly-named pageant this year?
Jimmy Exum: The most important thing to know is that there will be a pageant in Jackson, and there will be another pageant in Knoxville. The people who have always participated in the Jackson pageant are still here, and there is going to be a pageant in Jackson as there always has been with swimsuit, evening gown, talent and interview competition.
VIP: Share a short summary of the Miss America Pageant change and the ripple effect in the state pageants.
JE: We basically disagreed with the direction the Miss America Pageant officials are going. We are connecting in the same direction that we have always have gone. We believe that we had an iconic program that was doing really well with a great Scholarship Foundation, and we felt that we should stay that way. The Miss America Pageant is moving the pageant to less emphasis on beauty and more emphasis on interviews. They removed the swimsuit category.
VIP: What anniversary is our local pageant celebrating?
JE: This year will be the 67th pageant in Jackson, Tennessee. I don’t know if it is the longest running pageant in America, but it is one of the longest running pageants in the country, and I’m almost sure that it is one of the few pageants held in the same location each year.
VIP: Is there a pageant theme this year?
JE: There is no theme this year although a lot of the musical numbers will be Chicago-based music because of Jason Scheff. The music will be a mixture of Chicago, Kool & The Gang, and Earth, Wind and Fire.
VIP: What are the most important points you want to make in light of the national changes in the pageant?
JE: Our pageant will still be held in Jackson. We’re giving away $125,000 in scholarships, which is 25 percent more than we gave last year. The new Miss Tennessee Volunteer will receive $25,000 this year. Last year she received $13,000. We are proud of the show and the fact that we have an orchestra. We are the only state pageant with a live orchestra, and the conductor, Chris McDonald, is a native of Jackson, TN.
We put on a really quality musical presentation along with our competition. Last year we were the only program in the US with a live, full-size orchestra. The Miss America pageant does not even have that.
VIP: What’s new this year, especially in terms of entertainment?
JE: We will place a lot of emphasis on our music and the entertainers themselves, but we are also making some changes in the staging or the way it is presented, in the lighting and there will be some equipment updates this year. We are really trying to improve on what we had in the past, and we’re doing that through technology.
VIP: To what do you attribute the longevity of the Miss Tennessee Volunteer Pageant (formerly called the Miss Tennessee Pageant)?
JE: I think it’s a combination of the people of Jackson, the merchants of Jackson, and the individuals who have dedicated their lives to this program. It is threefold. Mayor Jerry Gist has been instrumental in helping the pageant ever since he has been mayor. We could not have advanced the program without him and without the City of Jackson support. During the last five years, in particular, we have added a lot of things to the program, and Mayor Gist and the City of Jackson deserve the credit for these positive additions to the pageant.
VIP: What are your chief duties at the Pageant?
JE: I try to envision what we are going to do—the makeup of the show itself, the entertainers, the dancers and the costumes. But let me say that we could not produce the Pageant without our many volunteers, many of whom have been with us for 25 years. They are the ones who deserve the credit. I’m just one of the volunteers. I could not produce the pageant without these volunteers. The reason this pageant is still held in Jackson is because people are willing to give their time to the pageant, and they love the program. Otherwise you can’t produce a pageant of our magnitude. There is no way on earth we could pay for the number of people it takes to run the program. Nobody is paid except for the entertainers.
VIP: Why are there two Miss Tennessee pageants this year—one in Jackson and one in Knoxville? What was the cause of this change?
JE: We disagreed with the direction that the Miss America Pageant was going. They did not want a pageant organization that disagreed with them. So we have agreed to go our separate ways.
We have increased our scholarship program by 25 percent, so the two pageants has not hurt us. We were already one of the largest scholarship programs in the Miss America system. I don’t think anybody in the program last year gave away that much money and in cash. There is a big difference in in-kind money payable directly to a university and cash payments.
VIP: What changes will we see in this year’s pageant in Jackson, if any?
JE: The pageant will be the same as always, complete with swimsuit. There will be no change in the events of the pageant from last year. The interview segment is the same and the judging method is the same as last year.
VIP: How many contestants will be in the Jackson Pageant this year? Will there be as many as in the past?
JE: There will be 36 contestants this year as there have been for the last 15-20 years. That is the maximum number of contestants we can have because we feature 12 girls a night in each of three divisions.
VIP: Will Allison and Jay DeMarcus be emcees again this year?
JE: They will be, and Allison and her mother, Jane Alderson, are Co-Executive Directors of the pageant.
VIP: Are most of your sponsors renewing with the Jackson pageant this year?
JE: We lost about 4 or 5 sponsors, but we picked up about 10 or 12 sponsors. Our sponsorship program is definitely up this year!
What to Know
2019 Miss Tennessee Volunteer Scholarship Pageant
June 19 – 22
Carl Perkins Civic Center, 400 S. Highland Ave,
Jackson, TN 38301
The show will begin at 8 pm June 19-21 and 7:45 pm on Saturday, June 22.
Tickets: Season tickets for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights: $30
Saturday night tickets: $50 per person.
Tickets for individual nights will be available beginning the week prior to the Pageant at the Civic Center, or you may purchase them on the website for all four nights of the Pageant.
Tickets may be reserved by calling (731) 425-8590 or by going by the Civic Center between 9am and 4pm June 19, 20, 21 and 22.
For more information on tickets, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (731) 425-0859. Program books, which cost $10, will go on sale on June 19 from 2:30-4:30 pm at the Meet and Greet reception at the Old Hickory Mall. The pageant may be viewed on JEA’s EPlus TV6 and on the internet every night of the
pageant starting at 8 pm.