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TIME TOUR: The Miss Arkansas Pageant

by Elizabeth Robbins/Garland County Historical Society | July 1, 2022 at 12:00 a.m.
Evening gown competition in 1960. Claudette Smith, Miss Pine Bluff, won the crown. In 1991 her daughter, Heather Hunnicut, was also crowned Miss Arkansas.

Beautiful girls under the stars — what could be lovelier?

That was the scene at Oaklawn Park for the first eight years the Miss Arkansas Pageant was held in Hot Springs.

An all-out campaign by the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce brought the pageant to Hot Springs in July 1958. The Chamber of Commerce and the Jaycees sponsored the pageants, led by pageant General Manager Bill Muncrief, Mort Cox, and Raymond Clinton. Future pageant legend Bob Wheeler, executive director of the pageant for over 40 years, parked cars in those early days, and Bob Evans was the pageant emcee.

More than 6,000 people attended that first pageant at Oaklawn and 18,000 attended the Miss Arkansas parade. The spectators watched the 30 contestants compete on a 40-by-60-foot stage built at the finish line — with a runway ramp 52 feet long by 8 feet wide jutting across the concrete apron to the main grandstand.

Sally Miller was crowned that year in a pageant, which had a budget of $10,000. It was chosen as the most outstanding state pageant in the country by the Miss America organization.

Oaklawn was chosen as the pageant venue because it could accommodate large crowds and it charged the pageant no rent. There were, however, problems with an outdoor location. Bugs attracted by the bright lights were pesky, and the heat and humidity made hair-dos and energy levels droop.

The most dreaded outdoor risk, though, was rain. More than once, Jaycee volunteers desperately cleaned water off the stage with squeegees, mops and brooms. One year, an entire evening performance had to be postponed because of rain. The Oaklawn venue was also not well suited to the needs of the “Pageant Preview” television show, which had to be moved from Oaklawn to Little Rock.

Despite occasional problems, the Oaklawn pageants were full of memorable moments — like the 1963 crowning of future Miss America Donna Axum — and full of fun for more than 75 local volunteers.

To avoid the weather-related problems, the annual July pageant moved to Hot Springs’ newly constructed convention center in 1965. Although it had seating for only about 4,500, the modern facility was expected to attract larger crowds to the preliminary night performances than Oaklawn did. And air conditioning and cushioned seats were definite advantages.

After being held in Hot Springs for 58 years, the pageant moved to Little Rock In 2017. Memories remain of the pageant’s years in Hot Springs, especially when it was an outdoor event. At Oaklawn, you could see Dr. Ronnie Bracken moving props, Municipal Judge Robert Ridgeway manning the spotlights, mortician Charles Brenner running errands for the judges, and veterinarian Dr. Don Burrough selling tickets — and, of course see all those beautiful girls under the stars.

For more information, the Garland County Historical Society may be contacted by email at [email protected], phone at 501-321-2159, or at

  Gallery: Time Tour: Miss Arkansas Pageant


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