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First regatta queen was Carrollton’s Miss Kentucky

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By Dave Taylor

Carroll County was well represented in this week’s Miss Madison Regatta pageant. The present Miss Carroll County, Christin Stoops, and her immediate predecessor, 2009 Miss Carroll County Hayley Franklin, are the latest in a long line of Carroll County representatives to compete for the regatta crown. The most recent winner from this county was Dee Ann Patton, Miss Madison Regatta 1996. That was the second year I served as president of the regatta committee and Dee Ann made all of us proud as a beautiful, well-spoken young lady.

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Madison began hosting powerboat races in 1911 and sporadically was the site of regattas—or “acquatic meets” as they were known prior to the first world war—until the devastating flood of 1937 and the lingering economic struggles with the Great Depression brought the initial series to a close.

The committee that became the present Madison Regatta, Inc., started the current series of regattas in 1949 and held the inaugural Indiana Governor’s Cup Race in 1951. This weekend’s race will be the 60th running of the Governor’s Cup event.

The extensive schedule of events that turned the weekend boat race into a week-long festival did not happen until many years down the road. The first regatta queen was not selected by means of a competitive pageant. The year was 1955. What many race fans and local residents may not remember is that the first Madison Regatta royalty was not a Madison girl—not even an Indiana girl.

Race officials, led by the late Birl Hill, longtime regatta race chairman, asked the reigning Miss Kentucky, to serve as the regatta’s Miss Hydroplane and the official queen for the 1955 Indiana Governor’s Cup Race. Recently returned from her nationally televised appearance in the Miss America pageant, pretty Ann Shirley Gillock of Carrollton was enjoying a most exciting summer and fall in her travels all over the Bluegrass.

A Carrollton High School graduate, the 20-year-old daughter of former Carrollton Mayor Vernon P. and Hazel Booth Gillock was in the process of completing her sophomore year at Georgetown College when she was crowned Miss Carroll County at the old Royal Theatre in Carrollton on May 26, 1955. The theatre site at 123 Fifth Street is occupied today by the American Legion Post No. 41.

“Fred May owned the Royal Theatre and he was a close personal friend of our family,” Ann Shirley Gillock Brooks recalled during a phone call to her Frankfort, Ky., home last week. “He held a Miss Carroll County pageant at the theatre. I won that and after I finished my school year I practiced every day for the Miss Kentucky pageant.”

Less than a month later, on June 24, Ann was crowned Miss Kentucky at a pageant held in the Columbia Auditorium in Louisville. The facility has since been torn down. She began a whirlwind schedule of personal appearances all over the Commonwealth.

“I did a lot of traveling as Miss Kentucky,” she recalls. “I went to ribbon cuttings, judged baby contests – and that was a hard thing to do. I judged some beauty pageants. I tried to honor every request because to me it was an honor to be asked.”

One experience that stands out these many years later was in late July, 1955, when she was a guest of the Kentucky National Guard at Camp Breckinridge.

“My daddy knew the Adjutant General at Camp Breckinridge and he invited me to come spend a few days there on the base,” Brooks said. “I had a real good friend that went with me. She and I had chaperones. We stayed on the base, did all the activities and even went on bivouac. They gave me a helmet that had ‘Miss Kentucky Guard’ printed on it and I got to review the troops with the Adjutant General. I had a really great time and I learned a lot that week, too.”

Among local appearances that summer, Ann played several selections on the organ prior to dedication ceremonies for the new Carroll County Memorial Hospital on August 21, 1955. Together, Ann and another local girl, Carolyn Bond, cut the ribbon during the ceremonies to officially open the facility.

Leading up to the Miss America Pageant in September, Ann and other contestants were guests on television programs broadcast from New York City.

“There were four of us girls who were invited to go early to be in a commercial for Philco televisions,” she said. “I remember we were in makeup and they took us into a room where we stood with a television set.”

The 1955 Miss America pageant was the second to be televised live to the nation. That year Bert Parks began his 25-year run as master of ceremonies. It was the year the song “There She Is, Miss America” was introduced and it became the pageant’s enduring theme.

“It was grueling work to get ready for Atlantic City,” Ann recalls. “We were judged in formal wear, one-piece bathing suits, talent and they would pick out several of us girls at a time to attend a luncheon with the judges where they would judge us on our poise and personalities.”

There were very strict rules at the Miss America pageant in those days, she said. “No talking to any man was allowed—I couldn’t even talk to my father. We were all assigned chaperones. I think one of the contestants was disqualified for talking to a man.”

The various phases of the competition were held over the course of several days. An estimated audience of 9,000 persons were on hand on the evening of the talent portion of the pageant. Ann played a Johann Sebastian Bach composition, “Prelude in B flat,” on the organ during the talent portion of the competition.

“I remember as I was getting ready to go on for my part of the talent I was standing backstage, and as they announced my name to come out and play a light fixture fell and just missed my face by an inch,” she said. “So that totally unnerved me. But I’ll never forget there were three rounds of applause while I was playing.”

In the final judging Ann placed 12th in the Miss America Pageant. Miss Colorado, Sharon Ritchie, was crowned Miss America. Fred May, Royal Theatre owner, had attended as a representative of The News-Democrat. “Ann did beautifully, and was in every press reporter’s list of the top ten,” he reported later.

“Eddie Fisher sang during the pageant that year,” Ann recalls. “Most of the girls were real nice.”

Lee Ann Meriwether was the reigning Miss America who crowned Miss Ritchie. Ann recalls spending time with Meriwether who eventually went on to a number of television roles on “Batman” (as Catwoman), “Barnaby Jones” and “All My Children;” and a number of motion picture appearances.

“I had my picture made with Lee,” Ann said. “She was lovely, just so nice.”

Shortly after her return to Carrollton, Ann received the invitation to serve as Miss Hydroplane for the Madison Regatta, which was held in October. Miss Indiana, Carolyn Sue Turner, of Indianapolis, had also been invited to participate as Miss Outboard but was unable to attend when the event was delayed two weeks by rain and high water. Leading up to the race Ann made special television appearances in Louisville and Cincinnati to help publicize the event.

“That was the first time I had ever seen the hydroplane races,” Ann said. “It was really exciting! It wasn’t as big an event then as it is now. I remember they took a bunch of pictures of me down near the (Indiana-Kentucky Electric Corporation’s) smokestacks. It was a very enjoyable experience.”

Tempo VII, owned by renowned bandleader Guy Lombardo and driven by Danny Foster, won the race. Foster was the first driver to average over 100 miles per hour for a heat of competition on what was then a three-mile course at Madison.

That autumn Ann transferred to the University of Kentucky where she majored in communications/radio and TV. She married William Brooks in 1957. He is now deceased. They have a son, William, who has served as mayor of Belle Isle, Fla., near Orlando, since 2001 and is also a professional civil engineering consultant. She has three grandchildren.

Although broadcasting was her intended future, Ann put her career on hold in favor of her family and concentrated on being a political wife.

“I did a little bit of it,” she said of the broadcasting career. “My husband ran for Commonwealth Attorney, we moved to Frankfort and I got involved in politics.”

Ann also served as organist for a time at a small church near Lexington, and later as choir director for a church in Frankfort.

Ann says she has attended other Miss Kentucky pageants in recent years and keeps in touch with a number of past crown-holders of the unique Miss Kentucky sisterhood. She directed the planning for the Kentucky Bicentennial festivities in 1992.

“I would like to say that being chosen to represent my state was a great thrill and honor,” she told The News-Democrat on September 15, 1955. “I received much applause and favorable comment from great music critics. I was offered a chance to become a starlet in the movies, and also a $5,000 a year job as an airline stewardess. Of course, I wasn’t interested in movies or being an airline stewardess. The schedule was very strenuous and tiring, but it was very rewarding. I tried very hard to win a scholarship, and to win for Kentucky and my home town, but I feel that being chosen number 12 among such an array of talent, beauty and intelligence was quite a compliment and I feel very grateful for the opportunity to participate.”

Ann Shirley Gillock Brooks is to date the only Carroll County resident ever to be crowned Miss Kentucky. She looks back on 1955 with many fond memories. Her newspaper assessment from 55 years ago of her 1955 fairytale summer was echoed anew during last week’s interview.

“It was a wonderful experience,” she said, “just a wonderful experience!”