Jeff Zaslow wrote the definitive piece of journalism about the Miss Cass Pageant two years ago. (Most of you probably aren’t WSJ Online subscribers, so the link takes you to a forum, where someone has cut and pasted the article. Cntrl/F “zaslow” and you’ll find it quickly.) I won’t try to top it, but he and I saw different pageants in different years, so maybe I can add something.
I was privileged to attend the pageant for the first time this year, this past Saturday. My friend Kate was a judge last year, and she told me it was like nothing I’d ever seen. She was right. You don’t attend a beauty pageant for developmentally disabled women every day. Yes: Retarded women. (I know that word is un-P.C.; I just want to put it in the strongest possible terms.) And men. In a pageant. With Broadway show tunes. And an evening gown competition, and talent, and an on-stage interview. And, at the end, a queen. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Cass Community Social Services agency serves people with disabilities in one of the poorest parts of Detroit; it’s a ministry of the Cass United Methodist Church. This was the 11th year for the Miss Cass Pageant, and if you’ve taken the time to read that WSJ story, you know that not everyone is crazy about the idea. There’s a fine line — no, a thick line — between supportive and mocking, but the laughter sounds the same. And the evening was full of laughter. When a contestant is asked what her favorite store is, and she answers “Farmer Jack” (a grocery store), and then asked what her favorite aisle is, and says “Kroger,” people laugh. It’s funny. What can I say? You had to be there. Much of the audience consists of group-home operators, family members and others whose dedication to the mentally disabled is hardly in question. They’re entitled.
This year’s musical theme was “Annie,” and the opening number was “NYC.” Three men stood at center stage, each holding a large N, Y or C. Every time the phrase is sung, their job was to thrust their letter high in the air. Other members of the community contributed by walking across the stage showing representations of the lyrics. Others danced. Everyone sang, or tried to. That other town has the Empire State / And a mayor five foot two — a man held up a photo of the Empire State, followed by a very short, rotund client with Down Syndrome, in a tuxedo and plastic top hat. I don’t want to say it was heartwarming, as it implies pity and condescension, but that’s really the only word that works. These folks have been rehearsing this since summer, and it went off without a hitch.
Then it was time for the talent. The ladies came out one by one and danced, or sang, or otherwise performed. One waved a tambourine back and forth to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” while the audience clapped along enthusastically. Another did a pretty fair Michael Jackson dance impersonation. Another recited a Maya Angelou quote, and almost flubbed it, but didn’t: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude. Don’t complain.” You could hear the audience sigh with relief. No participant appeared to be having anything less than the time of her life.
The male escorts were introduced, each wearing a donated rented tuxedo. They performed “Fully Dressed,” and then it was time for the evening gowns. We learned a little about each woman — one has a goal of learning to print her name, another wants to get a job. Betty, Miss Cass 2004, came out for an encore of her remarkable talent: She has a strong singing voice, and sang the Lord’s Prayer. As she reached the climax, her evening gown started to slip off one shoulder. As it fell lower and lower (Betty was oblivious), it became clear she wasn’t wearing a bra. A breathy “ahhh!” started in the crowd and built until two attendants dashed to her side and took a little drama out of the “amen,” but saved her from disaster.
“And you thought only the Super Bowl had wardrobe malfunctions,” the M.C. said.
Everybody performed “Tomorrow,” waving ribbons on sticks. Six finalists were named, and the interview took place. One woman could only repeat her name. Others told us their favorite colors and TV shows. And then it was time for the big moment.
Geraldine was crowned Miss Cass. She immediately wrung the M.C. in a bear hug, then stood for her crown. I checked my notes; I think her talent was dancing, with an umbrella, to “It’s Raining Men.” Her favorite color was pink. She was led to her throne and wore her tiara with grace and dignity.
The final number was “It’s a Hard Knock Life,” after which we all filed out. The Rev. Faith Fowler, minister of the church and director of the agency, said the participants will talk about this night until July, at which point they’ll start learning the songs for next year. I hope I can be there again.
Linda said on December 5, 2006 at 1:52 pm
Did you ever go to Jesters performance when you were in Fort Wayne? I never did, but this story makes me think of them. I haven’t heard of the Jesters for a few years. Thanks for the story!
Kim said on December 5, 2006 at 1:57 pm
Love it! Thanks for sharing.
alex said on December 5, 2006 at 2:09 pm
Wow. So Jeff Zaslow’s at the Wall Street Journal?
I used to read him when he was at the Sun-Times. He started there as a younger, hipper Ann Landers who could handle the bawdier sorts of questions. He also launched some wildly popular events for young singles in big public venues where people turned out by the tens of thousands to get laid.
A very touching story there, Nance.
Daron Aldrich said on December 5, 2006 at 3:10 pm
That was cool. Thanks!
Dorothy said on December 5, 2006 at 3:41 pm
Just yesterday I was telling a co-worker about my Aunt Rita, my dad’s older sister. She’s been dead for awhile now, but she was mentally retarded (but did not have Down’s). My dad was kind to her, but his other siblings were less than patient most of the time. Aunt Rita did not go very far in school, and probably would have thrived in the place you described, Nancy. She loved to embroider and did a pretty good job. Every single time she had dinner with us, she ended each meal the same way, saying to my mother “Everything was real good, Mary!”
nancy said on December 5, 2006 at 4:07 pm
Jeff Zaslow returned to the WSJ — which is where he was before he went to the Sun-Times — after his job was eliminated. He’s in the Detroit bureau, and I think his wife is some sort of TV personality here. (Dunno which one.) Does a column for Personal Journal, writing about “life transition” issues, I believe.
Candy Schultz said on December 5, 2006 at 5:12 pm
The pageant sounds wonderful. I take issue with that Maya Angelou quote though. It is not very well thought out. There are many things that cannot be changed that should not require a change of attitude. We cannot necessarily change our current President but our attitude should be appalled nevertheless.
mary said on December 5, 2006 at 9:35 pm
I had an older brother who was retarded, which was a polite word back then. He also had grand mal epilepsy, and lived at home until my father died. He had the skills of about a five year old, and medication didn’t help that much controlling the seizures. He would have one or two seizures a day. I can’t imagine him singing or dancing or speaking before a crowd. He was always kept at home and was very spoiled, getting up whenever he pleased, having special meals prepared for him whenever he pleased. My mother died when he was 23, and she asked my father to never institutionalize my brother. My father died thirteen years later, and I institutionalized my brother, not feeling that at age 19 I was capable of taking care of him alone. All through school, from age 13 on, he was my responsibility whenever I was not in school. I catered to his whims, fueled by guilt. I picked him up when he would have a seizure in the street or at the dinner table. I knew how to reorder the phenobarbitol and dilantin so we never ran out, and I could see a seizure coming a few seconds before they happened, and move dangerous items out of the way.
My kids are very aware of people with different physical or mental abilities, and they are not only comfortable with handicaps, they both have volunteered with special ed kids quite a bit. They know all people deserve respect. I have taught them that, and I’m proud of how they live it.
I also know I could not ever deal with raising a child like my brother. I am selfish now about it. I know I give off a vibe that makes me seem very accessible to mentally handicapped kids and adults. I’ve had long discussions with professionals who deal with developmentally disabled people, and they agree, there are people who “get it,” and it shows. I get it, but I don’t want it. I don’t find it hearwarming. I find it heartbreaking.
nancy said on December 5, 2006 at 9:47 pm
A bracing comment, Mary, and thanks for it. It’s important to remember that for all that we hear about the disabled being “creatures of pure hearts, sent to teach us how to love” etc., there are probably a million stories like yours. It’s not all pretty. Which is why I don’t begrudge any of the laughs Saturday night. I figure the people who care for the developmentally disabled have earned a few moments of relief.
Danny said on December 5, 2006 at 10:37 pm
Mary, thanks for the comment and everyone else too. I agree, there is some perspective to be had. I guess the only thoughts that come to my mind are:
a) We live in a fallen world and have a fallen genetic code, etc.
b) To whom much is given, much is required.