Nowadays you can enter a contest for practically anything--funniest comedian, best essay, most original song, and the ever popular eating competitions. The Nathans Annual Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest, in which participants race to consume more hotdogs than their competitors in ten minutes, is nearing its centennial--though not without controversy.
In 2010, former Nathan's champion Takeru Kobayashi was arrested on a number of charges including trespassing, for storming the stage and engaging in a tussle with police officers.
However, Coney Island was home to funny business long before Kobayashi came along. One rather brassy contest of an early 1900's Coney Island included the particularly popular kissing marathon. While some contests are based on luck, this one required a lot of skill and determination. Contestants also had to abide by a set of rules:
1- Any participant who ate onions would be disqualified.
2- Biting was prohibited.
3- Men with moustaches had to trim to an appropriate length.
Nevertheless, these were not the only scandalous challenges held; one possibly more intriguing and popular was the long running "Most Beautiful Grandmother Contest."
Beginning in 1932, Coney Island's Steeplechase Park held an annual beauty contest each July for grandmothers. Contestants paraded around the Park's pool in their modest swimsuits for a crowd of onlookers. Rules stated that the grandmothers would be judged based on their "beauty, form and figure, and ability to fill out a bathing suit." The grandmothers' measurements were taken, and like many women, some tried to get away with fibbing about their actual weight.
During the second annual contest in 1933, Mrs. Eugene Schmidt tried to lie about her weight, attempting to cover up 100 pounds. When asked her weight she exclaimed, "No use weighing me; I weigh 160 pounds." After every tape measure proved too small for Mrs. Schmidt's waist, she confessed her true weight, 260 pounds. The winner that year was not Mrs. Schmidt or even a grandmother. Mrs. Elizabeth Bailer was pronounced the winner of the contest, although she did not have grandchildren. When asked about why she didn't have any, Mrs. Schmidt said, "It isn't my fault I'm not a grandmother. My daughter, Mrs. Christine Graff, has been married 40 years.
The contest even saw its fair share of great-grandmothers. In 1939, Mrs. Julia Shavel, a great-grandmother, beat out thirty pulchritudinous women for the title wearing a neck high, ankle-low, three-quarter sleeved bathing suit. After Shavel won she said, "These jitterbugs have nothing on me. I can still cut up a mean waltz."
Eagle July 12, 1939
The lucky judges changed each year but typically consisted of a panel of grandfathers or volunteers, including a captain from the now defunct Eastern Airlines, President of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce, C.J. Hilbert,; and Broadway showgirls.
George C. Tilyou, Steeplechase Park founder and owner, presented the lucky winners with a silver cup. "It is the only one of its kind and the only one that gives beautiful grandmothers a break." Tilyou said.
With the success of the Grandmother Beauty Contest, a similar one was devised for Grandfathers, but due to lack of participants, the idea was scrapped.
It appears the contest name changed from its inception to its later years or perhaps newspapers like the Eagle and New York Times took some poetic justice and altered the name. The contest went by the names of "Most Beautiful Grandmother Contest," "Grandmothers' Bathing Beauty Contest" and a more appropriate, "Most Glamorous Grandmother Contest." Whatever name it went by, grandmothers and non-grandmothers alike were awarded the title of "Most Beautiful" for over forty years in Coney Island.
Although Steeplechase Park closed in 1964, the "Most Beautiful Grandmother Contest" continued under the auspices of the Coney Island Chamber of Commerce. By 1970, participation in the contest dwindled from thirty contestants at the height of its popularity to a dismal six. The last Most Beautiful Grandmother was Mrs. Marion DeFeo.