Pageantry, Pontiacs and a President

A beauty queen recalls the 1954 Chicago Auto Show experience.
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As Miss Berwyn-Cicero, June poses behind the steering wheel of a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief convertible just moments before she would be chauffeured on to the stage during the CAS’s “Wheels of Progress” revue.

As Miss Berwyn-Cicero, June poses behind the steering wheel of a 1954 Pontiac Star Chief convertible just moments before she would be chauffeured on to the stage during the CAS’s “Wheels of Progress” revue.

Since 1901, the Chicago Auto Show (CAS) has annually displayed the newest automobiles and trucks to the general public. While motor vehicles are the undeniable stars of the yearly extravaganza, many personal stories come out of the show that add warmth and heart to the gathering of metal, glass and rubber. Among those tales of humanity to come out of the CAS is the story of one beauty queen’s brief encounter with fame 67 years ago.

June Marie (O’Connell) Platenka was selected by a show committee in 1954 to represent her Berwyn-Cicero neighborhoods at the CAS. That year, June was the latest in a tradition of beauty queens at CAS dating to 1936.

Lucky Ronald W. Reagan was surrounded by a group of Chicago Auto Show beauty queens. The 43-year-old actor served as grand marshal for the 1954 Chicago Auto Show, and was the host for TV’s General Electric Theater. June is the second from the right.

Lucky Ronald W. Reagan was surrounded by a group of Chicago Auto Show beauty queens. The 43-year-old actor served as grand marshal for the 1954 Chicago Auto Show, and was the host for TV’s General Electric Theater. June is the second from the right.

Initiated in 1936 and ongoing through the 1940 show in late 1939, young women from different Chicagoland ethnic groups were selected as “nationality queens” to become a part of the pageantry at the CAS.

Normally, 19 to 20 women were selected to represent their heritage at the show. Each queen was colorfully outfitted in her native costume. Things changed when America geared up for World War II and the last prewar show took place from Oct. 26 through Nov. 3, 1940, when 1941 model-year vehicles were presented. Wisely, show management transformed the theme that year from ethic to community beauty queens.

No major auto shows were held during or immediately after the war until Feb. 18-26, 1950, when Chicago hosted the nation’s first full-scale postwar affair. Once again, the newest vehicles were assembled together under one roof, and to everyone’s delight, the community queen pageant also returned.

On stage during the “Wheels of Progress” revue, Miss Berwyn-Cicero (June) exits a 1954 Pontiac two-door hardtop and receives a dozen roses from Andy Frain usher Jack Gallagher. Each of the queens was presented roses on the final evening of the show.

On stage during the “Wheels of Progress” revue, Miss Berwyn-Cicero (June) exits a 1954 Pontiac two-door hardtop and receives a dozen roses from Andy Frain usher Jack Gallagher. Each of the queens was presented roses on the final evening of the show.

In 1954, when she was a 19-year-old Morton College student in Cicero, Ill., June’s parents entered her into the pageant. The experience led her to bump elbows with a famous actor who would go onto even greater stature.

“I was dumbfounded when they did that, but I went along to please them, and for the experience,” June said of her parents entering her in the pageant.

“About 100 other contestants from different areas of the city attended the selection process held at the Palmer House Hotel,” she continued. “We were paraded in front of a panel of judges, who whittled down the entries until 20 community queens and 20 alternates were chosen.

“Next, we were sent to Carson Pirie Scott department store on State Street where a clothing stylist helped select an evening outfit. I wound up with a pink strapless gown, matching shoes and gold tiara for my hair. The wardrobe mistress said to me that the outfit she selected, ‘best complemented my bright blue eyes, sandy hair and shapely 5-foot, 5-inch frame.’

“It was very exciting to be part of the show, and all the girls got along swell, even when bumping into each other in the long, narrow, poorly lit dressing room located high above the International Amphitheatre’s arena.

“We began rehearsals for the Wheels of Progress stage revue a week before the opening day, and each queen was allocated a particular automobile to accompany on stage during the nine-day show.

“Twice a day, the vehicles would line up in an elongated passageway where the queens would enter the cars. I was assigned a two-tone, butterscotch-and-white 1954 Pontiac Star Chief Custom Catalina two-door hardtop.

“As we were being chauffeured onto the stage during both afternoon and evening performances, the Jimmy Richards Orchestra played and an announcer gave promotional spiels on the different vehicles.

“During each presentation, the Pontiac would stop in the middle of the stage, where a tall, dashing usher (Jack Gallagher) would open my door and assist me to exit the car. Then, the Pontiac drove off the stage, and I joined other queens posing on a tiered grandstand in the background.

“When all 20 queens and vehicles were presented, we then exited the stage together, amid more music, loud applause and a few ‘woof whistles.’

“In between the stage revues, the queens were asked to stroll through the various automotive exhibits wearing their official sashes and mingle with the crowds.

“It was during one of these afternoon promenades with my dad when I came face to face with a future president of the United States.

“Image now, if all the excitement of being treated royally during the show wasn’t enough to last a lifetime, I was nearly overwhelmed when I met Ronald Reagan.

“Mr. Reagan served as the official grand marshal that year, and was incredibly charming. As we talked, he agreed to pose with me and let my father snap a few photos with my trusty Argus C3 camera. While my dad was adjusting the camera, four other queens mooched their way into the picture, but I didn’t mind since he had his left arm around me.”

June said all the women dined together nightly at the adjoining Stock Yard Inn restaurant, and on the last evening, which was also her 20th birthday.

 “I ordered lobster, which was quite a treat in those days.

“On top of all the excitement, dinners and expensive formal wear we got to keep, each queen earned $10 a day to appear with the cars.”

June giggled a little when she confided, “I was so thrilled about being in the show that I almost forgot to go and pick up my check.

“Appearing as Miss Berwyn-Cicero was an exciting time for me. It was so profitable, not in money or gowns, but in the richness of the experience, the friendships and camaraderie between the various queens, and the wonderful memories of those days.”

After the 1960 auto show, the community beauty queen pagan ceased to be a function, partly in answer to a radically changing America.

For 2021, the Chicago Automobile Trade Association (CATA), led by CAS General Manager Dave Sloan, have developed and will host a special edition of the show from July 15-19 at McCormick Place. Learn more at www.chicagoautoshow.com.

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