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Mid-Century Memories: 1960’s Miss Florida Pageant in Sarasota

The Miss America pageant took place Sunday, September 9th and the whole country enjoyed the annual return of this nearly hundred-year-old competition. To mark the occasion, we are taking a look back when the Miss Florida pageant was held right here in Sarasota in our new video series, Mid-Century Memories.

In a charming clip from the days of Old-Florida, you’ll see some of your favorite SRQ hotspots from Lido Beach to Jungle Gardens and the Municipal Auditorium as ladies competed for the coveted title of Miss Florida. We were lucky enough to chat with one Sarasota resident who participated in the Miss Florida pageant in 1965 as Miss Miami. Julie McHugh (nee Rohr) may be best known today as the Director of Arts at Sarasota Academy of the Arts, and Director and Music Teacher for Julie Rohr Academy, but this impressive educator was happy to share her notable beauty queen background.

Julie Rohr McHugh competing as Miss Miami From Sarasota to Miss Miami
It was a popular year for the miniskirt, The Beatles released four albums, and the war in Vietnam was worsening when McHugh competed in the Miss Florida pageant. A Sarasota-native and singer, she was 18 years old and a freshman at the University of Miami on a vocal scholarship when one of her suitemates desperately wanted to participate in the Miss Miami pageant. Trouble was, her friend didn’t have a car. Not thinking much of it, McHugh agreed to participate in the pageant so that she could help transport her back and forth to the events and competitions. She also felt she could make some new friends along the way.

Miss Miami was a highly coveted title, and the competition included 200-300 young women and took place over many months, cutting down the number of contestants as it went. McHugh was shocked when time and time again she made it past each stage, as the competition dwindled down to 100 young women, then 50, then 10, and then, finally, she was crowned Miss Miami.

“I really wasn’t expecting it,” she explained. “And I was so focused on the fact that I was about to go to Europe, performing in a USO tour, that this just caught me completely off guard.”

After being crowned, she did go to Europe (where she made quite a splash at performances as Miss Miami). Then, as winning beauty queens from around the state converged for the Miss Florida Pageant, she was delighted to make her way back to her hometown.

From Miss Miami to Miss Florida
“It was quite special to compete in Sarasota,” McHugh said. “Miss Sarasota and I had been friends and together, we felt like the ambassadors for all the other ladies as they got to know our city.” (And it should be noted that Michael Saunders’ sister, Miss Manatee County Joan Mayers, also participated in the same year! See “Saturday Winners” picture below.)

And Sarasota certainly rolled out the red carpet for all of its 44 new guests. The ladies were welcomed by the mayor, they gathered for photos on Lido Beach, and were given a bus tour of all the sights including St. Armands Circle, the Ringling Museum, Horns’ Cars of Yesterday (now the Sarasota Classic Car Museum), and Sarasota Jungle Gardens.

Sadly, McHugh didn’t win Miss Florida, but her singing and performance career was launched full speed ahead. The following year, she was asked to compete in the Miss Sarasota competition where she was named Miss Congeniality – a title she is very proud to have won. She was also asked to return to the Miss Florida competition her senior year of college when she performed a song and dance review with the “Singing Hurricanes” under the direction of Peter Gennaro, who notably choreographed West Side Story with Jerome Robbins.

“It was a wonderful experience being involved in pageants in Sarasota for all those years. I met so many nice, talented women, and the scholarships were lovely,” McHugh reminisced. “Sarasota was the perfect city as host. It’s too bad the competition was moved away, especially with the history here.” We couldn’t agree more, and hope you will join us in campaigning for the return of the Miss Florida pageant to Sarasota!

*Historic video by Florida Development Commission, courtesy the State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

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