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Pageant tries old approach in new home

''Vegas, baby, Vegas," was James Denton's opening line as host of the Miss America Pageant Saturday night, and it was both wildly appropriate and impossibly sad.

This was the first time in its 85-year history that the pageant was held outside of Atlantic City. And it's true that Las Vegas, the unabashed capital of pomp and cheese (see: Celine Dion), is probably more true to the ''Miss America" ethos.

But the long-dwindling New Jersey resort had a melancholy spirit that seemed perfect for an outdated event. ''Miss America" was born long before booty-shaking videos and reality TV, when gawking at stately beauties was entertainment enough. When ABC dropped it in 2004 because of dwindling ratings, some suspected it would survive by becoming more like a reality show, adding levels of rejection.

Instead, ''Miss America" found a new TV home in CMT and a runway at Vegas's Aladdin Casino & Resort. It also found a new mantra: Tradition is good.

So here they were, 52 contestants who, just like old times, were overly made up and practically silent. They crowned a Miss Congeniality (Miss Hawaii, who cried) for the first time since 1974. They dressed in gowns that would never pass muster on ''Project Runway" (TV fashion maven Robert Verdi, one of the judges, must have been scrambling for antacid).

Vegas understands that tacky can be beautiful.

Saturday was old-school tacky, a significant turn for a pageant that had made stabs at modernity, calling the swimsuit competition ''Lifestyle and Fitness" and adding a civics quiz. This time, the quiz was gone. Swimsuit was ''Swimsuit" and evening gown was ''Evening Gown."

There were some modern trappings, largely in the form of product placement; it was technically the ''Speedo Swimsuit Competition." But for the most part this was a '50s-style affair, uncynical and straightforward.

Alas, there's a fine line between straightforward and dull. ''Miss America" has always sailed by on a certain amount of cattiness, but it's nothing compared to the incisor teeth of a show like ''American Idol." Even ''Dancing With the Stars," an old-fashioned romp, tries to cull obnoxious comments from its judges.

This ''Miss America" not only had no comments; it had little worth commenting on. The bathing suits were nearly identical; the only difference seemed to be the amount of cleavage. The gowns weren't judged, just the women's ''style and personality," which seemed to pose a problem: How do you judge individuality when everyone walks and smiles the same way?

There was talent, which in this case was blissfully brief: One warbly rendition of a Broadway tune, two en-pointe ballet dances, one tap routine, and one Chopin piece, performed in an outfit that would have made Liberace proud.

Three finalists were asked a ''surprise" question about a formative childhood experience. Only Miss Oklahoma answered it directly (albeit incomprehensibly). Perhaps that's why she won.

It was an old-fashioned moment, with confetti and tears. And it seemed fairly insignificant. Unlike ''American Idol" champs (and controversial types like Vanessa Williams), once Miss America is crowned and does the talk-show rounds, the pop culture mainstream seldom hears from her again. This was likely a case of: Until next year, there she goes.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.

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