New cars sparkled like Christmas ornaments under bright lights as an orchestra played and a crowd of thousands, including Hollywood stars, watched Bonnie Susan Barter walk the red carpet.
The president was dead, but serious men in suits told Bonnie, “Just smile.”
Just keep smiling.
So she did. In a beaded white Peau De Soie gown from Harzfeld’s that probably cost more than her father’s Wonder Bread paycheck, she smiled and waved. It wasn’t that hard.
She was 17 and gave herself to the night, letting the lights and music carry her dizzily across the floor of Kansas City’s Municipal Auditorium, a concrete building that served as a cocoon against everything bad that had happened that day.
Today, that high school girl is 67-year-old Bonnie Hamilton. When first asked about that time 50 years ago, she shook her head. It was so long ago ...
Her story should have been about the best night of a girl’s life. But it is forever shackled to one of the most tragic events in America’s history.
“Let me think about it,” she said.
Her mother had saved newspaper clippings in an envelope in her sewing room. They were now somewhere in Bonnie’s house. She would look for them.
Two weeks later, Bonnie told her story of Nov. 22, 1963.
She had stayed home from school that day so she and her mom, Susie, could do her hair and makeup for the big night. In the early afternoon, her mother came into the bathroom when Bonnie was getting ready to bathe and told her what had happened in Dallas.
They went to the living room and watched news reports. Bonnie heard from friends at school. Some were leaving early. Friday night games were canceled. Stores closed. People were going home to their families. The country was shutting down.
Bonnie and her mother sat on the couch, figuring the phone to ring one more time. Tears rolled down Susie’s cheek, and Bonnie thought of Jackie. The TV kept showing that picture of John-John peeking out from beneath his father’s desk.
Surely that phone call would come.
“Well, come on,” Susie finally said. “We have to get you ready.”
Bonnie Susan Barter put on that fancy gown and high heels and went out to smile for the people that night.
She had to. She was queen of the auto show.
In the fall of 1963, Bonnie was a senior at Van Horn High School. Good grades, music, pep club, theater.
The family lived in Independence. Her mother worked for Southwestern Bell; her father, Richard, for Continental Baking Co., maker of Wonder Bread.
Bonnie and a couple of friends saw an ad in The Kansas City Times for girls who wanted to try out for queen and princesses of the 1964 Kansas City Auto Show.
It was a big deal. More than 130 new styles of automobiles. Everyone dressed up. Hollywood stars led by bandleader and singer Bob Crosby, Bing’s brother, would be there. Patti Page, Vikki Carr, Jerry Van Dyke and Nancy Wilson would perform.
In an “About Town” column in The Times, Landon Laird wrote that the auto show committee “goes all out to see that the queen and princesses are glamorous and regal” as they “rule over the auto show.”
Sounded good to those Van Horn girls.
It was a different time. The ’60s hadn’t started — not really. Jeweled crowns still enchanted a young lady’s heart. As Bonnie put it recently in the living room of the rural hilltop home where she and her husband live in eastern Jackson County: “Nobody had burned a bra yet. Girls still wanted to be queen of something.”
Besides, she added, wasn’t this the time of America’s Camelot? Wasn’t Jackie Kennedy sort of our queen?
“So we got on a bus and went downtown to a hotel to try out,” Bonnie said.
They walked into a ballroom at the Hotel Continental and knew immediately this was going to be tougher than cheerleading tryouts. So many girls —beautiful girls
. A hundred or more. Blonds, brunettes and redheads. Tall, smiling and all dressed up.
Everyone knew the deal. They needed 16 girls: a princess for 15 makes of car, and a queen — who would be crowned at the show by Bob Crosby.
Bonnie was ready. She worked part-time at Jones Store and used her paycheck and discount to buy an Evan Picone sweater for $13 and a matching skirt for $17. Periwinkle blue.
And she knew to sit on the edge of a chair with her feet crossed.
The girls filled out applications and answered questions about their favorite subject in school. What did they want to be? What were their dreams?
Bonnie’s two friends went out early. More questions and interviews until only 16 girls, Bonnie included, remained. They were measured for dresses but would have to wait a week to see who would be queen.
When Bonnie got home that day, she told her mother what she’d done.
“She was surprised,” Bonnie remembered. “She said it was so unlike me.”
A week later, those 16 girls — and their mothers — attended a luncheon at the Florentine Room at the Kansas City Club and waited anxiously as girls were matched to cars — Miss Ford, Miss Imperial, Miss Dodge, Miss Buick ...
As the list dwindled, Bonnie began to think, “Hey, I got a shot at this.” Finally, only two remained and at that point, Bonnie didn’t want to be Miss Cadillac.
“The 1964 Kansas City Auto Show queen is Miss Bonnie Susan Barter ...”
Everybody clapped, and Bonnie’s mother leaned to kiss her. A story in The Star said: “Bonnie was selected by the judges for her poise, personality, grooming and beauty.”
The next week at school, when Bonnie was in concert choir, word came over the PA system that she was to report to the office. She’d never been in trouble in her life.
She got to the office and found a bouquet of red roses waiting for her. From the kids in the choir class she’d just left.
She carried them back down the hall, cradled in her arms, tears in her eyes.
A half century has passed, but Bonnie thinks she slept late on Nov. 22, the auto show’s opening night. Her mother had let her skip school.
Susie even skipped work.
“And my mom never missed work,” Bonnie said. “She was excited. This was a big day for her, too.”
Bonnie remembers her mother coming into the bathroom, some time early afternoon. Bonnie knew immediately something terrible had happened.
“Somebody shot the president,” Susie told her. “They think he’s dead.”
Walter Cronkite’s voice filled the house after that, and the phone rang and rang. The Missouri-Kansas football game set for Saturday was canceled.
Everything that had to do with the auto show and being queen and the gown and Bing Crosby’s brother putting a crown on her head vanished. Three gunshots 500 miles away had awakened a girl from a dream.
“Why?” Bonnie asked when her mother told her they had to get ready. “Nobody will be there.”
But grownups said the show must go on.
Bonnie made a royal entrance that night in front of 6,400 people. The theme: “Let’s Have a Ball at the Auto Show.”
She walked the red carpet, smiling and waving. People clapped, cameras flashed and the band played.
“Little kids came up and asked for my autograph,” Bonnie said of the night she’d waited for her whole life. “I wasn’t thinking about anything else — not then.”
The crowd swarmed to the new cars.
“Buy a program here and walk the magic carpet to the car of your dreams!” a barker, dressed like a fancy bartender, encouraged gawkers.
A story in next morning’s Times said: “A sprinkling of dapper salesmen attended each make of automobile and here and there one of the lovely princesses floated by. A young man asked one what color her dress was. ‘Hot pink,’ she replied with a warm smile.”
Azalea pink, really. Taffeta.
The newspaper story made no mention of anything that happened in Dallas.
It was about as good a night as could be, considering. Except that at a pre-show banquet, Bonnie sat at the head table next to comedian Jerry Van Dyke and he mistakenly took her salad.
“What was I supposed to do — grab the guy’s on the other side of me?” she said. “I couldn’t do that. So I just sat there. On top of everything else, Jerry Van Dyke ate my salad.”
The next night, Saturday, Bob Crosby placed a crown on Bonnie’s head, and the auto show went on for another week. Later, she flipped the switch for the downtown Christmas lights.
Her mother kept photos and clippings of it all. Those are the ones Bonnie, who went on to college, married and raised three daughters, dug out recently to take her back to those days. It’s not a trip she makes often.
She’s pretty sure that if something like that were to happen now, an auto show would be canceled.
“But I guess everybody has a story about that day, and that’s mine,” she said. “And I have to admit, I enjoyed it all and I’ll never forget it.
“It was a crazy, wonderful night.”
She smiled, almost as an apology, “I was a kid.”
She was more than that.
She was queen of the auto show.