A group of women are gathered behind a black velvet curtain, waiting anxiously for it to go up. Val Smrz explains why she’s here: “At age 21 I joined the Navy, and I entered this because I like challenges. Junk mail makes us all look like we’re 99 and it’s a challenge to show the world otherwise!” Val could easily be mistaken for a woman in her mid-40s, but she’s 65 years old. She was one of 14 contestants in the fourth annual Ms. Senior Citizen Pageant held a couple of weeks ago at Evanston’s Orrington Hotel.

The pageant was founded by Harvey Ferguson with the aim of increasing “acknowledgement and awareness of what it’s like to be a senior citizen.” The event is sponsored by various businesses, primarily McDonald’s, who coincidentally is running an ad campaign showing their commitment to hiring the elderly. There’s a $200 entry fee, usually paid by a sponsor, which covers the contestant’s three-day hotel bill.

The contestants, all between the ages of 55 and 80, are competing for prizes that include a thousand dollars in cash, gift certificates, jewelry, and clothing. The contest is run like any other beauty pageant except that there’s no swimsuit category. The women are judged on a scale of one to ten, with scores based on neatness, self-confidence, walk, how well the contestant uses her head and arms, how she answers questions, and a talent competition, which this year included everything from whistling to crewel embroidery.

Weatherman Harry Volkman was master of ceremonies and provided several memorable quips during the evening, such as “life begins whenever you want it to and it doesn’t have to end” and (about a lady whose talent was whistling) “it’s OK for women to whistle nowadays. I’m glad women are whistling, because my pucker is getting tired.” Lines like this must come easily to a man who, early in his career, became the first person to issue a tornado warning on the air in Oklahoma.

Dorothea Givens, 69, entered because she has always loved live entertainment and now she wants to be a part of it. Dorothea’s introduction to her lip-sync song ended with the statement, “One day, someday, the world will know that I am somebody.”

Enola Pirog, an affiliate minister with the Christ of Light Church, entered because she wanted to be a positive role model for those elderly people who think negativeIy and give up on life. “It has to do with a shift in population. When there are more older people, they demand their share.” Enola paid her own entry fee because she was sponsored by a volunteer group that does family counseling for Hispanics.

After an invocation, the U.S. Marine Guard appeared and held up their swords for the contestants to walk under while nine-year-old Adam May lip-synched along with a recording of Frank Sinatra singing “Young at Heart.” Marcella Bear, the executive producer, in a white, sequined low-cut gown, gave a welcoming speech in which she said, “Youth does not stop at 21. Regardless of who is chosen tonight, all of the contestants are acting out a girl’s fantasy.” Instead of modeling bathing suits, the ladies modeled attractive Hawaiian dresses from a local shop.

The talent show included Mary Michelini displaying her arrangements of silk flowers, Edith Gnippe reading a poem she wrote to her husband, which ended with the line “I know our love will stay as long as I have my way” (much to the amusement of the crowd), and Benita Truebeck’s watercolors, which the Marine Guard held up for the audience’s and judges’ inspection. Gertrude Bates, who did a lipsync rendition of Dolly Parton’s song “Nine to Five,” was elected Miss Young at Heart, and Joanne Swaback, who played Andre Previn’s “My Tribute” on the piano, was chosen as Miss Congeniality

An important part of the judging was the question-and-answer session. Carol Lois Burch was asked, “If you found $100 on the sidewalk, what would you do?” She replied, “I’d faint to begin with, and then I would try very hard to find the person who lost it, and if I couldn’t, I hope that I would give it to a charitable institution.” Enola Pirog’s question was, “If you were president, what would you do?” to which she answered, “I would look again at the budget and save millions of tax dollars by weeding out deadwood in the bureaucracy” (a comment that brought her much applause). Alice Post was asked about her most embarrassing moment and told this story: “When I was a young girl in high school I lost my slip, and those were hard times, and then I went home and almost got killed because it was the only slip I had.” When asked why she entered the pageant Nance Dulaj stated, “I wanted to show people everybody has a burden in this world, and it’s not so much the burden itself but how you carry it, gracefully, kindly, and generously through the world.”

Last year’s winner, Margaret Whitfield, traveled to Indiana, California, and southern Illinois. In her speech she reminisced, “The past year, being reigning queen, was the most wonderful time of my entire life. I have two sons and daughters-in-law and they didnt know that I could do it [win] but I showed them that I could do it and I did.” After a pause, she continued, “You know, we seniors are getting cut so much by Mr. Reagan, we’re getting cut down to the bone. I hope he’s not cutting Nancy like this, because if he is, she’s getting the devil.”

This year’s winner was Bernice Breyer, who won a battle early in her life, at age 14, when she almost died of spinal meningitis. Tonight she won the fashion award and charmed the audience with her rock-and-roll dancing to Bob Seger’s “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll.” When asked “If you could marry the wealthiest person in the world, who would it be?” she answered by saying “I’d check him out with Dun and Bradstreet first to see who it would be.” Bernice seemed comfortable in her crown and red cape, as if her triumph had been a foregone conclusion. Her daughter said she wasn’t surprised at her mother’s victory. “I knew that she’d win. My mother has more balls than any ten men I know.”