During the 1950s, the American people suffered from a severe case of Atomic Fever. With the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the establishment of a permanent atomic test site in the Nevada desert, the U.S. had firmly positioned itself as leader in the atomic game. As a result, we simply went crazy for all things atomic. And sometimes our fervor showed up in some pretty strange places.
Ad men and designers were quick to jump on the atomic bandwagon, and incorporated the atomic motif in everything from children’s toys—the Gilbert Atomic Energy Lab set, with real radioactive materials, being a prime example—to hairstyles and lamps designed to look like mushroom clouds.
Nowhere was Atomic Fever more prevalent than Las Vegas. A mere 65 miles southeast of the Nevada Test Site, where more than 1000 nuclear devices were detonated between 1951 and 1992, Las Vegas was quick to cash in on its proximity. Bars, restaurants, hotels—essentially anywhere with a roof and a view—hosted atomic blast viewing parties on their roofs, often offering complimentary sunglasses and sunshades to their blast-viewing patrons.
As far as we can tell, there were four separate showgirl-turned-beauty-queens. Despite popular belief, there was no single Miss Atomic Bomb beauty pageant, and most of the queens were simply showgirls chosen for their radiant (ha!) looks. Each of the queens came about in an only loosely related manner: atomic-themed, usually of the mushroom cloud variety, costumes.
1. Miss Atomic Bomb
Miss Atomic Bomb is the most familiar and famous of the atomic queens, and it seems the only one crowned specifically as a marketing device for atomic testing. Apparently Don English, a Las Vegas News Bureau photographer, was amusing himself during a delay in a photo-shoot and created an atomic bomb-shaped appliqué that was attached to a beautiful girl’s swimsuit, and she was photographed as Miss Atomic Bomb (above). This beautiful girl was a Copa Girl, Miss Lee Merlin, who has entered history with her iconic photograph splashed in places of all sorts (including the latest The Killers album, Miss Atomic Bomb) for nearly 60 years.
2. Miss Atomic Blast
El Rancho Vegas held one of the earliest atomic blast picnics in 1952. Their picnic had an accompanying beauty pageant, which was won by Candyce King, a showgirl at the Last Frontier Hotel. King apparently donned an atomic bomb style hairdo that required a toilet paper roll and two cans of hairspray for support.
In addition to the normal beauty queen trappings, King was presented with a ten pound bag of mushrooms (because you know, mushroom cloud) by the Pennsylvania Mushroom Growers Association. King, as Miss Atomic Blast, had the honor of lighting the Stardust’s iconic mushroom-cloud-meets-falling-atomic-stars sign for the first time.
3. Miss Cue
Operation Cue took place at the Nevada Test Site in 1955. This series of tests was designed to test how well suburbia and all its trappings survived an atomic bomb blast. This was a large, intricate series of tests, and weather was unpredictable. After a series of delays, the operation came to be known as “Operation Mis-Cue.”
During one of the delays, military personnel headed into Las Vegas to pass the time. Six soldiers apparently crowned a Copa Girl named Linda Lawson as Miss Cue using a tiara constructed in the shape of a mushroom cloud, and supposedly made by the servicemen from wire and cotton bunting. The Sands went on to use photographs from this event as atomic publicity shots.
4. Miss A-Bomb
In 1953, the North Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce chose “Atomic City” as the theme of the annual parade and beauty pageant. Paula Harris won the pageant and rode on the chamber of commerce’s float, which bore a sign likening the city’s modernity to that of the A-Bomb. Harris quickly became known as Miss A-Bomb.