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All That Glitters Is Texas Gold

ACES! imagines a live reunion of 6 Texas Miss USA winners.

ACES! cast members (l-r) Nora Hahnas as Kim Tomes (1977), Pam Green as Laura Elena Martinez (1985), Audrey Coe as Christy Fichtner (1986), Amy Gustin Millin as Michelle Royer (1987), Lisa Caughorn as Courtney Gibbs (1988), and Kelly Wehrer  as Gretchen Polhemus (1989) |  (Photo by Quy Tran)

While they may not be as prominent as they once were during the excesses of the 1980s, beauty pageants are still a vibrant part of Texas’ cultural landscape. Playing at Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH) from May 2–5, ACES!—by Lake Jackson-based playwright Davis Gordon Gilbert—is poised to blend the thrills of the golden era of Texas pageants with the titillating spectacle of a modern reality show’s reunion episode.

The new comedy imagines a scenario where Kim Tomes, Texas’ Miss USA 1977 winner, hosts a live television special featuring the five consecutive Texas winners of the Miss USA crown: Laura Elena Martinez (1985), Christie Fitchner (1986), Michelle Royer (1987), Courtney Gibbs (1988), and Gretchen Polhemus (1989). In this format, the audience gets to hear the now-seasoned women reflect on their younger selves and share their stories. Yet, when the cameras cut to commercials, the audience is also treated to the less-polished and less-poised sides of these celebrated beauties.

“My family and I used to watch pageants on Saturday night. It was a huge thing, and of course, we always wanted Miss Texas to win, but she rarely won until 1977 with Kim Tomes,” says Gordon Gilbert of his inspiration to write the play. “I watched it for eight more years, and Miss Texas still didn’t win until Laura won, then Christie, then Michelle, then Courtney, and then Gretchen!”

Winning the Miss USA pageant is no easy feat. The women must meet stringent eligibility requirements, which could include being a full-time college student or retaining full-time employment, never having been married, and never having given birth to a child, among others. Then there’s the grueling coaching the women undertake to ensure they never lose their poise, luster, and wit under pressure.

“The training that these ladies had to go through to be the first in almost every category and win each year against 50 of the most astounding women in our country is just truly remarkable,” says Gordon Gilbert.

“The training that they went through with these two guys—they called them GuyRex—sounds really tough. Walking up and down stairs with your eyes closed in high heels; I mean, nobody could do that,” exclaims Nora Hahn, who plays Tomes. “Think about how poised these women are when they go into a business meeting, appear on a television show, or whatever.”

For many Texans, beauty pageant winners are the closest we come to royalty within the state. The glittering gowns and crowns only add to that princess-like allure. “These are real Texas women who did some amazing things. Some of it was modeling and television hosting or what have you, but all of it was pretty darn amazing,” states Hahn. “To inhabit them for just a little while and to think all eyes were on these people for just a short amount of time, and still are in some ways, it’s fun, exciting, and it’s an honor.”

“I think that in pageants, so many times, everyone seems to look the same,” adds Lisa Caughorn, who plays Courtney Gibbs, “but in our characters and in each one of these women that we’re portraying, they are so diverse.”

This may be best exemplified by the character of Laura Elena Martinez, who was the first Hispanic and the first naturalized citizen to wear both the Miss Texas USA and Miss USA crowns. “They’re not just all white women with blonde hair or light brown hair. Here’s this gorgeous Latina, and she nailed it right off the bat,” states Gordon Gilbert. “I think her winning brought a lot of young Hispanic girls to the realization that if it can happen for her, it can happen for them.”

With the women of ACES! all being “ladies of a certain age,” audiences may find the play has the same comforting appeal as The Golden Girls or Designing Women and less the chaos of a Real Housewives reunion. “There is drama, and you’ll see that escalate through the show,” admits Caughorn.
“I do think they keep it civil,” adds Hahn. “We want to pay homage to them, and not take it too far.”

“We play around, we exaggerate, and we have fun with accents,” Caughorn says. “Some of the things we do take very seriously, because these women had some difficult things that happened to them, but other things we just throw around, have fun, and play.”

Texans love their state’s history, especially when it’s presented in a well-crafted and wonderfully performed play. Just look at Margaret & Allison Engel’s Red Hot Patriot: The Kick-Ass Wit of Molly Ivins and Holland Taylor’s Ann. “I think it should be part of Texas history, and I definitely think it should be part of women’s Texas history what these five young ladies managed to accomplish,” gushes Gordon Gilbert.

What: ACES!
When: May 2 – 5.
Where: Midtown Arts and Theater Center Houston (MATCH) 3400 Main St,

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David Clarke

David Clarke is a freelance writer contributing arts, entertainment, and culture stories to OutSmart.
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