I never paid much attention to the Coal Queen pageant. When I was in high school, the Coal Queen pageant lacked the excitement of, say, the run for Homecoming Queen; it was just another pageant, held in a town nearby. I’m sure, however, that I marched with my clarinet (the most hideous of instruments) in the parade for the King Coal Festival—if indeed our marching band was involved. If there was a King Coal parade, I’m sure our band was there.
Notably, there are former Queens and Queen-hopefuls in the family. One aunt was a contestant in the Coal Queen pageant in 1971. Another aunt was the Scottdale Centennial Queen in the mid-1970s. And Molly herself was Queen: Homecoming Queen. (But she’ll almost certainly deny it.)
Little did I know how big a deal the Coal Queen pageant actually is to other girls in other towns. This weekend, we went to a screening of a new documentary called The Bituminous Coal Queens of Pennsylvania, directed by David Hunt and distributed through a new Netflix film series, which gives independent filmmakers a chance to bring their films to the Netflix audience. Bituminous Coal Queens focuses on a former Coal Queen who now lives in L.A. but who returns to Carmichaels (a small town near Connellsville, population in the low 500s), along with other former Queens, for the 50th anniversary of the Coal Queen pageant. Interspersed with their reminiscences, as well as very interesting interviews with coal miners and footage of the work they do, is the drama of the 2003 Coal Queen pageant—the preparations, the nerves, the rehearsals, the costumes, the angst, and the intense desire to be Queen.
The film was pure southwestern PA. Misty, rolling hills and hearty farmland juxtaposed with sequined, Vegas-worthy dance costumes; festive parades consisting of a few sparse marching bands; a formal banquet held in a fire hall. Pork-and-kraut sandwiches at a street fair. The reluctance or ambivalence of anyone to leave the area and make a life someplace new. The portrait Hunt painted was in no way negative (amusing, yes). Instead, he documented one of the stranger traditions of southwestern PA and put it in context: the deeply-rooted coal-mining history that defines the area.
Not many people pay attention to southwestern PA’s people or way of living, and we were thrilled with the film. You can read more about it online (http://www.coalqueens.com/) or—better yet—rent it from Netflix.