Waiting on fame

A self-described "glamour girl" in the 1950s, 20-year-old Rita Marzullo couldn’t cook, but was in desperate need of a job. She worked for a short while at the Bella Napoli Restaurant in Atlantic City, then landed a waitressing job at the legendary 500 Club. Much like Palumbo’s in South Philly, the Atlantic City venue was a celebrity magnet that drew stars including Frank Sinatra, the Beatles, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

Marzullo, of Fulton Street, met them all.

During a visit to the club, she was requested at the private table of Angelo Bruno, Philadelphia’s mob boss. He was very protective of his South Philly "family" and inquired about Marzullo’s well-being. While they were talking, Paul "Skinny" D’Amato, the owner of the 500 Club, approached the table.

After introducing himself, he asked Marzullo, "Why don’t you come and work here?"

She responded, "Here? I can’t work at a nightclub. Do you know what my brothers would do to me?"

But with D’Amato’s assurances, Marzullo accepted the job and was offered a place to live in the adjacent hotel, Penn Plaza.

She was soon making a ton of money. "The first time I went to Atlantic City, I left with two suitcases. I came back with a tractor trailer," she says, describing her haul.

Marzullo was working only summers at first, but D’Amato — famous in his own right as a star-maker — asked her to stay year-round. He became like an older brother to her and promised Bruno he would keep an eye on her.

The waitress, the eighth of 10 children, visited her family back in South Philly every week. They had been against her moving to Atlantic City in the first place and begged her not to leave. But after suffering a broken heart when her beau married someone else, she just couldn’t bear to stay in Philly anymore.

Looking back, Marzullo, now 74, says, "I made a good decision and nobody could stop me."

She loved the 500 Club and Atlantic City so much that she lived there for nearly 30 years.

Her colorful stories are a highlight of a book released earlier this year called The Last Good Time: Skinny D’Amato, the Notorious 500 Club, and the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City.

Marzullo describes the old Atlantic City as "so much better than it is now."

"It was fantastic; everyone was one big, happy family."

And it was exciting, too, especially for a young woman surrounded by stars.

At her surprise 21st birthday party thrown by D’Amato, Marzullo mingled with everyone from childhood friends to baseball legend Joe DiMaggio.

She fondly recalls the bash, which seemed more like a night at The Ed Sullivan Show.

"Every time the door opened, somebody from TV or radio walked in. I was sitting on Dean Martin’s lap and my party continued for three days and nights," Marzullo says.

She also says she was being pursued by Ol’ Blue Eyes and had an adventure with the Fab Four.

To avoid the mobs one night, Marzullo traveled in a linen truck with the Beatles and brought them to hang out with local musicians at the 730 Lounge, an Atlantic City after-hours spot owned by her lifelong friend, John "Lefty" DiJoseph. The Beatles wrote her thank-you letters and said she was like a mother to them.

Hanging out with everyone from infamous mobsters to talented artists, Marzullo enjoyed every second of it. "I find the goodness in everyone."

After D’Amato went to work for Frank Sinatra in Vegas, Marzullo moved on to work at Atlantic City’s Bamboo Club, where she was affectionately known as "Momma Rita." It was there that this glamour girl learned the art of cooking and became famous for her appetizing ribs.

When D’Amato moved back to Atlantic City, Marzullo left the Bamboo Club to work at his restaurant, Angelo’s Beef and Beer, until it burned down in 1973.

Six years later, she returned home to South Philadelphia because of her deteriorating health.

Looking back, she says, "I had a beautiful and exciting life. I worked with some of the most exciting entertainers. I love to talk about it now and tell everyone the people I’ve met and the things I’ve done."

Marzullo kept her stories to herself until she read an article several years ago about D’Amato, and decided to contact the author, Jonathan Van Meter. At the time, Van Meter was working on The Last Good Time. He was in dire need of more information about D’Amato’s life and the people he knew.

"I not only knew about his family and the people he knew, but I was very close with him, too," Marzullo told Van Meter, who interviewed her immediately.

The author visited her every week for the next five years. They conducted every interview over juicy veal chops at the Saloon Restaurant on Eighth and Catharine.

In his book, Van Meter thanks Marzullo for her "tireless good nature and extraordinary memory for vital details that took place many years before."

In celebration of the book’s release in June, Marzullo attended many signings with Van Meter and the late D’Amato’s daughter, Paula Jane, with whom she continues to keep in contact.

Because of the book’s success, Marzullo is in the process of writing a sequel. It will be about her own life and titled From Birth Until Today. The book will be dedicated to her inspirations: her niece, Joanne Grandella, D’Amato and DiJoseph.

At the insistence of her niece, Marzullo has been recording tapes and diaries documenting her life stories in preparation for the sequel. If that book ever becomes a movie, Marzullo wants Angelina Jolie to play her.

"It’s not that we resemble each other, but she is feisty like me," she says.

Her book will contain memories of the good old days she enjoyed while working in Atlantic City and with D’Amato, whom she describes as Atlantic City personified.

"He was the most wonderful human being and the best and most humble boss," she says.

Marzullo would love to see a monument erected in his honor because he gave many superstars their start.

Although the 500 Club, along with most of the small supper and nightclubs, have disappeared from Atlantic City, they will go down in history. And so will Rita Marzullo’s memories.

"I really enjoyed my life and am fortunate to have had the life I’ve had."