Most people think Atlantic City’s glory days began and ended with the rise and fall of the casinos. Most people are not old enough to remember what her glory days really looked like.
In the 1950s, Atlantic City did not need gambling. We tend to forget that places that need gambling are pretty much desperate places in need of rescue. What was Las Vegas but a desert before gambling? (Incidentally, gambling predated the entrance of mobster Bugsy Siegel contrary to some popular belief). Six decades ago, Atlantic City would have laughed at the need for casinos. The lady would have thought gambling was beneath her.
Back then, one could walk the boardwalk at night without seeing the down-on-their luck losers that too frequently populate inside and outside the remaining casinos today. The boardwalk at night was glorious, an exciting bauble on the East Coast that sparkled like a rare jewel.
A young boy’s eyes were dazzled by the bright lights — the Sherwin-Williams sign where their paint covered the globe — the simulated horse race — I always picked the green one to win, and sometimes I was right. The huge Camels sign that hung above the boardwalk where the figure blew smoke rings to the strollers down below. Seeing the Atlantic City boardwalk at night was like the first time you saw Times Square lit up in the evening.
Imagine a resort where in addition to families, there were men wearing linen jackets and silk ties while the ladies decked out in long dresses. They sat like aristocrats in strolling chairs along the boardwalk, imperiously peering out at the rest of us who were not so elegant, except in our dreams.
The Steel Pier had the lovely lady on the diving horse, and there were grand seafood restaurants like Captain Starn’s where folks stood in line to enter. The stately Warner Theater not only showed films, but was a showplace for jazz festivals each summer when jazz was cool and “hep” became “hip.” The penny arcades actually cost a penny, and Skee-ball was king. You could peer in a viewer and for a penny, see silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton come to life in flickering black and white images. As a boy, I remember a giant automated soda arcade where for a nickel, one could choose among countless flavors of soda. All of this, a glorious beach and the Atlantic Ocean, too.
Folks actually came to Atlantic City for the beach. The tang of saltwater mixed with the smell of Gaby suntan oil. You should have been there back then before the beach became just another sad accoutrement to the garish casinos on the boards. There was actually a special family feeling to Atlantic City back then, not just phony ads promoted by the casinos. It was a big deal to be sitting on the beach, not only with your mother and father, but your uncles and aunts. And sometimes families would bring hoagies to the beach or you were allowed to buy an ice pop that would melt and make your fingers sticky before you could eat it. But the really big difference between that Atlantic City and the gaudy casino days was the vibrancy all over town, not just on the boardwalk.
Before the casinos sucked the oxygen out of the surrounding town, A.C. was not just slums and discount shopping. There were wonderful restaurants like Dock’s and Abe’s for seafood and Lew Tendler’s for steak and the original Knife and Fork with its deep dish blueberry pie. At Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club, if you were lucky or knew the right people, you could see Frank Sinatra up close and watch women fight over the cigarette butt he threw from the small stage while singing “Learnin’ the Blues.” There was the Black Orchid with Buddy Greco and Lenny Bruce or the breakfast show at The Club Harlem where one could see Sarah Vaughn sitting and watching Sam Cooke or Nappy White perform. And the tanned beauties dancing on stage brought a tingle even to a young boy’s loins. At the Cotton Club, Miles Davis played “Stella by Starlight” with his back turned to the audience.
One could tell the ethnic group to which you belonged or your social status based on where you stayed. Our Atlantic City was the Italian area around Florida and Bellevue Terrace where folks like mine crammed into rooming houses just to be at the Shore. My Jewish friends stayed in the Chelsea section where the lox and bagels and corned beef on rye rivaled the delis in New York.
Atlantic City died and “everything that dies someday comes back,” as Bruce Springsteen sang. Atlantic City returned with the rise of the casino-hotels, but the elegance and grace was gone. As the casinos are one by one abandoned to their fate and the city struggles to become relevant again, one hopes and wishes the faded lady well.
Sometimes the boy-now-aging man dreams, and he can still smell Gaby suntan oil mixed with the salt air of the ocean when Atlantic City was a regal queen and we were her subjects.
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