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Playground by the Sea

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A look back at 150 years of entertainment, amusement and leisure

By Basil Nestor

 

OK, let’s get this said right up front. I love Atlantic City. I love everything about it. The piers, gambling palaces, pawn shops, gourmet dining, pizza and sandwich joints, rolling chairs, kitschy souvenirs, crashing surf… I love it all!

I adore Atlantic City in a way that is entirely different than my affection for Las Vegas. For me, the Neon Oasis is like a beguiling but dangerous lover; she’s entertaining, outrageous, and she may con me unless I’m careful. It’s edgy fun. Atlantic City is more like cigar-chomping Uncle Lou, a gregarious bear-hug of a town with hearty laughter and quirky customs. Yes, Uncle Lou may also con me, but, “Hey kid, we’re family. It’s only a sawbuck!” I’m smiling as I reach for the cash.

Of course, the really cool part about hanging with Uncle Lou is hearing the stories. I suppose that’s what I love most about Atlantic City. It’s a magnet for history, a time-traveler’s transfer hub where the famous, the infamous and the amazing all rub shoulders and get sand in their shoes.

The most important thing to remember about Atlantic City is that it has influenced your life in ways you probably don’t know. If you’ve ever used the words postcard, lifeguard, boardwalk or airport, then you’ve been touched by Atlantic City. If you played Monopoly as a child, then Atlantic City is in your past. Salt water taffy, Miss America, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Rudolph Valentino, Harry Houdini, cakewalk dancing, Heinz 57 varieties, Mr. Peanut and countless other cultural touchstones are fundamentally tied to this remarkable resort by the sea. Even Las Vegas owes it a nod.

That’s funny because most people these days think Atlantic City jumped on the gambling bandwagon and got glitzy after Las Vegas. Yes, if the subject is legal gambling, but the idea of a “carpet joint” was fully formed in Atlantic City and had been around for decades when Ben (Bugsy) Siegel was still kicking sand in the desert. In fact, Atlantic City was glitzy fifty years before that, back when Las Vegas didn’t have indoor plumbing. And we have to jump back another hundred years to reach the beginning of Atlantic City’s story. So here we go.

Build It and They Will Come
Dr. Jonathan Pitney, the father of Atlantic City, was born in New Jersey in 1797. He grew up in the heady early days of the United States, a time when the Age of Enlightenment was crashing into the Industrial Revolution. Everything seemed possible. Everyone believed that brainpower and mechanical innovations could build a perfect world.

John Pitney’s idea of perfection was a “bathing village and health resort,” a place where salt water and sea air would provide therapy for people who were ill from city living. The place he chose for his resort was Absecon Island just off the coast of New Jersey. It had once been the summer hunting ground for Native Americans; the Lenni-Lenape Indians called the place Absegami, which meant “little sea water.” The island was southeast of Philadelphia by sixty miles and south of New York City by about one hundred. Those distances sound minuscule today, but back in the early 1800’s it was a trek that could take two days. It’s no wonder that Absecon Island at that time had only seven permanent dwellings and one tavern/inn called Aunt Millie’s Boarding House (located at the present-day intersection of Baltic and Massachusetts avenues).

Pitney’s island was literally in the middle of nowhere, but all that was about to change because of a newfangled invention called the railroad. The first railroads in the United States were built around 1830, and by 1850 the economics of locomotion were evident; towns near railroads inevitably prospered. So in 1851 Pitney decided to build a line to Absecon Island. Detractors called the project a “railroad to nowhere,” but the doctor would not be put off. He was 54 years old at that point (a venerable age for the time). He’d served as a local postmaster, as a member of Atlantic County’s Board of Chosen Freeholders, and as a delegate to his state’s constitutional convention. He “knew” people, and a lot of them were very rich and influential. The power-politics that define Atlantic City to this day were there at its inception. Pitney skillfully worked the political system and rammed the project through.

The Camden and Atlantic Railroad Company was chartered one year later. Richard B. Osborne, a Philadelphian, was hired to survey the route. He designated the end of the line as “Atlantic City,” and thus it was. Pitney chose the street names. Those that ran parallel to the water were named after seas or oceans. The perpendicular streets were named after states. The city was incorporated in March 1854. Eighteen voters elected the first mayor.

On July 1 of that year, the first trainload of passengers arrived from Camden, a suburb of Philadelphia on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River. Atlantic City had been born.

The Boardwalk and Beach

Recently, my 90-year-old grandmother pulled out a photo album to show me a picture of herself and my great-grandparents. There she was, a girl of 16 lolling in the sand on a beach. Behind her was my great-grandfather. He was wearing one of those old-style men’s bathing suits that went over the shoulders. His bushy mustache covered a big grin. Next to him was my great-grandmother. She was wearing a black pajama-style bathing suit that vaguely resembled a poofy dress. Her expression was very severe (maybe there was sand in the suit). Behind them was a throng of people that stretched to the horizon. “Where was this?” I asked. “Atlantic City,” replied my grandmother. “That’s where we went for vacations.”

Indeed, for almost a century, Atlantic City was the destination for seaside holidays. It was a simple matter of logistics and economics. Millions of people lived in the Northeast before air travel. They could go only where the train would take them. Atlantic City was nice, it was affordable, and it was close. The resort’s central location between Washington, Philadelphia and New York gave it a critical mass that other locations couldn’t match. And Atlantic City had another special quality… a charming attitude. It was fancy without being snooty; it was working-class without being lowbrow. Atlantic City effortlessly entertained the very wealthy and also those who wished to be. Besides, everyone liked the diving horse (but I’m getting ahead of the story).

Hotels quickly followed the railroad, and it wasn’t long before famous people like President Ulysses S. Grant, H.J. Heinz (of ketchup and pickle fame), actress Lillian Russell, millionaire Diamond Jim Brady, and inventor Thomas A. Edison were strolling the beach in Atlantic City along with thousands of others. By the way, President Grant appropriately stayed at the United States Hotel.

Yes, they all strolled the beach and then tracked sand back into the hotels and onto the trains. It was an age before vacuum cleaners, so this was a complex problem. The solution was provided by a man who was prophetically named Alexander Boardman. He was a train conductor on the C. and A. Railroad, and he also owned the Ocean House Hotel (thus poor Mr. Boardman was getting a double whammy of sand). His suggestion was to put wooden planks on the beach. Boardman told the editor of a newspaper, and as so often happens in Atlantic City, word got around. In 1870, the city laid out the planks. Each board was ten feet long and the walk stretched from Missouri to Massachusetts. The total cost was $5,000, but it was a huge success, and that’s how the word “boardwalk” entered our language.

Early versions of the boardwalk were put out in the warm months and stored during the winter, but eventually the city built a larger permanent structure, designated Boardwalk as a street, and prohibited carriages. This naturally led to the development of another Atlantic City icon, the rolling chair. They began as wheelchairs (remember, the original concept for AC was health and recuperation), but people began renting them for recreation. The boardwalk stretched for miles so it made sense for a vacationer with a “delicate constitution” to hire a chair and have someone push it. A Philadelphia wheelchair manufacturer named Harry Shill saw the burgeoning market for chairs with wheels and began making rolling chairs for two.

These days the design appears quaint, but rolling chairs on the Atlantic City Boardwalk at the end of the 19th century were a daring and sexy place to be. Remember, it was the Victorian era. The English queen was widowed and had been mourning her beloved Prince Albert since his death in 1861. Sex was out. Touching was out. Revealed skin was out. Never mind that she conceived ten children during their 24-year marriage, the widowed Queen’s attitude spread across the English-speaking world, so young couples in proper society had few socially acceptable opportunities to snuggle. A rolling chair ride was a perfect excuse. The hopeful suitor could innocently say, “The air is a bit damp, dearest. Hold my hand for warmth.” Legs would brush legs. Shoulders would rub. Fingers would gingerly intertwine. And all this steamy romance was possible with the girl’s parents riding in another rolling chair a mere ten feet behind.

Victorian sensibilities also affected how people dressed when “bathing” in the Atlantic City surf. The original bathing suit for a woman was a full dress (usually wool flannel) with stockings, canvas shoes and a large straw hat. The only body parts exposed were the hands and face. It wasn’t until 1907 (six years after Queen Victoria had passed away) that women in Atlantic City began wearing the more “daring” bloomer suits and stockings without shoes. Oh my! Censors roamed the beach to ensure that skin wasn’t exposed. They carried tape measures to judge the length of skirts and trunks. The law required women to bathe with stockings until 1928, and men had to wear an upper covering until 1940. Maybe that’s why my great-grandmother had that sour expression. Perhaps she had just been measured by a censor.
In any case, Atlantic City’s cumbersome bathing rules didn’t stop people from enjoying themselves in the ocean. They came by the millions to sit in the sand or splash in the waves. And to keep them safe, the city appointed a “constable of the surf” in 1855—the world’s first public beach lifeguard service for swimmers.

The Sticky Story of Salt Water Taffy

Sylvester Benjamin Butler was24 years old and a newly minted resident of New Jersey when he wrote the following to his mother on August 29, 1916:

“The Boardwalk is a very wide substantial affair… being from fifty to a hundred feet from the water’s edge all along. On the side away from the beach are the hotels and then all kinds of shops, such as one would find in any city, except that I would say there were more soda fountains and candy shops than on a regular city street.”

Mmmmmm! Sweets have always been a staple of the Atlantic City experience. Vacationers in the 19th century who craved a sugar rush could feast on a cornucopia of exotic delicacies including bittersweet chocolate, molasses bars, coconut haystacks, chocolate covered puffed rice brownies, and, of course, salt water taffy.

Incidentally, the story of salt water taffy is an excellent example of the classic Atlantic City cycle of success. It starts with a good idea and a bit of mystery, it involves politics and occasional litigation, but in the end everything works out spectacularly. Here’s what happened with salt water taffy: Nobody knows who invented taffy, but we do know it appeared in the early years of the 19th century, and it was sold on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1883. That year (according to tradition), a bad storm blew through, and sea water soaked the taffy stock of a merchant named David Bradley. He was understandably unwilling to throw away the salted stuff, so he ate a piece just for kicks. It tasted pretty good. Soon Bradley was selling the confection as “salt water taffy.” At least that’s how one of the stories goes. (Another relays how a disgruntled shop owner barked at a child attempting to purchase some of the stuff, following the same tide-wrenching storm. “What flavors do you have?” asked the child. “We got only one flavor today, kid. Salt water.”)

Fact is, salt water taffy isn’t made with ocean water, though the moniker has stuck to the candy with the same resilience that it sticks to one’s teeth. But we do know that Joseph Fralinger was selling salt water taffy in Atlantic City at about that time, as was another man named John R. Edmiston. Accounts have Edmiston quarreling with his business partners, ultimately leaving Atlantic City to sell salt water taffy elsewhere (but he’d be back). As the years passed, Fralinger became known as the “King of Salt Water Taffy.” He went from selling it in folded paper to selling it in pound boxes. Hawkers would use the slogan, “Don’t go home and say, ‘I wish I hadda gotta box.’”

Another Atlantic City confectioner who became well-known for salt water taffy was Enoch James. He arrived from the Midwest in 1905, and James Candy Company soon established itself as a leader in the taffy business. In 1923 John Edmiston reappeared, waving a registered trademark and claiming royalty rights to salt water taffy. A lawsuit followed and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The justices ruled against the Edmiston trademark and at that time said, “Salt water taffy is born of the ocean and summer resorts and other ingredients that are the common property of all men everywhere.”

That’s how it works in Atlantic City. Don’t mess with Uncle Lou (or his lawyers). James Candy Company and Fralinger’s Original Salt Water Taffy are still on the Boardwalk to this day, and each has its loyal adherents.

A-Pier-Ing Every Night

OK, you’ve strolled the boardwalk, been to the beach, held hands with your sweetie, and stuffed yourself with taffy. Next comes an evening of entertainment. Here’s what our friend S. B. Butler had to say about Atlantic City entertainment in 1916:

“On the beach side of the walk, there are here and there long piers reaching out into the ocean, and on these piers are the principal amusement places of Atlantic City—places of dancing, roller skating, concerts, moving pictures, etc.; Keith’s has a vaudeville house on one of the piers; another pier is known as Steeple chase and is… revolving platforms on which you try to stay, tunnels you slide down and from which you land in a smooth dish-shaped place in some ridiculous position, and loads of things of that character.”

The world’s first amusement pier was built in Atlantic City in 1882, and by 1915 amusement piers were a major industry in the city. There were seven big ones. Imagine a mall, a county fair, a Broadway theatre and a theme park combined, plus the salty sea breezes, and you’ve got a typical Atlantic City pier experience. There was usually a headliner, a big-name entertainer like Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, John Philip Souza, Gypsy Rose Lee, Guy Lombardo, Benny Goodman, Jimmy Dorsey, Glenn Miller, Bob Hope, W.C. Fields or Harry Houdini (the famed magician was shackled and dropped off the end of Million Dollar Pier). In addition to the headliner there were side acts like the High Diving Hawaiians, or novelties like Garden Pier’s Giant Underwood Typewriter. The latter was a 14-ton Underwood “Standard” built 1,728 times normal size. The keys were as big as bar stools. Garden Pier also had a tango exhibition featuring matinee idol Rudolph Valentino.

Patrons who preferred edgier fare could stroll down to the Steel Pier or Million Dollar Pier and take in the Human Cannonball, Dip of Death (daredevil cyclists), Del Rio Midgets, or Tiny Gorman, the World’s Foremost High-Diving Fat Man.

Another Steel Pier favorite was the High-Diving Horse. It always went over the side with a pretty girl on its back. This was a dangerous stunt, less so for the horse than for the rider, but it was a beloved Atlantic City attraction for decades. The story of one diving rider, Sonora Webster, was told in the 1991 movie Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken (it’s a predictable Hollywood gloss, but I give it points for covering the subject).

Heinz Pier was a tad more refined. It had a museum with an art collection, a cooking school with free food samples, and a sun parlor with reclining chairs and writing desks. Visitors could sit and write picture post cards to their loved ones back home. By the way, picture post cards were another Atlantic City first.

And of course, every Heinz visitor got a pickle pin.

Monopolized
I was 5 years old the first time I played Monopoly. I remember rolling the dice and moving the steel car (much preferred by me over the hat, iron or boat) while marveling at the wonderful make-believe land with cool-sounding names like Boardwalk, Park Place, Reading Railroad, Short Line and St. James Place. Imagine my astonishment when I learned years later that it was all absolutely real. The railroads actually existed and they transported passengers to a real town called Atlantic City, where all those streets could be found (well, all but one—Marvin Gardens is actually located in the “downbeach” community of Margate).

Appropriately, the origin of Monopoly is as convoluted and shrouded in mystery as the invention of salt water taffy. Since this is an article about Atlantic City rather than Monopoly, I won’t go into arcane issues of who actually created the game, except to say that the official Hasbro-Parker Brothers version of how Monopoly was developed invariably omits some crucial details. At one point the whole thing landed in court, and the matter was eventually settled in classic Uncle Lou style.

In any case, Monopoly became a cultural icon in the 1930’s precisely because it was about another cultural icon, Atlantic City. Millions of people loved the town, and they wanted to own a piece of it, even if it was just a game.

Also, it’s interesting to note that at almost the exact time Monopoly was being created (around 1929), a real-life monopoly game was being played in Atlantic City. The contestants were infamous gangsters like Al Capone, Meyer Lansky, Frank Costello and Lucky Luciano. It was essentially a gangster convention. Representatives from all the major families came to Atlantic City because, well, where else would they hold a convention? Meyer Lansky even planned his honeymoon to coincide with the meeting. The purpose of the conclave was to divide up the country and end interfamily warfare. Nobody would be killed without approval from a national commission. Nice guys, huh?

Every morning the Mob conventioneers would ride a convoy of rolling chairs to the end of the Boardwalk, then they’d hike down to the beach, roll up their pants, and wade around in the water while discussing business. Much of what Ben Siegel later did in Los Angeles and Las Vegas is a direct result of decisions that were made in the surf of Atlantic City.

Ocean, Emotion and Constant Promotion
On May 3, 1919, the first municipal airport in the United States opened in Atlantic City. The word “airport” was first used in a news story about the event. Once again, Atlantic City had changed the lexicon.

That’s ironic, because after introducing the concept of an airport, Atlantic City was slowly strangled by it. It didn’t happen overnight. In fact, in the early decades of the 20th century it seemed as if Atlantic City was consolidating its grip on the traveling public.

In September 1921, seven young ladies came to Atlantic City as contestants in a new “intercity” beauty pageant that had been designed as a festival to lengthen the tourist season by one week. Sponsors called it a “fall frolic.” There was a parade, fireworks, dances, and when it was over, Margaret Gorman had been crowned the first Miss America (her official title was America’s Most Beautiful Bathing Girl). It took a few years for the pageant to get itself organized into the form we know today, but it eventually became a tradition that annually focused the national spotlight on Atlantic City.

In 1929 the Atlantic City Convention Hall opened. At the time it was the world’s largest convention facility, and in many ways it established the modern convention market. The stereotype of a tipsy, fat reveler wearing a name tag was born in Atlantic City.
And what did conventioneers want to do after their meetings? They wanted to go and get tipsier. They wanted entertainment, and they wanted to gamble. So it’s not a coincidence that there was an explosion of nightlife and illegal gambling in Atlantic City when the convention business took off.

Atlantic City in the 1940’s and 1950’s was “hep, man.” The 500 Club (nicknamed “the Five”) was one of the hottest spots on the East Coast. This was the place where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis first teamed up. Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Frank Sinatra and all the greats played the Five. And it didn’t hurt that there was a full-service casino in the building, custom chips and everything. How was that possible? Wasn’t gambling against the law? That’s the subject of an entirely different column. Let’s just say that Uncle Lou had his ways of getting things done.

When people weren’t squeezing into the Five they were jamming into Club Harlem to see performers like Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughan, Cab Calloway, Redd Foxx and James Brown. Club Harlem had three evening shows and a wildly popular “breakfast show” at 6:30 a.m. Sunday morning. Kentucky Avenue (where Club Harlem and other nightspots were located) was often so crowded in the wee hours that cabs couldn’t get through.
Those were exciting times, and many people believed that the Atlantic City party would never end. But a harsh new day was dawning.

The Fall and Rise of Atlantic City
By the 1960’s, Atlantic City was withering along with the nation’s passenger rail system. People were flying to Florida, the Caribbean, Europe or California for vacations. The economic model that had sustained Atlantic City for more than a century had become an anachronism. Dr. Pitney’s train was off track.

Atlantic City insiders often trace the beginning of the bad years to the 1964 Democratic Convention. Lyndon Johnson’s nomination was a lock, so journalists had little to write about except the town. They looked around and saw a lot of old buildings, old ideas, old paradigms. Everything in Atlantic City was aimed at a type of tourist who was rapidly becoming extinct. Word got around.

The next fourteen years were hell. The town’s population shrank by 20 percent. More than 12 percent of the local jobs disappeared, and the number of hotel rooms declined by nearly 40 percent. Atlantic City had once been called the Queen of the Resorts. The new nickname was South Bronx by the Seashore.

Yes, it was tragic, but Uncle Lou wasn’t finished.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see that regulated gambling was an inevitable evolution in Atlantic City.

The town was a tourist destination to its cultural core, and anyone looking at a map could see that Dr. Pitney’s logistics still worked. In fact, they were more powerful than ever. One hundred million people lived within convenient driving distance. What would get them into their cars or onto buses?

The first casino bill was introduced in 1970, but it took six years to get legislation passed and another two years before gaming actually arrived in Atlantic City. The casino at Resorts opened on May 26, 1978. As always, there were plenty of lawyers fighting along the way, and of course, everything worked out in the end.

Since then, eleven more casinos have been built with a major new one on the way, and the Atlantic City cycle continues… ideas, litigation, resolution, profit. The town wouldn’t have its delicious ambience if someone wasn’t fighting somebody for something. Like the tides, it’s a necessary process. New entertainment palaces rise. Tourists come (more than 30 million every year). Money is spent. The local casino industry now employs more people than the total population of the city. The playground by the sea rolls on.

There are still problems. There will always be problems. I’m trying to get Uncle Lou to give up cigars, but I love him anyway.

Basil Nestor is author of The Unofficial Guide to Casino Gambling
(Hungry Minds, ISBN #0-02-862917-5). Got a gambling question? Visit www.smarterbet.com and drop him a line.

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