Star Search

On the surface, Wildwood appears to be improving with age, but something is missing. Will the big stars ever return?

During my youth, some of the biggest of the big showed up in Wildwood, usually for shows at some of the various clubs. The Rainbow, The Beachcomber, The Surf Club, The Manor Supper Club, and Lou Booth’s were just a few of the places hosting big names during the summer months.

Bill Haley and the Comets sort of started things off by performing “Rock Around the Clock” at the Hof Brau, and half a decade later, Chubby Checker first performed “The Twist” at The Rainbow Club, according to area nostalgia buffs.

Minors generally were not permitted in night clubs, so my star gazing was very limited. I saw Peggy Lee during a poolside interview at the old Carousel Motel. On our way home from the boards one night, my brother, another friend, and I heard some twangy guitar sounds leaking through the cracks at The Beachcomber, and the bouncer allowed us to peek through the door to see Duane Eddy during his performance.

On another warm summer evening bike ride, I noticed my brother and some of our friends hanging out in the parking lot of The Caribbean motel. They told me that Jimmie Rodgers was in a room on the second floor. Uh-oh! Awhile later, his manager came down to tell us that if we gave him some paper, he would take it up and get autographs. He said that Jimmie would come down and speak with us before leaving for his show. Jimmie did come down and talk with us before he and his wife got in the back seat of a black Lincoln Continental convertible to be chauffeured away for his performance.

Okay, so The Beatles never quite made it south of AC, but The McGuire Sisters, Johnny Mathis, Tony Bennett, and many others, made it to the island. Bobby Rydell spent a considerable amount of time in Wildwood through the years, and his song, “Wildwood Days,” is still remembered rather reverently by some of us old-timers.

My uncle wrote for Variety and Billboard, which gave him an inside advantage, so to speak. Frankie Laine showed up on our front porch one evening, and Bruce Davison (who spent some summers just a few blocks away) , of “Willard” fame, called up one day. In the seventies, I remember when my uncle told us about interviewing The Carpenters and David Cassidy when they performed at the old new Convention Hall.

So where has everyone gone? I guess they’ve gone to the bigger venues, like Philadelphia, Atlantic City, and other cities with huge facilities. Yes, Wildwood has a new Convention Center, but at least for the time being, that venue seems relegated to the stars of yesteryear. Fat chance that any big star not named Chubby would ever show up in a place like the old Rainbow these days.

Bored Walk? Uh-uh.

If you can’t sell it on the boardwalk, then it just can’t be sold. For some reason, when people get on the boards, all sense of reason seems to disappear. Hey, let your hair down!I started noticing the phenomena back in the fifties, when people started walking around wearing those huge, ridiculous sunglasses that everyone thought were so funny, especially the people selling them. The huge combs weren’t far behind, nor were the “big name buttons,” and, yes, I admit, I’ve been around since the food stands were pushing brontosaurus burgers.

During the sixties, the laugh of the party on the boardwalk invariably wore a hat with little beer cans around the brim, pretty much lending authenticity to the wearer’s IQ. And someone cleaned up (not literally) by attaching a dog collar to a stiff leash, instantly creating an invisible dog. At least I think they were dogs. Those clever jokesters who bought those leashes played it to the hilt, “walking” their invisible dogs up and down the boards, sometimes struggling to prevent the animal from performing an unseemly act on someone’s shoe. Ha ha… For lack of further imagination, these “dogs” were all the same size, rather small, and their barks sounded suspiciously human-like.

The stuffed animal has survived as a game stand staple, and lest PETA sound an alarm, we’re not talking taxidermy here. Some stands now have bigger and better prizes, but the stuffed species still proliferates. Now there is nothing really wrong with stuffed animals (and other creatures), especially if you’re a young guy with a pretty woman. Okay, you don’t really have to be young – many an older woman still has a place in her heart for a stuffed animal, especially if it was won for her by her man. What boggles my mind is how much someone will actually spend to “win” one of these prizes. Better to just buy a high quality teddy bear from a vendor on my web site (hint, hint). I can guarantee from personal experience that your woman will love it more than flowers, especially if you have it personalized.

But back to the boards. We’ve graduated, I guess you can say. Besides all of the standard boardwalk fare available, the Wildwood Boardwalk now offers tattoos, body piercing, henna tattoos; and you can even buy some more hair, if you find yourself a bit lacking. I have to admit, the tattoo and body piercing parlors really enrich the whole family atmosphere that has always been one of the boardwalk’s strong points.

Cynicism aside, the boardwalk remains a strong attraction for young and old, friends, lovers, and family. Many things have changed through the years, but it still pretty much looks like the same old playground.

For Whom the Toll Tolls

I lived in the south for about twenty years, mostly in Georgia, but also in North Carolina and Arkansas. I also briefly lived part-time in a few other southern states.

Initially, I missed some of the things I was used to in the north, but as I gradually became somewhat “southernized,” and the south became somewhat “northernized,” we eventually reached a fairly comfortable level of agreement with each other.

One of the rarities in the south that I didn’t miss all that much from the north was toll roads. Yes, they’re scarce, (but not non-existent) in the south, and that was nice. I remember paying one toll during two decades there, when we took vacation on Jekyll Island. The Atlanta area put in a new toll road, but it has not been well received.

But Maryland brought me back to northern reality rather quickly, with its then $4.00 (now $5.00) toll on I-95. A few miles further up the road and Delaware socks drivers with a $2.00 toll. On the return, the Delaware Memorial Bridge hits people up for $3.00, and another $2.00 is snatched away shortly after Christiana.

I initially lived in Maryland when I moved back north, and I had to ensure that I carried an extra $12.00 in cash (I carry little cash these days), just to visit my relatives in New Jersey. That quickly drove me to join EZ-Pass, and the convenience is certainly worth it, although quite a few drivers seem to think that it’s still necessary to stop (and probably roll down the window, too) before going through. It’s also frustrating during the summer months to find traffic backed up for miles on I-95, with no way of getting to the EZ-Pass lanes. One time I took the “LAST EXIT BEFORE TOLL” near Havre de Grace, started across the bridge and saw signs stating to “Pay Toll Ahead” in the amount of $5.00! So you take the “Last Exit Before Toll” and still have to pay the same toll! I learned from the locals that you can go to the “Pass” lane and pay $5.00 for a sticker that’s good for one year. Huh?

I never bothered to figure out how much I’ve paid in tolls through the years, what with the Garden State Parkway, the New Jersey Turnpike, Benjamin Franklin, Walt Whitman, Delaware Memorial, and other bridges, as well as the various bridges on Ocean Drive, but it must be substantial. I went to Cape May County Vo-Tech for two years, back when it was actually in Cape May, and remember mostly driving out through Rio Grande and taking Route 9, to avoid the then 25-cent toll on the Ocean Drive bridge. Now the bridge is a dollar going toward Cape May, but is free on the return trip to Wildwood Crest. I also commuted for six years to Drexel, in Philadelphia, and paid the Walt Whitman Bridge tolls, although I carpooled for three of those years.

Once upon a time, rumor had it that the Parkway exit tolls would only be in place until the exit was paid for. Some were actually removed after a time, such as the Tilton Road exit in Cardiff. But the toll booths at the Rio Grande exit for traveling to and from Cape May have been hanging around for nearly 40 years.

We traveled up to Maine last year, and every state except New Hampshire (I think they may have since converted) had EZ-Pass.

So my question is this: why are tolls so necessary in the northeast? I thought the state excise taxes on gasoline and tires were supposed to take care of all of that? Sort of like the Lotto, and sales tax, and income tax (none of which existed in NJ before 1965, when they introduced the then 3% sales tax) and the AC casinos were going to take care of everyone’s woes in New Jersey.

But let’s not get into that. Suffice it to say that my property taxes in Woodstown are almost twice what my entire mortgage (including property taxes) was in Georgia. Hey, that makes me sound stupid, doesn’t it?

Wildwood Bye to the Sea

Many people seem worried about the ocean rising until it obliterates much of the shore area and covers Manhattan. I’m more concerned about all of the extra sand the sea dumps on Wildwood year after year. During my childhood, the then old-timers used to tell me that the old Crest Pier used to be on the beach, sometimes at water’s edge. Old photos have verified this

I spent a lot of time at the Crest Pier (the one before the latest reincarnation at the same location), both during the summers and winters. I learned to bowl (sort of) on the long-gone six lanes at the Pier. I say sort of, because I learned to bowl somewhat more properly when the Rio Lanes opened, complete with automatic pin setters and bowling balls all the same size! The lanes at the pier sported regular-sized balls, larger cork balls that barely fit through the stop ring, and duck pin balls. The pin boys usually returned the latter by rolling them down the gutters. Sometimes this resulted in a frantic chase through the folding chairs for a runaway ball. Instead of hand dryers, a volcano-shaped mound of chalk (or maybe it was resin) sat ready at each lane. I also played the many pinball machines and arcade games during the summer, but the winters brought me to the south side of the Pier, where a basketball court with asphalt tile surface and a too-low ceiling was squeezed in between the stage and the west wall. Many of us developed a fairly flat shot back in those days. Old, canvas gymnastic mats sat on the north side, and barbells were on the south side. The stage contained ping pong tables, a shuffleboard, a boxing bag, and a dartboard. Rudy Kita, the Recreation Director, sat at a small table near the front of the stage, his vigilant eye ensuring that we never got too carried away with anything.

We also messed around occasionally beneath the Pier during the summers, playing hide and seek, and cops and robbers. So the pier sat on pilings, maybe four or five feet above street level. But why was it on pilings? It seemed silly, located between Atlantic and Ocean Avenues, on pilings!

So now to my present concern. I spent 20 or so years in the south, without so much as seeing the Wildwood beach during that time, since most of our visits were during the winter months. But then I see this photo on the internet of one of Morey’s latest piers, the one with The Great White roller coaster. My first reaction was that my eyes were deceiving me. That happens to be the former Fun Pier, where I worked, and the old Sky Tower is still standing, but it’s in the middle of the pier instead of at the end. Yes, the pier is much larger now, but that wasn’t what caught my attention. The end of the pier wasn’t even in the water! I could make out the approximate high tide line, and it was nowhere near the Sky Tower location! In 1966, my last year working on the pier, I ran the Tilt-a-Whirl, which sat right next to the tower, and during high tide, waves crashed beneath me!

I find it alarming that Wildwood may someday lose its status as a seashore resort! Will streets eventually crop up on the ocean side of the boardwalk? Don’t laugh, I remember when much of Ocean Avenue was sand dunes, and JFK Boulevard in North Wildwood wasn’t even a thought!

West Wildwood has existed for years, although most of us considered it a bit weird back then. The kids there showed up late for school when flood tides occurred during the right morning hours. But East Wildwood? Imagine the city of East Wildwood, with its beach and boardwalk, and the old city of Wildwood with its boardwalk running through the center of town! The boards could go the way of Pacific Avenue if the city doesn’t soon start a beach removal program.