Two Compelling Views of “America’s Favorite Playground,” Atlantic City

Editor’s Note: This week the Official NJ350 Blog offers two compelling views of “America’s Favorite Playground,” Atlantic City. First, Vicki Gold Levi shares her memories of an Atlantic City childhood, complete with an unforgettable stint as a page to Miss America of 1945, Bess Myerson. Next, historian Bryant Simon considers the possible next reincarnation of New Jersey’s most famous seaside resort town in the wake of the recent closures of several casinos. As the city prepares to crown Miss America of 2014 and recover from its latest economic crisis, these two posts provide unique perspectives on its fabled past, and its undeniable promise.

An Atlantic City Childhood, Complete with Frank Sinatra and Miss America

As the first-born child of Atlantic City’s first Chief Photographer Al Gold and a budding stage mom, Beverly, I had a lot of opportunity growing up in Atlantic City. Born in 1941, shortly before the town was overrun by the Army and Air Force as barracks, training grounds, and a rehab hospital took over all the luxury hotels and the Convention Hall, I was very early on introduced to the island limelight. I actually sold war bonds on the Boardwalk, dressed as a junior WAC at age three! At six years old I had my own radio show on WMID called “Views by Vicki” where children made up the audience; my theme intro was from The Churkendoose narrated by Ray Bolger, and I had to memorize my portion of the script every week.

But the highlight of my eccentric childhood was serving as Bess Myerson’s page in the Miss America Pageant. She was crowned at the Warner Theater on the Boardwalk in 1945 because the Convention Hall was then a training facility for the war effort. I want to duly note that she was the first Miss America to win a college scholarship at the annual event.

She was breathtaking and almost six-feet tall. She wore a white organza dress in the parade and with her scepter and crown, she looked to me like the good witch Glenda in the film The Wizard of Oz. Every night of the pageant she would take her walk down the very long runway, dressed to the nines, capped off with a red velvet, ermine-trimmed robe and me on her tailcoat trying to maneuver the flowing garment.

I was only five, costumed as a page in white satin with a feathered cornucopia hat and one-inch satin Cuban heels on my feet. As I said, she was almost six feet and I was what, about three feet? Traipsing down the runway, holding the ends of this voluminous robe, was a mighty task for one so young and small. The final night, the regular newsreel crew was on board, filming the show for the nation’s movie houses, before TV was in every home. I was admonished by the pageant director not to trip! Why this was necessary, I don’t know, because I hadn’t tripped thus far. Anyhow, and you can see this on the newsreel, I didn’t trip, but I was so nervous, I stumbled. You can see the regal Bess stop, look around at her small and trembling page, and inquire “was I ok?” I looked up at my good witch and stammered, “Yes Bess” and we continued our final victory walk together.

While many childhood memories are long forgotten, this one is seared in my brain! But I do know that growing up in Atlantic City was such fun. The Boardwalk was a midway filled with peanut-making machines, fortune teller booths, auction houses, slice ’em and dice ’em men demonstrating potato peelers and tomato slicers that promised to ease the life of post-war housewives, merry-go-rounds, a diving bell that took you to the bottom of the murky sea, amusement piers that featured Frank Sinatra five times a day LIVE, and a water circus with a high-diving horse. We mustn’t forget the Dupont exhibit show that went on all day bringing “better living through chemistry,” that turned beakers of clear white liquid to blue or red by adding a mysterious ingredient. I could watch this for hours, as well as the lady who had hair that hung way past her waist and was hawking a certain pomade that could make “you beautiful too!”

Was it a normal childhood? Probably not, but I had parents who tempered the resort glamour and dalliances in show-business with bromides such as, “All that glitters is not gold.” Was it an interesting childhood? You betcha! And thus, I still have “sand in my shoes.”

By Vicki Gold Levi

Vicki Gold Levi is an author and picture editor. She co-founded the Atlantic City Historical Museum on Garden Pier, and co-authored Atlantic City:125 Years of Ocean Madness. For five seasons she was the historical consultant on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. Currently she is a trustee on the Historical Organ Restoration Committee, restoring the world’s largest pipe organ in Boardwalk Hall, and on the Lucy the Elephant board. She also co-authored Cuba Style and is working on a major exhibition at the Wolfsonian Museum in Miami Beach in 2016, featuring her vintage Cuban collection.

Atlantic City’s Endless Cycles of Creative Destruction

The end of the Labor Day weekend always leaves Atlantic City residents feeling a bit melancholy. The days get shorter and the town grows quieter. Parking is easier and seats at the bar open up. But this year, there was more than a whiff of melancholy mixing with the sea air.

Two casinos, Showboat and Revel, closed their doors and another, Trump Plaza, will stop operations soon. Casino revenues are half of what they were before the Great Recession. Thousands of jobs have disappeared. Everyday families load up U-Hauls with bed frames and patio furniture and head back to where they came from in 1990 or 1975 or 1955.

Some in Atlantic City are retelling a grim joke from the past, reminding each other that the last person out of town needs to turn out the lights. Of course, this isn’t the first time, nor probably the last time, that Atlantic City residents will talk about the death of their city.

In part, this has to do with the nature of Atlantic City and all cities. The strongest force along the Jersey Shore is not the surging tides, but the ceaseless winds of creative destruction. Over the years, Atlantic City has thrived when it matched the dreams and fantasies of the people who walked along the Boardwalk. But those dreams change and with them the look and feel of the city changes. The hotels of yesterday crowned with Moorish domes and church-like spires were replaced by slender tributes to modernism and a knock-off of the Taj Mahal. Now the days of these casino cathedrals have passed and something else will come along to replace them. But first the tourist entrepreneurs and city leaders have to adjust their thinking and figure out how to raise capital to fashion a new built environment that will, they hope, reflect the deepest desires of the next generation of potential tourists. That will take time to figure out, just like it did the last time the lights went out in Atlantic City.

In the middle of the last century, the Atlantic City Boardwalk often got so crowded that it resembled a busy subway platform at rush hour. The women strolling along the oceanfront wore cashmere sweaters with mink collars and the men wore pants with creases as sharp as razor blades. These sons and daughters of immigrants from Italy, Ireland, and Lithuania were there to show off for all to see that they had become fully American. To be an American then meant to be middle-class and to have some money in your pocket. And it meant being white.

Atlantic City staged whiteness by keeping African Americans at arm’s length, yet still available for service and for show. Blacks couldn’t check into Boardwalk hotels, sit where they wanted in the city’s lavish movie houses, or sunbathe where they chose. Yet African Americans were not invisible during Atlantic City’s glory days. Steel Pier featured minstrel shows, hotels employed uniformed butlers, and rolling chair operators hired black men to push white men and women down the flat and easy Boardwalk.

The crowds kept coming to Atlantic City until the national racial narrative changed after World War II. Whites might not have given up on the privileges of whiteness in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, but they no longer wanted the very public Gone With The Wind-like performances of the past. Instead they fled from the cities to the suburbs and from urban amusement parks to the wilderness of the National Parks and to walled-off, ex-urban locations like Great Adventure and Disneyland.

As Atlantic City became the past, the architects of creative destruction detected an opportunity. The most radical of them, a graduate of the London School of Economics and a Boardwalk huckster of pricey porcelain birds, Reese Palley, suggested bulldozing the entire city and starting over again. Of course, that’s not what happened. After groping for solutions from the late 1950s to the early 1970s, city leaders finally decided to let the casino industry rebuild and reimagine the city. The owners of slot machines and green felt tables tore down the colossal hotels of the past and put up casinos that looked like spaceships on the moon with a parking deck attached. Each towered over the Boardwalk and each, like the privatized suburbs, was a world unto itself. Little seeped out of the highly fortified, air-conditioned silos, so while the casinos, for a time, multiplied and the owners got rich, the city that surrounded them withered.

Now the casino lands are collapsing and there will be another run of creative destruction. Some of the glass towers and many of the parking structures will come crashing down. What will be built in their place depends on the vision of some and the flow of money from others. Will the city repeat the trickle-down model of the casino past? Will the bulldozers and builders remain in private hands, concerned only about delivering profits to stockholders and board members whose feet never touch the sand? Will the new world provide good well-paying, year-round jobs, union jobs like the ones the casinos once provided? Will the industries of tomorrow spread the wealth to the neighborhoods stretching west into the bay and north towards the Inlet? Will there be supermarkets with fresh produce, decent schools and libraries, and busy universities? Will the city’s re-emergence be for everyone or geared to a niche market? Who will get to participate in the conversations that sketch out the city’s map of the future? Who will be left out?

How creative and fair will this round of destruction be?

By Bryant Simon

Bryant Simon grew up in Vineland and is Professor of History at Temple University in Philadelphia. He is the author of Boardwalk of Dreams: Atlantic City and the Fate of Urban America (2004), winner of the Richard McCormick Book Prize from the New Jersey Historical Commission.