A new book looks at the long and varied history of early Atlantic City’s greatest attraction the Steel Pier
When it comes to Atlantic City, there’s no shortage of iconic images. From the Monopoly Board to salt water taffy to rolling chairs on the Boardwalk, A.C.’s mark is indelible.
But for anyone who really knows A.C. history, most of the really great icons are just shadowy images from the past. There used to be great jazz on Kentucky Avenue and there used to be a pageant of bathing beauties in Boardwalk Hall. And most importantly, there used to be piers stretching deep out into the ocean from the Boardwalk. They were filled with vaudeville acts, ballrooms and even girls on horseback diving into the surf.
Some of the piers are still there — one an upscale mall and some others with amusement rides — but the glory days of the Million Dollar Pier, the Steeplechase Pier and the most celebrated, the Steel Pier, are long behind us.
That is until you meet Steve Liebowitz, who spent more than 20 years researching a new book Steel Pier, Atlantic City: Showplace of the Nation(Down the Shore Publishing, $39, 263pp). For Liebowitz, who spent more than a few excursions to Atlantic City locked away in the Atlantic City Free Public Library scouring microfilm and papers from back in the day, the Steel Pier was still alive with orchestras and big bands and famous acts from Sinatra to Milton Berle.
“There were times when I felt like I was actually living through that era and actually seeing these exhibits and performances,” Liebowitz says in a phone interview from his home in Baltimore. “I would actually get excited and anxious wondering who would be appearing there next week even though it was years removed. That was the most fun for me. I’d see they had these orchestras one week and then somebody like (’60s comedian) Pat Paulsen the next week. I never knew what was coming next,”
And when it comes to the Steel Pier, there’s much to remember. The Pier was first built in 1898 stretching about 2,000 feet and included a dance pavilion and small aquarium. Through its long history (lasting into the ’70s) it would see an endless stream of attractions and shows, dances and bands and the biggest names in Vaudeville.
To track down all of the things that happened at the Pier, Liebowitz began reviewing microfilm in the mid-’80s, scouring newspaper ads for the pier.
“It wasn’t that easy for me since I’m not from the area,” he says. “So I would get myself on the various bus trips and I would get the roll of quarters the casinos would give you. But instead of playing slots, I’d use the quarters to make copies of the microfilm pages on this machine they had. I remember getting back on the bus and people would ask me if I won and I’d say, ‘No, but I got all these great copies.'”
Of course not all icons are unblemished. One of the first great attractions at the Steel Pier in the early 20th century were minstrel shows, where white entertainers would wear blackface and provide an overly exaggerated stereotype of African-Americans. Considered to be one of the more offensive racial portrayals in the country’s history, Liebowitz was left with in a quandary. The shows were essential to the early life of the Pier. There was no way to gloss it over.
“There were some reservations about that and some concern that we shouldn’t use the pictures, but I said we had to include it,” Liebowitz says. “The shows were a major part of the Pier and figured very prominently in all their advertising. You have to take it in context. That was the entertainment of the day. It was very common to play up these stereotypes for all ethnic groups. It’s not something you can just ignore. It’s part of the history.”
The shows would play at the Pier until World War II, when they thankfully passed out of the culture. But as a reminder of the city’s heavily segregated past, Liebowitz and his publisher, Ray Fisk, of Down The Shore Publishing, give the shows a brief chapter.
Still, most of the Steel Pier’s history is based on much less offensive fun and some of the first half of the 20th centuries’ greatest entertainers. To capture the feel of the pier, Liebowitz turned to two old pros of A.C. history — Allen “Boo” Pergament and Bob Ruffalo. The two make contributions to almost all histories written about the city. Liebowitz especially made use of Pergament’s extensive collection of historic photos. More than 225 photos and illustrations are in the book.
“Boo and Bob Ruffalo were amazing,” Liebowitz says. “I could call Boo and ask him about something, and he’d say let me research that a little and I’ll get back to you. Then he’d call and he’d have found something I’d never seen before. Some act or ad that was just amazing.”
Another important source for the book was George Hamid Jr., son of George Hamid, who is immortalized as one of the greatest showmen in the city’s history and, along with his son, were the longtime managers of the Pier. Liebowitz interviewed Hamid Jr. several times.
“George was a great guy to talk to an he had a very good memory about who they had booked and how much they paid them,” Liebowitz says. “I know he embellished things a little, but he was a great source. Still there were a few things even he couldn’t remember. There was just so much that changed at the Pier from year to year.”
To list the changes would require, well, a book. Steel Pier Atlantic City covers the great entrepreneurs and showman who made the Pier run through the Vaudeville acts and stars of the ’20s and ’30s, the diving horse era, the big-band era and the rock’n roll of the ’50s and ’60s. Through it all the city’s piers drove the resort.
“I think people have forgotten how much the piers dominated the city’s entertainment to an extent.” Liebowitz says. “You can remind people of things like the diving horse and maybe they’ll remember. But it was a very different time and many people today only remember what it was like as it was becoming obsolete.
“You have to remember that the Pier thrived at a time when vaudeville was king,” he says. “I’m always amazed at who they had playing there and the huge crowds it attracted. But it’s an era that has passed. You couldn’t have that level of entertainment in a single place today. You’d have to charge people hundreds of dollars just to get in.”
George Jackson opened the Steel Pier in 1898, less than 50 years after Atlantic City’s incorporation. He was followed by owner Frank P. Gravatt, a showman who realized the public’s appetite for an eclectic mix of entertainment in one location at one price, 25 cents.
To clear the decks, Parker Brothers bought Lizzie’s two patents (for the proverbial song) and the rights to Layman’s Finance. Forever after, the game would be all about gaining wealth by trampling the competition (albeit with a smile).
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