Sure, shadiness abounded back in 1920s Atlantic City, but the era should probably best be remembered for its diverse array of entertainment.
It’s been said again and again, if Atlantic City is to dig itself out of the doldrums in this depressed economy, the key to doing so is to diversify options for prospective guests. That being the case, the harbingers for an optimistic A.C. future probably hope that history repeats itself.
Back in the 1920s, A.C. was a hub for all sorts of different nightlife and entertainment, and not just the kind that would be frowned upon by puritan society. There were theaters, amusement parks, music and dance clubs, and some of the biggest names in entertainment appeared regularly or got their career starts on A.C.’s bustling streets.
“People came here to relax, to have a good time, to enjoy their vacation — the majority of them weren’t here to get naughty,” says prominent A.C. historian Allen “Boo” Pergament. “Different things happened when people came here during those eras. I mean, you read Boardwalk Empire and you might think there was nothing here but gambling and prostitution. We had the Boardwalk, the beaches, the ocean, the piers, the entertainment, the activities, the beautiful hotels — we had everything here and we had many times more people coming here for those things than for the gambling and prostitution.
“Don’t get me wrong — it was here and those interested in partaking in it would not have had a difficult time finding it, but it wasn’t the major thing that everyone came here for,” he adds. “We drew millions of people for so many other things.”
Among the nightclubs that existed back then were the Paradise Club on Illinois Avenue, which was billed as the oldest nightclub in America and the first to host “breakfast shows.” The talent was largely black (and the audience largely white), and many of the artists who performed would take their place among the greatest in history like Count Basie, Ethel Waters, Nat King Cole, Lena Horne and Duke Ellington. The Paradise later merged with A.C.’s famed Club Harlem, which was created in 1935. Babette’s was a club established in the early 1920s by singer/entertainer Blanche Babette, and featured such stars of that era as Velma and Buddy Ebsen, Rudy Vallee, the Three Stooges and Milton Berle. Other famous A.C. clubs soon to follow were the 500 Club, Grace’s Little Belmont, the Bath & Turf Nightclub, Erin Musical Bar and others.
Since Prohibition was in effect back then (1920-’33), federal agents were constantly pursuing “rum runners” that brought illegal booze to Atlantic City’s beaches, mainly from schooners originating in the West Indies according to Ed Davis’ Atlantic City Diary. Prior to construction of the Atlantic City Convention Center (in 1926, now Boardwalk Hall), there was a huge amusement center at that site (on the block bounded by the Boardwalk, Mississippi, Georgia and Pacific avenues) called Rendezvous Park that boasted a dance floor that could accommodate 2,000 couples. Talking motion pictures did not become commonplace until the late 1920s, and Atlantic City had numerous live theater houses that starred actors and actresses who later became household names in motion pictures.
“When plays and theatrical performances came onto the scene, they came here to Atlantic City first before going to Broadway,” says Pergament. “They were tried here first, usually at one of the three main stages that included the Garden Pier, Nixon’s Apollo Theater and the Globe Theater. Why? Because we had a cross-section with multitudes of people visiting, and they could get a feel for the response of the people as to whether it would be a successful show or not. If it was, then it went to Broadway. That happened for years.
“If you look at the Playbills from the 1920s and ’30s, the players in those productions at the time went on to become our national heroes of stage and film,” adds Pergament. “They became great actors and actresses like Edward G. Robinson, Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Mary Pickford, Walter Huston, the Marx Brothers, Helen Hayes, Jeannette McDonald, Ethel Barrymore, Humprey Bogart, Cesar Romero, James Cagney — there’s an endless number of them. They all had bit parts in Atlantic City productions in the 1920s before becoming superstars. That’s how you started back then.”
Variety acts were huge in the 1920s, says Pergament, and among the most popular were Earl Carroll’s Vanities and George White’s Scandals, both of which, like the dramatic theatrical productions, were responsible for launching the careers of future greats. John Philip Sousa and other legendary band leaders routinely performed at A.C.’s Steel Pier, and among the more quirky entertainment attractions were an Infant Incubator Exhibit across from the Million Dollar Pier in which tiny human babies in incubators were watched over by nurses at all times. In the vast expanse of ground across Route 30 from North Carolina Avenue (in front of what’s now the Borgata) was a short-lived dog-racing track created by the National Kennel Club.
“There used to be a publication called the Amusement Guide that started in the late teens — 1917 or ’18 was the first one I think — that lasted through the 1970s and listed all kinds of entertainment and things to do,” says Pergament. “Of course it wasn’t going to list the houses of prostitution or the speakeasies and such, it just listed the clean entertainment … but some of that was on the risqué side, too.”
The Atlantic City Free Public Library provided information for this article.
Click here to find out about the free and open-to-the-public event scheduled for Sunday, Sept. 19, at Caesars Atlantic City. The event "Conversations & Storytelling" will include Allen "Boo" Pergament among other Atlantic City historians, and will be followed by a viewing party of the first episode of HBO's Boardwalk Empire.
A public discussion entitled “The Atlantic City Experience: The Roaring ’20s” will be hosted by the Atlantic City Free Public Library on Saturday, Oct. 13, in the Atlantic City Historical Museum
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