The Atlantic City Free Public Library is looking for photos and other materials featuring the people and places of Atlantic City’s Kentucky Avenue area from the 1920s to '70s.
ATLANTIC CITY — My fondest Kentucky Avenue memory is gaping in awe at the mere size of Muhammad Ali as he lifted me into the air with one huge hand.
This was in the late '60s and my cousin and I were walking down KY Ave. checking out the scene as local teens did just for fun.
As we passed in front of the Club Harlem, there he was, the Champ, grinning and laughing while he signed autographs for his admirers. He must have spotted the disbelief in my eyes and thought it was funny, so he reached down, picked me up and lifted me over his head with a smile. Gently, he placed me back onto the sidewalk and I giggled as we continued down the street checking out the sights and sounds of KY, but nothing compared to that moment.
Hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, others will be able to get a glimpse into historic and often legendary Kentucky Avenue moments, which are such fond memories for so many locals, tourists and celebrities alike.
If we can’t bring it back to its full glory, the least we can do is memorialize it properly by teaching others KY history through photos, music, dance, food and song.
The following is a modified excerpt from my book, Growing Up in the Other Atlantic City: Wash’s and the Northside, which really demonstrates Kentucky Avenue in its heyday during the 1930s, '40s and '50s:
My aunt and uncles were winding down from a catering job at the Soldier’s Home.
“Maybe after this reception, we can head on over to Kentucky Avenue,” Piggy suggested. “Anybody game?”
“Sure. Why not?” said Mooney. “Even if business is okay after Labor Day, there won’t be too many weeks left. We might not get back over there for a while. How ‘bout it, Elsie?” Mooney asked his wife as they waited for the last few guests to leave the Soldier’s Home so that they could clean up the place.
“Sure. I’m not too tired this time, but we can’t be hangin’ out all night like Piggy. My sister Eleanor’s babysittin’, remember?” Elsie smiled.
After the wedding reception clean-up, they strolled up a few blocks to the center of Kentucky Avenue (KY) action, modestly dressed compared to most people on the strip. There was no time to change completely out of their uniforms if they wanted to make the most of their night on the town. Piggy and Mooney, my uncles, added sports jackets and Elsie, a blue cardigan with sparkly buttons. She looked up at the neon facades with her usual wonderment. Like many young Negro women, she hadn’t long been away from her family’s farm in Egg Harbor Township. Not in her wildest dreams had she imagined the glitz and glamour of Atlantic City’s Kentucky Avenue and she loved going there to people-watch as much as anything else. Only in Harlem, where Piggy had lived for a couple years after serving in the Army, had he witnessed such large numbers of well-dressed and well-groomed brown bodies. Everybody was smiling or laughing in the revelry of the evening, since KY was in full swing by the time they reached the major intersection at Arctic Avenue. Mooney had experienced plenty of this nightlife while working at the Wonder Gardens from time to time and he excitedly showed his wife the sights and sounds whenever they got a chance.
“So, which one will it be --- the Wonder Gardens, Goldie’s, the Waltz Dream, Grace’s?” Mooney asked.
“Don’t matter none to me,” said Piggy. “Alllllll the women lookin’ good tonight.
Hey, Joe, what’s goin’ on, man?” Piggy asked a friend who was approaching them.
It feels like this is truly the beginning of a real arts district in Atlantic City.
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"I hope my daughter will be introduced to a different type of music. She usually plays rock and R&B. I've always tried to keep my daughters busy with something constructive during the summer, no sitting around on your butt watching TV for months."
Summertime, and the groovin’ is easy. Tourists fatten the regular jazz crowd cramming Kentucky Avenue, where the night never dies. Inside Club Harlem, they press against the bar and each other, as the organist and his quartet tune up on the bandstand. The music comes fast and the band is tight and the organ looses a torrent of sound. And there’s an added bonus for posterity: the live session is being recorded for an album, a rare occurrence in Atlantic City. This was the scene on the Saturday night of Aug. 9, 1969, when master jazz organist Lonnie Smith and company cut Move Your Hand, an exemplar of ’60s soul jazz, for the legendary Blue Note label. The title song, which became a hit, borrowed its lyric from a joke that Smith’s drummer told about a substitute preacher who couldn’t deliver the sermon because someone else’s hand was covering the text. (The joke is less than hysterical, but the number’s a grabber.) “One night, I was playing a little lick and just happened to say [“move your hand”] to the fellows in the band,” says Smith, now 67 and as busy as ever. “People loved it and always requested it.” It became...
At a fraction the size of the Showboat House of Blues' main music hall, one might assume that the Club Harlem Ballroom is reserved for lesser-known acts, or those that don't have the drawing power to...
THE ADDRESS WAS 32 North Kentucky Avenue, and it was a place where the music -- and the night -- never died. If the entire block, including the likes of Grace's Little Belmont and the Wonder Garden b...
A banner with the name Slappy White on it hung across Kentucky Avenue all summer. The late comedian and actor (who died in Brigantine in 1995) was booked for the entire season at Atlantic City’s famed Club Harlem. On this particular summer night, however — July 24, 1964, to be precise — hanging above the banner was yet another banner. It read: “Sam Cooke.”
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