Straitjacketed and upside-down, the illusionist hung from the heights of the Keith Theatre. Blood rushed to his head as he struggled against his confines while the crowd below, heads tilted toward the sky, grew apprehensive. Beyond the theatre roofline, thin white clouds stretched toward the elusive horizon. Onlookers gasped as the figure above wriggled and jerked in his predicament. Then the only sounds were the ocean's hollow surge and a few lazy squawks from a gull.
That was the scene in 1918, as marquee magician Harry Houdini fashioned his escape in front of the great vaudeville house on the ocean end of the Garden Pier, a site already known for eye-catching entertainment. Two years earlier, a typewriter as big as a house had taken up residence in a pier pavilion, and youths climbed onto the keyboard and learned about the age of mechanization. In 1921, the carriage in the spotlight was comelier: the first Inter-City Bathing Beauty Contest hopefuls strutted for judges at the Keith Theatre. The event would grow into Miss America.
A pair of Philadelphia meatpackers with a taste for show business built the first Garden Pier - Atlantic City's seventh - in 1913. A courtyard filled with shrubs and flowers extended for much of its 700-foot length, and a pond, gazebos, and art displays gave the pier one half of its personality. Its raucous side grabbed center stage inside the Keith, where vaudevillians romped, Gypsy Rose Lee stripped, and John Philip Sousa's march band blasted the rafters. Paul Whiteman's orchestra provided a more swinging sound, and crooners like Rudy Vallee soothed with their light tenors. Carnivals, dog shows, and indoor golf expanded the recreation slate.
Opposite the pier on the other side of the Boardwalk was Hotel Rudolf, which, by 1929 had transformed itself into the imposing Breakers. Atlantic City's lodging business was at high tide, but plans to build an 11-story hotel on the pier itself - it would have been the city's first on the ocean side of the boards - collapsed when the city opposed the project and, on appeal, the Supreme Court would not award riparian rights to the pier owners. It was a ruling that would resurface.
Three years later, ownership changed hands and, as theater audiences shrank and the new owners built themselves a tax debt, the venue lost its luster. In 1944, the city foreclosed and then the summer's hurricane-of-the-century knocked the stuffing out of Garden Pier but left it standing. The once lush, elegant structure sagged in disrepair and disuse for another decade, as the town fathers debated solutions, their prospects dimmed by the federal government's contention - based on the earlier Supreme Court opinion - that the United States could assert ownership of any pier structures oceanward of a somewhat nebulous "low water mark." So a line had been drawn in the water and, as far as discouraged city officials were concerned, Uncle Sam was welcome to the Garden Pier.
But the city did eventually take title to the pier, demolish it, and levy a special sales tax to finance the rebuilding. Atlantic City's Centennial of 1954 unveiled a new Garden Pier with an art deco look and an outdoor amphitheater on the footprint of the Keith Theatre. Symphonic sounds and choral singing poured over the ocean from the band shell. Vaudeville had fled; there was no trace of Houdini in peril, or a sleepy-eyed tango instructor named Rudolph Valentino before he became the rage of silent films. It was a new era.
The second Garden Pier boasted art and senior centers, and a small museum with a coastal theme, but plans to add fishing facilities and an aquarium didn't leave the drawing board. As uptown grew shabby, the pier ceased being a prime attraction, and soon all the vintage piers followed suit. A 1981 fire gutted the AC Art Center, but it was redesigned in 1994 and now parallels the city's Historical Museum across the courtyard, twin sandstone structures that recall the pavilions of the original pier.
Elsewhere on the pier, before further deterioration, remnants stirred the imagination: the silenced band shell curving behind a fountain, the concrete and wooden ruins extending into the ocean. Sea gulls fluttered about and perched there, seeking food in the tall, untamed grass that shot through the stripped decking. They, unlike gullible humans, had no illusions.
The famed creator of Sherlock Holmes and escape artist Harry Houdini were resort guests in June of ’22.
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