Creatures of the Night

The 500 Club

The night beat always pulsed in Atlantic City. Something about the way the moon lit the ocean and salt air swirled on the Boardwalk. You lazed on the beach by day, but when the sun slipped below the rim, the blood began to boil.

Outsize, electric signs dazzled above the great wooden way as early as the first decade of the 20th century. They advertised products mundane enough to be sold in drugstores, but their real calling was romance. They were the sun's nocturnal emissaries, and the towering sparkle of it all stoked human appetites, drawing customers into bedecked venues like Million Dollar Pier's classical, ornate ballroom and Steel Pier's music halls, where dance orchestras played and minstrel troupes cavorted on the vaudeville stage.

Legitimate theater held sway at the Apollo and Globe theatres at a time when Atlantic City was Broadway's tryout town. The storied stars of the stage all played the seashore -- with names like Barrymore and Cohan and, for a little comic relief, W.C. Fields. The Ziegfeld girls dazzled with their choreographed plumage. Jolson roared. So did the Big Bands. The ocean's thunder had serious competition. But the true testament to Atlantic City nightlife was its street-front clubs, where singers, dancers, comics, and illegal betting parlors on-the-side extended the night into the wee small hours and beyond. They began in the 1920s and their power had long since died by the time the casinos came to town, but during their heyday from the 1940s to the early '60s, they were lit fuses in the night. The most famous and most colorful performers in the land repeatedly played Atlantic City's neon nightclubs, rubbing shoulders with pro athletes, high-profile politicos, gangsters, gamblers, and Myrtle and Bob in from Des Moines. Yes, this was the era of the definitive nightclub -- a different species than the casino showrooms and lounges to come.

There was something for everybody on the Atlantic City nightclub circuit. The Entertainers Club had the rep of being a hangout for cheaters -- we're talking spouses, not cards. It was located on Westminster Place, a serpentine byway that wound from New York Avenue and the Boardwalk to Kentucky Avenue below Pacific, and acquired the handle "Snake Alley." The real snakes were inside. The club's premier entertainer was owner and former Ziegfeld girl Louise Mack, who swept patrons' money off the bar and into an ice bucket when they went to the bathroom. Most were too drunk or otherwise occupied to notice.

Another showgirl-turned-proprietor was Blanche Babbitt, whose husband, Dan Stebbins, renamed his Golden Inn (Mississippi and Pacific avenues) after her stage name, Babette. In the club's cocktail lounge, the yacht-shaped bar was christened "Babs." Gambling sizzled in the backroom; elsewhere, an escape route led to the roof and a descending staircase. From 1927 to 1947, Babette's served up charcoaled steaks and, on its stage, the likes of Milton Berle.

One spot that offered a different kind of cuisine along with gambling was the Bath and Turf Club, a Chinese restaurant on the Boardwalk block of Stenton Avenue. Those interested in games of chance were ushered across the street to Iowa Avenue and a rambling Victorian for an evening of cards, dice and roulette behind closed shutters. A state-orchestrated raid in August 1958 netted a combined 40 paying customers and house operatives, separating them from their cash, and removing felt tables and roulette wheels from circulation.

While gambling was part of the menu at virtually every Atlantic City vintage nightclub, most owed their personas to their performance venues. In the 1930s, transvestites first took the stage at Club Madrid, Georgia and Arctic avenues. For three decades, the Jockey Club at 7 S. North Carolina Ave. billed a "unique revue," in truth a gay show that, according to Grace Anselmo D'Amato's Chance of a Lifetime, played to straight audiences. The Cliquot Club, characterized by some as the leading white club in the city, made headlines when it booked a black band and the scheduled Southern white singer refused to go on. Around the same time, the club, located on N. Illinois Avenue just off of Atlantic, was touting its "psychopathic MC." Nearby Paddock International unleashed one courageous performer, who, Madonna-like, wore an eight-foot-snake as a stole.

"Peg-Leg" Bates

Racial harmony and more mainstream entertainment filled the bill at the other nightspots. The commodious Hialeah Club, on Atlantic Avenue near Michigan, featured local favorite Bob O'Neil on the keyboards for many years. The Paradise, at 220 N. Illinois Ave., booked black performers exclusively, backing sexy dance routines and novelty acts with jazzy, pounding music. Drummer/bandleader Chris Columbo, the sleek Sepia Revue, comic Jackie "Moms" Mabley, the younger legend-in-the-making Ray Charles, and many other black entertainers played for mixed audiences. Violating local ordinances, rolling chairs ferried early birds (or, more likely, ultimate night owls) from the Boardwalk to the Paradise for its breakfast show.

Yes, the night never ended in Atlantic City. The two most famous round-the-clock sites -- both then and in the memory vault -- were Club Harlem, which showcased many of the same performers who played the Paradise, and the 500 Club, which witnessed the genesis of Martin & Lewis, and legendary appearances by Frank Sinatra.

Club Harlem, at 32 N. Kentucky Avenue, anchored a block of roaring entertainment and high-caliber jazz musicianship. "KY at the Curb" included Grace's Little Belmont, where Sammy Davis Jr.'s mother tended bar, and the Wonder Garden, the setting for forgotten performances by unforgettable vocalists Billie Holiday and Ethel Waters. But Club Harlem was the center of that universe. Fashioned in 1935 from a dance hall called Fitzgerald's Auditorium, it compiled a roster of Who's Who in the black entertainment world: classic jazz singers Joe Williams and Dinah Washington, cerebral comic Dick Gregory, zany bandleader Cab Calloway, breathtaking dancer "Peg Leg" Bates, and countless others. Columbo piloted the house band for 34 straight summers, as "Hot Lips" Page soared on trumpet and "Wild Bill" Davis practically invented the jazz organ. Shapely silhouettes painted on wall mirrors undulated in the smoky light.

Man, the joint was jumpin'.

Founder Leroy "Pop" Williams claimed he chose the name Harlem because "a lot of black people live there." The crowd, though, was mostly white, and the scene was surely color-blind. Williams and his brother, Clifton, took on additional partners in the 1950s and redecorated, clothing the walls in red-and-gold velvet. When the sounds and style vanished in the '70s, emerging generations were robbed of an excitement that cannot be duplicated.

The same sentiment applies to the 500 Club, Paul "Skinny" D'Amato's legacy and the place that first paired, and subsequently made famous, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. The story goes that, in late July 1946, fledgling comedian Lewis, third on the bill at the then 500 Café at 6 S. Missouri Ave., recommended that his bosses hire a better singer than the one onstage. He'd recently met this fellow, name of Dean Martin, when the two shared a bill at a club in New York.

"He's terrific," Lewis said. "And we could do funny stuff together."

The next night, Martin was on the bill at the Fives and sang a handful of songs in the first show. Lewis came out and did his thing, which back then was an antic pantomime of well-known singers as their recordings spun in the wings. D'Amato was less than overwhelmed with either act.

"Where's the funny stuff you told me about?" he asked Lewis.

When Dino returned to the stage, Lewis promptly donned a busboy's jacket, followed him out there, grabbed a stack of plates and tossed them like Frisbees, set the band's sheet music afire and, in general, convulsed the audience -- all while his new partner sang sincerely into the mike. The act born that moment quickly became the hottest in show business and remained so for a full decade.

Skinny's place was where many of the big-name performers elsewhere in town went to unwind after their shows. Onstage, the action ranged from salty to hilarious to richly musical. Vaudeville queen Sophie Tucker was a regular. Comedian Jackie Gleason took the stage and put his girth behind a few trumpet blasts. Sammy Davis popped over from Club Harlem gigs and clowned. In the wet cement of the sidewalk entrance, show business luminaries imprinted their hands and feet, Hollywood-style.

When Sinatra's career had reached its low point in the early 1950s, loyal Skinny booked him at the Fives. At the height of his fame and form, Sinatra returned for his memorable dates a decade later. The billboard simply said, "He's Here," the name unnecessary. When fire destroyed the club in June 1973, a large framed photograph of the singer remained largely unmarred.

Sinatra, of course, played some of the late innings of his career on seashore stages after Resorts International launched the casino era in 1978. Nowadays, lofty casino-hotels light up Atlantic City's nighttime sky, descendants of those inventive electrified signs and sparkling sidewalk clubs that beguiled earlier after-dark throngs. Inside, fires burn bright in the main-stage footlights and around the cascading clatter of slot machines. There are no more 4am shows at the 500 Club, or breakfast shows at the Paradise, but even when the sun blazes, the night still reigns in Atlantic City.

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