That was entertainment Steel Pier: Long before casinos became the top draw of Atlantic City -- 100 years ago, in fact -- the action, the music, the thrills were at Steel Pier.

June 18, 1998|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- On a gray midweek day on the Boardwalk, the sea birds scold and a taped announcement from a casino hawks Don Rickles' show. Nickel slots and aging acts are the draw here now -- but once, oh, once you really could have seen something.

Diving horses. Boxing midgets. Frank Sinatra and the Harry James Band. Rex the Wonder Dog. Human cannonballs. Flagpole sitters. Enrico Caruso. The last of vaudeville. The first of teen idols.

Steel Pier, which played host to class and crass and geeks and greats alike, turns 100 today. While much of what made it "the showplace of the nation" is gone and replaced with amusement park rides, its milestone anniversary will be celebrated tomorrow night with a reunion of some of its performers, a round of fireworks and, most of all, memories.

That is what the shore has always been about -- the remembrance of summers past.

"I first came to Steel Pier in 1948. It was on my honeymoon, and we came back every anniversary for a while," recalled Benny Weir, 86, of Union City, N.J., who takes frequent bus trips to spend the day in the casinos.

"It was great. You could spend a whole day there, see movies, go to the dance hall at the end of the pier and, of course, [watch] the diving horse."

Although animal-rights groups have made the pier's trademark act a thing of the past, several of the women who used to ride the horses that jumped off the 40-foot tower will join in the festivities.

"It was called a thrill act, and it really was a thrill to see the horse climb the tower, the girl get on and then the dive," said Arnette French, 85, who began performing when she was 15.

"One woman told me she kept coming back to see the act, but she never saw it because she always closed her eyes when the horse dove. She couldn't help it.

"It was like a thrill ride, but each time it was different," she said. "You just have to have the nerve to do it. All you have to do is hang on.

"We had one horse who was a nose diver, so he didn't break the water for you, and you would get quite a slap when you hit it."

French eventually quit the act after meeting her future husband, Jacob French, who worked with the pier's water show. He feared for her safety, and with good reason.

Her sister, Sonora Carver, was blinded by one dive, and her life inspired the 1991 movie "Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken."

Still, French says, "It was a wonderful life. My husband always said it was like a vacation with pay."

In its heyday, Steel Pier, named for its steel substructure, offered music, Broadway-bound theater, dances, rides, games and, well, veritable circus of humanity and other species.

One day, you'd find someone trying to beat the world record for flagpole sitting. Another, a boxing match pitting man against kangaroo. Or the first national tour of a group called the Supremes. All for a few dollars' admission.

"The pier was like a giant carnival, Broadway show, dance hall and midway circus all rolled up into one," declared Vicki Gold Levi, co-author of the book, "Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness." "There will never be anything like Steel Pier again."

Levi, who now lives in New York, had the ultimate Atlantic City childhood: Her father was the city's chief photographer from 1939 to 1964. She performed in Tony Grant's Stars of Tomorrow children's show, as did such future entertainers as Frankie Avalon and Andrea McArdle.

"Everyone has the greatest memories of Steel Pier," said Levi, who has donated much of her photograph collection and memorabilia to the Atlantic City Historical Museum, which is on Garden Pier on the Boardwalk.

"Someone asked me, aren't memories always embellished and better than the real thing? It's just the opposite with Steel Pier. You can't even begin to do it justice."

Even if you never went to the pier, you probably heard about it: The dances at the Marine Ballroom were broadcast nationwide up until the 1960s.

"I would introduce the bandleaders," said Ed Davis, who was a disc jockey on WFPG (World's Favorite Playground). "Harry James. Gene Krupa. Tommy Dorsey. I would introduce each song. 'Come on down, we're at Steel Pier.'

"We'd do a half-hour broadcast from the dance, live, very much live -- the audience would be whistling, applauding. It was an exciting time. Anybody who was anybody played there."

There is at least one exception.

"I said, 'Elvis Presley? What kind of crazy name is that?' I booked him, then I canceled him," said George Hamid Jr., whose family owned Steel Pier from 1946 to 1975. "It just goes to show even the experts can be wrong."

The pier has had lows as well as its many highs. There were hurricanes that shook it, a barge that rammed it and a fire that destroyed the Marine Ballroom. Times changed, the casinos came and Steel Pier's popularity faded.

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