Gary James' Interview With
Steel Pier: Atlantic City author
It was aptly called the "Showplace of the Nation" and it was all that and more. For much of the 20th century, Steel Pier in Atlantic City, New Jersey was the center of American entertainment on the East Coast. It mirrored American society from 1898 to 1978. Nearly every big-name entertainer from John Philip Sousa and his band to Tommy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and The Rolling Stones played there. Steel Pier was combination of Broadway, Miami, Las Vegas, Hollywood, Barnum and Bailey and a state fair. Crowds came in droves from Philadelphia, Camden, Pittsburgh, New York, Newark, Wilmington, Baltimore, throughout the northeast and beyond by train and by car to Steel Pier. Steel Pier's reputation was so great that A-list performers chose the Pier over other venues. A new book, Steel Pier: Atlantic City by Steve Liebowitz (Down The Shore Publishing, Box 100, West Creek, New Jersey 08092 - telephone 609-978-1233 - website: www.down-the-shore.com) examines the attraction for millions over the course of a century. The book chronicles the rise of one of America's most remarkable entertainment venues - "A vacation in itself" as the slogan went. For three-quarters of the last century, long before theme parks were imagined, there was nothing like it.
Steel Pier: Atlantic City is a large format, full-color coffee-table book that includes 227 historic photographs, illustrations and other images. It evokes a time when more really was more, a time when there was so much invention, talent and industry that it could only be experienced in one place - at the edge of the continent, in a city that took its name from a vast ocean, on a great pier reaching out into the sea. Author Steve Liebowitz talked to us about this enigmatic entertainment attraction known as Steel Pier.
Q - Steve, how did you get interested in Steel Pier?
A - Before the casinos came in, that's when I really looked at Steel Pier, in the early '70s, when they still had the old signs up from the '30s and they were all rusted out. It was still operating, but it intrigued me 'cause I saw these old billboards and said God, are these things old! I said, man this is really an old building. Look at those old neons. It kind of intrigued me, you know? That's what really got me going. I was so enamored with this structure. It reminded me of an old music theatre. You see all this grandeur that's like all decrepit now. You say to yourself, that must've been some place in its hey-day. Look at the presentations they used to have and now it looks so grungy and deteriorated and it fascinates me that way.
Q - So, you never saw Steel Pier in its hey-day?
A - No. You know what's so weird? I was only on there once with my parents in 1978. It was the last year it was open. See, we're from Baltimore. We'd always go up to Wildwood. That's where I hung out every Summer. Once in a blue moon my mother would say "let's go up to Atlantic City and see what's going on up there." So we'd go up there for the day. I'm sorry I didn't have a camera at that age. I would've taken a lot of pictures of things that are gone. But it was different to me, because I was used to all these boardwalks with amusement piers that Wildwood had with rides and everything and Atlantic City was more like a city. She talked about Steel Pier. Like, who's on Steel Pier? I was on Steel Pier as a kid and I couldn't understand it. To me, a pier should have rides on it. That's what I was used to. So, I didn't really know what Steel Pier was about 'til later on. We were never on it I guess because it cost a couple of bucks and we were really only there for the day and they didn't want to spend the money or whatever. So when we did go there in '78, it was probably the last month it was open. It was free to get on the pier. That's how far down it had come. We went on it. I remember not much really, being there. We did see the diving horse at the very end. It was kind of like a shell of itself. Not much really on there.
Q - I went to Steel Pier with my parents and brother in July, 1959.
A - Wow!
Q - We were walking on the Boardwalk and all of a sudden people began running. It was almost like time stood still. People were shouting "There he is! There he is!" Frank Sinatra was coming down the fire escape of a building, a hotel. He got into a car and passed by us.
A - Are you kidding?
Q - No. He was playing the 500 Club. I remember he was in the back seat, but leaning over to the front seat. There were other guys with him.
A - You know, I think that might have been The Claridge, 'cause I think they used to stay at The Claridge there. He opened up at the 500 Club on July 25th, 1959. In fact, he was with Pat Henry, the opening comic. At the time he was also singing with Red Norville and his Jazz quartet or quintet and that's who appeared with him then. Very interesting.
Q - How did you even begin to put this book together? Did you have to search newspaper archives?
A - When I started to get intrigued with this, the first thing I did was I went over to the library. I tried to look in all the Atlantic City books I could find. They talked about it, but they didn't go into depth. They talked about the diving horses and the pier. I said I gotta find out who played this thing. It's like I've done a database also on movie theatres of Times Square of all the acts that played there. That's my obsession. I have to really delve into these showbiz places and look up all the old ads to really get the entire history of who played here, exactly what date and that way I have the history. It's more for me to know that than just to read two paragraphs saying, Duke Ellington played here. Frank Sinatra played here. But I want to know when. I want to know the specifics. So, I started going to the Atlantic City Library and luckily they had all the Atlantic City daily newspapers on microfilm. I picked the random dates of maybe 1938 and 1966 just to see. Then I started seeing the ads. I started seeing Gary Lewis And The Playboys, The Temptations, Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey. It was like "look at those ads! It's unbelievable. My God! This is incredible. So of course living in Baltimore, I wasn't there all the time. It took me forever really to go through all of the microfilms to really get an entire database of every single date of the movies and the people that played there.
Q - How about the photos?
A - They had at the library a room there called the Heston Collection, which is the historic department of the library. I went in there and they had the loose-leafs of pictures. I started mimeographing them for my own kind of personal scrapbook I was putting in for the ads and the pictures. But when I said I had to do this book, luckily I met two guys in Atlantic City. One was Bob Ruffolo, who owns Princeton Antiques. They're on Atlantic Avenue and he owns tons of Atlantic City memorabilia. He's got tons of loose-leafs of glossies of any kind of portion of Atlantic City you'd want. About ten years ago I walked into the store and said to him "I'm going to be writing a book about Steel Pier." I started looking at the pictures and writing down what he had. Then later on I met Boo Pergament, who lives down in Margate. This guy, as much as what Bob has, Boo is the real historian. Boo has in his house an entire room, it looks like something out of the Smithsonian. He's got stuff going back to 1850, stuff that nobody else has. He's been in many books and as helped many people with their historical books about Atlantic City and the Jersey Shore. There were so many little idiosyncrasies that I didn't have the answers to that I would e-mail and call him. He was such a great guy. He was so willing to help with this, it was amazing. It couldn't have been done without his help. He would say "Let me get back to you. I'll look through some of the things I have here and see if I can find anything on that." He would come back to me with information that was written in the publications at that time. So therefore we actually got the real things that happened, rather than going through another source from a book that was written 35, 40 years later. He actually had the information at its time of why this building was built here or what was the thing with that portion of the theatre on the pier. He would go back to when it was actually done to really get the low down on it. I think that's great. A lot of books just skim on those things. We really found out why certain things happened when they did.
Q - I don't think there's ever been another book written about Steel Pier, has there?
A - No. I tell you, if there had been one like this, I would never have done it. (laughs)
Q - So, how long did it take you to put this book together?
A - Well, I was doing the research for myself for years before I said I really have to get this thing out. Maybe 12, 13 years ago. I went up to the New Jersey Historical, looking to get a grant to maybe getting it going. Then I started writing proposals and went to the John Hopkins University Press here in Baltimore and they said while they love the idea, it wasn't really about Baltimore, which is what local stuff they did. So they said "why don't you try some place in Jersey like a Princeton Press." And I came across Down The Shore and I saw they did all books about the Jersey Shore, so I said I'll give them a try. I sent the proposal to Ray Fisk and he said "Yeah. This is great! We're in." It took maybe a good five years from when he mentioned that to when this finally came out in November (2009) because I was writing the drafts of the chapters. While I was writing them, I kept finding more and more information and millions of sources. I really exhausted all sources from the internet to old Billboard magazines and Downbeat that I had, to anything that mentioned Steel Pier. Between that and finally going with Ray over to Boo's house and picking out photos and going to Bob Ruffolo and whittling down the photos; I mean I could have had a 10,000 page book and I would have loved it!
Q - I would have too.
A - Because I can't get enough of those photos. (laughs) The photos are so incredible with all those people that are packed in that place. They're so fascinating. Ray said "Look, you can't put all these things in. This is impossible. We have to get the best 200-some pictures and just really go through it from there."
Q - Why not go back to Ray with this idea: A coffee table size book with only photos of Steel Pier and maybe a caption underneath. Would that work? Steel Pier, part two.
A - Well you know what? It may. That may be a possibility. I don't know. To me, it would be great. People love it. But I'm wondering if it would sell or there would be as much interest in it as this one is initially.
Q - Where are you promoting this book? Primarily New Jersey?
A - Well, no. The book came out the beginning of November (2009). We wanted to get it out fast to do book signings before the holidays, which only gave us seven weeks I guess. It's not really a whole lot of time to do much book signings. We basically focused on the opening of the Garden Pier in Atlantic City with the mayor of Atlantic City there. A lot of people came by and they did a TV story. Then we focused on the Barnes and Nobles primarily...Borders and some other little book stores in the South Jersey area. I did a couple of book signings here (Baltimore). The thing I found out about book signings is, and it wasn't always this case, you really need to have the article in the paper before you do the book signings in each area. That way, people really know more about the book and then we'll see you at the book store. We tried to get it into the Philadelphia papers and some of the Jersey papers, but to no avail. They came after some of these signings. Even though we did OK at some of them, we didn't have enough time. We wanted to get it out because it would be a great present around the holidays. We didn't really hit the Philly area book stores or the DC or New York, which is what we plan on doing, even South Florida where there are tons of people that moved from the East coast down to Florida to live. When it gets Spring, we're going to be focusing on that. Right now I'm doing talks to different organizations and I'm bringing the book to sell and I've blown up some great color pictures from photographs and laminated them and I'll be doing talks 'cause people love this stuff.
Q - Well, let's talk entertainment now. How well did John Phillip Sousa do on Steel Pier?
A - Well, he was a big draw. He had married an Atlantic City girl. That's why he was always in Atlantic City. Of course, he played earlier on, in the earlier part of the century in these concert bands on Million Dollar Pier, Steel Pier. When Gravatt bought Steel Pier in 1925, he offered John Phillip Sousa a "lifetime contract". Sousa appeared on Steel Pier six years in a row, from 1926, and his last appearance there was in September of 1931. I think he died in '32. He did exceptionally well. What was interesting was, except for the big Vaudeville names coming in, he was like the last of the carry-over of the concert bands that were pre-eminent on these piers in the early part of the (20th) century. You'd have these Italian bands, Hungarian bands that would play light classics. That was the big entertainment in those days, before it really became a popular entertainment structure. John Phillip Sousa was still the biggest name because he was "The March King" and the marches he wrote for the military bands here in the Unites States.
Q - Now let's jump to Frank Sinatra.
A - OK.
Q - He appeared on Steel Pier in 1950. That was a low point in his career. Yet 41,000 people saw him there. He did eleven concerts. What would it have cost to see Frank Sinatra on Steel Pier in 1950?
A - The closest I have is for 1947 for prices. I'll tell you what they are. Prices in 1947 were 68 cents for adults to 6 PM and then 81 cents 'til closing. For children it was 39 cents to 6 PM and 52 cents to closing. By 1950, it might've gone up 10 cents more.
Q - And that got you to see Sinatra?
A - Absolutely.
Q - Did Buddy Holly ever play Steel Pier?
A - No. I did a list of people who did not and there are reasons why. At the time it was the hottest people. For instance, Elvis never played. He was almost going to. The Jackson 5 never played. Al Jolson never played Steel Pier. Otis Redding didn't. Little Richard didn't. The Beatles almost did. I talked to George Hamid (who owned Steel Pier) about who played and who didn't. He said, "You gotta remember, the people that were on there, there were logistics to booking 'em there or maybe they were going to book him, but he (Buddy Holly) had his untimely crash. Maybe at that time, he wasn't the hottest thing in the century." I asked George Hamid why wasn't Otis Redding on there? He said "He probably wasn't the hottest thing in the country or have the biggest hits then." It was true. Look, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, did not play there. However, The Allman Brothers did and so did Canned Heat. And so did The Byrds. So it's kind of weird. You figure Canned Heat played Steel Pier? The Allman Brothers played Steel Pier?
Q - And don't forget The Rolling Stones
A - George Hamid told me, "Look, The Rolling Stones were not an iconic band as they now are. In 1966, The Rolling Stones were not The Beatles. They were not anywhere near The Beatles. I picked 'em up from the airport. They were very polite. They were great to work with." They were there for one day. He was correct, because in 1966, The Rolling Stones were not the band we think of 'em as today.
Q - Bill Haley played Steel Pier in June of 1955. How much was he paid? Any idea? What were ticket prices?
A - I have ticket prices from 1961. They were $1.50 for adults. I'd say maybe it was about $1.00 for adults to get in. What's interesting about Bill Haley is they were a Country and Western band. They played in Cape May, New Jersey. In '54, before "Rock Around The Clock" came out, they played in Wildwood, New Jersey. When "Shake, Rattle And Roll" came out, they were still playing in Wildwood. Tony Bennett was playing a block away at the biggest supper club in Wildwood called The Bolaro. He would go over and see Bill Haley And The Comets at the club Hofbraus. Tony Bennett said "Rock 'n' Roll really began in Wildwood." To a degree, I believe that. I think Wildwood, New Jersey was the place for early Rock 'n' Roll to be, probably just the same as Cleveland. Bill Haley played this Hofbraus all Summer long for two years. And then, since they were pretty much a Jersey type band, they were the hottest thing in the country, of course Hamid booked them then. They played on Steel Pier actually a couple of times. The first was in '54 and then '55, '56, '58 and came back in June of '64, believe it or not. If you played in June on Steel Pier, before July 4th, or if you played after Labor Day, you were always paid less. You were considered by then, a top name, but not a top, top name and paid less. Except for 1956. Bill Haley And The Comets played in June on all those other times. So they were probably booked early on at a lesser amount.
Q - I didn't realize this until I read your book. Rick Nelson holds the all time attendance record for Steel Pier.
A - Yeah.
Q - He performed in front of 44,221 people, spread out over two days, beginning on August 31st, 1958.
A - A landmark day.
Q - He received $10,000. Would that be $10,000 a performance or $5,000 a performance?
A - I think it was total.
Q - I think his agents dropped the ball. They didn't have deals where the artist gets a guarantee versus a percentage of the gate, whichever is higher?
A - I don't think they did. Hamid Jr. was this close to booking Elvis back in '56. Usually he had his scouts at the William Morris Agency call him around February and all of a sudden, The Supremes were the hottest things in the country and he got 'em for a really small price. So, he really had an uncanny way of getting like The Cyrkle, or The New Vaudeville Band and Tiny Tim. He had them at their peak on Steel Pier. So, they were the hottest things in the country by summer. The guy came to him in February of '56 and said "Look, Elvis Presley. This guy is going to be monster." Hamid thought about it and said "I don't know. Nobody's gonna buy a guy by the name of Elvis." So he turned him down! Of course that was the big year of Elvis, in '56. By the end of the year he was the biggest thing ever. With Ricky Nelson, Ozzy Nelson had his own Big Band back in the '30s and in the '40s. The Hamids (Jr. and Sr.) knew him because he played the Million Dollar Pier when they had it back in the early '40s. Ricky Nelson had never really appeared anywhere to sing. He was always singing on the show (Ozzy And Harriet). So when they came to Hamid and said "We're thinking of having Ricky come out. We've known you for many years. We're thinking of you first." Hamid said "I took it. After the Elvis thing, I said fine." What he didn't realize was the power and potential of Ricky Nelson that no one thought he had. On the same bill that day was Henny Youngman. Hamid didn't realize anything was gonna happen until he got a call at six o'clock that morning saying "You better get down here. There's lines of kids all the way down the boardwalk to Hackney's." He was like "C'mon." So he got in his car and saw before the Pier opened, these kids. He said "Oh boy. This is really gonna be weird." The first show was usually about 9:30, 10 in the morning. Usually they didn't have Rock 'n' Roll acts in the ballroom. The ballroom was for the Big Bands and the dancing. Usually they'd have the entertainers in the Music Hall, which was the middle theatre and held about 2,000 people. So, I love this story. (laughs) Henny Youngman comes out to do his stuff and of course there's all kids in there going nuts and they want Ricky Nelson. So, he was smart and he said "I'm leaving." They brought out Ricky Nelson and it was total bedlam. Hamid said "I knew we had a problem. We're gonna have to take him after the show and put him into the back where the ballroom is. This is really nuts. There's too many people here." They managed to get him in a limo and somehow through the throngs of people, get him out to the back where the ballroom was and that's where he appeared the rest of the day. The ballroom held about six to seven thousand people. They tried to decoy the kids. They found a guy who kind of looked like him and turned out to be Fabian, believe it or not. Fabian wound up going in a limo and the kids were running at the limo, thinking it was Ricky. Meanwhile, they tricked 'em and got him (Ricky) to the back safely. But that was a real riot of a day. Can you imagine 44,000 people in one day on that pier? Ricky Nelson couldn't even leave the ballroom. That was his first appearance anywhere. That really started the Rock 'n' Roll concert, that day.
Q - Frankie Avalon would get $5,000 a week from his Steel Pier appearances. Paul Anka would get $3,500. I don't understand that. Wasn't Paul Anka the bigger star?
A - You know the charts. Paul Anka was there in July of '61, July of '62 and July of '63. So he still had to be a pretty good draw then. Even in '62, '63, Paul Anka was kind of going by the wayside a little bit. He wasn't as strong hit-wise as he was in '58 or '60. There's so many variables. I guess you have to take into consideration the agents and what they could get for their clients and also who had the bigger hits at that time. Frankie Avalon was from South Philly, so he may have had more of a following just because of that, because of the closeness. All those Philly teen idols and Atlantic City were pretty much intertwined by the same audience. So maybe that came into consideration also. I know Frankie Avalon didn't play there as often as Bobby Rydell. Bobby Rydell played there like eight different times, even into the '70s. Frankie played there in August of '59, July of '60, '63, '68 and June of '71. I can't imagine what Frankie Avalon did in July '68 or '71. He was already way past his prime. Maybe he was just there for nostalgia sake at that point.
Q - The Beatles performed not on Steel Pier, but in the Marine Ballroom. They received $25,000 for a '64 concert. What would ticket prices have been then?
A - Well, what happened is, The Beatles were originally thought to be playing the Marine Ballroom. They were seriously thinking of putting 'em in there where Ricky Nelson and The Stones played. He thought about it. (George Hamid Jr.) and after the Ricky Nelson thing a few years back, he said "This is way bigger." So they actually did it at the Convention Hall on the Boardwalk. In fact, the ticket says "Steel Pier Presents The Beatles - Convention Hall - Atlantic City," because the Hamids were the promoters of that concert. I think the ticket prices were $3.50 up to $5.50 at the time. Like Elvis, they were close to playing on The Pier, but I think wiser heads prevailed and it was good that they did go to Convention Hall instead.
Q - Dave Clark Five also played Steel Pier.
A - They were there July 4th, 1967.
Q - Can you give me an idea of what some of the acts were paid that we didn't discuss so far?
A - I have something you'll find interesting. I have the entire payroll for 1968. The top performance of that year was The Beach Boys. They were there three days, from August 9th through August 11th of '68. They were paid $27,000 for those three days. The entire bill for that week was almost $38,000, because on the bill with them was The New Christy Minstrels, who only got $8,500 and The Harmonica Rascals who only got $1,500. That was the top earner of that season. Herman's Hermits, who were only there August 17th and 18th, got paid $12,500. Smokey Robinson and The Miracles were there from the 12th through the 16th and got $10,000. The Cowsills were there from July 28th through August 2nd and they got $15,000. The Fifth Dimension were there the following week, August 3rd through 8th and got $11,000. With The Fifth Dimension was an opening act nobody had ever heard of, Helen Reddy, who got paid $600. (laughs) Frankie Avalon in that same season only got paid $7,500 for being there from the 22nd of July through the 27th. In '68, he wasn't worth nearly as much as the others. Dino, Desi And Billy: $7,000. The Four Tops: $9,000. Totie Fields got $10,000. The Doodletown Pipers: $9,500, while Gladys Knight And The Pips got only $6,000. Interesting, isn't it?
Q - It is. Why was Steel Pier allowed to crumble? I think it eventually burned down if I remember correctly.
A - Yeah. I found that from 1965 to 1975, almost all major cities went through the same exact thing at the same exact time. All the downtowns in 1965 still had the big music theatres, still had the people coming into the department stores and the movie theatres still had nice movies downtown. By 1975, it was an entirely different story. People were not coming downtown. There was crime. The department stores closed. The movie theatres played Kung Fu movies, it was an urban audience. I think this happened to all major cities at the same time and it also happened in Atlantic City. People stopped going to Atlantic City a lot because new hotels were not being built a lot. A lot of the ones that were there were in really a deteriorated state after the mid-60s. It started really getting crummy. With people not coming there, they would take a plane and go to Bermuda or the Bahamas. It was also the time when the youth changed. The Hippies and the free love. It was a looser moralistic time. People were not dressing up on the Boardwalk anymore. They were coming in sandals, shorts, t-shirts, beards. The music changed. Steel Pier was always a family oriented thing, which is probably why they wouldn't have had Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin or any of the other so called druggie acts, which I can't understand why they had Canned Heat and The Allman Brothers, which is kind of funny. It was deteriorating. By 1970, Atlantic City and Steel Pier was a mess. It was basically either a majority or minority town then. Then you had nothing but retirees and old people living in these high-rises. So it became a very un-hip place to go to, even though the Hamids still tried to bring in the best entertainment and hottest bands they could. They could not afford to bring in the hottest bands as the '70s went on, because most of the hottest bands, instead of playing four shows a day for four straight days, they were playing the bigger arenas for maybe one or two shows maybe a night and that was it, and they were getting bigger money for it, playing in Las Vegas and 10,000 seat arenas. So, you couldn't have acts come in and play four shows a day like Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons did. That kind of performing, that period of performing was gone. It evolved into the big Rock 'n' Roll concerts as we know now. So therefore, if you can't get the biggest name acts in, you're gonna get the stars of The Lawrence Welk Show and Danny Bonaduce of The Partridge Family. That's gonna be your big thing. I think the last big, big, hottest Rock 'n' Roll act they had was The Bay City Rollers in '75 or '76. That was probably the last hurrah of screaming teenagers on Steel Pier. That was actually a coup that they got them. The Bay City Rollers were pretty hot. They were considered like the new Beatles and all the kind of crap. George Hamid sold the Pier 'cause he could see the figures were going down, the people weren't coming. He had to cut out the Easter weekend. Easter was always a big weekend in Atlantic City. They'd open up for Easter and have big names there. By 1970, '71, that was finished. Steel Pier wasn't open on Easter weekend anymore. It just came to a point where tastes changed. They didn't really care about a diving horse anymore. People were jaded. You got to remember, when Steel Pier was in its hey-day, you didn't have television like we do now. All you had was radio and you had news reels in movie theatres. People saw all these neat animals and acts and everything, this was all unique to them. All these exhibits. This was all unbelievable stuff. This was fascinating. Where else could they see any of this? But by the '70s, it took a lot to really get people fascinated by something different.
Q - I don't suppose we'll ever see a Steel Pier again, will we?
A - Steel Pier had to be, probably if you think about it, the most unique place on earth. There was nothing at all that I can think of that even compares to what this thing was. I can't even think of it. I've tried to. I've never heard someone say to me "I hated Steel Pier." (laughs) It just never happens. People who worked on there loved it. They said it was the best job they ever had. It must've been some kind of magical place just to work on there. And you only paid one price, maybe $2.00 let's say, and you could see everything on there for one price - movies, two movies, Vaudeville, a complete Vaudeville show, the diving horse, exhibits, the diving bull, Big Bands, Rock bands. You could stay there from early morning to midnight. You could bring your lunch. Bring your bag lunch, sit down at a picnic table, eat your lunch. It was unheard of. Today that would cost you at least $300 a ticket!