Atlantic City Memoirs

I HAVEN'T been back to Atlantic City in 50 years, and I understand the entertainment has changed since I grew up there. But I remember well those fabulous piers jutting out from the boardwalk into the Atlantic Ocean in summer, and I can still see those smooth boards on the boardwalk. I can smell the salt air, see the giant waves against the pier as my mother and I walked to my nightly performances. Three of the four major piers had children's theaters. The forth was Heinz Pier, which featured only pickles - given away free - and on the end, 70 feet high, glowed the magic number ``57.'' However, neither pickles nor magic signs held any interest for my stage-struck mother.

As soon as I could wobble on two feet, she enrolled me in Professor Fricke's dancing classes. He was in charge of the children's theater on the Steel Pier. It was was known as ``The Showplace of the Nation.''

On entering this palace of live entertainment, you first encountered the minstrel show - white men in blackface - then several movie theaters and one for live vaudeville. After that came a huge ballroom where the big bands played. And then, almost at the end, just before the diving horses, was the children's theater. The horses drew a far larger crowd than we did, even without relatives to fill the seats.

Mother created a gorgeous costume for my debut on this pier. It had a daring low back - even for a three-year-old - and being an artist, she painted a large butterfly on my bare back each performance. As I grew and learned more numbers, Mother created more costumes - all works of art. Unfortunately, she didn't know or care very much about the actual sewing of them. So usually numerous safety pins held me together and I was often extremely uncomfortable.

Oh, the smells of the tiny, damp, airless dressing room - powder, grease paint, mildew - and the chatter of the mothers about their docile offsprings' future in The Theater! To go on first was not the best position, as the audience was just coming in; to go on last was not good either, as the audience sometimes left to see the diving horses - unless they were relatives.

When my music cue was heard from the rickety old piano in the pit, Mother, standing in the wings, would gently nudge me on stage. On the rare occasions when they let me sing before a number, she'd try to start me on pitch - an impossible task.

The one pier alone did not satisfy Mother. She would have her prot'eg'e on every pier. The next in line was the Steeplechase. For the first time I became enthusiastic about entertaining. Here was a Children's Wonderland with all kinds of slides and rides, all free to the entertainers.

From the boardwalk you entered this pier through what looked like a tremendous clown's open mouth with huge white teeth. Immediately, you were in the midst of such magical rides as the Whirlpool, the Whip, and a revolving disk that brave participants would try to cling to or get twirled out of the ring. Wondrous mirrors were everywhere that made you look tall or short, or even spiral shaped.

My enthusiasm about dancing here was short lived. I was not allowed to go on even the smallest of slides for fear of getting a scratch and missing a show. However, I was allowed to look in the fun mirrors and sometimes to go through the Barrel. The gigantic barrel lay on its side, was open at both ends, and rotated continuously. It looked deceptively easy to walk through without being thrown to the side, or to the ceiling like a tossed salad. It was actually more dangerous than the other rides and slides. But Mother never found out, as I always emerged whole, and happily for me she never attempted it.

The children's theater was right in the center of Steeplechase Pier and much more professional than the one on Steel Pier. It was the home of the Dawson Dancing Dolls. By enrolling me in the Dawson Dancing School, where Papa Dawson was president, Mama Dawson was treasurer and Daughter Dawson did all the teaching, I would be able to dance on their Pier on the nights I wasn't engaged on the Steel Pier.

DANCING at Dawsons' entailed selling tickets to the school's annual concert, held at the famous Apollo Theatre on the boardwalk.

There was an odd democracy in the assigning of parts for the gala. The casting was not dependent on age, size, color, sex, or talent, but on how many tickets to the concert one's parents sold! Mother felt that any kind of soliciting was degrading, so her solution was to buy $500 worth of tickets and give them away.

This was almost as difficult as selling them. However, she thought it would guarantee my being Queen. But she had not reckoned on the Bozes. Mr. Bozes was a bartender and managed to sell - over the bar - $1,000 worth of tickets to his captive clientele. Their daughter, a delicate blonde, far prettier and a much better dancer than I, should have been Queen even without her father. I did not even become a Princess, as we were only third in sales, which made me a Prince. Ironically, the girl who became Princess, with whom I had to do a pas de deux, was a foot taller than I. She had a boy's haircut, as opposed to my long curls. We made a weird couple.

The last challenge to my mother's ambitions was the Million Dollar Pier. This was Captain John Lake Young's answer to Atlantic City's thirst for entertainment. The early Miss Americas were crowned there; the Cakewalk, was first introduced in one of its theaters; Harry Houdini appeared (and disappeared) there.

The Million Dollar Pier also contained the most prestigious of the children's theaters. Under the direction of Professor Rose from Philadelphia, the miniature performers were called Rose Buds. Professor Rose admitted no local weeds into his garden. That did not deter my mother. We spent many long days there, with me dressed in my best ruffled dress and every curl in place. After several rejections, she gave up - very unlike her - but by then I had no open evenings anyway.

I've put off going back to Atlantic City and treading again those smooth boards. I guess I'm afraid I'll feel that awful panic - that I have to dance my Russian number and can't remember the last step!

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