Atlantic City was America’s first mega-resort. As early as the 1870s, Atlantic City attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors annually, most of who hailed from nearby Philadelphia where inexpensive train travel made a weekend holiday or day trip possible. By 1920, the 7-mile long Boardwalk and the magnificent piers that stretched far into the ocean were crowded with amusements of every sort. Next to the Boardwalk were the hulking hotels that, at the time, were among the largest in the world.
From the back of the postcard: “The Steel Pier, extending almost one-half mile into the Atlantic Ocean, is surely the greatest amusement enterprise under one roof in the world. With its five theatres, vaudeville, minstrels, water carnival, ballroom dancing and unusual exhibits, its diversity of entertainment makes a visit to the Pier a vacation in itself.”
For 30 years, from 1911 until his incarceration in 1941 for income tax evasion, the king of Atlantic City was Enoch ‘Nucky’ Johnson, the flamboyant political boss and power broker who nurtured and protected the illegal booze, gambling, and prostitution that made the city the America’s top tourist and convention destination from Prohibition through the advent of World War II.
Writes Jonathan Van Meter in his excellent book The Last Good Time: Skinny D’Amato, the Notorious 500 Club & the Rise and Fall of Atlantic City, “Shortly after the turn of the century, Atlantic City’s personality began to split, and the Boardwalk represented a physical and psychic boundary between the two halves. On one side, there was the beach and the ocean and all the recreation that went with it, which is to say good, clean family fun. … On the other side of the Boardwalk, down dark, narrow side streets like Westminster Place, known as Snake Alley, the city was a banquet of temptation: sex, gambling, booze, drugs, gay bars, and black speakeasies. It had also become – as it remains – one of the first and only twenty-four-hour cities in America.”
A report by the federal government from 1941 reprinted in Van Meter’s book describes the lawless atmosphere of Nucky Johnson’s Atlantic City. “The casinos were generally connected with nightclubs which acted as ‘feeders’ for the gambling rooms. For example, the Paradise Club, the Club Harlem, Babette’s, Grace’s Little Belmont, the Bath & Turf Club, the Clicquot Club, were all typical nightclubs with bar, restaurant and cabaret entertainement, but in the back of each was a gambling room containing all forms of games, such as roulette wheels, crap tables, poker, blackjack games, ‘bird cage,’ and in most instances horserace betting as well.
The nightclubs were well known and widely advertised establishments which employed high-priced orchestras and Broadway or Hollywood stars as entertainers. The proprietors of these places apparently cared little whether they made any profit on the ‘clubs’ for there were primarily gamblers and relied on the cabarets solely to bring business to their gambling casinos.”
In the early 1940s, a well-connected Atlantic City casino operator named Paul “Skinny” D’Amato gained control of the 500 Café, a foundering nightclub with an illegal casino located in the back room. Within a few years, Skinny turned the renamed 500 Club into the most important nightclub in the city in no small part because of the pairing of two unlikely performers for the first time on his stage.
There are various accounts about how they were first teamed up at the 500 Club in the Summer of 1946, but what is certain is that by their third night on stage together there were crowds lined up around the block, frantic to witness the insane antics of Dean Martin, a debonair Italian-American crooner, and a manic rubber-faced Jewish kid named Jerry Lewis. Several years later, in 1951, at the lowest point in his career, a doleful Frank Sinatra began his comeback when his old friend Skinny booked him for an extended run at the 500 Club.
Sinatra, Sophie Tucker, Jimmy Durante, and, of course, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis all considered Skinny D’Amato among their closest friends. Skinny’s generosity, good humor, and suave sophistication – as well as his well-publicized association with mob characters, movie stars, sports figures, and politicians – lent Atlantic City an aura of self-assurance that belied its declining fortunes in the postwar era. Indeed, by the late 1950s, air travel made destinations such as Miami Beach, Havana, and Las Vegas easily accessible, bypassing the rapidly decaying Boardwalk of Atlantic City. It took the legalization of gambling in 1979 to reverse – and erase – in a drastic and brutal fashion, the world of Nucky Johnson and Skinny D’Amato that once defined Atlantic City.