Antiques | Relics reveal the revelry at the Shore of yore
For The Inquirer
Even as early as the turn of the 20th century, Atlantic City was more than just a beach resort - entertainment was available for visitors 24/7. Period photos such as a circa-1912 view of Capt. John Young's Million Dollar Pier, for example, show festoons of electric bulbs wired to allow evening strolls.
So it's natural that the wealth of local seashore memorabilia available to collectors includes not just the usual daytime scenes of ocean waves and bathing beauties, but also the remnants of Atlantic City's bustling nightlife.
After a fine seafood dinner, there was dancing in the ballrooms of the Boardwalk piers and grand hotels. But from the 1920s on, the faster set preferred nightclubs that offered not only dance floors, but also liquor and often a chance at behind-the-scenes gaming tables.
Much of the documentation for Atlantic City's nightlife falls into the category of ephemera: the menus, postcards, old photos and posters that have miraculously survived the decades.
Jim Episale's Barnegat shop, Unshredded Nostalgia at 323 S. Main St. (Route 9), has it all, including a photograph room with more than 200,000 images. (In the summer, he gets more walk-in trade, but 50 percent of his business is by mail order through www.unshreddednostalgia.com.)
"You have to divide the hobby into the serious collectors, who would buy anything on Hackney's Restaurant in Atlantic City, for example, and the less serious collectors, who are buying posters or casino memorabilia to decorate their media room at home," Episale says.
Whether your favorite nightlife-nostalgia field is New York plays that had tryouts at the Shore or bandstand crooners, vintage photos are a good starting place for a collection. The 1994 book Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness by Vicki Gold Levi and Lee Eisenberg uses this type of visual archaeology to document the resort's glory days.
One prize in the book is a 1950s photo of the famed 500 Club marquee on South Missouri Avenue that touts "Finest Steaks and Chops" as well a show by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. At the center, under "Appearing Nightly," you can see showcard photos of the very young singer and comic.
Original star shots of Frank Sinatra or Martin and Lewis will bring thousands of dollars. Photos of the many failed and forgotten entertainers who passed through Atlantic City can be had for a buck.
Episale currently has in stock a souvenir cover ($50) from the 500 Club, used to hold those smiling photos of customers that a pretty girl would snap tableside. The same cover with Martin and Lewis advertised on the back would bring $100, he says.
Also highly valued are any photos, menus, and collectibles from African American venues such as Club Harlem and the Paradise Cafe, where both black and white audiences enjoyed musical revues. A 1937 poster for a traveling troupe called the Hot Chocolates, "Direct from Connie's in New York," is priced at $450.
A subspecialty of Atlantic City collecting is gaming tokens, which begin to appear during Prohibition along with bootleg booze - long before casino gambling was legalized in the 1970s. Episale offers a 500 Club chip for $100, one from the Tuna Club for $80, and another from the Bath & Turf Club for $30.
"Martin and Lewis first performed together at the 500 Club, and there's a great line from their act," Episale says. "The casino for illegal gambling was downstairs, and when they were on stage, they used to joke about 'dancing on the tables,' and what that meant was that the casino was below them."
The colorful gaming tokens are easy to collect and display. Links on Unshredded Nostalgia's Web site reveal the popularity of this small corner of collecting, including a strong club organization with an annual convention in Las Vegas.
Some chips go for $5 each, or 40 for $50. Special tokens from the legal-gambling era, however, can cost as much as the illegals. A dollar chip from Resorts International, the very first legal $1 chip in Atlantic City, is priced at $60. A $5 chip marked Hilton Atlantic City is $225, because Donald Trump bought the property after Hilton failed to receive a gaming license.
Another keeper is the $5 baccarat chip from Resorts dating to 1978, which has been sold privately for as much as $2,000. Resorts used it for a very short period, Episale says.
"What I feel is undervalued is the ephemera from the current casinos... material from the late '70s and 1980s - the posters, the showcards, photos of the acts," he says. "They're not very collectible yet, but I think they're going to be in the future."