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Changing Atlantic City losing its quirky past

Big changes are under way in the city whose streets gave the "Monopoly" board spaces their names.
A horse is seen plunging into a pool of water at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., back in 1993.
A horse is seen plunging into a pool of water at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., back in 1993.Charles Rex Arbogast / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The horse clop-clopped to the top of a 40-foot ramp, and a comely bathing beauty jumped on, wrapping her arms around the animal's neck and preparing for a spectacular plunge.

Amid a drum roll and cymbal clash, the horse leapt forward from a platform, falling headfirst into an 11-foot deep pool of water, the woman clinging with her eyes shut tightly. When they both emerged unharmed after a mighty splash, the crowd of 5,000 went wild.

It was a scene repeated for decades on Atlantic City's Steel Pier, and The Diving Horse became perhaps the most famous icon of the New Jersey shore resort from 1929 into the 1970s, well before gambling made its imprint.

But big changes are under way in the city whose streets gave the "Monopoly" board spaces their names.

The Miss America pageant and the fabulous old boardwalk hotels are already gone. Now, the list of vanishing Atlantic City icons includes the Steel Pier, where visitors were entertained by top-name singers and movie stars, and a historic airfield that gave the world the term "airport."

Since the casinos opened three decades ago, Atlantic City has evolved from a family resort where the salt air was touted as a cure-all, to a 24-hour adult playpen where the motto is "Always Turned On."

As the new Atlantic City competed for the entertainment dollar with Las Vegas and other gambling hubs, a lot of what made the "old" city special for so many people has disappeared.

"It's too bad that those things are going," said Virginia Cahill, 75, of Rochester, N.Y., as she sat on a boardwalk bench near the Steel Pier. "I like the old. You can overdo newness. Once you've taken something down, you just can't bring it back."

In October, the Steel Pier shut down for good. It will be torn down in a few months to make way for a mix of stores, restaurants and dwelling units across from the Trump Taj Mahal casino, which owns the nine-acre property.

Bader Field, the site of the first attempted trans-Atlantic air crossing, also closed in October.

"It's important to remember those things, and it's unfortunate that we're losing those icons, but it's important to keep focused on where our city is going now," said city spokesman Nick Morici. "These are very valuable sites that can help out our entire community."

The Steel Pier hosted performances from big band leaders such as Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey, and movie stars such as Bob Hope and Charlie Chaplin. Abbott & Costello honed their "Who's On First?" routine there. Fred Astaire, Mae West, Ricky Nelson and The Three Stooges all packed 'em in at the pier.

It made for a memorable summer job for Alvin Frankel, who worked at a souvenir stand in 1935 when he was 17. He recalled meeting a young crooner named Frank Sinatra.

"He was trying to romance one of the girls who worked in the soda fountain in the stand next to mine," said Frankel, now 87. "We all got to know him. He would come down between sets and dance with her."

But what really put the pier on the map was the Diving Horse. Allen "Boo" Pergament, an Atlantic City historian, recalled his mother giving him a quarter to go to the pier, where the Diving Horse was the top act, four times a day.

"One of the horses, John The Baptist, would get up to the top and he'd stop, and the announcer would turn to the audience and he'd say, 'Ladies and gentlemen, John The Baptist will not dive unless you give him his applause first. Please give him a rousing applause,'" Pergament recalled. "You had 5,000 people clapping, the horse would nod his head up and down and go into his dive."

Some said the act was cruel, and animal rights activists picketed sporadically, but the Diving Horse endured until the pier was shut down for the first time in 1978.

"I spoke to the divers from the '30s, and they all loved the horses," Pergament said. "They were never treated badly. If a horse jumped once and didn't want to do it again, they would never use him again."

Opened in 1898, the pier billed itself as "The Showplace of the Nation." Built mainly of steel pilings with a wooden top, it jutted a quarter-mile out to sea, and offered three first-run movies, clowns, acrobats, dancing bears, boxing kangaroos and high-divers, in addition to bands, singers and Vaudeville acts.

"Oh, we had a ball there!" recalled Jeannette Brooks, 80, a lifelong Atlantic City resident. "You couldn't get better entertainment, and the dance hall was terrific. You could spend hours and hours there."

Another Steel Pier attraction was The Diving Bell, a submersible contraption in which riders descended to the ocean floor, looking at marine life on the other side of the glass.

"As a kid, it seemed to me like it was a long way down," recalled Amy Hafer, a newlywed from Reading, Pa., who recently posed for a picture at the entrance to the Steel Pier with her husband as part of their honeymoon. "It was pretty dark down there. It had windows in it and you could look out and see the fish swimming around. It's a shame they don't have that anymore."

The pier burned in a 1982 fire before reopening as a kiddie-ride midway atop a concrete foundation in 1993.

Another valuable piece of Atlantic City real estate lies about a mile and a half west of the Steel Pier. Bader Field, which closed Sept. 30 after 96 years of aviation history, gave the world the term "airport" when a local reporter used the word in a 1919 article.

In 1910, it was the scene of the first attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air, 17 years before Charles Lindberg would succeed. Walter Wellmann lifted off in the dirigible "America," only to ditch off Cape Hatteras, N.C., when a storm hit shortly afterward.

Entertainers bound for boardwalk ballrooms, business travelers and even U.S. presidents regularly flew in and out of Bader Field, but it remained the domain of small planes and private pilots; bigger jets landed at Atlantic City International Airport about nine miles away.

Bader Field is where the Civil Air Patrol was founded shortly before the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941. But a series of fatal plane crashes soured city officials on its use. The control tower was shut down in 1989 and it stopped selling fuel in 1993. Just before the shutdown, fewer than 30 planes a day used it.

But the 143-acre site just blocks from the casinos has developers interested. It could fetch $1 billion on the open market, real estate experts estimate.

Of course, to younger visitors, "old" Atlantic City didn't exist, and the fixtures of present-day Atlantic City are their icons. Decades from now, grandparents might be telling their grandchildren about "Borgata Babes," the buxom cocktail servers at the city's newest casino, the deep purple carpeting at the Taj Mahal, the bikini beach bars, or how Nick Lachey, The Killers, and The Black Eyed Peas used to play the casinos.

But not all the things that made Atlantic City famous are gone.

A trip to the boardwalk isn't complete without a box of salt water taffy, the sticky candy created here a century ago. Mr. Peanut, the costumed character who used to entertain boardwalk strollers, is now a statue entombed in glass in a boardwalk museum. And yes, the streets still have the same names as those on the Monopoly board.