$3,000 More & Elvis Presley Would Have Played Atlantic City’s Steel Pier
Steel Pier Atlantic City owner George Hamid was always trying to remain on the cutting edge of entertainment.
This included reading the tea leaves correctly in the winter, as to who would be in demand by summer, when the pier would open on Memorial Day Weekend every year.
The world-famous Steel Pier in Atlantic City opened its doors to an anxiously waiting public on June 18, 1898, in time for the beginning of a fast-approaching new century.
It was a phenomenal new venue for entertainment, with thrills and excitement of all kinds. On Day 1, in 1898, sharpshooter and cowgirl Annie Oakley was billed as the star entertainment attraction.
This is what Steel Pier looked like in 1898. It was majestic and opulent in every way. The finishing touches were masterclass. We will never see anything like this structure ever again.
The Steel Pier was a wooden structure, reinforced with steel girders and concrete, which originally measured out at one thousand feet over the Atlantic Ocean.
It came to be known as “A City at Sea,” “The Showplace of the Nation,” and “A Vacation in Itself” among other descriptions of this magical place. Steel Pier would become the greatest mecca of entertainment for seven decades of the 20th Century.
This continued until the doors were finally closed for the last time on Labor Day weekend in September of 1978 with the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” sounds of rocker Tommy James and the Shondells.
But, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In between the beginning and the end were the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong, W.C. Fields, Abbott & Costello, Ella Fitzgerald, Bob Hope, Mickey Rooney, The Three Stooges, The Rolling Stones, David Cassidy of The Partridge Family and the rock band Chicago, who were fresh off of melding horns within the fabric of rock music for a new sound never heard before.
All of this happened with great regularity at The Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
Frank P. Gravatt purchased the pier from the original “Steel Pier Group” in 1925 following a devastating fire the previous season.
Gravatt was a former owner of the then WFPG AM radio station. These (also legendary) call letters followed WPG; which the radio station has now returned back to (WPG) in this era.
Gravatt, would rebuild the Steel Pier structure, create a formula of entertainment that would last for more than five decades involving music, theater, children’s shows, a water circus with divers, stunts, a subterranean diving bell, and many other attractions. General Motors and Ford Motor Companies were important exhibits too, which brought people from all over America to the pier to see the latest innovations in car manufacturing and technology.
The rent payment was a simple agreement that included saying the name Steel Pier in the top-of-the-hour station identification.
On-air announcers would say “WFPG Steel Pier Atlantic City,” along with each time the weather forecast was announced … the broadcasters would convey the weather exactly as it was felt on The Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
Another historically important creation of The Steel Pier was the term coined there entitled “Big Band.” In fact, when you think of every “Big Band” that has ever played, none of them were truly known as a “Big Band” until they played the Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
These big bands included The Harry James Orchestra, Tommy Dorsey (with boy singer Frank Sinatra), Rudy Vallee, Guy Lombardo, Frankie Lester, and, of course, John Phillip Sousa’s Band, who marched its way onto the Atlantic City Boardwalk and into Steel Pier in August of 1927.
Steel Pier was the proving ground to test your mettle as an entertainer. If you could play on Steel Pier, you could play anywhere, to borrow a theme from “New York, New York.”
Two decades later, Frank Gravatt sold the pier to a local businessman, who was a former circus acrobat performer himself by the name of George Hamid in 1945.
George Hamid, Sr. is a true American success story who immigrated from Lebanon as a small boy spent his first evening in Atlantic City sleeping homeless under the pilings of The Steel Pier that he would later go on to own and reimagine.
George Hamid had a keen sense of entertainment and an ability to gauge public interest. He was one of the first to get on board of The Rock & Roll music craze of the 1950s. Hamid had a knack for booking the inter-generational experiences which people of all ages could enjoy together.
One of the most difficult decisions ever presented to Hamid was in 1957. It involved an up-and-coming rock star named Elvis Presley.
George Hamid was always trying to remain on the cutting edge of entertainment. This included reading the tea leaves correctly in the winter, as to who would be in demand by summer, when the pier would open on Memorial Day Weekend every year.
The incredible poster directly below was during Ricky Nelson’s return engagement to Steel Pier in the 1960s, with The Everly Brothers.
Earlier, August 31, 1958, which became better known as the day Ricky Nelson “Rocked The Steel Pier.” 44,000 fans broke the all-time attendance record and physically moved the pier, leaving many to believe (Ricky Nelson included) that the pier would collapse into the sea.
Fortunately, the structure held up and was reinforced in the off-season for future mega-events, such as The Rolling Stones, The Bee Gees, The Beach Boys, and David Cassidy to name a few.
Hamid would also book the greatest band of the century, The Beatles.
Following the Ricky Nelson experience, Hamid knew the pier would not hold The Beatles safely, so he moved them to the huge Atlantic City Convention Hall.
On any given day for .50 cents or less, depending on the numerous discounts you might find, you would see at least one world-class entertainment act, two full motion pictures of the day, a water circus complete with the greatest divers in the world, including Barney Cipriani the world champion “Acapulco Cliff Divers" and Doug Gandell and the world-famous “Steel Pier Diving Horse” to name a few of the attractions.
In a definitive on-air WPG Talk Radio interview, Mr. Hamid confirmed that Steel Pier as it was then, could not exist today. It would be cost-prohibitive.
A Souvenir Program and Guide Book was available for .25 cents. It was iconic. Here’s what it looked like.
The wondrous thing about the Steel Pier was that anything was possible. Absolutely anything might be considered an item of“entertainment” at a given time in history.
One such example was Alvin “Shipwreck” Kelly sitting hundreds of feet high atop the pier on a flagpole, while breaking the world record in 1930, by lasting 49 days and one hour for good measure.
It wasn’t until 1964 when aerialist Dixie Blandy smashed the world record at Steel Pier by sitting atop the flagpole for 78 days. While at the end of his record-setting feat he was interviewed live on the “Tonight Show” by Johnny Carson.
Blandy was even saluted by the then President of The United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, who was flying into Atlantic City for the 1964 Democrat National Convention, when Johnson had the pilot of Air Force One wave the wings of the jet as they flew over Blandy who was sitting on the flagpole.
Speaking of President Johnson, look at this LBJ logo on The Diving Horse, circa 1964.
Dixie is reported to have returned the respect in kind, as he waived his red neckerchief in the air at the President’s plane as they flew by over him.
In a sad footnote, Blandy actually died in the line of duty on May 6, 1974, when at age 72 he was sitting atop the flagpole, not at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, but rather the Dixie Square Mall in Harvey, Illinois. The flagpole and stand supporting him crashed and fell to the ground from 152 feet, killing Blandy instantly.
There was Rex The Wonder Dog water skiing over the Atlantic Ocean while being pulled by a fast-moving speed boat.
Back in the 1950s when the movie “Trapeze” starring Burt Lancaster, Tony Curtis, and Gina Lollibridgada were thrilling movie-going audiences everywhere around the world, the Steel Pier had their own high wire above the water circus.
The greatest aerialists of the 20th century would all take their stab at the elusive Trapeze ”Triple Somersault.”
Our various family members witnessed many attempts, but none were successful. But it was always a thrill to watch each attempt.
You certainly cannot have a discussion about The Steel Pier in Atlantic City without mentioning the world-famous Steel Pier High Diving Horse.
It’s an act that is not possible in the times we are living in today. But for more than 50 years at the end of the pier, a horse with a beautiful lady rider would jump from a tower varying through the years in heights anywhere from 40 to 60 feet into a small tub with just enough water to break the fall for the horse and human.
It’s interesting to note while there have been many claims of abuse and injury to the horses, it has never been documented that any horse was ever injured during the diving horse act. Although several of the riders experienced a variety of injuries, the most serious was involving Sonora Webster Carver, the wife of Doc Carver’s son.
Sonora was blinded by a facial impact with the water on landing, but nonetheless continued to jump while blind for another 11 years. She lived a long life following her days at the Steel Pier in neighboring Egg Harbor Township, NJ, where she passed away in September of 2003 at age 99.
In the summer of 1971, we made our way to the Steel Pier for a day of fun. The entertainment acts this particular day were Louis Armstrong, rocker Gary Lewis and The Playboys, the son of the comedian of Jerry Lewis.
Two amazingly different, but hit acts on the same day at the same place. It was truly remarkable and memorable, to say the least.
To add further to this personal memory, my brother (Don) and I were making our way down the corridor of the walkway inside the pier near the back where the Marine Ballroom was located and we saw a man walking down the other side carrying a trumpet in one hand and a handkerchief in the other which he was using to wipe his brow.
It was Louie Armstrong, who had just finished playing one of his many shows he would perform that day. We walked right up to him and he said, “How are you doing boys?” We said, “Mr. Armstrong….your show was great, how long have you been playing that trumpet?” He said, “I’ve been playing a long time, but this one for only a few years, I like to switch them up.” We didn’t know quite what that meant, but we were so amazed at his genuine kindness and moved along to the next exciting thing which was sure to happen because Steel Pier was just that kind of place.
Our parents or sister (Karen) would always give us Jitney money to ride back and forth to and from the Steel Pier.
Now there were only two things that a ten-year-old boy can do with Jitney money. One is to actually spend the money riding the Jitney. Or if you're feeling adventurous and stamina filled, you could buy the great Steels Fudge candy, and then walk home (about 4 miles in all) after making this “monumental” decision.
The real problem with choice number two, although the chocolate fudge was always great, it was also gone so quickly. Then, you were left staring at the reality of a long four-mile walk home … with no Jitney money and an empty Steels Fudge box.
No matter how many times we tried to learn from this decision, it ended the same way nearly every time; probably every time to be honest. But, in retrospect the Steels Fudge was so good it was worth it every time!
After devouring the Steels Fudge, my brother and I, (and most times with Karen too), we made the trek on foot through downtown Atlantic City and toward home.
When we reached the area of the now Tropicana Hotel and Casino at Iowa Avenue and the boardwalk, we looked over to the benches to our left.
To our amazement, we saw that it was Larry Fine of The Three Stooges. He was just sitting there by himself and admiring a beautiful day on the Atlantic City Boardwalk.
We ran right up to Larry and said hello. We didn’t understand it at the time, but Larry Fine had suffered a debilitating stroke a year earlier which left him partially paralyzed on one side and had affected his speech, too.
We were able to speak with him very well though, and he was so very kind. We talked about our love for The Three Stooges.
It was such a joy to share our appreciation with him. Larry told us he was in Atlantic City all the time, and that his sister owned a store on the boardwalk right across from where we were. We said goodbye to Larry and left in complete disbelief of what had just happened.
The Steel Pier would continue for seven more years, following this magical summer of 1971.
It was in 1978 that the pier would be sold to Resorts International Casino, who purchased it with no intentions of operating the venue in its original form.
However, they did utilize the pier for boxing and professional wrestling events into 1982. Sadly in 1982, the pier was destroyed in a multi-general alarm fire.
This would mark the end of an era and The Steel Pier as an entertainment venue in the form of the previous eight decades.
Steel Pier, in a new iteration still exists with the Catanosa Family, which now includes the 2nd largest Ferris wheel in America.
Former United States President Donald Trump is also a former owner of The Steel Pier.
Anyone who was lucky enough to experience a day at The Steel Pier in those days gone by … surely have created memories that will last a lifetime.
Rain or shine … it didn’t matter … there was always a great show on The Steel Pier in Atlantic City.
SOURCES: Steel Pier Schedules & Programs (1947-1978), Don P. Hurley, longtime Executive Producer of The Steel Pier Radio Program & Interviews with Ed Hurst.
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