Monday, December 26, 2011

Remembering the winter in South Jersey

 This past Christmas weekend had me thinking of the "old days" when I lived up in South Jersey. Living in South Florida, where the temperature on Christmas Day was 78, it's easy to forget what the winters are like up north. But some of my clearest, most vivid memories are of The Wildwoods, Ocean City and Cape May in the winter.

I remember in Wildwood, in the winter, there were so few cars on the streets that the city would turn off the traffic lights and cover them with burlap bags to keep the weather out. When it snowed, the causeways going in and out of most of the shore towns would be closed. It wasn't until the casinos came into Atlantic City, if I remember right, that they started making more of an effort to open the causeways.

We used to go up on the Ocean City boardwalk in the dead of winter, just for something to do, even though everything was closed. Walking the boards in 25° weather at one o'clock in the morning with a bunch of friends was fun, if nothing else to breathe in the fresh sea air. Then it was down to the Point Diner, which was open 24/7, for hot coffee or cocoa, and sometimes a late night burger or breakfast. Some of the best burgers I ever had were at the Point.

One New Year's Eve in the late 1980s, my friends and I wound up at the Point Diner at around 2am. The place was packed, of course, and there were actually some people we knew there getting coffee. A girl who I went to high school with (and tried to date with no luck, but was friends with) was there with a group of friends. She invited me over to sit with her for a few, and I had to squeeze in tight next to her. If I had half a brain I would have realized she was coming on to me...but I didn't...even though when she directed my eyes down to her legs, I could see she was wearing some very sexy stocking...and had her skirt hiked up just enough to see the garter belts. What a dumbass I was...I talked with her a few more minutes then went back to my group of friends. Wasn't until the next day I realized what she was after. Missed opportunity there. Oh well.

Jilly's on the boards in OC used to stay open late into the season. They had video games and pool tables, and it was one of the few places you could play pool without being 21 or a badass that could fight off a bunch of tough guys. We'd play pool at fifty cents a pop well into the morning...cold or not...Then head back to EHT in my 63 Imperial Crown or my 53 Chevy Belair, cranking the Stray Cats or Elvis or some big band stuff as if it were the 1950s. This was back in the late 80s and early 90s. Guess what...still friends with most of those guys, and still have that kool 1953 Chevy Belair. Kooky, ain't it?

-Christopher Pinto, author of Murder Behind the Closet Door, the Wildwood Paranormal Murder Mystery.

Monday, March 28, 2011

My First Roller Coaster Ride - Hunt's Pier, The Flyer

My father spent a lot of time in Wildwood in the 1930s, 40s & 50s. His mother worked as a ticket girl on Hunt's Pier every summer from the mid 50's through the late 70s, so it makes sense his favorite Roller Coaster was The Flyer on Hunt's Pier.

When I was little I was scared to death of roller coasters. This got my old man down, as he really wanted to take me on my first coaster ride. Like a wimp, it took me 13 years before I finally got the courage to go on. So, one summer night in 1982, my father (at the age of 51) and I got on The fact, he somehow managed to get us into the front seat.

What a wild blast! That sucker whipped me around like a ragdoll. My dad was laughing the whole a kid himself...and I was yelling WHAOOOOHOOO! most of the trip. The wooden coaster (built in 1957 and showing obvious signs of age) creaked and rattled like crazy as the car zipped over the tracks at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour. At least three times, I though the car was going to come off the tracks...just like they wanted riders to think.
I especially like this photo as it shows the cars that ran on the track under the pier.

Damn, what a great thrill that ride was. I can still remember it like it was yesterday. When we got off the ride, my old man asked me how I liked it...I told him it was great. He was so excited that he got to take me on that ride that I though he was going to have a stroke. I wasn't far off from that assumption...I figured the huffing and puffing and wheezing was from the thrill of the ride, but I found out later he'd been diagnosed with emphysema, congestive heart failure and a few other nasty things that basically meant he should never have gone on that ride. That's how much it meant to him to take me on that coaster, and I'm so damned glad I got to do it.

All good things must come to an end, especially so it seems in Wildwood, and in 1989 Hunt's tore down The Flyer and replaced it with a more modern coaster. Damn shame, but as I always say, at least we have the memories.

-Christopher Pinto, author of Murder Behind the Closet Door, the Wildwood Paranormal Murder Mystery.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Late Night at The Tom Cat Diner, Wildwood, NJ

There used to be an all-night diner on Rio Grand Avenue that went by the curious name, Tom Cat. This burger joint didn't even open until 11 at night, and closed at 8 am, if I remember right. My kinda place. Not sure if it's still open...I hear it is...I sure hope it is, because it was a swingin' spot.

The original opened in 1946. Called "Tomcat Drive-In Luncheonette" it sat at 443 W. Rio Grande Avenue, Wildwood, N.J. The original building burned and was rebuilt larger in the '50s. That's when it really started to swing. From what I hear, it was THE hip place to be if you were a teenager back in the day.

My pals and I didn't discover the joint until the early 1990s. By then the outside didn't look so hot; an 80s renovation with a purple roof made it look sorta goofy, and it was next door to Wildwood's only strip club, C.R. Phanies (a place that looked so sleazy even I would go in, and that's saying a lot). Although the building itself was kind of dull, inviting neon blazed from within. Once inside, you were fully transported back to the essence of a 1950's malt shop, complete with vintage style booths, old fashioned milkshake machines and the Doo Wop tunes that made the place rock 'n' roll.

Back in the early '90s my friends and I worked as actors at Elaine's Dinner Theater in Cape May. It was a hell of haul driving down from Cardiff (just outside of Atlantic City in Egg Harbor Township) two or three nights a week, but it was worth it. We did murder mystery musicals, and had more fun in one night than most people have in a month. We got paid every Friday, and Friday night after the show we'd head to one of the only places open at two o'clock in the morning...The Tom Cat in Wildwood Crest.

Of course I don't remember every detail of every night we went there. But I do remember a few fun bits...for one, I had (and still have) a 1953 Chevy Belair that I was fixing up at the time. I painted it seafoam green and white, and got it running good enough to handle the 32-mile drive down to Cape May, so on a couple of occasions it was great to pull up to that 50's diner driving that kool, 50's car. I also, on at least one occasion, got to drive this very swingin' chick (one of the stars of the theater) over to the Tom Cat in that car after the show. I had the hots for her something awful...but was a good kat and never made a play for her since I had a main squeeze at the time. Looking back...I should have made a move!

Burgers, fries, chocolate milkshakes, onion rings, chicken fingers...the usual stuff most nights, breakfast on others. I remember they had good waffles. But the burgers were boss. I miss that joint. Maybe I'll take a special trip just to get one of those late night burgers again.

-Christopher Pinto, author of Murder Behind the Closet Door, the Wildwood Paranormal Murder Mystery.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Breakfast at The Surfside Restaurant, Wildwood, NJ

We found it by accident, driving out of Wildwood after the 50's Doo-Wop Hot Rod & Antique Car Show weekend a lotta years ago. I was driving my '56 Buick Century Wagon, already 40 years old but runnin' strong and lookin' good under the neon lights Wildwood. All of a sudden we see this crazy place, all decked out with a very 60's-looking pointed roofline, sitting there among the mid-century mod hotels and souped-up rods. I swung the Buick around fast and roared into the parking lot.
The Surfside in the 1960s...more elegant than touristy back then.
"Get a load of this joint," I said to my then girlfriend, soon-to-be wife Colleen. I'd been going to Wildwood for years and had never seen it. Of course, that was pre-internet days when you had to rely on scant advertising or word-of-mouth to find places like this. (Or you could find them just driving around.)
We went inside and were hit by the yellowest yellow I'd ever seen. The place was bright and sunny, in fact it even had paintings of smiling suns as part of the decor, and still had that very 1960's look to it with the original booths and crazy Sputniks hanging from the ceiling. They were playing 50's music which added to the feel. It was, like many other experiences in WW, like going back in time.

This is how I remember it. A little cheesy, but lots of fun.
We ordered eggs and coffee. I remember they weren't exactly cheap, but then again not much in Wildwood ever was. I'm pretty sure we got served coffee in those 60's style plastic mugs with the throw-away plastic inserts, as if they never changed that style in 30+ years. The food was good, the place was packed, and we had a great time. 

We were lucky enough to get back a couple of times before they finally closed. I don't know the whole story on the closing, but I remember hearing a group of Wildwoodians were trying like hell to buy the building and keep it from getting wrecked.

A couple of years later I was doing online research for my book, Murder Behind The Closet Door which takes place primarily in the Wildwoods. I typed in Surfside Restaurant, expecting to see pictures of it being demolished...but instead I found the Wildwood Doo Wop Preservation League's site, and man was I glad I did. These coolest of cool kats and kittens actually did it...they saved the building, had it relocated and turned it into a museum showcasing some of the best of WW's past. What a fantastic thing they're doing, keeping the old memories alive even now as "progress" turns the island into rows of condos with no personality. 

To the heroes of the Doo Wop League goes a very special thank you for caring enough to keep the past alive, and to save that 1962 architectural masterpiece, the Surfside Restaurant. Bravo, kids.

-Christopher Pinto, author of Murder Behind the Closet Door, the Wildwood Paranormal Murder Mystery.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Waffles and Ice Cream at Pierre's on the Boardwalk

It's funny how some of the simplest memories can be the greatest. Sometime back in the mid '70s, my grandparents came down from Philly (we lived in Cardiff, near the Shore Mall) and we all went to the Wildwood Boardwalk. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight, but I remember that particular night pretty well. We had dinner at Niel's, went on the rides on Hunt's Pier as usual, and ended the night looking for ice cream. My grandmother was a big ice cream fanatic, and she insisted we get some before leaving. I don't know if there weren't many places serving real ice cream (soft serve wouldn't do) or if Pierre's was the first place we came across, but somehow we wound up inside the French-themed diner.

What a thrill it was to sit in such a fancy place on the boardwalk! Well, at least it was fancy to a seven year old. Blue and gold decor, a giant mural of what I can only imagine was Paris, and accordion music playing over the loud speakers. And lo and behold, this wonderful place didn't just have ice cream...they had waffles and ice cream, a huge family favorite for as long as I can remember.

We were expecting a slice of chocolate/vanilla/strawberry between two square waffles, the usual fare. Instead we got something splendid, something I'd never seen before: I giant round waffle on a plate with scoops of ice cream piled up high, topped off with whipped cream and a cherry. I was in my glory. I'd never had so much fun in one night in my life!

I've been to the boards dozens of times since that great night over 35 years ago, and have made it a point every time to hit Pierre's for waffles and ice cream. The last time I was there was 2005 with my wife Colleen. They still had the blue and gold decor, the mural, and of course the waffles! Sadly, that was the last time I'll ever be able to experience that great tradition. As far as I can tell, after 50 years of serving memories, Pierre's shut its doors for the last time. I should have taken pictures, but unfortunately I didn't. But at least we have the memories.

-Christopher Pinto, author of Murder Behind the Closet Door, the Wildwood Paranormal Murder Mystery.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Grandparent's Vacation Home, Wildwood

In the early to mid 1970s, my Grandparents (who lived in South Philly) rented a tiny bungalo near Hunt's Pier. By tiny I mean it was literally two rooms, a bath and a kitchenette. The whole thing couldn't have been more than a twenty-foot square.

I remember it sat far back off the street. It was painted brown with white trim, and looking back I'm pretty sure it was built on someone's side lot, as a guest house. It definitely had that 1920s look to it; it had shutters on the windows with little metal anchors attached to the middle of each, and flower boxes on each side of the door. Inside, the kitchenette had a small, 1950s style refrigerator, a sink, and a little propane stove. The furniture was very homey, and I remember it looked a lot like my Grandparents' furniture in the City.

They'd stay all summer long there. My Grandfather did a lot of fishing, went out almost every day. My Grandmother usually spent the days "watching her stories" on the little portable black and white TV, then went to work each evening on Hunt's Pier selling tickets at the front ticket booth. We'd visit them a couple of times each summer, and when times were good we'd go on the rides on the piers. But my Grandmother never...and I mean not once, even to my old man's protests...gave (stole) us free tickets for the rides!

-Christopher Pinto, author of Murder Behind the Closet Door, the Wildwood Paranormal Murder Mystery.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

In the mid-90s I had a 1956 Buick Century station wagon that I drove as my everyday car. I was lucky enough to get it down to Wildwood for the Boardwalk Classic Car Show & Cruise, driving the Dragon Wagon. We stayed at the Bel Air Motel (still in operation!) and ate at Neil's, hit the boards for the car show during the day and the rides at night. Castle Dracula was still alive, and we did both the boat ride and the walk-through. As always, we had waffles and ice cream at Pierre's and played Fascination at Olympic Casino.

My 1956 Buick Century Wagon. Original V8 Hotrod Engine.
What a great weekend that was. There were 30s, 40s and 50s cars everywhere, so many you didn't even notice the modern cars. All that chrome really shined under all that neon. I remember a bunch of guys in a 50s-style 1931 Model-A Ford hot rod burning rubber in front of The Satellite. Guys were dressed as greasers and chicks were wearing poodle skirts and old-style bikinis. Doo Wop music blasted everywhere. The next morning we had breakfast at the Surfside Diner. It was like going back in time.

I haven't been to the Cruise in years, but I'll bet even though a lot of the koolest motels are gone, it's still a hell of a weekend.

-Christopher Pinto, author of Murder Behind the Closet Door, the Wildwood Paranormal Murder Mystery.