Thursday, April 30, 2009

Margate Centennial & The Barbary Coast Bars

Margate’s Barbary Coast Bars – Revisited. A tour through time. – By Bill Kelly

From The Downbeach Current,April 30, 2009. Vol. 13, NO.7
Page 29 Check out all the stories on Margate history.

Today Margate is mainly sushi bars and condos, but at one time, it was the place to go to have a great time. They called it the “Barbary Coast” because of the image of drunken debauchery, but for many locals and tourists, it was.

The strip went along the bay front to Washington Avenue and then to beach.

If you came from the south, from the Somers Point – Ocean City causeway, the first bar you came to was Kelly Voght’s rickety old nightclub that stretched out over the bay, an old wooden clapboard building reminiscent of Bayshores. Then there was the Longport Inn, an eating and drinking establishment where many of the power brokers met. Both have been leveled and are now condos.

Heading north along the bay you then came to Strotbeck’s, a private club, now Steve & Cookies, and faithfully maintained, where the food is good and the music is smooth jazz. A block in from the bay was Moylans, a small corner, seasonal, neighborhood bar, with a low ceiling, and dark, with no windows and a good juke box.

Back on the bay, heading north on Amherst Avenue is Jerry Blavat’s Memories (formerly the Elbo Room), which is still going strong with the Geater with the Heater, the Boss with the Hot Sauce spinning the discs for dancers and the radio audience.

Next along the line was the Harbor Inn, where at one time, not long ago, they had ten beers for a dollar. On the next corner was Merrel’s, where Lew London, the East Coast Aces, Bobby Campanell and the original Shakes played before it became Gilhooley’s, a brass and glass joint.

Next door is the venerable Maynards, the last of the old time Barbary Coast Saloons, where the late, Al Triano orchestrated the party, and where you can get cheep draft beer, a hot sandwich off the grill, a bowl of peanuts, and leave the shells on the floor.

On the corner, where there is now a sushi bar, there used to be Kelly’s corner bar, with a pool table and juke box, and attached to Gables, one of the premier rock and roll bars on the East Coast. Once said to be a bowling alley, the huge nightclub had multiple bars, dance floor and a stage where the Exceptions were the house band who opened for major acts like John Kay and Steppenwolf.

Around the corner across the street, there was Omar’s, a neighborhood bar that was once called the Nickelodeon, a bust out joint which featured live bands, before it too became a fancy restaurant and then, condos.

There is also the Barn pizza hut, a popular pit stop for generations, and another popular late night pizza place down Washington Ave., before you got to Maloney’s, one of the most popular local pubs until it was raised and condoed out a few years ago.

Just past Maloney’s, on the corner, was the White House, also known as Reds as it was Red Klots’ sports bar. Klots owns the Washington Generals (Nationals) professional basketball team, who faithfully maintain an unblemished record of having lost every one of their games to the Harlem Globetrotters. When Klot’s son Glenn was old enough, he turned Reds into a disco, and then a New Wave bar, the Ivory, with radical bands like the Ramones and the Hooters, who played there in the 80s.

Then it became a disco again, and was a favorite hangout of seasonal neighbor, “Skinny” Joey Merlino, the nominal head of the old Philadelphia mob. Then it was leveled into a parking lot before it was condoed.

Across the street on the beach is the Green House, where the octogenarian Flintstones band used to play in the low ceiling beach bar. They really were old coots playing in a band that really had a good time. Now it’s Ventura’s Green House, and features fine Italian food, a good pizza and sandwich grill and a popular deck just off of Thong Beach.

A block down from the Green House was the Beach Bar, where you could walk in off the beach in your bare feet and get a cold one, which was developed into a high rise in the early 80s.

Where ever you went at the Barbary Coast, at the end of the night, after shooting pool, drinking and dancing to the live bands, everyone eventually ended up at Lenny’s Hot Dog Stand, which when the sun came up, was in the shadow of Lucy the Elephant.

By three or four in the morning there was a line at Lenny’s where people stood around mingling, talking, eating hot dogs, and getting ready to take a nap on the beach, or reluctantly go home.

Things were like that for decades, but eventually, the party had to end. A number of things led to the end of that era, including the lowering of the drinking age to eighteen, the increase in DWI arrests and accidents, and sensational news reports of a young women found dead on a boat from a drug overdose, another women being raped on the beach by a professional athlete and finally, in August 2007, the murder of Paul Ritch, a British tourist on a holiday, who was knifed in the heart behind one of the bayside bars.

The increase in the value of the real estate market and the development of condos forced the college and group rental crowd to find another neighborhood, and the seedy bars were transformed into classy, brass and glass restaurants.

And today, as they sit around sipping champagne in their waterfront condos and at the sushi bars, it seems that the people who have never been to Margate’s Barbary Coast in its heyday, just don’t know what a good time is.

MARGATE – after staying pretty much the same for ten thousand years, went from sandy, shifting hills barrier island to contemporary resort town in less than a hundred years,

To the Lenni Lenape Indians it was known as Absecon Island, a desolate wind swept sand bar with an ever changing landscape they never thought anyone would or could live on.

To the first European explorers the bay area was called Eren Haven – Great Egg bay because of the prevalence of bird eggs, and the first settlers used the barrier islands as a cattle pen.

Thomas Budd paid ten times as much per acre for the mainland parcels of land than he did for the barrier islands, but the value of the waterfront would change with the times, and the advent of modern society.

Few people even knew about Sandy Hills until the trains came in to Atlantic City, at the north end of Absecon Island, bringing thousands of tourists daily from Philadelphia, and so they began to call it South Atlantic City. They also came by steam ferry from Ocean City and Somers Point to Longport so it was, for the most part, a place that tourists passed through to get somewhere else.

That is until 1881, when 25 year old engineer James V. Lafferty began his quest to build Lucy the Elephant as a real estate promotion. In 1882 the US Patent Office granted Lafferty a patent for “the exclusive right to make, use or sell animal-shaped buildings for seventeen years.” Lucy was the first of three such elephants, the others being the Elephantine Colossus, built at Coney Island New York and the Light of Asia in South Cape May, N.J. Colossus burned down, the Light of Asia was eventually torn down, and Lucy was sold, with Lafferty’s other property, to John and Sophie Gertzen, who operated it as a tourist attraction, hotel and tavern.

On August 1, 1885 an Egg Harbor Township referendum was held to consider incorporating South Atlantic City as a borough an action taken by New Jersey state legislature on September 7, 1885, though it wasn’t until April 23, 1897 that South Atlantic City reincorporated as a city.

On April 20, 1909 the city was reincorporated with the name Margate City. The name Margate was probably taken from the resort town of Margate in England. As England’s oldest seaside resort Margate, Kent, has a history that dates back 700 years. As a bathing beach resort, Margate in England can attribute its popularity to a visionary entrepreneur, real estate developer and inventor. Like Lafferty at the Jersey Shore, Margate in England had Benjamin Beale, who patented a bathing machine.

Bathing, at home or in the sea, was not considered a social occasion between the sexes until the Victorian age, encouraged at first by “bathing machines,” like the one invented by Beale. With modesty being a primary factor, bathers entered a little wooden hut covered with canvas that was pulled into the sea. As bathing among the sexes became more socially acceptable, the bathing machines disappeared, and Margate became one of England’s most popular seaside resorts.

Margate, New Jersey is also one of America’s most popular bathing beaches, though one with less modesty, as the beach by Lucy is today known as “thong beach,” which shows you how far things have gone in less than a hundred years.

The century long history of Margate itself is probably best exemplified by the ever changing story of Lucy, which has served as a restaurant, tavern and hotel, was once the center of the town’s social activity, and is still a tourist attraction and landmark.

William Howard Taft was President in 1909, an otherwise inauspicious year when Robert Perry reached the North Pole, Joan of Arc was declared a saint, Shibe Park (later Connie Mack Stadium) opened, the NAACP was formed and Jack Johnson was heavyweight champion of the world.

The demographics were changing however, primarily by the automobile and airplane. The Wright brothers sold their plane to the military and they made the first commercial use of the airplane in 1909, while Alice Ramsey, a Hackensack, N.J. housewife, became the first women to drive a car across the country from New York to San Francisco.

In 1909 steam ferries ran passengers on a regularly scheduled line from Ocean City and Somers Point to Longport – the ever receding south end of the south end of Absecon Island, and from Longport, people had to pass through South Atlantic City to get to Atlantic City. And for the most part, people traveled by train and trolley.

That all changed on July 1, 1926 when the Benjamin Franklin Bridge opened and day trippers began to arrive by car.

As Atlantic City grew, so did Margate, and like other nearby towns, it became a suburb community, and known as an affluent one, attracting not only successful Atlantic City businessmen, but rich industrialists from Philadelphia and Baltimore who built mansions on the highest ground, which were at first seasonal homes but became year ‘round residences.

Besides the beach side taverns and restaurants like Lucy and the Green House, fine restaurants and private clubs like Stotbecks provided first class service to the seasonal visitors and Atlantic City’s business and power brokers.

Unlike Atlantic City, Ocean City and Wildwood, Margate did not offer many hotel rooms for transients, or even lease apartments on a weekly or monthly basis, and became popular, for the most part, with seasonal home owners.

There was also the proliferation of the waterfront bars (See: the Bars of Margate’s Barbary Coast) along the bay, where many of the ramshackle houses became group rentals for college kids before being developed into exclusive condos.

By 1960 Lucy was run down, dilapidated, and slated to be demolished, which was put off until 1969 when the Save Lucy Committee, formed by the Margate Civic Association, moved Lucy to the beachfront land owned by the city and by 1973, had raised enough money to restore it.

And today, Lucy stands tall as a symbol, the logo of a sea side city that was looking to promote itself as a nice place to live, and now pretty much likes the way things as they are.

[Bill Kelly can be reached at ]