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ATLANTIC CITY - "BOARDWALK EMPIRE" - The 500 CLUB

 

In retrospect Atlantic City during the 1920s was a Mecca for gamblers and prohibition as is depicted in the Emmy Award HBO Production series “Boardwalk Empire.”

Since Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was born 1883 in Galloway Township, New Jersey, which is a short distance from Atlantic City.  – As a young man his rise to power politically as leader of a Republican organization that controlled the Atlantic County governments.  At the height of his tenure as a political boss the involvement of bootlegging and racketeering sent him to prison in the 1940s . . . his reign ended and State Sen. Frank “Hap” Farley followed Johnson, maintaining his command from 1942 to 1972, wielding his power as a mighty state senator.

In the 1940s entertainment became a big factor for the city to attract visitors along with the summer climate and the beach. The major hotels played a big part for vacationers where dining and attire was important. Chalfont Haddon Hall, Claridge, Traymore, Marborough, Shelburn, and the Ritz Carlton Hotels all welcomed prominent guest for various gala and black tie events during this time. The 500 CLUB owned by Paul "Skinny" D'Amato was a major showplace for entertainment in this South Jersey Beach town.  The Million Dollar Pier, George Hamid’s Steel Pier, played host to entire families that came to see famous singers, big bands and variety shows.  Mr. Peanut, The Diving Horse and Salt-Water Taffies were attractions for the young folks and senior citizens. 

 ~ *** ~

"Without Skinny and his club, a lot of us wouldn't have had the chance to be known nationally. He helped everybody's career jump a little higher, a little quicker. I know that because when I played the Steel Pier, I got nowhere. But when I went to Skinny's, then people knew me. They said, "There's Skinny's friend." They didn't know my name, they just knew me as 'Skinny's friend."

Frank Sinatra @ 1981 Testimonial dinner honoring Paul "Skinny" D'Amato at the International Hotel, Atlantic City, NJ.

 

 

The 500 CLUB

 

The memories made at Atlantic City's famed 500 Club, on Missouri Avenue, will last for a long time. The 500 Club was owned by a dear man, Paul “Skinny” D’Amato. Known as Mr. Atlantic City, he was directly responsible for the indoctrination of the gambling laws for this seashore town.

As a neighborhood kid with a second grade education and many street smarts, he once owned a cigar store in the early days of Atlantic City. Pursuing his goals and dreams to own an entertainment establishment he became a famous nightclub owner that would be known as the "King of Entertainment."He and his friend, Frank Sinatra, made the 500 Club into a major showplace that attracted large audiences from all parts of the country.

The club noted for the wide variety of performers, jazz musicians, popular singers and comedians they hosted. Some of the more popular performers were Milton Berle, the Will Mastin Trio featuring Sammy Davis Jr., and Jayne Mansfield. It is true; Skinny D'Amato was also responsible for discovering and launching the famed comedy team of Martin & Lewis. It happened in the late 1940's. Jerry Lewis was booked at the 500 Club as a single performer when another singer on the playbill became sick. Jerry mentioned to D'Amato that he had previously worked with a handsome Italian singer by the name of Dino Martini who lived in Steubenville, Ohio. At first, Skinny was not too thrilled with the idea of showcasing an unknown singer who he had never heard perform before. On opening night, the first show did not get a favorable reaction from the sold-out crowd. In the dressing, room backstage before the second show, Skinny approached the two performers and suggested that they combine some funny skits with their performance. Jerry Lewis quickly prepared some funny material to present during the second show. It brought the audience to a standing ovation. From that moment on, with the guidance of D'Amato, the comedy team of Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis prospered. 

Other performers such as Vic Damone, Buddy Greco, also would make appearances early in their careers.

Red Norvo and his Sextet who featured the legendary guitarist Tal Farlow would often perform at the 500 Club. On any given night during Norvo's performances, the attending audiences would be in for some surprises. Many jazz greats, who were just passing through town, would visit the club just to pay homage to Red Norvo.

I can recall seeing bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and saxophonist James Moody walking up to the bandstand with their instruments in hand while Louis Bellson took his place behind the drums. After they were settled, they counted off a swinging rendition of "Cherokee." It was reminiscent of the early days of jazz when Norvo co-led a sextet with Charlie Barnet.

On other occasions, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald would make impromptu appearances on stage at the 500 Club. Each vocalist would sing their jazz favorites giving the crowd a performance to be remembered for many years to come.

Unfortunately, in 1973 the famed 500 Club had its final curtain call. A devastating fire engulfed the building that played host to some of the biggest names in show business. After the flames died down, the only piece of historical memorabilia that could be salvaged was the cement sidewalk that surrounded the entrance of the 500 Club. Why was the sidewalk so important?

Well, Hollywood has the original walk of fame - where the names of personalities appear in stars on the sidewalk. Numerous signatures and footprints are embedded in the cement sidewalk in front of Grumann's Chinese Theater. The 500 Club had its own version of this tourist attraction. A large section of a sidewalk, more than two-hundred feet, was devoted to the signings, handprints, and footprints of famous personalities that either worked or made special appearances in the Atlantic City area. The list of names is long. Mickey Rooney, Jimmy Durante, Jack E. Leonard, Marilyn Monroe, Joe DiMaggio, Jayne Mansfield, Louis Prima, Burt Lancaster, Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, George Raft and many more are immortalized in that cement. After the fire the sidewalk was carefully removed and replaced in the back courtyard of Skinny's home.

On Missouri Avenue, where the 500 Club used to be located, a permanent street sign designates the renaming of this street as 500 Club Lane. It is all that presently stands to commemorate the 500 Club. The parking lot for Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino is now located where the club once sat. Sadly, although there are many tourists that come into Atlantic City from all parts of the world just to gamble and vacation, only a small percentage may be aware that Trump's parking lot sits on the location where a popular nightclub once played the top-names in entertainment.

My friendship with Skinny gave me many opportunies to attend numerous party gatherings in Atlantic City. Resorts International Hotel Casino always had a front-table reserved for Skinny and his guests when Frank Sinatra was appearing there. I remember one evening, Ella Fitzgerald was sitting at our table and reminiscing about the 500 Club and the good times she and others had there.

I also invited Skinny D'Amato to be my guest to attend a performance with his longtime friend, Tony Bennett, who was appearing at the Playboy Hotel & Casino in Atlantic City. Skinny graciously accepted my invitation even though he was a bit tired from his business day. Also attending were two other couples plus my associate and colleague, Guy Galante, television producer \director and “Skinny" D'Amato.

The management of the hotel somehow found out that D'Amato was attending the show with us, so after the performance, we were escorted to the Penthouse Lounge, for an exclusive private after-hours get-together. Tony Bennett attended the party, and my friend Sam DiStefano, Playboy's Executive Entertainment Director and an accomplished jazz musician, played piano, this was an enjoyable time had by all.

On June 5, 1984 at 1:22 a.m. Skinny D'Amato was admitted to Atlantic City Medical Center with chest pains. He died from a heart attack at 5:45 a.m. A fond memory that will always stay vivid in my mind is his smiling face on the night before his death. Guy Galante and I were visiting at his home, having a good time talking and joking, but we had to decline his invitation to stay for a late dinner because of prior business commitments. We all embraced and said goodnight when we left about ten o'clock that evening. That was the last time I saw him alive.

Frank Sinatra was among those to come to pay their last respects to “Skinny” D'Amato. As his last act of friendship, Frank served as a pallbearer.

I recall a brief conversation that I had with Bert Parks, former emcee for The Miss America Pageant in the early '70s, about Paul D'Amato. It was before the gambling law was passed and Atlantic City was suffering as a tourist attraction. He said, "If it wasn't for the beach, Frank Sinatra and the contributions from Skinny D'Amato and his 500 Club, Atlantic City would be a ghost town. That's a fact."Skinny felt the same but expressed his thoughts quite differently. His reply to Frank Sinatra's comment on what a great place the 500 Club was "Hey Frank, I just run a Saloon!" Yes, Bert Parks was right. Skinny D'Amato and the 500 Club, without them Atlantic City might still be a ghost town.

 

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