Written by Tom Williams Tuesday, May 14, 2013 09:58 am
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There was a time when some of the top stars from Broadway and Hollywood visited the Ocean City-Somers Point area on a regular basis to perform some of the finest plays and musicals ever created. Film stars Veronica Lake, John Barrymore Jr., Margaret Hamilton (the wicked witch from “The Wizard of Oz”), Joyce Randolph (from Jackie Gleason’s “The Honeymooners”), George Jessel and Edward Everett Horton were all there. Patrons could enjoy them in shows like “The Pajama Game,” “Bus Stop,” “South Pacific,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “On The Town” and “Guys and Dolls.”
It happened at the Gateway Theatre in Somers Point, frequently called the Gateway Playhouse, Gateway Casino or Orsatti’s Casino. This was not the small theatre at Bay and Higbee avenues that a number of dedicated theatre lovers are trying to restore.
No, the earlier version of the Gateway was located right at the bridge in Somers Point, where the Waterfront Marina now sits. That Gateway burned down in March of 1968 in a freak fire. A gasoline truck overturned and the building was incinerated. The driver, John Gibson, died in the accident.
The building had been used by various groups for a variety of functions prior to the fire. The Prudential Insurance Company used it for offices before building a new facility on Route 9 across from Mainland Regional High School. And it was the Under-21 Club, featuring large dances and record hops. In fact, Chubby Checker, the King of the Twist, recorded a live album there when he was one of the hottest pop music stars in the world.
Before getting to the Gateway Theatre in its prime, lets examine a little more of its history.
The building opened in 1904 as the Bayview House Hotel and it offered vacationers beautiful views of the Great Egg Harbor Bay until 1925.
In June of 1926, it became the Gateway Casino (the word had a different meaning before legalized gambling) and it was described as a million-dollar prohibition restaurant. They could seat 3,000 in the main dining room and top orchestras performed, including Duke Ellington and Meyer Davis. Popular music radio station WPG Radio (back again now at 1450 AM with conservative talk) broadcast live from the Gateway and among the emcees of the variety shows was a young comedian named Red Skelton.
But the Great Depression was looming and the Gateway eventually became the property of the First National Bank of Ocean City during the crash. The liquor license was lost during World War II, but after the war, Arnold Orsatti brought the building back to life. A restaurant owner from Atlantic City, Orsatti booked popular entertainers like Vic Damone, Frankie Laine and the Ink Spots at Orsatti’s Casino.
Then, in 1953, Jonathan Dwight came onto the scene. He was a descendant of the president of Yale University and had been a summer tennis champion in Ocean City. He brought together a group of prominent area residents – including Jean Campbell, Ezra Bell, Charles Harp, French Loveland, Paul Aiken and Stanley Pontiere – and the Gateway Playhouse was formed.
With Tony Marts and Bayshores right across the street, the Bay Avenue area was jumping. The Gateway Playhouse became an instant hit. For $25 a theatre patron could get a season ticket to 10 summer shows. It was considered to be the largest summer theatre in the United States. The opening show in 1953 was “Carousel.”
In future weeks and future seasons, the Gateway offered Donald Woods, Conrad Nagel, Betsy Von Furstenberg, Corinne Calvert, Tod Andrews, Gene Raymond, Constance Bennett and Sidney Blackmer, among many others. Barrymore Jr., the father of current Hollywood star Drew Barrymore, was a big hit.
And the stars weren’t only on the stage.
One local resident who worked the food concession at the Gateway as a teenager remembers hearing a familiar voice during one intermission shout from behind, “Hey, Buddy, can I get an orange drink?” When he turned around he saw it was Bob Hope. He was on his way to New York and stopped to see Woods, his good friend, perform in a show that was going to be made into a movie starring Hope.
Many of these names might not be familiar to younger generations. Almost all have died. But these were the leading names of theatre in their generation. Local talent also got to perform in the productions, generally in small roles in the chorus. One in particular – the late Tom Perkins – earned some leads.
You can find more information about the Gateway, including actual programs of the shows, at the Somers Point Historical Museum on Shore Road next to City Hall or online at SomersPointHistory.org.
When the huge theatre by the bridge became too big and too expensive, they moved the productions to the movie theatre at Bay and Higbee. Of course, the smaller theatre resulted in more locally cast productions and very few big names.
For more than a decade – under Dwight and Albert Moritz, who took over as producer in 1961 when Dwight moved on – top productions were offered at the Gateway. It was truly Broadway at the shore.
The Atlantic City casinos have brought tremendous entertainment to the area, but the one thing they rarely offer is legitimate theatre. The performances are lengthy. They keep patrons away from the tables too long. The area needs more of the great Broadway productions and touring companies that used to visit the Gateway.
Every time you make the trip from Ocean City to Somers Point these days (or from Somers Point to Ocean City) there is something new to see. There have been many changes on the causeway separating the two communities during the past two years. The circle is gone. So are the drawbridges. Progress can be good.
But it is also good to remember what came before. One day, future generations will look back nostalgically at the two bridges we used to cross. It is important to remember the past – Simms Restaurant, Hogate’s, the Charcoal Pit, the Biscayne Hotel, Vaughn Comfort’s Café, Stainton’s Department Store. Along with many others, they all played a big role in making the Ocean City-Somers Point area what it is today. They are all gone, but should never be forgotten.
Neither is the Gateway.
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Words to remember: “One of my beliefs is that there are certain institutions within a community which stand for the spirit and heart of that community – there’s the church, the local football team, the local pub and the theatre.”
– David Soul, actor-singer