In Another Time > Music has long been key part of Wildwood

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The tourists who vacation at the seashore expect sunny skies, warm temperatures, pleasant ocean breezes and an ambience that happy days are here again.

As raconteur-actor Will Rogers once said, there’s not much we can do about the weather except talk about it. The ambience is another thing.

Almost from the start, when the trio of the Baker brothers founded much of Five Mile Beach, they and their successors decided that while the ocean, the beach and the early scattered pieces of boardwalk were incentives to woo visitors to the island they needed more to keep them not down on the farm but down at the seashore instead.

Soon, as the days segued into nights, the sounds of music were to come on the beachfronts, the Boardwalk, the drinking spas and the hotels that emerged with the arrival of the railroad and the passengers it carried.

Bands from Philadelphia and elsewhere were hired to perform at concerts and dances in the Wildwoods and one hotel, perhaps in an economy move, taught a canary to entertain guests in its lobby by singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” It was much cheaper than hiring a band.

Music was considered so important that the city increased its band budget from $5,000 in 1921 to $22,000 in 1928, a year that 10 bands were under contract. In that same year concerts were held in the new Convention Hall and the music was amplified for the benefit of those on the beach.

A forerunner of today’s tourism commissions on the island was what were then called The Boards of Trade, which regulated and supervised tourism in their communities.

At the beginning it was not easy to bring the bands to the island. Disputes arose as to which were the best and which they could afford. Officials became music critics and even held auditions for the bands to determine which were the best. Where to house them once they were here was another issue and one band slept at the municipal building.

Some Boardwalk merchants objected to bandstands close to their stores, arguing that the music kept potential buyers away from their businesses and the merchandise they wanted to sell. Other merchants protested when the bandstand was moved to another site and the number of Boardwalk walkers diminished.

Then there were residents, obviously not music lovers, near the bandstand and dance halls who complained of the noise the musicians were making.

But the beat went on and dancing was big at the turn of the century into the 20th. In later years Gene Kelly was to be singing and dancing in the rain in the movies. One night at Blaker’s Pier during a heavy rainstorm the roof leaked and there were some who were also dancing in the rain that fell into quickly placed buckets on the floor, but did not quite catch all of the downpour.

While the Wildwoods, still in their relative infancy, could not afford the big name bands of John Phillip Sousa and the like, they did manage to book other bands of lesser fame such as Herbert’s Marine Band, the 25-piece Troilo Royal Italian Band which had played Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, considered a top draw site for performers, and William Payne’s Millville City Band of 18 musicians.

As popular as music was in those times, there were laws that curtailed activities on Sundays. The bands, trying to avoid complete shutdowns, played appropriate religious and concert music in Sabbath concerts instead of weekday music which was abhorrent to some.

Songwriters began to appear with their works. Three of them, Harry Keating, David Morrison and Ed Ward, wrote a piece called “I’m Wild About Wildwood” which sold 2,000 copies in 100 cities and was played on a local carousel organ.

In 1931 the music turned to that of the string bands from Philadelphia. Wildwood began its annual mid-summer Mummers parade which featured 1,500 string band musicians including Wildwood’s own band. In recent years North Wildwood has built on those performances, offering string band festivals late in each summer. It has adopted the Duffy String Band, a long time participant in the New Year’s Day Mummers parade, as its own string band which performs each summer on the Boardwalk as well as other places on the island.

As the Great Depression gripped the nation in the 1930s, the need for music to uplift the spirits grew. But the money to finance it did not. In that first year of the ‘30s bids were sought from 20 bands to perform from July 22 to Sept. 1. The wining bidder was Everett Moses of St. Petersburg, Fla. who didn’t cross the Red Sea but rewarded Wildwood by writing a song he titled “The Wildwood By The Sea March.”

But by the end of the season, the local merchants association was growing nervous. Its members passed a resolution calling for an end to free concerts, contending they were going out of fashion and, besides, it was unfair to charge the taxpayers for the concerts.

The local Chamber of Commerce was to join the merchants in their issue the next year.

The counter-argument was that the concerts brought people to the island and that helped the economy. But in those difficult times, the arguments of the merchants and the chamber apparently won out. In 1932, as bankrupt people were begging for help on street corners, the city eliminated music from its budget and free concerts ended for a while.

But music did not. By the mid-1930s a new musical phenomenon was sweeping the nation. It was called the Big Band and a young clarinetist named Benjamin David Goodman was credited with having been one of the early catalysts for this new wave of swing music. As his band’s music caught on, he was to be better known in the music world and among his fans as Benny Goodman.

Wildwood was quick to join the fast growing craze for this upbeat music that was gripping the nation. From 1925 to 1941 the big names of the big bands performed at such local venues as the Casino Danceland, Hunt’s Plaza Ballroom and the Ocean Pier Starlight Ballroom. Joining Goodman were the band likes of

Guy Lombardo, Jimmy Dorsey, Glen Gray, Woody Herman, Artie Shaw and one of the biggest of them all, Glenn Miller.

The original Miller band, whose born again version occasionally returns to this area, stayed at the Oceanic Hotel at Ocean and Burk Avenues which still is in existence. When they were not in the mood the band members played ball across the street at a field that is now used by the Wildwood High School girls softball team. Just as famous and also occupants of the Oceanic at that time were the singing Andrews Sisters who swam in the Atlantic Ocean here for the first time. The first swim for any ocean, for that matter.

With the arrival of these bands, Wildwood’s fame spread even more beyond its shores. In 1937 NBC radio broadcast the live music of Big Bands from the Plaza ballroom. In the days long before television it was not uncommon for fans of the Big Bands to be glued to their radio sets on a Sunday night while they listened to the music of Goodman, Dorsey or Miller.

The music of the Big Band continued to prevail during the big war years and sketchily into the 1950s, bur soon to come was something called rock and roll and instead of people dancing close to each other or jitterbugging wildly they were rocking and rolling all over the place, certainly in the Wildwoods.

 

(Coming soon: The rock and roll years and later.)

(Information in this article was researched in the book, “Wildwood By The Sea,” by David W, and Diane DeMali Francis, and Robert J. Scully Sr.)

 

 


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