In another time > Hot times at the Starlight, but the fire was hotter

Attention: open in a new window. PrintE-mail

Before, during and just after World War II, Hunt’s Starlight Ballroom was a big attraction on the Wildwood boardwalk, as popular as the Steel Pier was a favorite in Atlantic City.

Visitors at the Starlight danced away happy hours, sometimes leading to romance and marriage, while the live music of such big bands as Glenn Miller, Woody Herman, Charlie Spivak and Vaughn Monroe played on into starry nights, cooled by ocean breezes. Tex Beneke, in later life to front the West Coast version of the reborn Glenn Miller band, broadcast in 1948 from the Starlight to an estimated 60 million radio listeners.

Some, now gray haired and walking gingerly, recall their first kisses at the Starlight where people dressed, if not elegantly, at least in more formal attire than one might see at today’s discos. One of the slogans bantered about then by the young and single was “we dressed to impress” as they sought companionship on and off the ballroom floor. And if you didn’t dance, the odds were that you didn’t romance, either .Nobody wanted a “wallflower” who just sat on the sidelines and watched.

Bobby Rydell and Fabian, who had summertime roots on the island, performed at the Starlight. So did Dick Clark for two years with his popular American Bandstand program. The Starlight Ballroom indeed was the place to go when the young vacationed or lived in the Wildwoods and many thousands did, first for a 50 cent admission fee, then advancing to $1.

But the passage of time, including changes in entertainment styles, set the stage for the demise of the original Starlight. Then came a blockbuster fire on Aug. 20, 1981 that provided the exclamation point in the famous landmark’s obituary.

Volunteer firefighter Ernie Troiano, still decades away from becoming mayor of Wildwood, was celebrating at Fred’s Tavern in Stone Harbor that night after he and his team had won a big basketball game in Avalon. There was a phone call for him, he was told. It was his wife and she told him that the Starlight Ballroom was going up in flames.

Quickly Troiano and two colleagues got into a car and rushed back to Wildwood.

“We traveled through Stone Harbor and by the time we got to the (Ocean Drive) bridge we saw the glow,” Troiano told the media. “That fire burned right down to the beach.”

It grew worse when they arrived in Wildwood.

“I remember standing across the Boardwalk from the fire and about a block and a half were just total flames,” recalled Troiano who now is battalion chief of the Holly Beach Fire Company. “It was hard to look at without the side of your face burning. The signs across the boardwalk were sagging from the heat. I remember it like it was yesterday.”

The firemen tried to protect nearby Mariner’s Landing and as the water was sprayed from hoses the heat of fire turned it into steam.

“The vinyl siding at Mariner’s started melting, then it just reached a point where it just lit up. You talk about hot…If you ever took a book of matches and lit them all at the same time, the whole building (Starlight) was just like that. It was probably the closest thing to being in hell you could be in.”

Troiano’s description was matched by others who were there. Guy Muziani, then the mayor of Wildwood, called it the worst fire he has ever seen, so spectacular that it made national and international headlines. The fire chief, Conrad Johnson, said the 13-alarm fire was probably the biggest fire he has ever been involved with in his long career as a fireman

“It occupied a full city block and extended to Mariner’s Landing Pier. We had engines on the scene for about three days to ensure that it was out.” The heat, he said, was so intense that some of the hoses melted during the attempt to extinguish or at least control the fire.

The initial alarm for the fire, believed to have been caused by faulty electrical equipment, was sounded at 10:25 p.m. and it was not until two and one half hours later that the fire came under control. A 35-mile-per-hour wind didn’t help matters. According to a story in the Wildwood Leader the day after the fire, 12-inch embers from the blaze were carried as far as four blocks south to Garfield Avenue and ignited small rooftop fires.

When the final figures were in, the damage was estimated at $2 million, a hefty sum even in 1981.

Happening in August, the heart of the summer vacation season, the fire provided an extra tourist attraction, albeit one not planned, and one that brought back memories of Woodstock. Hundreds gathered on the streets to watch the spectacle and police were hard-pressed to keep open lanes on the roadways for fire vehicles and to hold back curiosity seekers from getting too close to the fire.

An article in the Wildwood Leader said the smell of marijuana was in the air while rock music played and some cheered and applauded when a wall of the doomed building collapsed. Others climbed up telephone poles or onto friends’ shoulders to get a better view of the fire. It was truly, like the old song goes, a hot time in the old town tonight.

The Starlight Ballroom was never replaced at that site but more recently it appeared again in a permanent replica at the Wildwoods Convention Center. And people still dress up a bit when they attend functions there. Some are young, as in the old days, but the age group now seems to be more diverse and for some who have lived this long it is a reminder of a different time when romance and dance came together at the ballroom in imitations of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and to the music of the big bands of Glenn Miller, Vaughn Monroe and the like.

The impact the boardwalk fires made on the Wildwoods is reflected in the wealth of photos and information stored at Wildwood’s George F. Boyer Museum of the Wildwood Historical Society on Pacific Avenue between Spencer and Spicer Avenues. They are a collection of contributions from people, some firemen who have seen the past of Wildwood burn to the sand while trying to save it for the future. Two of the memoirs, including newspaper accounts, are in books so heavy that it requires added strength to lift them. The museum’s archives also include a listing by dates, places and photos of some of the major fires between 1923 and 2002.

The fires sometimes changed the landscape on the boardwalk. Some owners of amusement rides gave up the ghost, so to speak, as they turned from so-called thrill rides to other boardwalk ventures. Others persevered and started from the ground up with embellished ambitions for bigger and better tourist attractions.

Most of the fires occurred in late summer and the word “arson” came up frequently, some quipsters contending this was a form of “boardwalk manufactured lightning” that struck suddenly so owners could collect insurance to make up for their business losses during a poor season. The allegations, as it turned out, were more dark humor than the truth.

 

Information for this article was based on research at Wildwood’s George F. Boyer Museum, Robert Bright,historian, and at the Cape May County Library in Court House.

 


blog comments powered by Disqus