Of all the entertainments presented in the Wildwoods during more than a century of their show business history, the one with the most resilience has been the one with the funniest name.
Doo-wop started in the 1950s and the music went wild for a while, then like other music crazes it calmed down until recent years when it was revived nationally and locally. Its renaissance was helped here, too, after Wildwood and Wildwood Crest initiated a doo-wop architectural boom in their motels and some other buildings.
Even to this day, doo-wop music is big on and off the island. The Charlie Thomas Drifters, one of the biggest early on, will bring their act to Middle Township’s Performing Arts Center on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 2, at 4 o’clock. Thomas has been the lead singer with the quartet for 53 years. The Drifters are no strangers to the Wildwoods, having performed here several times.
More doo-wop will come to the area on Friday and Saturday, Oct.14 and 15, when the Wildwoods Convention Center sponsors its eighth annual Fabulous ’50s Celebration. Featured on that Saturday night will be such attractions of that era as Little Anthony and the Imperials, Jimmy Beaumont and the Skyliners, the Cadillacs and The Elegants.
These performers, of course, are not new to the area. In recent years many have performed in the summer outdoor concerts of the Wildwoods before enthusiastic crowds.
Music historians have credited doo-wop music, an up-tempo style of rhythm and blues, with having had an early African-American influence, but it really took off after World War II when groups of young men entertained on street corners in places like Brooklyn, New York City and Baltimore.
Where and when entertainment first arrived on Five Mile Beach is somewhat clouded with the passage of time. The Lenni Lenape Indians were the first to come to the island and how they entertained themselves has not been recorded here although it is obvious, with the conflict of timing, that after a big day of fishing the Indians did not sit around a campfire at night and sing doo wop songs or play “Sing, Sing, Sing” on their drums.
But when the three Baker brothers developed much of the Wildwoods and hotels and boarding houses began to appear in the second half of the 19th century and the early part of the 20th they and others saw the need to bring entertainment to the island for those rainy days and nights when the ocean lost its allure for visitors.
Entertainment started off modestly and economically with piano players and a singing canary whose only expense was bird seed and did not need a piano accompanist. The way human singers often did, except for the a cappella doo-wop groups.
Once tourism appeared to be another drawing card for the future of the Wildwoods the entertainment went beyond canaries and pianists. A timely and unusual early booking was an act called Booker and Clayton’s Georgia Minstrels, an all African-American troupe which toured the Northeast and billed themselves as “The Only Simon Pure Negro Troupe in the World,” claiming their act was an authentic portrayal of black plantation life. It contended that among its cast were men who “during the war were slaves in Macon, Georgia who having spent their former lives in bondage will introduce to their patrons plantation life in all its phases.”
The troupe drew large audiences at Wildwood’s Casino show house and elsewhere, outdoing white minstrel troupes performing in blackface.
Then there was Madame Celeste, who gave the canary tough competition because part of her act featured bird calls, including that of a canary.
Billy Outten, who billed himself as “the human comet” was the 1935 AAU national diving champion and he decided to capitalize on that by starting a comedy diving act with his wife and uncles. But the promoters wanted excitement more than humor, so Outten changed it by plunging 115 feet into a pool covered with burning fuel. A clip of his feat was used in the movie “The Right Stuff.”
Esther Williams, the swimming movie star, also came to Wildwood, but she didn’t jump into a flaming pool. She hosted the Esther Williams Neptune’s Daughter Beauty Contest in 1949 at Hunt’s Strand Theater
Two of the years’ most opposite entertainments were offered at the Casino. At one end was The Flying Lady, billed as a mystical levitation act that came from Coney Island. At the other end was German Wagnerian tenor Johannes Sembach, who had changed his name from Johannes Semfke. He was big in opera circles in Germany, where he was born, and made his American debut at The Met in “Parsial” in 1914, gaining positive reviews from critics. At Wildwood’s Casino Pier, however, the Flying Lady soared higher in attendance than the tenor’s highest notes.
While the early days of entertainment on Five Mile Beach drew quality entertainment, few were as famous as what came along in the 1950s and ’60s during the heyday of night club business here. Tony Bennett performed in the Wildwoods more than once and is still going strong in bigger venues including Atlantic City.
Sammy Davis Jr. performed in Wildwood and was so teed off about being denied accommodations at white only motels that he threatened not to return the next year. But he did after the policy against blacks was changed.
In 1951, when the nation was on the comeback road from the biggest war in the history of mankind, the then-new Bolero, since replaced by an even newer one, was starring some of the biggest or about to be the biggest entertainers in the nation’s history. The list included Peggy Lee, Patti Paige, the Mills Brothers, Rosemary Clooney, the Andrews Sisters and television personality Dagmar, after whom a potent drink was named and, bartenders said, was designed to uplift one’s spirits.
And so it went throughout the rest of the island. Cozy Morley brought big name entertainers, Joey Bishop, Johnnie Ray, Carmel Quinn to name a few, to his Club Avalon. Frankie Laine, Liberace and Jerry Lewis were among those who performed at the Manor Supper Club.
Louis Armstrong was at the Club Martinique, Ella Fitzgerald at the Surf Club.
But, alas, all good things come to an end and so did the glory days of Wildwoods entertainment, especially with the arrival of casino gambling in Atlantic City where entertainers commanded higher fees.
Still, although their less famous names do not stand out on billboards as in days of yore, today’s performers bring quality to many of the shows that appear here during the summer and the extended seasons. Every so often a survivor of the past gets together with younger colleagues and they make beautiful harmony, especially doo wop harmony.
That’s quite a comeback in itself.