For more than a half century thousands of kids, many of them now senior citizens, have migrated to the Wildwood beach to do more than dig in the sand or romp in the ocean.
Their mission was to show they had all their marbles and knew what to do with them.
The National Marbles Tournament, which opens Monday, June 21 and runs through Thursday, has an interesting, colorful history that is sometimes challenged, especially on the subject of its birth.
It has been recorded that the first tournament was held in Philadelphia in 1922 under the sponsorship of Macy’s Department Store. Not so, claims Debra Stanley Lapic of Shillington, Pa., a 1973 winner of the tournament and one of its historians, who next week will have attended the event for 39 consecutive years.
In the first place, she says, there was no Macy’s store in Philadelphia at that time; and secondly, whatever marbles competition they held in various cities consisted of four contestants, hardly enough to merit the designation of being a national tournament. Some of the contestants even exceeded the age frame of 8-14.
The real beginning of the first organized tournament, according to Lapic, occurred in 1923 in Atlantic City under the sponsorship of the Scripps Howard newspaper chain, which published the New York World Telegram among other dailies. Six years later in 1929, the year of the stock market crash, the tournament moved to Ocean City and then to Wildwood in 1937.
The war threat, especially the fear of German submarines off the coast of Wildwood, closed down the tournament during 1944 and 1945, but it was revived again in 1946 in Cleveland, Ohio. Then it returned to Wildwood for two years in 1947 and 1948 before setting up in Asbury Park. In 1960 Wildwood regained sponsorship and has kept it until now except for the nation’s bicentennial in 1976, when it was held at the Great Adventure Amusement Park in central New Jersey.
This year’s tournament has been advertised as the 87th in its history. Actually it is the 85th, since there were two years it did not function during World War II.
Lapic has not only recorded the tournament’s history, but been a part of it.
Her husband, Stephen, a mechanical engineer, proposed to her and gave her a ring on June 28, 1991 in the same marbles ring in which she had won a crown 18 years earlier. Their marriage in September of 1992 produced a daughter, Whitney, who kept the marbles tradition in the family alive by winning last year’s tournament. All will return to the 2010 event.
Archaeologists report that through digs they have determined that the game of marbles was first played in Egypt and then spread to Europe and other foreign lands before it settled in the United States.
The game in which some 75 girls and boys from as far west as Colorado and as far south as West Virginia will compete is called Ringer. It is played by placing 13 marbles in the form of an “X” in a 10-foot circle. Players alternate shots, and the first to shoot seven marbles out of the ring is the winner
The tournament has often lived up to its reputation as a national event. Fan dancer Sally Rand, whom some writers identified as “Sally Fanny,” was appearing at Lou Booth’s nightclub in 1937 when she showed up, appropriately dressed, at the award ceremony and presented the prize to 14-year-old Bill Kloss from Canton Ohio. At that time there were no awards for girls, although some participated in the tournament.
Lou Booth was a famous name in Wildwoods’ nightclub history. She is credited with having spearheaded the growth of nightclubs and entertainment on Five Mile Beach. North Wildwood’s Lou Booth amphitheater, where entertainment is presented twice a week during the summer, is named after her. No fan dancers have been booked there, however.
The tournament’s Wildwood debut was the trigger point for national publicity. It may have been the presence of Sally Rand that attracted reporters from 43 cities as well as newsreel cameramen and people from the big-time radio networks, but whatever the lure Wildwood became nationally famous during the heart of the Great Depression.
But there was even a bigger allied event in 1961 when TV and radio star Arthur Godfrey showed up to crown winners Augustus “Ace” Millen of Yonkers, N.Y., and Anita Danyluk of Niles, Ohio.
Longtime local marbles fan Robert J. Scully Sr., who is the curator of the Wildwood Historical Society’s George Boyer Museum, remembers the Godfrey appearance well.
“He was a nice man, but he showed up quickly and left quickly,” reminisced Scully, who won a local marbles competition back in that era.
Both winners were rewarded with appearances on television’s “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Two years later in 1963, the guest celebrity was Ed McMahon, and the winners – Jim Donohue of Springfield, Mass., and Patsy Coon of Philadelphia – appeared with him on the Johnny Carson TV show.
For some contestants between the ages of 8 and 14, one of the “rewards” of winning was not all that great. Usually the boy and girl winner kiss each other, a token of congratulations that would be appreciated more if the contest’s age requirements were increased to 16 or higher.
Today, much of the memorabilia of the marbles tournament is on display at its newly located Hall of Fame at the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce on Pacific Avenue in Wildwood.
Many of those who competed in the National Marbles Tournament or who were aligned with it in other ways still have a feeling of nostalgia for the event and return each year.
One of them is Molly Reecer, the 1996 champion. She has written a poem that expresses her feelings, as well as those of others.
In part, she writes:
Wildwood, New Jersey, the place of the show,
Kids running around and everyone knows,
People are here to have a lot of fun.
In this case playing marbles in the sun.
This tournament will always have a place in me;
It’s a great place as far as I can see.
Meeting friends and competition is the best;
This tournament is great, much better than the rest.
Information for this article was researched at the Greater Wildwood Chamber of Commerce, in the book “Wildwood by the Sea” by David W. and Diane DeMali Francis and Robert J. Scully Sr., as well as the records of the National Marbles Tournament and the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority.