Sunday, June 15, 2008

Somers Point: Where Music Was King


For years, summer crowds flocked to the Shore’s hottest clubs to hear Bobby Rydell, Frankie Avalon, Bill Haley, and a host of other comers. Times changed, and so did the music. Today, only the memories remain.

By Geoffrey Douglas

Teddie O’Keef is still a good looking women. Better looking by today’s standards than when she and Harry Reiser were an item in Somers Point 26 years ago. She’s traded her teenage pudginess and ‘50s hairdo for some lines and creases. But she still turns heads when she wants to, can still dance all night, and still drinks vodka tonics.

Teddie last saw Harry in the spring of ’84. They had dinner together, an awkward 90 minutes of filling in gaps. Before that, it had been 22 years. Harry’s weathered well too, she says. "More dignified, a little heavier, and he wears glasses now. But still (has) that kid face and the same movements. He still looks like Bobby Rydell."

It helped to look like Bobby Rydell in Somers Point in the summer of 1960. Rydell was a big star then, though it had been only a couple of summers since he’d been a baby faced drummer playing backup at Bayshores on the Somers Point traffic circle alongside a trumpeter named Frankie Avalon in a band called Rocko and the Saints. The Saints were gone by the summer of ’60 – Avalon was making movies and Rydell was making hits – but there were a hundred kids in Somers Point, playing a dozen instruments in a half a dozen bars, clawing to reach those heights.

Harry was one of them. He played the trombone with a group called the New Yorkers at a bar known as the Dunes, an after hours club on Longport Boulevard, half a mile from where Rydell and Avalon – and Bill Haley, Dion, Fabian, Conway Twitty, and Duane Eddie – played on their way to the top.

Harry never made it there. You’ve never heard of him, unless you hung out at the Dunes in the summer of ’60, as Teddie O’Keefe did. But, then, Avalon and Rydell haven’t been big for a while, either. They do reunions now and then and manage real estate. Harry is an orthodontist in Philadelphia, though he still plays his trombone on weekends; Teddie is advertising director and part owner of a newspaper at the Shore.

The club that gave Bill Haley his start was knocked down in ’81 to make way for a disco.

Bayshores – where Frankie Avalon laid down his trumpet in the summer of ’57 often enough to break hearts with his crooning – is now a restaurant known for its munchies menu.

The Dunes, where Harry played that summer, was left to rot a decade ago and has now reopened, attempting a comeback as a disco and package store.

But none of this takes away from the summer of ’60, or from the summers just before or just after, when Bay Avenue in Somers Point, and the Boulevard that runs off it, pounded out a beat that was, per square block and per decibel, the equal of anything America witnessed before or since.

The music began in Somers Point a long time before Teddy and Harry’s day. It began, by most accounts, in a small speakeasy on the north side of the Somers Point traffic circle in the early ‘30s. No one remembers the name of the place, only that it had a hot nickelodeon and a foul mouthed barkeep. By the mid ‘30s, Bayshores was adding to the music wit its wood plank dance floor mounted on pilings that stretched out into the bay. The dance floor washed out to sea in the hurricane of ’44, but through the ‘30s and the early ‘40s the Bayshores nickelodeon was the music center of the Shore. Girls in gowns and soldiers in khaki slipped coins in and danced in the aisles to the boogie woogie and the Lindy Hop.

"Those were magical years," recalls a former patron. "We’d shake the rafters, and laugh, and say how the place would fall down someday."

Then when World War II ended, the music went live. It began with Guy Lombardo at Orsatti’s Gateway Casino in the summers of ’46 and ’47. Vaughn Monroe followed, and then came the Ink Spots, Jimmy Dorsey, Count Basie, the Mills Brothers, and a local band called the Three Sons that was the rage of the Shore in the late ‘40s.

"Arnold Orsatti put Somers Point on the map," says Vince Rennich, who has tended bar in a dozen different clubs at the Shore since the summer of ’52. "He was the first one to bring the bands in live. He began it all. For a while, he was the only one."

Orsatti’s Gateway was a club of its era, but that era was ending. By the early ‘50s, the Big Band sounds – the sounds of swing that had peaked in the war years under leaders like Glenn Miller and Jimmy Dorsey – would be displaced by another kind of music. Rock n’ roll was arriving, and Bay Avenue in Somers Point would never be the same.

Tony Marrotta was the first to pick up the new beat. Marotta had arrived in Somers Point from Atlantic City in 1944, parlaying the profits from a Boardwalk hotdog stand into a one room saloon just off the circle on Bay Avenue. He called it Tony Mart’s.

Tony Mart’s did a brisk business through the late ‘40s, its jukebox bringing in the overflow from the Gateway and other, smaller clubs on the circle. After Orsatti sold out in the early ‘50s, Marrotta made the move that must have seemed inevitable. The jukebox went off, the live bands came in, and the result was the birth of rock ‘n roll at the Jersey Shore.

"We started it right here, we changed the world," says Don Dunleavy, who came to the shore from Philadelphia in the late ‘50s as a bartender. Since then, he has owned as many bars as he has tended.

Dunleavy knows the music business better than most. He has booked groups into clubs from New Jersey to Florida, and he has never seen it thrive, he says, as it did in Somers Point in through the late ‘50s and ‘60s.

"It was the only place in the world, I swear, where you could go from one in the afternoon till six in the morning with cookin’ rock ‘n roll- all live bands, all different, nonstop. Never been anything like it, before or since."

Tony Mart’s began with no name, low budget bands in the early ‘50s, bands with a beat but without a following. Still, the kid came in droves. They were college kids mostly, and their banners lined the walls and ceilings of Tony Marts’s still the night it closed four years ago. By the mid ‘50s, with Elvis topping the charts and rock ‘n roll here to stay, you couldn’t squeeze a lemon through the door on a Sunday night in July. The waters had been tested and found sweet, competition was sure to follow.

It came first from Bayshores, which abandoned the swing bands of the ‘40s and early ‘50s in favor of South Philly groups that could be booked overnight on a meager budge. Rocko and the Saints was one of the better ones, with Frankie Avalon on trumpet and Bobby Rydell on drums. Others included Billy Duke and the Dukes, Jimmy Cavello, and an offbeat group headed by a long haired, sandaled sax player who did Jesus imitations and called himself Tito Mambo.

Mambo, the rumor goes, was the "original hippie," nearly a decade ahead of his time. No one can say what became of him, though there are no lack of theories. One of them has him in the Federal Witness Protection Program, living under an alias in Latin America; other sources swear he’s Frank Zappa.

The challenge from Bayshores – and Tony Marrotta’s acceptance of it – made Somers Point what it would be through the next decade. "Tony was a businessman," says Joe Sudder, who managed the bar in the early ‘70s. "He didn’t appreciate musicians. He wanted what the people wanted, not what the musicians wanted; not what the critics wanted, but what was popular with the people. He made me fire a lot of musicians. If the room wasn’t moving, there had to be another band that would get it to move."

There was only one kind of music that moved rooms by the mid ‘50s. And Marrotta, the businessman, having brought rock ‘n roll to the Shore and profited from its success, could now afford the best it had to offer. By 1956 Tony Mart’s had grown to include a bandstand (it would later have two), three bars, wide isles for dancing, and a polished Art Deco ambience.

The best band in the summer of ’56 was Bill Haley and the Comets. Tony Marts booked them, and the crescendo ad been reached. It would last, almost without let up, for a full decade of summers at the Point.

"The Battle of the Bands," Bill Kelly calls it. Kelly, a Shore writer and music nostalgia buff, explains it in terms of competition. "Tony Mart’s brought in the big names. Bayshores followed with Billy Duke and the Dukes, Rocko and the Saints, then Franke Day, Paul Anka and Dion. But Tony never liked it when people walked out of his place during a band’s break. They’d walk to Bayshores or some other club and never come back. Tony hated that. So he began booking two bands at once. Two bands for continuous music. So Bayshores came back with the same thing. It was nonstop, continuous music. You could hear it all over the Point. The Battle of the Bands."

"It was crazy, absolutely nuts," remember Vince Rennich. "Everything Tony would do, other places would copy. Tony Mart’s introduced something called Seven for One – seven beers for a buck. So Bayshores picked it up, the same thing. And Bayshores was the wildest place in town. You’d have kids buying beers as fast as we could pour them. Sometimes they’d drink ‘em, sometimes they’d throw ‘em at the fan, spray beer all over everybody. And al the while, there was this incredible, nonstop music. It was crazy, absolutely nuts. Wonderful, though. Really wonderful."

By the summer of ’58, the music had reached its zenith. Bayshores and Tony Mart’s were joined by a third contender, Steele’s Ship Bar. Despite a more upscale image and a slightly older crowd, it was laying claim to serious rock ‘n roll and was drawing the crowds.

Mike Pedicin, a band leader whose hit single "Shake A Hand" was the theme song of the Shore through the summers of the late ‘50s, left Bayshores for Steele’s in ’58. It was Pedicin’s music probably more than anything else, that put Steele’s among the heavies on the Somers Point circuit.

"The Two groups I remember best," says Teddie, "are Mike Pedicin and Jimmy Cavello. ‘Shake A Hand’ was the biggest song on Bay Avenue in those days. You’d hear it being sung all day at the beach; it was the kind of song you could start a party with. And Cavello – he was incredible. He’d do ‘What I Day’ [a Ray Charles hit] and people would pour out of all the other bars just to get to Bayshores before the last note sounded. I still remember that…you could hear it across the bay in Ocean City."

Teddie worked in Ocean City during the summer of ’60, the summer that she met Harry. She was nineteen at the time and between her freshman and sophomore years at Penn State.

"I was a waitress – four in the afternoon till nine at night – at the Great Steak House on Ninth Street; it’s not there anymore. There were thirteen of us working there that summer – all girls, all waitresses, all from Penn State. What a terrific job. You’d come off the beach around 3:30, change into your little waitress uniform, wait tables till nine, change into your madras shorts and holey sneakers, and thumb across the bridge to the Point just about the time the music was getting hot. You wouldn’t get back sometimes till dawn, so you’d pass out on the beach, wake up to take a swim, change, go to work and begin it all again. Talk about the perfect summer."

Harry, of course, was part of the perfection. Teddie met him in early July. The Dunes had just opened out on the Boulevard to try to capture some of the after hours crowd when they spilled out of the bars on the circle at closing time. The New Yorkers were the first band the Dunes booked; Harry was nineteen, out of high school a year, and a full time trombonist with a dozen gigs behind him. And he looked like Bobby Rydell. Teddie was swept away from the moment Harry showed interest. She fell in love, she says, with his smile, his easy manner, his musicians ways, and later with his music. "Anytime I’d walk into the room, he’d play ‘Satin Doll.’"

Summer loves in the early ‘60s, most of them anyway, were commonly grounded: hand holding, long looks, and late nights; friendship rings by mid-August; unfastened bra hooks in front seats on darkened roads; and, finally, promises to write. For Teddie and Harry, only the late nights held true to the pattern.

"We didn’t even have time to neck," she says, "Or not very often, anyway. If we did, I don’t remember it. What I remember most is the music, the sense of music. It was absolutely total."

The summer ended, or should have, on Labor Day. And again, it is the music she remembers.

"I was at Bayshores; I think Harry was with me. I don’t know how – he should have been at the Dunes on trombone. Maybe he wasn’t there, maybe it’s just wishful remembering, and maybe I was alone – it doesn’t matter. Anyway, it was closing time, two o’clock. I remember the group playing – Peter Carroll and the Carroll Brothers. They played the last number; we thought it was over, thought the summer was over. A lot of people were crying; I was."

"Then, all of a sudden, the band just walked out of Bayshores, still playing like that was the natural thing to do. So we followed. Then they moved into that Bunny Hop tune and everybody got their hands on everybody else’s shoulders. We hopped down Bay Avenue from Bayshores to Steels, once around the bar picking up more people, then out onto the street again. People were breaking into line, grabbing hold. There must have been a hundred of us. Then we went into Tony Mart’s with more people joining in, then down Bay Avenue again. The line was so long that you couldn’t tell where it began or ended."

"Everybody was singing and crying – singing, ‘cause it was such a high, such a magic moment; crying because it was the end of summer, and it was over for another year. But nobody thought of next year. It was just over."

It wasn’t over for Somers Point. There would be five more good years of what Dunleavy calls "cookin’ rock ‘n roll." Bill Haley, Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell had come and gone, but there were other big names and other sad/happy Labor Days to come. Through the summers of the early ‘60s, Bayshores would book Paul Anka and Dion, while Tony Mart’s would go one better with Conway Twitty, Duane Eddie, Mitch Ryder, and Gary U.S. Bonds.

At Steele’s, Mike Pedicin stayed on until ’66, when the bar burned to the ground, leaving a void that would never be filled. "Shake A Hand" continued to pack them in through the summers of the early ‘60s, even against the competition of the big names brought in by the bands next door.

"Those were good years," Pedicin says. "Somers Point was so important – both to the progress of music and to the kids who danced to it. There were so many of them, and they still have the memories. You know I met Jack Kelly [Grace Kelly’s brother, a Philadelphia local] about a month before he died, two years ago. He approached me and asked if I remembered him. Back in the ‘50s, when I was playing Bayshores, he and his sisters, Grace and Lizanne, used to come there. I run into that sort of thing all the time today. A lot of parties and weddings I do today are a result of the kids back at the Point in the ‘50s and ‘60s. When you think about it, Somers Point actually made my life."

As much as the gigs themselves, Pedicin remembers the jam sessions. They went on, most of them anyway, at the after hours clubs on the Boulevard – the Dunes, O’Burns, Jack’s Grove, and Brownies – on weekend nights after the circle had closed down.

It was the jamming more than anything else – perhaps even more than the immense barrage of talent – that made Somers Point what it was in those years. The jam sessions are what Teddie remembers best, partly because they were unique – spontaneous but expected.

"They were incredible. It’d be four or five in the morning, the sun would be coming up over the bay, and you’d have musicians from one or two of the biggest bands in the country mixing it up on stage with the local groups – Jimmy Cavello, Pete Carroll, Billy Duke and the Dukes. And all the kids would be there. We’d follow them from the circle, sometimes we’d go with them. It just went on and on. It never ended.

The end was coming, though, and by the mid ‘60s the music had begun to wind down. One of the last big name bands anyone remembers was a group that called itself Levon and the Hawks. After their last gig at Tony Mart’s in the summer of ’65, Bob Dylan claimed them and they became, simply, The Band. (The Band was planning a reunion at the Shore this summer until Richard Manuel, one of the group’s mainstays, hung himself in March, only two weeks after Tony Marrotta, who was in his eighties, died in Somers Point).

As for Teddie, she dropped out of Penn State after the summer of ’60 to be near Harry. But it didn’t work out. Some of the magi had ended with Labor Day. She found herself alone at the Shore in September. She later got a job with an airline and made several more stabs at her relationship with Harry before finally breaking up with him for the last time at the Somers Point Circle in the fall of ’62.

Teddie was married a year later and moved west to California two years after that. She didn’t see the Shore again until the summer of ’66, when she came east for a visit.

"I went out to the Point one night in June or July. By then, I was a lot older than most of the kids I saw. I went to Tony Mart’s for a while but felt kind of out of place. And it wasn’t just my age…Something had changed. The music was still there, and still good, but something was different. The kids were more serious; there was less dancing, more conversation. The difference was subtle, but it was there and I felt it."

Rennich, who had been tending bar in Somers Point since ’57, felt it too. Some of what brought the difference, he says, was the competition.

"It was too much of a good thing. Tony began it when he went to two bands. By the end, he’d gone to three – two bandstands, three bands – and everybody was trying to copy him, trying to draw the kids. But all that talent cost money. And the money they had to pay for the bands drove up the prices. It started with seven beers for a buck, then it went to five, and then three. That’s when it began to die a little."

There were other factors, too, things that had little to do with the price of beers or with rock ‘n roll or with summers at the Shore. President Kennedy had been dead for three years by the time Teddie visited the Point in ’66. Vietnam was creeping into the headlines. Long hair was in; Dylan and the Stones were singing protest and rebellion songs. The times and the music were a changin’.

"Kids were more serious by then," Rennich remembers. "It seemed like they forgot how to have a good time. And they dressed different. It used to be, in the ‘50s, the bands would come onstage in suits and ties, it was real proper. Then, when rock music came in, the musicians all started looking like Tito Mambao with his long hair and his sandals. That was when it really began to slide."

The slide continued. Following her trip East in the summer of ’66, Teddie didn’t see the Point again until her next trip in ’71. In early June, as she remembers it, Teddie drove over to the Point "to try to recapture something, I guess, to try to go home again."

She went first, of course, to the Dunes, where Harry had jammed so many nights till five in the morning with enraptured college kids in madras shorts and torn sneakers dancing to his tunes eleven summers before.

"When I got there, there was a bunch of motorcycles outside, with bikers crawling around everywhere in leather jackets. This bunch of girls they had with them, with dirty hair, were sucking joints in the parking lot. I went inside. Even the band was stoned. There were strobe lights flashing on and off, but nobody was dancing. Everybody was just standing around, all glassy eyed and strung out, like they were holding up the walls or something."

"It was like the whole world had gone crazy. All this time, I’d been romanticizing about the Point, telling people about this wonderful place at the Shore where you could dance till your feet fell off and telling them about Harry. All this time, I’d wanted to go back. Now I was back and there was nowhere to go. It as like the day the music died."

"It was the drugs that really killed it," says Dunleavy, who owned one of those clubs, the Mug, just up the Boulevard from the Dunes, until 1974. "The drugs hurt us all. You couldn’t make it in the business anymore, you just couldn’t cut it. The people would come into your bar, pay their admission, and nod off against the wall. It was the end of an era."

There is one survivor left from those times: the Anchorage, on Bay Avenue. It hasn’t changed with the times. The site of Tony Mart’s and Steele’s is now occupied by a discotheque called Ego’s, a mammoth two level affair with mirrored walls and a bar the size of a Little League ball field. Bayshores is now the Waterfront, "an upscale restaurant," Bill Kelly calls it, "in a California franchise sort of way." Other bars near the circle have remodeled to draw the Yuppies with their dinner menus and sedate background combos.

But the Anchorage lives on. It doesn’t have live music; it never did. It was what Rennich calls "a tune up bar," a place with atmosphere but no live bands, a place you went to after you got off the beach, before the night got started.

"The kids would go to the Anchorage or Gregory’s," says Rennich. "They would have their first four or five beers of the evening, then clear out when the music got going on the circle. Sometimes they’d come back at the end of the night."

Today the Anchorage is "the last of the old time saloons," says Nick Trofa, an Ocean City local in his late thirties who has spent time in the bars in Somers Point. And indeed it is, right down to the old pool table, the magnificent veranda, the serpentine bar, and the bartender behind it, Charlie Carney, who has poured drinks at the Point for close to twenty years. There are few pretensions at the Anchorage. The dogs walk in off the street to find their masters at three o’clock on late spring afternoons, and the men – all of them local – swap stories.

"It’s like Cannery Row, this place," Trofa says. "There are a lot of characters who come in here, and we all have memories. Everybody remembers something about the old days. And we just keep retelling the stories, and then we tell new ones. We never run out."

But even the Anchorage will soon be gone. This summer is slated to be its last. Sometime after Labor Day, unless plans change, the big trucks will come and move the old saloon to its new home on the circle, near where Orsatti’s Gateway once stood. The Anchorage will keep its name, but that will be all. It, too, is scheduled for remodeling. It will be "upscale" with mid range prices and a late night munchies menu. The blackjack dealers and mid level casino executives will come with their dates and families from the condos that speckle Somers Point nowadays, and they will eat and drink and listen to different sort of music form what Teddie remembers.

"It’s progress, it’s what’s got to happen," Teddie laments. "But I’ll be sad to see the place go. I’ll be sad to see that old bar, with all those memories, on top of some truck driving down the road like it was a mobile home or something. But what difference does it make? The Anchorage is only a symbol. The reality went a long time ago. It went for me the day I saw the bikers outside Harry’s bar."

"Sometimes," Teddie continues, "when I drive by the circle on my way to some account, I can still see it the way it was. I can still hear the music and smell the smells. And I can still picture Harry the way he was the summer of ’60. But then I remember that he wears glasses now – and that I do, too – and the fantasy passes."

Geoffrey Douglas, a former contributing editor of New Jersey Monthly, is publisher of The Sun, an Absecon based biweekly newspaper serving South Jersey.

New Jersey Monthly, June 1986.

[Note: The plan to move the Anchorage never materialized. It remains where it always was – BK]

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The house band at Tony Marts in the early 60s was Jerry Gabriel and the Angels. I can still visualize the rhythm guitar player, a big blond guy with equally blond girl friend, dressed in the black suits with tie the band wore, dancing with his instrument. I even had the tee shirt till my mother threw it away on the idea that wear advertsing for a bar on my chest was immoral or socially unacceptable. Where is Jerry and the Angels now? They should be at the reunions if anybody.