Memories of (pre-casino) Atlantic City 

By Karen Zautyk 

What do Louis Armstrong, Conway Twitty, Mr. Peanut and Elsie the Cow have in common?

To you, nothing. But to yours truly, they are each a part of some of my fondest childhood memories, and those are linked to summer vacations in wonderful Atlantic City — back in the day. 

The shore resort has seen its ups and downs in recent decades, and now it’s pinning at least one of its hopes on literal ups and down — a ginormous, $14 million Ferris wheel (called simply The Wheel) on the Steel Pier. According to a page 1 story in The Star-Ledger — headlined “With Steel Pier wheel, revival coming around” — the structure, “227 feet from its base and 300 feet above sea level, offers views of the city, the coast and the Atlantic Ocean.” 

Family attractions like this, along with rejuvenation of the city’s remaining casinos, are providing new optimism — although the Atlantic City Press last week cited a report that, in 2017, A.C. recorded the lowest number of visitors in 30 years. 

No one knows what the future will hold — but this column is about the past, long before the first casinos arrived, and before the city started its pre-gambling decline in the late ‘60s. 

When I was a child, A.C. was THE place to vacation in summer, and my family did so every year. Asbury Park, Belmar, etc., were for daytrips. In A.C., you stayed at least a week. And the place we always stayed was the Seaside Hotel, at Pennsylvania Avenue and the Boardwalk, just around the corner from the Steel Pier (which was a lot bigger than it is now.) 

On my first visit to the pier, I met the “real” Elsie the Cow, which — if I remember correctly — the Borden Co. had housed in an indoor “barnyard.” I cannot recall if Elmer was there, no matter. The 5-year-old me was thrilled to meet a “celebrity.”

And then we went across the Boardwalk to the Planters store, where the “real” Mr. Peanut — complete with top hat, cane, white gloves and monocle — shook my hand. 

Days (except for time on the beach) and nights were spent on the Boardwalk. Most mornings began with my father and me riding rental bikes for miles to the north or south. (My mother had never learned to ride a bicycle.) At night, we would walk, visiting the numerous piers, going on the carnival rides, and just enjoying the beauty of the place. 

As I grew older, we’d bring one of my cousins to A.C. with us. This was at a time when kids were safe on their own, and we two pre-adolescents could explore the wonderland together. One afternoon, my cousin Janet and I went to the Steel Pier and wandered into what I guess you’d call a ballroom.  Large dance floor and a band up on stage. We walked right up to the footlights, and I found myself staring into the eyes, and trumpet, of Louis Armstrong.

Just more A.C. magic. 

If you check out ‘50s/’60s photos of the Boardwalk, you’ll notice that no one is walking around in a bathing suit. Swimwear was prohibited there; it was to be worn on the beach only. In fact, at the Seaside, you couldn’t even walk through the lobby in a bathing suit. There was a locker room for guests, with a special exit that led to a walkway under the Boardwalk to the beach.  

I recall, too, that at night (after 6 p.m.?), women were not allowed to wear shorts in the lobby, and men had to wear jacket and tie. Really. These were formalities to which no one objected. Can you imagine such rules today?  

As for Conway Twitty: When I was a pre-teen, he was a BIG star. Not as big as Elvis, but a celebrity all the same. And even more famous than Elsie the Cow. 

During one of our vacations, Twitty was that week’s star act at the Steel Pier. 

My cousin (this time it was Tricia) and I decided to stake out the stage door — although it was behind a locked gate and about 50 yards away down the pier. 

We perched on the Boardwalk railing, clutching our autograph books, and waited.

More A.C. wonder.

Within minutes, it seemed, there the singer was, accompanied by what we guessed was his manager.  We approached politely and asked for an autograph, to which Conway Twitty — THE Conway Twitty — replied in his Southern drawl: “Sure. But c’mon and walk with me awhile.” 


The manager unlocked the gate, and Tricia and I, on either side of the star, strolled with him all the way to the stage door. And I have no recollection whatsoever of the conversation. We got our autographs, he disappeared inside the pier and we remained stunned. 

I can still hear his voice. “C’mon and walk with me …” 

Oh, Atlantic City. What a magical place you were. 

(Note: For those of you who never heard of Conway Twitty, if you Google his picture, please specify the YOUNG Conway Twitty. You will see the heartthrob. Alas, like Atlantic City, age took its toll.)

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