Steel Pier history from the archives

Writing a Two Way Hard Three post about today’s announcement about the possible sale of Steel Pier, I wanted to link to an Atlantic City history column I dimly remembered having written years earlier. Since the issue of Casino Connection it originally ran in (May 2004) isn’t available online, I’m going to reproduce it here as a resource for others:

Keep in mind this was written seven years ago, so the references to current events might not sound so current…

From Boxing Cats to Bumper Cars: A History of Steel Pier
David G. Schwartz
Originally published in Casino Connection, May 2004

Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, jutting into the waves at Pennsylvania Avenue, is currently a thriving amusement pier. Most local residents know that the pier has a long history, but few know exactly how long and storied that history is. Encompassing everything from world-class entertainment to boxing cats and the famous diving horse, Steel Pier merits more than a chapter of Atlantic City’s history—it deserves a book of its own.

Designed by Philadelphia architect John Windram and built by Atlantic City contractor Frank Souder, Steel Pier opened on June 18, 1898. On its first day, the pier opened for “free public inspection” at 9 AM, after which the public was treated to alternating concerts by the First Regiment Band and the Hungarian Orchestra. An address by “prominent men” and another performance by the First Regiment Band closed the day’s festivities.

For its first several years, military bands were a popular part of the piers entertainment. The nation’s top bandleaders, including John Phillip Sousa, made Steel Pier a regular stop on their tours. In addition to martial and orchestral music, the pier also featured dance bands and a seal tank with twice-daily feedings. In time, animal acts would become a major attraction at the pier.

In 1924, a fire damaged the pier’s entrance, and as part of the renovation its open arcade was converted into exhibition space. Atlantic City’s piers would gain reputations as not only entertainment centers, but as exhibition halls where companies from around the world demonstrated their latest products to a national audience. As Atlantic City truly was America’s playground in this time before national television, this was one of the best forums for companies to show their wares to a mass public.

In 1926, when local real estate man Frank Gravatt acquired the pier, he brought many innovations, including the opening of the Marine Studio for then-municipal radio station WPG, and the expansion of exhibit space to 20,000 feet. General Motors moved into this new space, and maintained a presence on the pier until 1968. Gravatt, in a move that casinos would later copy, gave his visitors a little of everything, from opera to big bands, as well as celebrities of the moment like Gertrude Erdele, who in 1926 was famous for having swum the English Channel.

Under Gravatt’s leadership, the pier became famous for its entertainment. Superstars like Bob Hope, Al Jolson, Benny Goodman, and the Dorsey Brothers appeared during that decade. Although Frank Sinatra was not impressive in his 1939 Steel Pier debut with the Harry James Orchestra, he would eventually become an Atlantic City favorite, performing for years at Skinny D’Amato’s 500 Club.

But Steel Pier also garnered a reputation for its animal acts. The most famous, of course, was the Diving Horse. Wild West showman Dr. W. F. Carver originated the stunt, in which he and a horse jumped from a forty-foot tower, and his daughter Lorena inaugurated a tradition of young women riding the plunging equine into the ocean. The Diving Horse became an indelible icon of Atlantic City, and remains to this day a symbol of the city’s past glory. Circus acts, including high-rise acrobats and daredevil motorcyclists, delighted crowds for decades.
Other animal acts are less well known today but no less popular in their day. During the 1930s, Steel Pier hosted a variety of spectacles, including a dancing tiger, who tangoed with Captain Roman Proske to the accompaniment of a dance band; a dog riding a surfboard; Professor Nelson’s Boxing Cats (a pair of unfortunate felines outfitted with harnesses and boxing gloves); performing chimpanzees; a boxing kangaroo; Rex, the water-skiing Wonder Dog; and, perhaps a foreshadowing of Atlantic City’s later emergence as the casino capital of the East, a group of card-playing cats.

The fascination with animals passed (leaving behind only the Diving Horse), but Steel Pier solidified its reputation as an entertainment mecca under the ownership of George Hamid, who bought the pier in 1945. Hamid brought the stars of the Fifties and Sixties to the pier, and he continued to promote the property as the Showplace of the Nation. Locals may remember Tony Grant’s children’s revue, which continued into the 1970s.

But by the 1960s, the pier, along with the rest of Atlantic City, was in the midst of a decline. A 1969 fire destroyed about a third of the pier’s structure, and it limped along for the next decade. A 1982 fire seemed to spell the end for the pier. Steel Pier was a part of the Taj Mahal’s design early on, but when the casino finally opened in 1990, the bridge connecting the pier to the casino was (and remains) vacant.

Still, in 1993, the pier resumed operation as an amusement park, and it is going strong today, proof that casino gaming and Atlantic City’s entertainment heritage are quite compatible.