Growing Up in Wildwood. . . It was the best of All worlds!

by Dave Neff

I was born August 11, 1941 in a 2-bedroom bungalow at 116 W. Poplar Ave., in Wildwood, and have lived and worked here ever since. Growing up in Wildwood during the 40s and 50s was wonderful. It was the best of all worlds! We had the beach, boardwalk, bay, summer friends, winter friends, and lots of opportunities for young people to earn spending money. We collected used magazines, newspapers and various kinds of junk metal and pulled it in our wagons to Snyder’s Junk Yard about a mile away on W. Montgomery Ave. to earn a few dimes, or perhaps a quarter if you were lucky enough to have some copper or brass. We mowed lawns, washed windows, shoveled snow, shined shoes, turned in deposit bottles, checked phone booth coin returns, ran errands for neighbors, and for a time, I filled and carried coal buckets in and out every day for a neighbor during the heating season. We did anything we could do to earn some spending money, inasmuch as most of us got little or no allowance. In those days if you wanted something you had to earn enough money to buy it. 

At 12, we were old enough to get a newspaper route. When school let out, I got a Phila. Evening Bulletin route. My older brother already had a route and had proven to Jack Campbell, the man in charge of assigning routes and supplying the newspapers, that he was honest and reliable, so he took a chance on me. At 14, my brother obtained ‘working papers’ and got a ‘real’ summer job, so I took over his route along with my own. A few months later a neighborhood friend gave up his route and I took on that one as well, making it three Evening Bulletin routes from 26th to Pine Ave., from New Jersey Ave. to the Bay, which I worked until the summer I turned 15. I had obtained working papers the previous summer, but only worked five mornings a week at Morton’s Restaurant on Wildwood Ave. before delivering the Bulletin in the afternoons. Morton’s some years later became the Alton Motel and The English Grill. The following two summers, 1956 and 1957, I worked at the famous GROFF’S. At 17, I graduated from Wildwood High in 1958. 

Dick Clark replaced Bob Horn for the teen dance program, Bandstand, on a Philadelphia TV station and during the summer of 1957 on most nights, Clark would travel to Wildwood to host it at the Starlight Ballroom. ABC TV picked up Clark’s show, renamed it American Bandstand, and as stated in Wikipedia, “the first national broadcast of American Bandstand was filmed in the Starlight Ballroom in Wildwood, NJ” on August 5, 1957. It was a big deal! 

There were two other record hops in Wildwood. One was at the roller rink on the 2nd floor of a building at the west end of the Casino Arcade at Cedar and Atlantic Aves. The other, was a much lesser known record hop in the auditorium of the OLD Wildwood Convention Hall which was located on the ocean side of the Boardwalk between Spencer and Youngs Ave., which is now the location of Morey’s Adventure Pier. That record hop was hosted by me and my friend, Louie Conley. Well, not exactly ‘hosted’, but we sat on the stage, spun the ‘top 40’ records, and took requests. 

1957 was the summer of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis, and that little known enterprise was a venture, or I should say mis-adventure, taken by my father and a good friend of his, Ed Norris, who was an electrician in Wildwood Crest and an expert in sound systems and lighting. The sound system Ed installed was amazing, and he had somehow wired hundreds of small lights which hung down above the dancers’ heads. They looked like stars in a night.

It was my understanding that a fellow named Turc Duncan, a longtime wrestling promoter, had for many years leased the hall for his Saturday night wrestling matches, which were quite popular at the time, leaving the auditorium empty the other six nights. When my father and Ed Norris leased those other six nights a week they had no knowledge of the formidable competition they would be facing that particular year. We couldn’t operate our record hop on Saturday nights, the busiest night of the week because of the wrestling matches. Nevertheless, Sunday thru Friday nights we averaged at least 100 persons, but, in that cavernous space, didn’t look like much more than a small gathering. But the kids that came loved it, and most kept coming back night after night. The record hop that summer was a financial bust, but the venture was saved from being a total loss by the one-night appearance of Bill Haley and his Comets. How my father and Ed Norris secured that booking I’ll never know, as I had never asked, but if I were to speculate, I would think Turc Duncan most likely had something to do with it, he was, after all, a promoter. Bill Haley and his Comets “Rock Around the Clock” became the biggest selling rock and roll single in the history of the genre and retained that position for many years. Bill Haley and his Comets were at the height of their popularity in 1957 and for that one night, the place was packed! Ticket sales paid the act and our concession stand sales provided a small profit for the night and for the summer. My father and Ed Norris took on a second location which they operated over the summers of 1957 and 1958 in Cape May City in a unique building on Beach Drive which in the early 1950s had been occupied by the Cape May County Art League. When I tried to find any record of it for this writing, while I failed to do so, I found similar buildings that have been preserved in other locations and learned that they were built to house merry-go-rounds.  Perhaps that is what it had been built for in Cape May. That Cape May dance location, although much smaller, being the only record hop in town, did much better than the Wildwood location, which ended with the 1957 season. 

The summer of 1958, having graduated high school, taken on a full-time job, and with no record spinning duties, ironically, I spent most nights at the Starlight Ballroom. Dick Clark had become a HUGE national personality and therefore in 1958 he would appear at the Starlight Ballroom only sporadically on weekend nights. No matter, on one fine Wildwood summer night I met and danced with a beautiful girl. Her name was Rhoda and she was there with several of her girlfriends from Wildwood Crest.  Our first dance was to the Tommy Edwards hit “It’s All in The Game”.  A few weeks later she became my steady girl, and three and a half years later, she became my wife. In January 2022 we celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary and are enormously proud of our two children, David & Lauren, and our five grandchildren.   Thank you, Wildwood, NJ for a truly wonderful life ….. so far.

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