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Growing Up on the Pier

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue of Cape May Magazine. Bob Elwell, who served as mayor three times from 1990 to 2000, grew up in Cape May and spent many hours on the Boardwalk at Convention Hall.

Convention Hall facade, 1929.

Convention Hall facade, 1929.

Like every other boy I knew, none of us could ever wait for summer to arrive. A lot of us had the same ideas – no school, play all day with friends, go to the beach, see friends arrive from summers past, etc. But for me there was one extra thing that I looked forward to in the summer. It was going to the Pier in the evening and hanging out with the summer crowd of friends I had built relationships with from past summers. Growing up in the summer, my evenings would be spent on the Pier. The Pier was really what would be later called Convention Hall. But to the crowd that I palled around with and many other Cape May locals, it was called “the Pier.”

Convention Hall facade, 1960. Photograph courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Convention Hall facade, 1960. Photograph courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Cape May City only ever had one stately municipal building and that was without question the original structure that would be referred to as “the Pier” or “Convention Hall.” At the turn of the 20th century, Cape May was truly the Queen of the Summer Resorts. To maintain its stature, in 1917 Mayor W. C. Stevens called a town meeting to discuss the building of a convention hall. His purpose was to get the opinion of the Cape May citizens about the idea of building a convention hall and music pavilion to be built on the ocean side of Beach Avenue, opposite the old Stockton Hotel which was torn down in 1910, now the site of the Beach Theatre. The idea for the new municipal improvement won unanimous approval. The City Commission received plans in February from Sherman S. Sharp. The price tag for construction of the building was $100,000. It was dedicated on July Fourth. Convention Hall quickly became the center of Cape May’s activities during the summer seasons. It was Cape May’s greatest building.

This 1917 Convention Hall was really a complex. It stood two stories high, for the most part, except for the ballroom portion, which extended out over the ocean surf. The facade along the boardwalk was even higher than two stories with three rounded type pyramids, the highest one extending over the massive central arcade entrance. From this prominent point, a flag pole was erected and the American flag flew every day in the summer.

Postcard with Convention Hall's dance floor. Courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Postcard featuring the old Convention Hall’s dance floor. Courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

If you stood in front of the arcade, it appeared to be a tunnel. This high tunnel led you back to the ballroom, which of course contained the dance floor, a stage at the ocean end and chairs lined up against the walls. At the front of the complex, and east of the arcade on the boardwalk, was Albed’s Fine Linens and Oriental Rugs, which remained there until the ’62 storm. I well remember Mr. Albed and his son Ray working in the store as I walked past it.

The next thing you would come to, while walking east, was Hunt’s Movie Theatre. However, when the new Hunt’s Beach Theatre was built, the theater was moved across the street. The Tennenbaum family filled the old movie location with what was called “Fun Land” which had skee-ball, pinball machines, poker-rina, etc. and other games and amusements.

Angling from the pier. Postcard courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Angling from the pier. Postcard courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Going back to the center of Cape May’s greatest building and going west from the arcade you would start with Bud McAdams’ Luncheonette. Here you could buy just about anything you needed on a vacation. There was a soda fountain and some booths for seating. A quick sandwich and a soda and you were on your way to the beach. Dolly Madison ice cream was sold there and you could take an ice cream cone with you. Those who came unprepared for the beach could get everything –suntan lotion to t-shirts, swim goggles and fins, or any other beach products you might need. At one time a lady named “Gracie” was on the grill to serve you an extra fast hot dog and soda out of the front window onto the boardwalk. My brother, Lou, worked for Bud and I think it may have been one of his first real jobs! Jean Strickland was the store manager for a time. Bud McAdams, who followed the sun, had been captain of the Cape May Beach Patrol when my father was a lieutenant. He remained a friend of the family. Bud would go to Florida in the winter and he became friends with Ester Williams!

Interior of the new Convention Hall. Postcard courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Interior of the new Convention Hall. Postcard courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

The first store west of Convention Hall was Albed’s Dress Shop which was run by Mrs. Albed and her daughter, Laurice. Laurice still comes to Cape May every summer and opens up their home on Gurney Street. She has been coming to Cape May so long that she considers Cape May her home. The next stop on the west corner of the complex was Dan Rickers, and the store was called just that – Rickers. Mr. Rickers sold Cape May diamonds, knick knacks, souvenirs, post cards, shells, and much more, but those are what stands out in my mind. At the ocean end of his store he too had a skee ball set up. Skee ball is a game where you would roll balls down an alley into different holes at the end that had different values. You would receive tickets based on your score which could be collected and redeemed for prizes. In my mental picture, Mr. Ricker always has a cigar in his mouth and his glasses are worn on the lower end of his nose.

Going back into the arcade to go to the ballroom, you would be instantly hit with the wonderful aroma of popcorn coming from Lehman’s Popcorn Stand on the left side. This was really a family operation, with Mr. Lehman in charge and his son Herb and daughter Kay putting out salted popcorn in cone-shaped holders. For bigger portions you could get boxes. The caramel sugar coated popcorn only came in boxes. In my early years, I don’t remember anyone who came to Cape May who did not make at least one visit to Lehman’s for some popcorn. To this day, I have never tasted better popcorn.

The old Convention Hall.

The old Convention Hall.

Continuing past Lehman’s to make your way back to the ballroom you would go past the watchman’s office. I guess fire regulations required him to be there. His name was Jess Matchner. He lived on Washington Street and he knew everybody and their families. The Convention Hall police officer was Jim Ewing, whose sole beat was the Pier complex. By today’s standards, Jim would be called a rent-a-cop. Jim’s daytime job was at the Northwest Magnesite Company, but in the summer he worked the Pier at night, seven days a week keeping things under control. All the kids knew there was no running, cursing, or any other messing around or you were off the boardwalk! He demanded respect and he got it. I often think I would like to see him come together with today’s kids. He had no portable radio and, as a kid, I thought the gun that he hung on his side was the biggest artillery piece one could carry.

However, the real anchor was the main ballroom at the Pier. Many activities took place there during the summer. There was free dancing every night except Sundays, when community worship took place, followed by a concert. Stars of the Metropolitan Opera Company performed many of the concerts. here was always good orchestra music. In the 1930s Charles Kerr directed the orchestra. In 1947 Bill Bove, who had been with Kerr for ten years, became director until 1961. Bill played the piano, and I remember the members of the orchestra well since I palled around with the Taylor twins, Bob and Don. Their dad Art played the trumpet in the orchestra. We would earn a quarter a week for opening and closing the stage curtains and for carrying the music books up and down and to and from the dressing room.

Aerial view of the old Convention Hall

Aerial view of the old Convention Hall

Of course who could ever forget Ludy Love and his violin, and there was Walter Luck, Sr. on the bass fiddle who always put a little humor into the music through his actions. Jim Smith was the stage manager, and if the gentlemen did not have the proper attire (suit jacket) he would tap them on the shoulder and ask them to leave the dance floor. In those days, people dressed up in the evening when going to the boardwalk

A night at the Pier went something like this….At 8 p.m. the doors opened. All the regulars were waiting to get their “regular” seat. My grandmother was one of the regulars! At 9 p.m. the children danced for about 15 minutes. Then the adults danced until 11:30 p.m. There were special activities every night except Saturday. Monday was the waltz contest, Tuesday was the statue dance, and Wednesday was the amateur talent night. Two of the locals I remember were Bud Cohen and Ray Velli. Both had great Cape May-born voices and were always the hometown favorites. Thursday night was a partners’ dance where the ladies would line up and toss a shoe and the men, when told, would scramble to get the shoe of the lady they wanted to dance with. On Friday night Jerry Love Barber had her kiddie dance shows. My sister Dorothy danced on the Pier with Jerry for many years. At the end of the season there was the Queen Maysea Coronation which was also directed by Jerry Barber. My sister was a Queen Maysea as well as my daughter Beth. The Queen Maysea coronation was always a sellout and tickets started selling two weeks prior to the event.

Opening ceremonies for the new Convention Hall, 1966.

Opening ceremonies for the new Convention Hall, 1966.

September always came too soon for the regulars at the Pier. It meant a lot of “good-byes.” Bill Bove and the orchestra always played Auld Lang Syne and Till We Meet Again. Nobody ever suspected that September 1961 would be for the last time. March 6 through March 8, 1962 a Nor’easter destroyed most of the ballroom at the back of the Pier that extended over the water. The rest of the structure was torn down, even though many people thought the front should have been saved and the ballroom rebuilt, much like they did after the 1944 hurricane. The old Convention Hall Pier was a real loss to the Cape May. It was hard for many people, including visitors who had come to Cape May for many years, to lose such an old friend.

That is the way it was during a normal summer in Cape May for many years and for my entire childhood. Many of the newcomers to Cape May since 1962 do not realize that the old Convention Hall remained part of the townspeople’s lives even in the winter. Much of my social life in my teen years was around the high school activities. The old Pier or Convention Hall was used for the Cape May High School auditorium where they played all their basketball games. Come the end of the school year the Hall was used for Baccalaureate and graduation ceremonies. I graduated there in 1960. Other things that occurred there in the spring and fall were flower shows, Boy Scout scout-a-ramas, art shows, antique shows, and really anything you could just about think of. On the second floor over the stores there were meeting rooms. These were used by various groups such as the Boy Scouts, Chamber of Commerce, etc. Also from that area there was a balcony that overlooked the dance floor.

The new Convention Hall

The new Convention Hall

But the March ’62 storm brought all activities at the Pier to a halt. The Cape May beachfront had been shattered by the three-day Nor’easter. The city administration had to make decisions, which they did. The decision was to tear down the 1917 complex and build a new Convention Hall to hold 2000 people with a fully curtained stage, permanent sound system, and ample seating to accommodate the largest and smallest of meetings, programs, and activities. On May 28, 1966 the opening ceremonies for the new Convention Hall, which was built of steel and pre-cast concrete, “designed to withstand the mightiest forces of nature”, was dedicated at an opening ceremony. Mayor Frank A. Gauvry, Councilman W. Harry Reeves, Councilman Leland C. Sharp, and the Honorable John D. (Doug) Jones, Councilman retired, along with City Manager David Teel, took part in the official ribbon cutting ceremony. The new hall opened for inspection. That evening Mayor Gauvry gave the grand opening remarks and a concert by the Victorian Village Chorus, directed by Andreas Kelly and accompanied by Dante Symphonette, of Philadelphia followed. Next came dancing with music from the Mariner’s Orchestra, arranged by the city’s Special Events Director Ludy Love.

Fishing off of the pier. Postcard courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

Fishing off of the pier. Postcard courtesy Robert W. Elwell, Sr.

The existing Convention Hall was actually built by a city work force with public works superintendent Malcolm (Spatz) McDuell in charge of the project. Some phases of the work were contracted out. Pre-cast concrete was in its hay-day at the time and was the material of choice. This was laid on clusters of pilings which were jetted into the sand. Steel was erected and the roof was also made of pre-cast beams. Although there were several times when repairs were made to the back of the building during its lifetime, there was never any serious interior damage that could be found. Even today as its stands, condemned for public use, there is not one stress crack which is usually the first sign of a problem in a building. Over its lifetime, the existing Convention Hall was used for many different things during the summer and winter. In the summer it was used for the normal dancing, craft and antique shows, etc. In the winter it was used as a recreation hall for roller skating. At times, the high school used it to hold their Junior/Senior proms. Again, 44 years later, the city administration will have to make a decision on how to move forward as the existing Convention Hall sits empty. In the near future, we hope a new Convention Hall will raise up and be the centerpiece for the beachfront and a hub for the businesses around it once again.

For more on Convention Hall, read Remembering the “new” Convention Hall by Cape May City Mayor Frank Gauvry.