High Tide

The CapeMay.com blog

Doo Wop in living color

I crossed the bridge into Wildwood one warm summer night, and took a trip down Memory Lane. There I met Mr. Earl (they often call him Speedo), the Duke of Earl, and Antny Fonzarelli (I’m guessing he’s the Fonz’s cousin, but I didn’t see Laverne or Shirley). Bobby Rydell was there, as was the Yankee Clipper, the Jolly Roger, and of course, Joey Boombatz.

Oh, it was a scene, man. Let me explain.

The Starlux Motel. Photo by Sharon Stabley

What I actually did was cruise into Wildwood with my father-in-law. Together we soaked up the Doo Wop – that “brash, bold and boastful spirit” that permeates the city’s architecture and character. We hung around the Doo Wop Museum, took the Doo Wop bus tour and generally had a splendid time rediscovering Wildwood, learning about Doo Wop architecture, and reliving great summer memories.

“Oh man… I was the pool boy at the Manor Supper Club one summer in the 60s,” said Joe Pinto, a.k.a my father-in-law. “They attracted some of the top acts of the time. I remember they had a burlesque show. All the showgirls would come out and sit by the pool. Best summer of my life.”

Everybody has Wildwood stories. Our entire Doo Wop experience was framed by neon signs, one-of-a-kind motels, Zaberized cocktails and set to a soundtrack that included Bobby Rydell’s Wildwood Days “Every day’s a holiday and every night’s a Saturday night,” and my father-in-law crooning some Sinatra.

If all this sounds a little confusing, well, you’ll have to experience it yourself. A warm summer evening in Wildwood with people who adore the island – it’s better than a matinee showing of Marlon Brando in The Wild Bunch. And what sets Wildwood apart from every other Jersey Shore town – nay from any town anywhere in America – is Doo Wop. Specifically Doo Wop architecture.

Pink Cadillac Diner

Doo Wop, for the uninitiated, is a style of music from the 1950s and ’60s that reached its peak before the British invasion of the mid-1960s. Doo Wop is known for its group harmonies, simple beats and lyrics, and minimal instrumentation. In the Still of the Night, recorded in 1956 by The Five Satins, is a prime example, as is Get a Job, recorded in 1958 by The Silhouettes. I remember Jack’s Place in Avalon used to have an open mic night and we always threatened to sing some kind of Doo Wop song… but we never did. Anyway.

But Doo Wop is also a type of architecture and, as the people of Five Mile Island discovered several years ago, Wildwood is brimming with the Doo Wop vibe.

“Initially, there was a group of about six of us that got together in 1996,” said Ed MacElrevey, president of the Doo Wop Preservation League. “Jack Morey had an architect, Steve Izenour, who was designing new fronts for the Boardwalk. Steve had done a lot of resort work – Las Vegas, Miami Beach – and Steve said, ‘You have a real prize here; all these mid-century, Doo Wop motels and buildings. Disney would die for this. You should do something to preserve them.’ ”

White Star Motel

And so was born the Doo Wop Preservation League (DWPL), with the goal of expanding awareness of the Wildwood time capsule, educating the public about these unique resources, and preserving these mid-20th century cultural assets.

“The University of Pennsylvania, Yale and Kent State took an interest in this architecture,” said Dan. “One summer they sent their architecture students for a workshop and they inventoried all the properties – 150 or so – that fell into the category. These buildings were designed by several, mostly local, architects and contractors. A lot of them were done by Lou and Will Morey. They had traveled to South Beach and they brought that style here in the 50s and 60s. The zaniness of the design is what they wanted to preserve. It just kind of got a life of its own after that.”

Doo Wop (technically, the style is known as Googie, and is sometimes known as Populuxe) rose from the ashes of World War II. The great world war was over, America was riding an industrial high, people were getting married, buying cars, moving to the suburbs and driving the newly opened Garden State Parkway to vacation “down the shore.”

“After the war, GIs had their families, their week vacation and their automobiles,” said Tony the Tour Guide, our Doo Wop instructor for the evening. “Where’d they go? Down the Shore. And you could park your car right outside your room at the motels. There are four main categories or themes you’ll see with Doo Wop: beach, geography, name combinations and way out.”

Coastal Broadcasting. Photo by Sharon Stabley

Yes, Americans had some extra scratch in their pockets and some time on their hands after the war. And the Space Age was all the rage. Space-age designs depicting motion – things like boomerangs, flying saucers, atoms and parabolas, and the ever-popular artist’s palette were a part of the motif. These stylistic conventions reflected American society’s emphasis on futuristic designs and fascination with Atomic Age themes.

“The seashore architecture of the era reflected the spirit of the people – brash, bold and boastful,” states the definitive Doo Wop book: How to Doo Wop; Wildwoods-by-the-Sea-Handbook of Design Guidelines which was published by the DWPL. The book explains the hallmarks of the design style. “The motels, diners, gas stations, even offices, represented a varied and exaggerated spectacle of designs. Angular elements, space age imagery, tropical themes and colors with spectacular signage cranked up the volume even more.”

Lots and lots of neon, steel, wavy rooflines, bold colors, plastic palm trees, odd shapes – it all reflected America’s giddy relief and heady confidence after the lean times of World War II.

“It was like a national psychic release,” said Tony the Tour Guide.

The Caribbean Motel, the first 1950s-era motel to be listed with Historic Hotels of America. Photo courtesy of the Caribbean Motel

In Wildwood, the best examples of Doo Wop architecture are the motels.

“In the mid-90s Steve Izenour saw this group of hotels from the ‘50s – it was like walking into a time bubble,” said Richard Stokes, a Philadelphia architect who helped bring Doo Wop into the 21st century. “Izenour co-wrote a book entitled Learning from Las Vegas with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Izenour got the town to look at this wonderful collection and realize the importance of what it had.”
Until I took the bus tour, I never realized how significant some of the buildings are in Wildwood. They represent an important piece of the American timeline, and they almost disappeared. Tony estimated that half of the Doo Wop hotels in town were torn down before efforts to preserve them started paying off.

“We wanted to see the designs and the feeling survive,” said MacElrevey. “That was a lifestyle unique to the period – very family oriented. It was a very nice time in the country and Wildwood exemplifies that. And all three city governments have been very supportive, the business community has been very supportive.”

Photo courtesy of the Caribbean Motel

Several factors made Doo Wop buildings susceptible to the wrecking ball, including escalating real estate prices several years ago, and high prices for maintenance. All of the Doo Wop motels were privately owned and simple economics made tearing them down and replacing them with modern condos the way to go. But the real estate market quickly cooled (can you say “Recession?”), so there was room to maneuver and slow the destruction of these gems.

“The feeling of Doo Wop is still spreading through the city,” said MacElrevey. “There are advantages to maintaining Doo Wop buildings. There are some special rules to help. We have Wildwood Rules in place. The state recognizes that if you want to maintain the building, then people can’t meet all the new regulations. If you have a Doo Wop property, and maintain the style, you can add a floor; you don’t need two parking spaces for every unit, things like that.”

The Doo Wop experience is part museum, part living history tour, and a whole lot of fun, especially for baby-boomers (or anyone who’s ever been to Wildwood, really). The museum part is pretty cool and is housed in an old Wildwood diner that was slated for demolition.

“I was the architect on the Doo Wop museum, which was formerly the Surfside Diner,” said Stokes. “It was a building that was moved from further down Ocean Avenue. We saved the pieces and rebuilt it across form the Convention Center. It was a new use, but it maintained the look of the 1960s diner.”

Inside are artifacts from the post-war era, including an electric-blue pincushion couch that looks like it once belonged on the set of I Dream of Jeannie. Its beauty transported one observer into a retro-fashion-induced stupor that had her repeating over and over, “I must have that couch. I must have that couch.

Laura’s Fudge embraces neon

“This Doo Wop architecture is what differentiates Wildwood from the rest of the Jersey Shore,” said Dan. “MAC [The Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts] in Cape May was very helpful, especially in our early years. The whole thing is a real community effort.”

The Doo Wop bus tour is a large dose of Peterman Reality Tour (it’s a Seinfeld thing…Lomez’s place of worship is on the right over here) liberally sprinkled with the Wildwood memories of everyone on board, especially my father-in-law, Joe “Joeyboombatz” Pinto. Dad, as I call him, is straight out of South Philly and spent every summer of his childhood in Wildwood. We talked about the old days as we cruised around the town.

“I spent every summer in Wildwood for 16 years – from the day school ended. It was the greatest,” he said. “My family bought a house in 1949 for $3,000 and sold it in 1966 for $15,000. It’s still there.”

Sahara Motel

I could see the memories playing through his eyes as we passed various street corners along the way (The Doo Wop District is primarily bounded by Atlanta Avenue to the south, Atlantic to the west, Morning Glory Road to the north and Beach Avenue to the east).

“How come they didn’t mention the Manor Supper Club,” he said to me as we passed by 24th Street on Surf Avenue. “Manor Supper Club was a big thing in North Wildwood. In the ‘50s and ‘60s they had big acts: Jerry Lewis, I think they had Tony Bennett too.”

What I didn’t know was that Wildwood (more accurately “the Wildwoods” which covers Wildwood, North Wildwood and Wildwood Crest – all separate municipalities) was a real player back in the day, hosting major league talent.

“I was still a kid,” said Joe. “But I saw Gary U.S. Bonds at the Starlight Ballroom. I saw Bill Haley at the Starlight Ballroom in the early ‘60s.”

The Lollipop Motel. Photo courtesy Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement & Development Authority

Move over Cleveland – Rock and Roll was born in Wildwood! Legend has it that Bill Haley and the Comets first performed Rock Around the Clock at the HofBrau Hotel. Chubby Checker first did The Twist at the Rainbow Club. Tony Bennett played in Wildwood – the list goes on.
“My dad had a Doo Wop car – a 1962 pink and white Oldsmobile. He was a stylish guy. We never had a telephone till maybe ’62. Maybe ‘63 we got a TV. We didn’t need it. I spent my days selling the Daily News and fishing. But we had a radio so I could listen to the Phillies. Zaberer’s was a great place to eat; it was the place to go. We’d go once a year. The lines would be three blocks long. Labor Day was horrible because I had to go home.”

These days, Wildwood hopes to inspire its future with visions from its past – especially in the Doo Wop Historic District. The aim is to maintain the overall unifying character and image for the entire community – to preserve the unique architecture and ensure that this special identity is preserved and celebrated. And if you doubt their intentions, drive down Rio Grande Avenue and look around. The Harley Davidson dealership is in the Doo Wop style, Subway sandwiches – even the Wawa looks like the Jetsons might live there.

Bird of Paradise Motel. Photo by Sharon Stabley

“Our long range plan for Pacific Avenue is with Doo Wop. The zany designs and colors, but the inside is all modern. That fits what we like to do,” said Dan.

The Starlux Boutique Hotel and the Shalimar Resort Hotel are prime examples of the new Doo Wop direction, Nuevo Doo Wop if you will (I just made that up if you’re wondering). It’s still Doo Wop, it just has WiFi.

“We were the architects for the Starlux [Boutique Hotel], which was completed in 2000 and the Shalimar in ’04,” said Stokes. “We did the Starlux as a demonstration project to show hotel owners what could be done with an existing hotel. It was previously called the Wingate, but it wasn’t that ‘Doo Wop-y.’ We were able to turn that into a good example of what Doo Wop could be in the 21st century. We added two stories to the existing three stories and a new wing on the end [with a coffee bar, game room, all glass lobby, and WiFi] – amenities that brought it up to 21st century standards.”

My heart always gets a-flutter whenever I head into Wildwood. Even in my youth, when our mode of transport was a bright green 1964 Mercury Comet, I’d have butterflies from the moment we crossed the Tacony Palmyra Bridge, near Philadelphia, until a few days after we returned home. Wildwood was always an exciting place where anything could happen. As opposed to say, Stone Harbor, which is a fabulous place in its own right, just, you know, not Wildwood.

Mr. D’s. Photo by Sharon Stabley

“People can come down here and escape. And enjoy what Wildwood has always been famous for,” said Dan. “Many of our events reflect the Doo Wop too, the ‘50s and ‘60s concerts – there’s a lot to do.”

I admit I abandoned Wildwood for many years – I had just outgrown the old gal. But the Doo Wop experience gave me a new-found appreciation for Five Mile Island, and I left town that evening with a fresh perspective, and yes, perhaps a song in my heart.

“Duke Duke Duke, Duke of Earl, Duke Duke Duke of Earl…”

This article originally appeared in the June 2009 issue of Cape May Magazine.