9. The Boardwalk!
Image 1.9.1. The Asbury Park Boardwalk.
How can I describe the Boardwalk at Asbury Park? I'm not quite sure. I think, perhaps, we should feel it. Yes, feel it, smell it, hear it.
Picture this, if you please: a warm summer day - no, make that a hot and humid summer afternoon - midday domed by the vast but gentle soundings of an ocean that cuts the heat with crisp refreshment. You might not notice these elements - not exactly - but they're present, at work. Nor might you notice the white coconutty smell of sun-creams or the sweet pinkish scent of cotton candy that drifts into the darker festive pink of cooking hot dogs. At spots, the alabaster perfume of sugary confections brings to mind (perhaps without your knowing it) the moldings on a wedding cake or on some mansion in the neighboring town of Deal. Next comes the ride grease - the oil for mechanical amusements - faint and faintly darkish. Then ... what is it? There's another scent besides. How do we define it? Read on...
Along with the seamless voices and movement-sounds of strollers and bathers; the cries of joy or the occasional scream from a bouncy ride, the funny colors too of music and of bells from a shadowed gaming place, there wafts to your un-nosing notice the warm and gently toasty, woody, faintly salty sweetish warm-iron-on-cotton scent of ...? Of what? The aroma hovers ripplingly on the summer heat, ghosting up from the ash-colored stripes below. This is the creosote scent of the Boards.
What is this "noticing-without-noticing," this "realizing- without-realizing?" Did you grasp that "the white perfume of sugary confections" also contained the facade of an edifice in Paris (or anywhere else you may have seen a white building with elaborate moldings)? You've got to be fast - these worlds fly by at Einsteinian speed. Perceive them or don't, they are present - flaring to life inside you. This is the structure of aesthetic life, personal eternity in miniature.
But enough, reader! I wanted to prime you for later, when all of Asbury will unfold before your eyes - and soul!
Now ... here we are. Look at the ABOVE postcard once again (1.9.1) and then scroll back down to here. Did you notice that the photo was taken from an elevated position, looking north? It was snapped from the top of the Casino, the fanciful edifice that you see in the background of the following image.
Image 2.9.1 The Asbury Park Boardwalk and Casino.
This postcard shows only two-thirds of the Casino - a truly remarkable part of it is hidden behind the First Avenue Pavilion, the brick building at right. We will visit the Casino on the next page, but I wanted you to see the main stretch of the Boardwalk from both the north and south perspectives.
Image 2.9.2. The boardwalk, looking north again. Note the beached ship next to the Convention Hall. That was the Morro Castle, a well-known shipwreck. Click HERE to see closer views of the shipwreck and read a little more about it...
The Boardwalk hosted many businesses, several of which endured through the years. When my mother was a teenager, she used to work in Criterion candy shop, which was in the First Avenue Pavilion. It was a spanking clean scientific-looking place, all white, containing showcase after showcase of homemade candy: almond bark, butter crunch, caramel chunks, jelly rings, coconut flings, praline dings, marzipan things, chocolate blocks, and box after box of chocolate pretzels, chocolate mints, chocolate pops... I couldn't believe how many kinds of freshly made candy were on constant display in this spacious store. The key word, of course, was chocolate; but saltwater taffy was another reason to visit. You could buy it in boxes or tubs; or you could pick out what flavors you wanted from a carousel display and fill your own bucket. The Criterion hung on a long time, even after he Boardwalk became desolate. Remarkably, it was still spanking clean and its cases were still full. Today it exists as a much smaller shop outside town but maintains the quality that distinguished it in the past.
You could find saltwater taffy, jelly apples and caramel apples in several places on the boardwalk. As for other specialties, Kohr's frozen custard was a favorite stand. I remember their frothy orange drinks. The thought of standing at Kohr's counter on a busy summer day is a painfully beautiful memory: the shiny counter and those reflectively gleaming vats structured tall in the background like a landscape with castles. The pretty employees wore blue and white outfits and paper caps (I seem to recall). In my mind, these slim, well-scrubbed girls were at one with their larger environment.
Souvenirs were everywhere: Asbury Park ashtrays, dishes, wallets, calendars, backscratchers, salt and pepper shakers, potholders, pens, combs, snow domes, and many other kinds of items. Though mostly I recall the chintzy things, the town produced some fine articles. Collectors today prize items like Straffordshire china depicting the early pavilions, silver ashtrays, cranberry glass souvenir baskets and many other elegant products, often imported from Europe.
There were a couple of shops attached to the Casino, just outside the above photo. One of these was a shell shop. Every sort of seashell, exotic or banal, tiny or huge, was on display and for sale. I remember Uncle Danny and I would frequent the place. In particular, I recall our purchasing a puffy, palm-sized mollusk that we called a "Squirrel Shell." If my research is correct, it was an Eglantine Cowrie (Cypraea Eglantina), a type found in the Central Pacific, the Philippines, and Northern Australia. It was brown and tan with dark brown or black spots. I guess it reminded us of a squirrel (though I've never quite seen a squirrel like that). We would also buy bags of tiny, tiny nautilus type shells. They were not much bigger than the head of a pin. Like some candies, you bought them by weight. These shells were dyed, I think, because they came in neon colors. I recall a little white bag of iridescent green ones.
A few amusement rides bordered the Boardwalk in patches. These were mostly small attractions, children's rides - fire truck carousels, train rides, flying animal characters... different attractions at various times. A few adult amusements, such as the Tilt-a-Whirl and the Mixing Bowls, were also to be found. From the 1930s, miniature golf was big in Asbury. Two small courses graced the boardwalk (and a really fine one was a block away on one of the avenues).
Image 3.9.1. Miniature Golf on the Boardwalk.
A certain quiet magic arises from miniature golf: each hole is a little world unto itself, a brook here, a castle there. As you, golfer, become involved in the play, you interact with sections of the scenery while absorbing the broader "unengaged existence" of the rest of the course - as well as the wider world around you. While you plan your shot, the beautiful weather works on you without your knowing it - as do other "un-thought-of" things. Remember the Monte Carlo Pool? Remember the Monterey Hotel? You weren't thinking about them, were you? Nevertheless, they were there, in your time, enhancing your game of golf (or your reading of this) in an indescribable way.
I call the recognition (and fact) of this layered existence "World" (with a capital "W"). What I have presented above is the bare minimum. Vaster elements can be present in this condition. We will have to wait and see what happens...
Did I mention the pool? No, not the Monte Carlo or the Seventh Avenue pool. I mean the indoor one on the Boardwalk. At one time, into the '50s, there was a pool on the Boardwalk. This was the NATATORIUM. You might want to click on its colored name here, go in and take a dip. I've heard that the place smelled heavily of chlorine.
Throughout the years, the Boardwalk (and the beachfront in general) hosted recurring festivals and parades, such as the Easter Parade, the Sea Queen Contest, Firemen's Parade and many other events. The biggest and oldest was the annual Baby Parade. First staged in 1890, the spectacle was all about children and motherhood (with Shakespearean elements later included). Dolled up in colorfully inventive costumes, mothers by their side, the little ones would march or be pushed in their strollers the length of the Boardwalk and red-carpeted Ocean Avenue. Thousands watched and listened as Arthur Pryor (Asbury Park's world-famous bandmaster) conducted his orchestra and the children passed in review before the many categories of judges. Prizes would later be awarded for subject, theme, originality, costume, costume of attendant, time and labor expended, color and effect.
Image 4.9.1. Scene from an early Baby Parade.
The Baby Parade reached the point where it could be called one of the world's leading resort attractions. It grew into a magical three-day Children's Carnival within a framework loosely drawn from a A Midsummer Night's Dream. Official proclamations, hotel receptions - attended by court officers, royal horsemen and trumpeters - all played a part. A high school girl would be crowned Titania, Queen of the Fairies. She met and greeted the officials of the parade at the "Coleman Palace" (the old Coleman House Hotel); she and her attendants would view the parade from her Court erected opposite the grandstands and bestow the prizes amidst more pageantry at old Educational Hall. The Asbury Park Press would dedicate its entire first page to the festivities with stunning photographs and artful, pomp-filled pronouncements. On separate occasions, Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrew Wilson were present at the parade. Click HERE for a few more Baby Parade images.
The year 1949 saw the last official Baby Parade. A version of it reappeared in 1973 and lasted till 1981. Later attempts to revive it never got off the ground.
There is much more to the Asbury Park Boardwalk, such as Madam Marie (a fortune teller, who had a booth on the boardwalk for decades) and the wonderful decks atop of avenue pavilions. (Click HERE for a few more photos). If you are personally familiar with the Boardwalk, you'll recall features I haven't mentioned and probably things I don't remember. What everyone knows is that exquisite sense of "being somewhere." How wonderful it was to grow up in this town. Whether we thought about it or not, the Boardwalk (and everything else) was always present, creating a sense of kingdom in us. It would stay with us forever.
Now let's have a closer look at the other great Boardwalk building - the incredible, otherworldly Casino!