MARGATE — Allen Pergament, better known as Boo, takes a map of the old Steel Pier with him everywhere he goes. Because the map is in his mind.
Pergament can lead a tour of the place as it was when he was going as a kid, starting almost 70 years ago.
“On the way out,” he says, seeing the route from the Boardwalk back over the ocean as he speaks, visitors would pass glass enclosures known as the Promenade, which housed “exotic birds and animals. Monkeys, macaws ... And at the end of that was the stall where they kept the Diving Horses.”
He keeps going in his memory, farther back still. “You get to the end, and there’s the Diving Bell,” Pergament says, describing a signature attraction that drew lines of customers eager to pay for a trip from The Pier straight down — to the ocean floor and back. “And you know what you saw down there? Mud.”
But Pergament, who grew up in Atlantic City’s South Inlet, visiting Steel Pier every chance he got, doesn’t have to just rely on his memory for what was where when on the famed pier.
Because this hometown historian also has “thousands and thousands” of Steel Pier pictures, starting about the time it was built in 1898 and showing its changes and developments over the decades until it was destroyed by fire in 1978. He has actual architectural drawings of the structure at points in its history, and a collection of program books and newspaper ads trumpeting the stars who would draw the crowds that week — live and on The Pier’s movie screens.
He has a book of original pictures assembled by the longtime owner, Frank T. Gravatt. He has original Steel Pier signs, and original water skis used by the stars of The Pier’s popular Water Circus. And he has much more than that on an oceanfront institution whose history has been revived in local memories lately, since The Press started publishing excerpts from “Steel Pier, Atlantic City: Showplace of the Nation.”
The book, by Steve Liebowitz, a former pier visitor obsessed with the place for decades, tells the story of The Pier in 258 coffee-table-sized pages packed with pictures. Roughly half his book’s pictures come from Pergament’s collection, the author estimates.
“Boo was irreplaceable,” says Liebowitz, of Owings Mills, Md., who figures he made at least six visits to Pergament’s personally collected museum of Atlantic City history — which is nicknamed the “Booseum” and stuffed into a spare bedroom of the Margate home the historian shares with his wife, Marlene.
“He has so much stuff in there that when it came time for me to do research — on the Diving Horse, or on dates — he could go back into very specific things,” the author adds. “Who knows what all he has in there? Who knows who’s buried alive in that room?”
But Pergament, who is 79 and retired from South Jersey Gas Co., appears to know where everything is in his museum — even if the logic of his cataloguing is an utter mystery to an outsider. To make his historic points about The Pier, he goes through his pictures era by era, showing what came when and what replaced it.
The pictures are all protected by plastic sleeves and lined up in plastic crates that their owner can reach into on command. To actually display every picture he has, in more standard museum style, Pergament would likely need not just his whole house, but every wall in all his neighbors’ houses — and then a few more blocks worth of houses beyond that.
Pergament has led close to 150 talks on Atlantic City history in recent years, since he went public with his passion for the subject. He’s not surprised at the interest Liebowitz’s book has generated, because he likes to start his presentations by asking his audience about their memories.
“Ninety-nine times out of 100, they bring up the Steel Pier or the Diving Horse,” Pergament says. “The number-one Atlantic City icon, in my humble opinion, is the Diving Horse. ... It overcomes all the others — Mr. Peanut, the (Absecon) Lighthouse, the rolling chairs. There’s nothing that can match it.”
So naturally, Pergament has researched the history of the Diving Horse, which, despite its decidedly East Coast location, traces its roots to an Old West frontiersman named Doc Carver.
Carver, a contemporary and friend of such legends as Wild Bill Hickock and Buffalo Bill Cody, may have ridden the first diving horse himself in 1881 — when a bridge broke over the Platte River in Nebraska as he crossed it on his horse, Pergament says.
The Booseum has an extensive collection of Carver pictures and references, but nothing in Atlantic City — because Carver died between the time he signed a contract with Steel Pier and when horses actually started diving off the platform in 1929.
But Carver’s son, Al, was with the act when it got to The Pier. And Pergament became friendly with the son’s wife, Sonora Carver, one of the first Diving Horse riders — and the beloved subject of the 1991 Disney movie, “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” about how she kept plunging down with the horses for 11 years after she went blind on a 1931 dive.
Pergament has more Steel Pier stuff than could ever fit into one newspaper story — or even one book. And he has a burning concern for making sure his facts are straight. When he starts into his horse history, he warns a notebook-carrying visitor, “You better put it this way: ‘Steel Pier’s World Famous High Diving Horse.’”
Liebowitz, the author, came away impressed with the historian’s insistence on accuracy.
“He doesn’t want speculation. Anybody can speculate, but the document is what tells the whole story,” Liebowitz says. “He hears all the stories, but he’ll tell you, you can’t really believe all the stories. ... As a historian, sometimes it’s hard to find what’s real and what isn’t.”
The writer emailed Pergament often, sometimes asking intricate details from an 80-year story that changed regularly. Liebowitz says the historian would try exhaustively to find the answer — and made it clear when he couldn’t.
“He’d say, ‘I don’t really know the fact 100 percent, but this is the best I could find.’ He’s very up on that,” Liebowitz says. “He just really wants to make sure everything is historically correct, and sometimes that’s hard to find — especially when you’re going through something like Steel Pier. It’s a giant, tremendous project, because there were so many things going on, so many facets to it.”
But it definitely helps a historian to keep a map of the place in his head — plus a room packed with pictures, programs, documents and more. Much, much more.
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