Al Garrett is happy that Vladimir Lenin doesn’t live in Atlantic City anymore.
Garrett, who does live in the city, was a vocal opponent of the bigger-than-life statue of Lenin — the former leader of the former Soviet Union — ever since it became a decorative touch outside Red Square, the former popular restaurant and night spot at Tropicana Casino and Resort.
But Red Square quietly closed its Atlantic City location this fall. And Garrett — who protested Lenin in public, and circulated petitions asking the casino’s management to move the statue inside the restaurant, instead of leaving it in the prominent public place that the Trop calls The Quarter — was thrilled to see the dictator depart.
“That statue has been nothing but a curse. It’s a disgrace,” says Garrett, 69, who, in his anti-Lenin campaign, often made an argument with great potential power in the Atlantic City world view: He claimed Lenin was bad luck for its owners — and for Trop gamblers.
Lauren Clinton, a Tropicana spokeswoman, said last week only that “the statue was removed when the tenants left. There really isn’t much more that we care to comment.”
She also offered no details on what might replace Red Square in The Quarter. But the space where the statue stood is empty for now; the ends of a few cut-off bolts from its base are the only evidence that anything was ever in that spot.
As restaurant theme statements go, it’s hard to get much more prominent than a two-story-high, bronze-colored statue. But the late Lenin has joined a list of pieces from Atlantic City’s past that have disappeared — and many of whose final fates are similarly mysterious today.
Old-timers remember the Merry-Go-Round Bar at the former Ritz-Carlton Hotel; the 1921 Boardwalk landmark that’s now the Ritz Condominium. The Ritz was famed in its day as the home of the notorious Nucky Johnson, the city’s political boss, and its guest lists over the years included legendary mobsters Al Capone and Lucky Luciano.
But Jamie Greco, today’s assistant manager of the condo building, says the records aren’t as clear about what happened to that unusual watering hole.
“The Merry-Go-Round Bar closed down in the mid-70s,” she said.
That would have been shortly before the city’s first casino, then Resorts International, opened in 1978. “There’s just a hole in the basement now” in its former spot.
A few blocks away at Princeton Antiques & Books, Bob Ruffolo — a regular collector and occasional seller of local history and memorabilia — would love to get his hands on one of the signature, striped banquette seats from the old 500 Club. That nightclub was the Atlantic City home of Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and other Rat Pack-era entertainers who were also pals with the club’s owner, Skinny D’Amato.
Ruffolo can only assume those zebra-style seats burned up: The “Five,” as fans called it, died in a 1973 fire. But he knows what happened to a well-weathered, bronze-letters-on-wood sign identifying Haddon Hall, the building that was converted into Resorts in 1978 — and then quickly became the Boardwalk address of Sinatra and other stars: Ruffolo keeps that sign in a garage, after he bought it from a Galloway Township chicken coop that doubled as a flea market.
He and his son, Robert Ruffolo Jr., showed off the sign last week to some visitors to the store, but the father said the item is definitely not for sale.
“I’ll never have another sign with 5-inch bronze lettering saying ‘Haddon Hall’ on it,” he explained.
He has lots of restaurant memorabilia, but most of it is smaller. There’s a stack of sailboat-logoed serving plates from Captain Starn’s, the restaurant on Absecon Inlet that drew summertime lines of diners for decades with its seafood and atmosphere — including a boat intentionally grounded and converted into a bar, called the Yacht Bar.
(Don Nyce, a longtime Captain Starn’s worker and devotee, says the Yacht Bar itself was eventually allowed to rot in a local marina “and finally chopped up.”)
Princeton Antiques has detailed, miniature models of Clifton’s Club Harlem, Grace’s Little Belmont and other landmarks from the days when Atlantic City’s Kentucky Avenue was a hot spot for black entertainment. Cards on the bottom identify their maker as Joseph Frazier, from the city’s Venice Park section.
But Ruffolo also has much more life-size stuff — including a concrete gargoyle from the top of the Marlborough Blenheim Hotel, the historic 1906-built landmark that was knocked down in 1980. That’s so big and heavy, though, there’s no place for him to put it in the crowded store.
Speaking of Club Harlem, Ralph Hunter, founder of the African American Heritage Museum of Southern New Jersey, is always proud to show off two signature pieces of that late, lamented legend. He has the actual hand-painted, bright-red doors that greeted customers for decades.
Hunter got them from Gregory Wood, the former owner of Fishheads, an Atlantic City soul-food restaurant that he hoped to convert into a Club Harlem-themed place. Wood said he rescued the doors from storage in a building he rented — where the landlord told him to get out anything he wanted before some new tenants came and threw out all the Club Harlem history that was in the way of a business they planned to open.
Hunter’s black-history museum also has an authentic-looking Club Harlem neon sign, but he says it’s actually a recreation. It came from the old “people mover” that took people from the Boardwalk to the doors of the off-the-boards Sands and Claridge casinos. That moving-sidewalk setup, which was decorated with Atlantic City icons to amuse its users, is now gone. So is the Sands itself — it was imploded in 2007. But customers can still visit the Claridge, on foot.
Wayne Hackney, the fourth generation of his family to run Hackney’s — the Inlet seafood specialist whose 3,200 seats once made its owners claim the title of the world’s biggest restaurant — says there’s no mystery about what became of the most prominent piece of that original restaurant’s decor.
That was a giant lobster that dominated the top of the Boardwalk-front building, and became the logo for everything the restaurant sold, right down to lobster-shaped desk blotters. The rooftop lobster burned in the same 1963 fire that destroyed the sprawling restaurant.
“We had another one on the newer building, but that was a plastic shell,” says Hackney, now 72, of Absecon. And that newer building has also since been knocked down.
Back in modern-day Atlantic City, the Red Square space once overlooked by Lenin is still whole, and ready for a new identity. But the dictator has disappeared — as many Soviet citizens reputedly also did over that regime’s brutal history.
Garrett, Lenin’s opponent, says he even went and stood in that spot after the statue was hauled away — but he didn’t celebrate the end of the restaurant’s run in Atlantic City.
“I had nothing personally against Red Square or anything. It was just that statue,” he said. “If they took that statue and put it inside the restaurant, that’s all I wanted. This is America — you have freedom of choice.”
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