Paulajane D’Amato grew up above The 500 Club. In a way, she lives there still.
Just past the front door of D’Amato’s Margate home is a famous painting of the Rat Pack, tweaked to place them at her father Paul “Skinny” D’Amato’s legendary Atlantic City nightspot. Next to it is a black-and-white photo of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis putting their footprints in cement in front of the club where they first became a pair, and another of Martin leaning down to kiss a young Paulajane.
For years, D’Amato, who turns 63 this month, has tried to re-create the long-since vanished locale where Sinatra crooned as patrons whirled around its dark, sweeping bar.
“I’ve had two really solid deals,” she said wistfully. “So I thought.”
Twice, she came close to reviving the club in an Atlantic City casino, only to be seemingly thwarted by both a firing and a tragedy. And she read in The New York Times how “Boardwalk Empire” showrunner Terence Winter had originally wanted to do a show about her father and the 500 Club, only to learn Martin Scorsese already had a project going about Nucky Johnson.
“When I read that, I was like ...” — here, she made a joking, faux-scream — “It’s always this close!”
When she was introduced to Winter at the premiere of “Boardwalk Empire” at The Pier at Caesars in 2010, she recalled how he turned to her in astonishment.
“‘Do you mean to tell me,’” Winter said, “‘that you’re the little girl who grew up above a nightclub?’”
From cafe to club
Skinny D’Amato worked his way up from the cigar shop he opened at the age of 15 to becoming part owner of The 500 Cafe in the 1940s. In 1949, he bought it outright — the only caveat was that he had to change the name, hence “Cafe” to “Club.” Paulajane was born in 1950.
“My childhood was very different from anyone else that I knew,” she said. “You could still feel the excitement. It was all around you. You couldn’t escape it.”
Winter was relatively normal — she and her sister would get up and go to school like anyone else.
“But the summer was an entirely different story,” she said. “I would get up in the morning and The 500 Club was my playground. I went downstairs and taught myself how to play the piano and the drums. At night when the musicians would come in, they’d say, ‘Oh, she was here again!’”
She also recalled a bit of childhood play-acting.
“I took one of those big trays, filled it with salt and pepper shakers and got myself a little black skirt and a little white blouse,” D’Amato said. “I went around carrying a tray like I was a waitress at The 500 Club.”
Ironically, when she was noticed years later as a potential beauty queen, she certainly was not dressed the part.
“It was a fluke for me,” D’Amato said. “I had been in an accident on Father’s Day, a car accident, and I broke the bottom six vertebrae of my back. So I had a full brace on, and I was wearing one of my father’s shirts to the beach.”
Some lifeguards spotted her and invited her to join the Miss Ventnor contest, and, after some peer pressure — “My girlfriend called me and said, ‘If you go in it, I’ll go in it,’” she recalled. “‘Please, please go in it with me!’ ‘Oh, all right.’” — she took her brace off, joined up, and before she knew it she was Miss Ventnor, Miss Atlantic County and found herself in the Miss New Jersey Pageant.
Her childhood friend, Billy McCullough, of Margate, recalled seeing her at 16 in the Miss Ventnor contest: “She came out in a swimsuit and just knocked me over.”
After that, “her modeling career kind of took off,” McCullough said. “She got a lot of runway work. She was always a favorite with audiences. They just loved her.”
‘The worst 10 years’
But then came the dark times, for her and for the city itself.
“I’d say the ’70s were probably the worst 10 years of my life,” D’Amato said. “My mother (Bettyjane) was sick for five years. She had an aneurysm in the brain which caused personality changes, and she died in 1972. (Then) the club burned down in 1973. Within a year, my father lost two loves of his life, and it was very difficult on all of us.”
On top of that, Angelo D’Amato, Paulajane’s younger brother, was charged with murder in 1976 for a killing at the family home in Ventnor, later pleading guilty to manslaughter. He is still in prison after being convicted of murder for a second death in Ventnor Heights in 1982.
“That was not easy to deal with,” she added.
Skinny D’Amato, however, had long had a dream for Atlantic City: gambling. It had happened outside the eyes of the law in small parlors and larger clubs — even The 500 Club — so why not make it legal?
When the first casino, Resorts International, opened in 1978 — with an exclusive contract for Skinny’s friend Frank Sinatra — “Everybody would come to the house and hang out with my father,” D’Amato said. “(It) sort of brought back a little bit of the earlier years at The 500 Club. And it was great for him. ... It was nice to see my father enjoy his friends again. Because they didn’t come to Atlantic City before the casinos opened up.”
So Skinny was able to recreate a little of The 500 Club glamour before his death in 1984. Sinatra was a pallbearer at his funeral.
D’Amato’s modeling career continued into the ’80s. McCullough said he talked one photographer shooting at Harrah’s into using D’Amato in his work — “That was probably a mistake,” he joked, “but anyhow they wound up together” — and after her divorce later played cupid for her again.
“She worked for Sands Casino with Jay Venetianer, who was the entertainment director there,” McCullough said. “I said, ‘You’re obviously in love with the guy, why don’t you marry him? So she did. And I gave her away at the wedding.”
Venetianer died of a heart attack at the 1997 World Series in Miami.
McCullough had also once set her up on a date with William Frankel, of Margate. Though that first date had not gone particularly well — “I was home by a quarter to 8!” D’Amato recalled. “I was boring,” Frankel added — when both were again alone, 10 years later, McCullough thought they could still be perfect together.
“So he called me up,” D’Amato said, as Frankel sat reading the paper a few feet away. “And the rest is history.”
D’Amato has spent much of her recent years involved in work with the Bacharach Institute for Rehabilitation, Shore Medical Center and, of course, the 500 Club Committee, which recently sponsored a benefit concert by Dean Martin’s daughter Deana.
She and Frankel were married this past Christmas in Florida, and Devon,D’Amato’s daughter with her first husband, was married to Drew Vander Meulen on the beach in Margate over Memorial Day. In between, however, D’Amato’s only sister, Cathy, died in March.
‘The Last Good Time’
“No one’s had as many hardships as Paulajane’s had in her life,” said friend and author Jonathan Van Meter. “One of the things I admire about her is her survival instinct and her incredible tenacity. She stays positive, no matter what.”
Van Meter was a guest at the Memorial Day wedding, having become good friends with D’Amato while writing “The Last Good Time,” a 2002 book about Skinny D’Amato and The 500 Club.
“She called me out of the blue one day,” Van Meter said. “She asked, ‘Have you ever considered writing a book about my father?’ And I said, ‘Funny you should ask.’”
“‘Before they’re all dead, I think it’s a good time to write a book,’” she recalled telling him. “And he thought about it, and realized I was right.”
They spent the next five years poring over documents and going through boxes, to the point where “in a funny way, she served as my research assistant,” Van Meter said. In turn, he acted as a sort of emissary between D’Amato and her brother Angelo, interviewing him in prison.
“That was one of the stranger moments of my journalism career,” Van Meter said. “Reporting back to his sister.”
There was “no love lost” between Angelo and Paulajane, Van Meter said. As for D’Amato herself, she said she hasn’t spoken to her brother in 15 years, and had no idea where he was currently being held.
The book did well, yet it never really took off and led to TV or movie deals.
“I can see it has all the elements, yet there was something about it,” he said. “It’s not us trying to peddle it. ... It’s intriguing how much interest there has been from so many different, respectable production companies, actors, casinos. Yet it doesn’t come together. (But) in a way, it’s more important for her than it is for me. It’s her father’s legacy.”
D’Amato talked of two previous “really solid” deals to recreate The 500 Club at a casino. One would have been at Trump Marina Hotel Casino, but then Trump executive Mark Ettis died in a helicopter crash. Another at the Sands would have also included a smaller club called “Skinny’s.”
“The whole opening was supposed to be Feb. 13 (2002),” she said. “I was there every day with Sands President Al Luciani. This was the closest we’ve ever been. On Christmas Day, he got fired. ... It would have been great, but it never happened.”
So besides a street sign next to the Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino parking lot where The 500 Club once stood, her home in Margate — filled with photos and mementos, from menus to programs to a record of D’Amato singing her father’s favorite song, “Mamma,” for Father’s Day one long-ago year — is the last remnant that remains of the place where the party would never end.
“I try to be my own person, but I’m very proud of him and what he did, and what he accomplished with a second-grade education,” she said. “And I miss him to this day.”
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