Charles Lockwood III and Jason Thomas weren't around for the glory days of the Steel Pier.

Lockwood, 42, never saw Frank Sinatra or the Rolling Stones or any of the other top stars of their day take over the stage and command the crowds that packed into the Atlantic City landmark.

And Thomas never had the chance to gasp as the famed Diving Horse jumped off its platform. He also couldn't ride the pier's Diving Bell to the ocean floor - that attraction took its last dip years before the 28-year-old was even born.

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But these two Oakcrest High School teachers are big fans of the pier's past anyway, and they've done their homework on that history. They studied enough to make a documentary called "Steel Pier: A Sensational Spirit," which started out as a project for their students, but ended up as a 23-minute film the two producers are offering for sale, partly to raise money to help Hurricane Sandy victims.

As they talked about their documentary the other day, the filmmakers/teachers were happy to note their subject was a Sandy survivor. Because they weren't content to stop their story with the pier's past - they also made sure to get into its present and its planned future as a key piece of a new Atlantic City.

"This could have been a 10-part documentary series," says Thomas, an Oakcrest graduate himself who still lives in his hometown, Mays Landing, and has taught at his alma mater for seven years.

And they didn't start out looking at a history project at all. Lockwood, who grew up in Linwood and now lives in Pleasantville, says the Steel Pier movie grew out of talks the media-department colleagues had on a broader, more current topic.

"Where is Atlantic City going?" he said, an idea that started at a time when the Revel resort was on hold and before this year's "Do AC" marketing campaign started bringing some positive attention the city's way.

The filmmakers admit they aren't strictly neutral observers about the answer to that original question.

"I've always been drawn to Atlantic City - something about the history and the cultural aspects of it," says Lockwood, a former employee at Resorts Casino Hotel's marketing operation.

They decided to change their focus based partly on learning about the publication of the first full-length history of the pier, "Steel Pier Atlantic City: Showplace of the Nation." That book, by Baltimore-based writer Steve Liebowitz, another unabashed partisan of the pier, sparked a rash of interest in the pier's old status as an entertainment icon known and loved well beyond Atlantic City's borders.

As a filmmaker with a point of view, Thomas saw a power that went far beyond nostalgia in telling that story.

"Open people's eyes about what was so special about it and maybe they'll come back to it," says Thomas, who actually does have fond childhood memories of the Steel Pier - he grew up visiting it sometimes with his family in its current incarnation, as a summertime amusement pier.

He and Lockwood interviewed close to two dozen people for the project, with help from some of their students - although not all those people made it into a film that took a good two years of start-and-stop work.

Subjects who did make the final cut included Liebowitz, the author, who accepted an invitation to come and talk to Oakcrest classes about the pier and his book on it.

They talked to Allen "Boo" Pergament, the local historian who provided many of the pictures for Liebowitz' book - and who invited the teachers and some of the students to the extensive Atlantic City history museum he has stuffed into a bedroom in his Margate home. The film also includes pieces of an interview with veteran local entertainer Jim Craine, of Galloway Township, about his decade of working in different operations on the pier.

But the last part of the film looks at the modern Steel Pier, owned principally since 2011 by the Catanoso family of Cape May County. The new owners have run amusement rides on the pier since 1993, after a concrete pier replaced the former wooden structure destroyed by a 1982 fire.

Tony Catanoso, one of the partners, has seen the finished film and gives it rave reviews - especially the editorial decision to not just make a movie about the pier's good old days.

"We love the history, and that's what makes the pier iconic," he says. "But right now, it's about what's coming up and going forward."

The owners are a year into a four-year plan that involves adding new rides, restaurants, clubs and other attractions, and enclosing much of the pier so it can stay open year-round.

The pier "is really the focal point and centerpiece of the resurgence (of Atlantic City), a resurgence that's based on non-gaming activity," Catanoso added.

The management was happy to help the filmmakers with their documentary - including giving some of the students helicopter rides that let them shoot video that ended up in the film.

Thomas, their co-producer and teacher, says those cool rides were hardly the only benefit in the project for the kids involved.

"They learned the (pier's) history by doing it, and they learned real-world production skills too," he says - and many students' names show up as the credits roll at the end of "A Sensational Spirit."

Lockwood adds some kids got so involved, they were using their weekends to go out and do extra research on the subject.

And the work is helping students become more than mere consumers of TV and other uses of video: One former student made her own 10-minute documentary on one of her passions, lighthouses, and is taking media-production in college, her old teachers says.

Liebowitz, the Steel Pier author, was impressed by the school's facilities, and the students' abilities.

"They interviewed me in a studio. They had kids doing the photography, doing the lighting," he said, adding he saw "at least six kids" editing film projects on his trip there. "I wish to God they had that setup when I was in high school."

He also admires the results of all that work.

"As long as people realize that it's not a Hollywood studio and it's high school ... I think it's pretty good," Liebowitz said. "It's not something you're going to submit for an Oscar, but I think it did a really good job on the Steel Pier."

Contact Martin DeAngelis:


'Steel Pier:

A Sensational Spirit'


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