WILDWOOD — As time machines go, the yellow school bus is rather unassuming. But those who step inside find themselves transported to an era when, as tour guide Charlie Buckley puts it, “Ike was president and Elvis was King.”
Spring’ll soon be gone (Wildwood days), summer’s comin’ on (Wildwood days)
And I’m-a dreamin’ of (Wildwood days) lotsa summer love
— “Wildwood Days” by Bobby Rydell
The music of the time, particularly the style known as doo-wop, plays in the background as the Back to the ’50s Neon Night Tour leaves the Doo Wop Experience, the Doo Wop Preservation League’s museum, and the journey across the Wildwoods and the decades begins.
“It’s about the style of the doo-wop period,” Buckley tells his audience, a mix of young and old, mostly longtime Wildwood visitors curious about the past.
The style is key, Buckley explains.
Bold uses of color, unusual angular rooflines, exotic names echoed in a building’s design and, of course, the use of Wildwood’s exotic species of fauna — the plastic palm tree.
“Each is truly unique, unlike the square condominium boxes,” Buckley says.
Doo-wop has come to refer to the architecture of the period between 1955 and 1965, the time when many mom-and-pop motels were built in the Wildwoods.
The trip through time commences with a modern twist, what Buckley calls “neo-doo-wop.”
The term has come to mean the use of doo-wop styling in modern structures, such as the bold neon Subway restaurant sign on Rio Grande Avenue or the airport-style lobby at the nearby Starlux Motel, a new addition on a classic doo-wop-era motel.
From there, the bus winds its way across Wildwood, down to Wildwood Crest and up to North Wildwood as Buckley points out the motels that made the island the resort it has become.
The motels have fanciful names, such as Pink Champagne and American Safari. Some send visitors across the ocean to places such as the Caribbean and Aruba. Others suggest foreign intrigue and international travel, such as the Attache and the Pan American.
Chapter One says to love her
You love her with all your heart
Chapter Two you tell her you’re
Never, never, never, never, never gonna part
In Chapter Three remember the meaning of romance
In Chapter Four you break up
But you give her just one more chance
— “Book of Love” by The Monotones
The tourgoers can’t help but sing along as the music (with a little help from the school bus) moves them further back through the 1950s and 1960s.
Buckley draws their attention to the modern touches of the day — the spinning satellite above the Pan American, the three-story mosaic tile knight at the Crusader, and the rounded, va-va-voom-style balconies of the Imperial 500.
The lava that lines the Royal Hawaiian was imported from Hawaii, while the Shalimar harkens to the popular women’s fragrance.
“It wasn’t just the cars that had tail fins. Here in Wildwood, they added them to buildings,” Buckley says as the bus rolls past the Bristol.
In North Wildwood, the Chateau Bleu boasts a heart-shaped pool, and two people sit inside the sign at the Suitcase Motel.
But Buckley notes that much of the island’s doo-wop motels have been lost. At its height, there were about 300; today the number is closer to 100.
Not that neo-doo-wop hasn’t been embraced.
The bus takes riders past the Wawa on Rio Grande Avenue, which comes complete with neon and chrome (the only Wawa of its kind), and the Acme with its retro sign designed after the corporation searched its archives.
Come on and twist, yeah, baby
Twist, ooh yeah, just like this
Come on, little miss, and do the twist
— “The Twist” by Chubby Checker
“Wildwood was an entertainment center before Atlantic City thought of it,” Buckley says as the bus passes Pacific Avenue.
The street was once a shopping destination in Cape May County, and the nightclubs drew major entertainers, including Checker and Bill Haley and the Comets.
Wildwood was known as Little Las Vegas, thanks to its entertainment offerings and abundance of bright neon.
The tour brings back memories for some, such as Carolyn Gunster, 62, of Reading, Pa., a Wildwood visitor since she was 12 years old.
She and six of her family and friends came along this night to see a little bit of Wildwood’s past.
“It was amazing all the stuff I never noticed,” she said as she recounted Buckley’s tour.
She was stunned by how many doo-wop-era motels had been lost, but thrilled at the memories the tour stirred.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is the main street where I used to shop,’” she said of Pacific Avenue.
Gunster said four generations of her family visit the island each summer, maintaining a family tradition.
“We have a lot of memories here. It was just a fun place to come,” she said.
My folks were always putting him down
They said, he came from the wrong side of town
(What you mean when you say that he came
From the wrong side of town?)
They told me, he was bad, but I knew he was sad
That’s why I fell for the leader of the pack
— “Leader of the Pack” by The Shangri-Las.
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