(Look Back is an occasional series with content and images from the Atlantic County Historical Society.)
At the present time, the Atlantic City night club scene is centered on the casinos, but it was not always that way. In the early days, from the 1930s to the '60s when Atlantic City was the Playground of the World, there were numerous clubs that provided entertainment and more for visitors. The better known clubs were the Club Harlem, The 500 Club, Babettes, the Jockey Club, Little Belmont and Wonder Garden.
Club Harlem was located on north Kentucky Avenue and was founded in 1935. It was the city's premier club for black jazz performers. Most of the guests were white, wealthy and eager to experience a night of Afro-American entertainment. So many of the well known black entertainers performed there: Dick Gregory, Lena Horne, Moms Mabley, Billy Eckstein, Sarah Vaughn, Billy Daniels, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Galloway, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Louie Armstrong, Duke Wellington, Dinah Washington and Ethel Waters, Harry Belafonte, Aretha Franklin and Dionne Warwick.
On Easter Sunday in 1972 the assassination of a black mafia boss took place, resulting in such a loss of business over the coming years that the club closed in 1986.
The 500 Club, owned by Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, operated from the 1930s until 1973 when a fire destroyed the building. It became one of the most popular night spots on the East Coast and housed one of the first illegal casinos. Some of the entertainers who performed there were Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis, Milton Berle, Sammy Davis Jr., Liberace, Jimmy Durante, Eartha Kitt, Nat King Cole and Patti Page. Many of the performers had their names etched in cement on the sidewalk like tourists would see in Los Angeles in the forecourt at Graumann's Chinese Theatre.
Babettes' bar was built in the shape of a boat and was better known for its gambling rather than entertainment like the previous two. Horse players, card players and high rollers hobnobbed with the Vanderbilts, Astors and political figures. Even though gambling was illegal in Atlantic City, the back rooms were the worst-kept secret in town. The other nightclubs functioned for several more years, but the advent of casinos changed all forms of gambling and entertainment as these activities were available 24/7. Noted entertainers, both black and white, were performing regularly for a public that didn't need to "hob nob" with the elite. It was there for all.
Founded in 1913, the Atlantic County Historical Society has been preserving historical materials in its library and museum since. Every week, Wednesday to Saturday, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., it opens its doors to share these collections with anyone who is interested. The society building is at 907 Shore Road in Somers Point. More information is available at www.atlanticcountyhistoricalsocietynj.org and on Facebook, or by calling 609-927-5218.