Wildwood, New Jersey – 1980
Carny, also spelled carnie, is an informal term used in North America for a traveling carnival employee, and the language they use, particularly when the employee operates a game (“joint”), food stand (“grab” or “popper”), or ride at a carnival.
I had been working as a busboy at the Dolphin Restaurant for the 1978 and 1979 summer seasons. I was tired of being a busboy. It wasn’t a bad job. I liked the owners and my coworkers. But I longed for something a bit more fun. Something where I had more exposure on the island. I wanted to work on the boardwalk where all the action was happening.
Hunt’s banked with First Fidelity, and that’s where my father worked as a regional manager. He knew the two guys who ran Hunt’s Pier. Vince Kostek and Merle Paul. Vince was the main guy on the Pier and it’s operations, and Merle managed all of the theater properties Hunt’s owned at the time.
It was late spring of my senior year at Wildwood High. My father came home one day and told me that if I wanted to work on Hunt’s Pier this summer they had a job for me. I was overjoyed because it sounded like an awesome place to work.
I went up to the pier and asked for Vince. We chatted and I filled out an application and that was it. I was in. Vince told me that normally you had to be 18 to work there, but since I’d be turning 18 in August, he said it would be fine. Vince had a daughter named June who worked in the office and helped out where needed around the pier. She was maybe a year or so older than me and I always liked her. She was cute and really tan and had an unapproachable vibe about her. There was something forbidden about liking the boss’s daughter. I like when people tell me I can’t have something. It always makes me want it more. (Took her on a few dates in 1984!)
Hunt’s was the classy family pier. Of course, Morey’s Pier next door was the cool, hip, pier, but Hunt’s held their own with the classic rides they had running for so many years. The employees wore black slacks, white dress shirts, and black ties. All of the ride operators on every other pier looked like a bunch of carny slobs, and we looked like professional dudes. People respond to a uniform and we looked really great as a team.
So when I graduated in June I started working on the Golden Nugget Mine Ride. I went up on a Saturday and met the man who ran the ride and had run it every season for many years. His name was Louis Vendittelli.
Lou was born in Lyon, France to the late Giovanna Cistrone and Pietro Vendittelli. Lou proudly fought for France in the Algerian war prior to his arrival in America. Known as “French Louie”, he was a local personality in the Wildwoods for decades of work as the operator of the Golden Nugget on Hunt’s Pier.
Louie was a real character. People who worked there and really knew him liked and respected him. But of course, there were those who just thought he was a hothead. I never saw that in the man. He and I always got along and really built a great friendship over the two seasons I worked at Hunt’s Pier. I guess he was in his late forties then. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was super fit. He was really strong and wiry. He drove a huge, red convertible Cadillac Deville. Just this little guy in a massive car.
On my first day, he took me around the ride, which I thought was so cool, because I had only ridden the ride, and never explored all of the inner workings of the ride itself. Louie had built a tracking system for the ride so you could see on a board where all the cars were at any given time inside the ride. He was a brilliant guy that could build or fix anything, and after working for decades on the Golden Nugget he knew everything about it. He knew everything about every ride on that pier. But the Nugget was his. He showed me how to operate the ride. How the brakes worked to slow and stop the cars as they came into the station. He also showed me how to operate controls to release the cars to send them up the hill to the top of the ride.
He knew I wasn’t just another “Hunt’s Pier Flunky” as he called them. Working on an amusement pier in the summer is like joining a traveling carnival or a circus. There’s a core group of competent people that sort of run things and then there are the flunkies that also end up working there because they don’t fit in anywhere else. Because of Hunt’s rich history, they had some folks who had worked there every summer for many years. So for me it was a very entertaining place to work.
If you were smart, clean, and presentable, you got to work on the premier rides. The Log Flume was the most popular ride on the pier, but the Golden Nugget was a strong second. Most of the lifers and old guys worked the older more passive rides, and the flunkies ran the low-end stuff.
There was this one guy that had worked on the airships, named Fuji. He wasn’t Asian, and I don’t know what his nationality was but he was really tan, had black hair that was slicked back, and wore wrap-around sunglasses all the time. He had been there since the sixties. I remembered him because my dad loved the ride he operated. He thought he was a cool guy. But when I started working at Hunt’s and got to know him, he turned out to be just another weird guy that worked at the pier for decades. We later found out that he had a little room above the Jungleland ride where he used to hide his Playboys. Who knows what he did up there. Weird.
There was another guy named Bob that had worked the Keystone Kops ride for many years. The Kops ride was a bunch of old-type cars that you sat in and it basically went into the ride and there were attractions inside and black lights so everything glowed. The cars basically ran on a track so you didn’t really drive them. You just rode through and saw stuff. That, and bashed through doors. It was cute. Kids liked it. Bob was a good guy who had worked on Hunt’s since the early 70s. He managed and operated the Keystone Kops for many years. It was HIS ride. I’m not sure but I think he even had some equity in the pier and some of its rides. (WILKY Group?) He was always nice to me and I respected his tenure with this institution.
There was another character that worked on Hunt’s named Bruce. He had a brother who also worked on the pier named Eddie. Bruce ran the El Scrambler at the front of the pier. He was a filthy person and so was his brother Eddie. I don’t even know where these carny types came from. Bruce was known as a person who rarely bathed and apparently always stunk. Our team on the Nugget and the guys over at the Flume didn’t really associate with anyone else on the pier. We were too busy running the two biggest money makers on the pier every night.
But I remember someone told me that somebody had left bars of soap and bottles of shampoo at Bruce’s ride one day. I thought that was cruel. Having been a victim to bullying and humiliation in middle school I found this really mean. But people can be wicked, especially in low-end jobs like carny life. I remember some of the guys over at the Log Flume one night grabbed Bruce and threw him in the water tank of their ride. It was their idea of sending him a message that he desperately needed a bath. Again… terrible, cruel behavior. My guys at the Nugget never had anything to do with that sort of crap. I always had a soft spot for Bruce. He just seemed like a poor soul. He was a nice person but just lacked options. But the stuff that was done to him was awful. This wasn’t teen boy stuff. He was a grown man, which made it all worse. The Log Flume guys got drilled by management for that infraction and after that, they left Bruce alone.
But on a lighter note, Bruce actually met a girl that summer and fell in love. I would see them together all of the time. I think she worked in the ticket office. Her name was Cathy. This one guy who worked one of the games up at the front of the pier would refer to them as ‘Muskrat Love’ when he saw them. They eventually got married.
Here’s a shocker: Ironically, in 1986 when I went to work as a teller at Midlantic Union Trust Bank, Cathy actually was a teller there too, and trained me. She was in charge of the safe deposit vault. Two years after that in 1988, she worked as a teller in their North Wildwood branch. I suppose she and her husband Bruce were struggling financially, and she actually stole money from the bank.
Back then you could pay your gas and electric bills at your local bank. If a customer came in and paid their bill with cash, she would steal the cash and mark the bill paid. Sadly, it was a horrible plan, because the next month all of these customers came in saying their utility bills were delinquent when they had receipts that they paid. All of the payments were processed by Cathy. I was an assistant manager by then and they sent me down there to sort it out with the manager there. Cathy was crying and they fired her for the infraction. The banks back then didn’t prosecute you, they simply let you go to avoid the embarrassment and community exposure. Crazy man!
The pier was filled with all kinds of characters and I became friends with several of them. I was just getting started in my new job as a ride operator on Hunt’s and was really excited to see what life would be like working every night on the boardwalk!
If anyone has any good “character” stories from Hunt’s I’d love to hear about them in the comments!
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