Hunt’s Pier – Chapter 5 – The Golden Nugget

Wildwood, New Jersey – 1980

My day in the summer of 1980 would roll like this. I would sleep in until noon unless my dad burst through my door telling me what a glorious day it was and that I was missing it.

“Early bird gets the worm, son!”

“Second mouse gets the cheese, dad.”

Then I would roll over and go back to sleep.

I would get out of bed sometime after that and put my bathing suit on and a t-shirt. I’d have a little lunch with my mom. I would grab my towel, a paperback, and my boom box and head to the beach. I would lie in the sun and tan and read whatever book I currently had going. When the sun became too hot, I would scan the beach nearby for an attractive girl on her own. I would pick up my radio and tune it to a local station that I knew was popular with most people. I’d head over to the girl lying on her blanket. 

“Excuse me, I’m sorry to bother you, but would you mind keeping an eye on my radio while I took a quick dip in the ocean to cool off?”

“Sure!”

I was never turned down. I would head down to the water and dive in. I’d stay in for a while because I wanted her to become accustomed to having a radio playing on her blanket. I’d roll back to her maybe 15 minutes later and run the program.

“I’m Chaz, what’s your name. How long are you down for? Where are you from? Where are you staying?”

Not in that order or that fast, but you get the idea. It worked every time and I always got a date out of that system. I may hang with her there until maybe 3:00 and then walk her back to her motel. I’d get her details and make plans for later that night or that week. Maybe she and her girlfriends or sisters could come up and visit me at the ride and I’d get them on for free. (Louie was always in on the bit and wanted me to succeed with any prospective ladies I came in contact with at all times) I didn’t do this every day, but if I saw a girl I wanted to meet I’d run this program. (Future sales guy!)

Anyway, I’d get home, hop in one of the outdoor showers in the back of the house and head inside and get into character to work at the pier. Crisp white shirt, black tie, and slacks. I’d come down to the kitchen and my mom would feed me dinner. 

I’d head out early to work maybe a bit after 4 pm. I’d stop at Botto’s which was a little arcade and one of our main hangouts in town. I’d put a quarter in the jukebox and play some Aerosmith or whatever song I was into at the time. (Don’t Bring Me Down, by ELO comes to mind) I would go over to my favorite pinball machine, called FLASH, and play a few games. I was really good at that particular machine and had no problem wracking up free games on it. Some of the younger boys who hung out there would all gather around and watch me kick that machine’s butt. When you’re a young boy you always idolize older guys. I did it when I was younger and now I was that guy. I would tell the boys I had to get to work up at the pier and let them have all my free games. They were overjoyed because they didn’t have any money. I’d even leave them a few quarters on top of the machine and bid them farewell.

I’d get to the pier and run up the ramp to join the rest of the team at 5 pm. We’d figure out who was working where and just make that ride sing for the rest of the night. We did that night after night. Each night was similar but there were always different people and different girls to meet. It was an amazing place to be. It was the very best place to be at the shore for the summer. Everybody was happy and having fun. Can you imagine a job like that? You work all night, time flies by, and it is nonstop joy. The tourists are happy because they’re at the best amusement park in the world. (Their world) After work when we closed the pier we’d go out. 

Back when I worked at the Dolphin Restaurant as a busboy, my curfew was 11 pm, but once I started working at Hunt’s my mom lifted the curfew completely. So our nights in Wildwood started working at the circus that was Hunt’s Pier and then would continue on through the night on the boardwalk at another pier or down on Pacific avenue checking out the rock bands in the clubs. It was beautiful. And the amazing thing was, you knew you could wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. Again and again. Non-stop mayhem!

We had a good group of guys working on the Golden Nugget. This big blonde guy named Art was the manager, and he used to call me Peaches. I don’t know when that started but he was the only one who called me that.  There was another guy who’s name was actually, Danny Thomas. He was a short ginger guy, with a sweet disposition. Danny came to work one night and told me that he had just taken half a quaalude (714. The good ones from the ’70s) He said he ground it up in a beer because he couldn’t swallow pills. I knew from middle school what ludes were and told him to work in the back just opening doors. (The simplest and safest job on the ride for the night) There was another guy named Bill from Absecon, who was nice but a little full of himself. He was a good-looking guy, who was 5’10 with blonde hair and blue eyes. I made friends with him so I could borrow his ID to get into the nightclubs to see Witness at the London Ale House, that new wave band The Gang at the Club CasbaPegasus and Prowler at the Rainbow, or my favorite bar band of all time…  The Dead End Kids.  

Back then the drinking age in New Jersey was 18 and I wouldn’t turn until August 9th. The old Jersey licenses looked nothing like the modern laminated ones of today. It was just basically a piece of paper, no photo, and just your stats on it. So if anybody checked my ID going into a club, I fit his description and I never had a problem. I’m very grateful to Bill for lending me that for the month of July until my birthday.

We had so much fun working there. There usually was just Art and maybe another guy working during the day. The pier was always dead during the day, but you still got a few kids coming through so all of the rides were open. Completely different from what that place looked like at night.

The Nugget had five employees on deck at all times at night. One guy ran the brakes and watched the board to see where the cars were on the ride at any time. This was an important job. If you don’t get the mine cars stopped when they roll into the station, there’ll be a jarring accident. If the incoming car full of people crashes into the awaiting car to go out, it could send it up into the ride, with people half in it, doors unlocked, and could be a disaster. So that guy had to be on point.

The next station was the guy who threw the switch to send the car full of people up into the ride. That’s the job I liked best. I was great at it, and that was always my spot when I worked. It also allowed me to chat and flirt with the girls while they were waiting to go on the ride. If Louie saw one that I took a shine to, he would hand me the flashlight and tell me to take a ride up to “check on the ride.” This gave me a chance to possibly find out where the girls were staying, how long they were down for, and get a phone number. Every night was a new opportunity to meet new tourists. It was glorious. It got to a point, that if I hadn’t met a girl to go to the beach with and take on a date by Tuesday night, I thought I was slipping in my game. I kid you not.

The next spot was the guy across from me on the front platform. His job was to lock and secure the doors after the passengers boarded the ride. Very important gig.

On the back platform, there was another employee. When the ride was finished and the car would roll into the station, the doors would automatically unlock. He would hit each door and open them so the people could exit the ride. The last guy was up front at the top of the ramp that led to the ride. He collected tickets. I believe it was five tickets to ride the Nugget. He stood next to a locked three-foot-tall wooden box with a slot cut in the top. Inside was a canvas bag. As the people approached, he would take their tickets and drop them in the box.

That was the whole team. Louie was always there at night just to oversee the operation. But for the most part, Art and I had everything well under control. Louie would just chill in the background, puffing on his cigar. But it was good to know he was there… just in case.

Ahh… This song.

Wildwood in the Summer!

That song sounds like the theme of my teenage life in Wildwood, NJ in the summer of 1980.

 

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Hunt’s Pier – Chapter 4 – Carny Life

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.

Vince Kostek

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.

Like this:

1975 Cadillac Eldorado Convertible, Gateway Classic Cars - Nashville #533 - YouTube

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!

 

Thank you for reading my blog. Please read, like, comment, and most of all follow Phicklephilly. I publish every day.

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