Friday, February 1, 2013

The Black Side of the Five

Here's Archie Black's three part series on the Five.

Skinny D'Amato
Atlantic City Newsletter, March 2000
by Archie Black

The 500 Club - Part 1

Well, Brenda and I spent an enjoyable hour or so at the Atlantic City Library on Saturday morning and came up with a lot of interesting stuff with respect to the infamous 500 Club Chips that Bob Eisentstadt discovered, and Mason's records that Gene Trimble uncovered.

We plan to visit the Atlantic County Historical Society next Saturday where additional info may be forthcoming. However, what we have documented leaves no doubt in our minds that the 500 club chips that Rober Eisenstadt has provided scans for are the ones that were in use in the 1930's and 1940's, at the least. The floral mold design may have come about at a later date... but that's speculation.

The 1949 telephone directory lists a 500 Club Tavern at 6 South Missouri Avenue, which would indicate the shipping address on Mason's card file to a Mr. Pill Barr at 4 South Missouri Ave. as the same place.... or at least connected to the 500 Club property. While we could find nothing about Mr. Barr, to whom the chips were shipped, perhaps our search next weekend may shed some light on who he was. Possibly the manager or owner of the 500 Club at that time in the mid-30's? 

This is a scanned photo of the 500 club that appears on page 149 of "Atlantic City America's Playground" by Bill Kent with Robert Ruffolo and Lauralee Dobbins that was published in 1998.

A superbly illustrated reference work on the history of Atlantic City. Beneath the photo of the actual 500 Club building, is an image of a dinner plate with "the 500" embossed.

Since February was Black History Month I have added some background to A.C.'s nightclubs which might prove relevant and interesting too.......

"An attempt by the black community to deal fairly with racial tensions that created Atlantic City's vibrant Kentucky Avenue nightclub district, (some of the clubs date back as far as the 1920's, Atlantic City's Kentucky Avenue reached its peak during the 1950's when six nightclubs on or near Kentucky Avenue between Arctic and Atlantic Avenues featured nearly every African American entertainer in the country. Sammy Davis Jr., Sarah Vaughn, Nat "King" Cole, Moms Mably, Slappy White, Billy Daniels, Billy Eckstine were only a few of the entertainers who perforemd at Graces, Little Belmont, the Wintergarden, the Paradise Club and Club Harlem."

"Like New York's Harlem nightclub district, Kentucky Avenue began as a group of night clubs and carpet joints that, due to the necessity of procuring alcohol during prohibition, were linked to organized crime. Kentucky Avenue clubs, along with those in the mostly Jewish South Inlet and the predominantly Italian Ducktown section west of Convention Hall, "all offered some form of gambling."

But what made the Kentucky Avenue clubs different were their hours of operation. Musicians performed at the Jockey Club or the 500 Club "WHERE SINGER DEAN MARTIN & COMEDIAN JERRY LEWIS FIRST TEAMED UP", could put their instruments down at 11 pm (occasionally they played as late as 1 am) and feel safe under the protection of the Atlantic City Musicians Union, one of the most powerful labor organizations in the city. Because African American musicians were not permitted to join the largely white musicians union, they formed their own, with the intention of beating the white union at its own game.

When other nightclubs in other parts of the city concluded their entertainment at 11 p.m., the Kentucky Ave clubs were just warming up. During the summer months from the late 1940's to the early 1960's, "the corner" of KY and the "Curb" between Arctic and Atlantic Avenues was so jammed with early morning revelers that cab drivers would pick up and discharge fares a block away, because it was often impossible to drive a car through the crowds.

The city's police made a career of raiding the nightclub gambling operations - as was the case during prohibition; a club could measure its prestige by how much of an advance warning the police gave before they arrived. This, and a series of highly publicized investigations into municipal corruption, contributed to Atlantic City's increasingly negative reputation as a city on the make.

The city had as many as 300 restaurants and bars open during the summer season, many of them taking advantage of the city's law allowing 24-hour liquor service. The city had 40 movie theaters, most of them on Atlantic Avenue.

A gradual change in the nature of entertainment doomed some of the clubs to a slow death. The dominance of the nightclub style of show that had thrilled pre-WWII generations was being challenged by movies and television, though Club Harlem and the 500 Club managed to survive into the 1960's.

A fire that burned everything but a picture of Frank Sinatra, destroyed the 500 Club on June 10th, 1973, while a shoot-out that killed a pregnant woman shut down the Club Harlem in 1968. The Club reopened infrequently and was eventually torn down. Today, 500 Club Lane, a portion of Mississippi Ave between Pacific and Atlantic Avenues, marks the "Five's" location. (the actual club stood where casino limousines now park).

"When the chips are down, you can bet "Mr. Chips" will be there to pick them up."

The 500 Club - Part 2

The following is taken from "The Boardwalk Jungle" by Ovid Demaris, (1986). 

"With Nucky Johnson behind bars, Hap Farley lost little time in establishing himself as the boss of Atlantic County. Besides being a Senator, Chairman of Atlantic County's Republican Committee, and a practicing attorney, Farley appointed himself county treasurer. This not only gave him control of the purse string, but made it clear to county employees who was signing their paychecks and to welfare recipients who was responsible for their checks.... and he let the judges know who was boss. Once a month, he had his nephew deliver their paychecks."

"If anything, vice operations became more rampant under Farley's reign. He made sure the police were underpaid so that vice payoffs would be more palatable. And to make sure the police understood their role, Farley demanded that they sign "loyalty oaths" to the Organization, as his Republican Club was called. So when Farley or one of his flunkiies told a cop to lay off a vice operator, he laid off, or else."

By 1951 the stench of vice in Atlantic City was so ripe that U.S. Senator Estes Kefauver decided to bring his Crime Committee to Atlantic City. Kefauver would later write in his report: "When this committee moved into Atlantic Ctiy at the height of its tourist season, numbers runners and bookies ran for cover and a storm of protests arose from the politicians and racketeers".

Among the conclusions reached by the committee was that Farley was head of the city's rackets, that the Republican party assessed members of the police force $30 a year, that the police department showed "signs of deliberate laxity" and could never find any gamblers to prosecute, despite the fact that about 200 bookmakers were operating there.

Like all political bosses, Farley had a lot of pals. One of them was Public Safety Commissioner Mario Floriani, head of the Fourth Ward Italian American Club. A strong supporter of Floriani was Paul "Skinny" D'Amato, who never had any problem running prostitution and gambling in the 500 Club which he fronted for a succession of Mafia bosses. The 500 was a hangout for Mafiosi and politicians. That is where many of the deals were cut while Skinny acted as genial impresario.

Not all entertainment in Atlantic City was on the Boardwalk. What kept the city going in the fifties and early sixties was the side avenue nightclubs that offered top entertainment.

The Club Harlem, with Larry Steele's high-kicking chorus line, featured black stars (that were mentioned in Part 1). Graces' Little Belmont featured organist Wild Bill Davis and his jazz trio, and Le Bistro booked Jack Jones, Belle Barth, Vic Damone, Jackie Mason, and a young comic named Lenny Bruce.

But the 500 Club, only 50 yards from Le Bistro, became the "Big Daddy" of them all after Sknny took over in the early forties. Its showroom was gradually expanded until it seated a thousand people, and his backroom house a plush casino. At one time or another the lineup included all the top headliners on the nightclub circuit from Sophie Tucker to Patti Page, from Jimmy Durante to Joe E. Lewis and Jackie Leonard. Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin teamed up for the very first time at the 500 Club back in 1946. But the biggest draw ever at the 500 was Frank Sinatra, whose five engagements over a period of a half-dozen years literally became historical events."

The photos are of "Paul "Skinny" D'Amato and his pals who played his 500 club helped make Atlantic City the swingingest spot south of Manhattan in the 40's and 50's". "Skinny" is pictured with Jimmy Durante and Donald O'Connor in top photo and with Sammy Davis, Jr. in the bottom scan.

"When the chips are down, you can bet "Mr. Chips" will be there to pick them up."

The 500 Club - Part 3

"What is amazing about Sinatra's appearances at the 500 is that he performed free of charge, doing as many as four shows a night. Skinny D'Amato says that it was because Frank loved him "like a brother," but then Skinny seemed to feel that way about everybody he knew. And he acknowledged with pride that he knew all the important politicians in New Jersey, and every Mafia boss in the country.

The 500 was built by Marco Reginelli, underboss of the Philadelphia family, who lived and operated out of Camden, NJ. His successor, Angelo Bruno, also loved "Skinny" like a brother. "Skinny" was so proud of his new boss and partner that he named his only son Angelo. Through the years, Skinny turned the Five, as the club was known to its devotees, into a local institution and had himself crowned, "Mr. Atlantic City".

In the late 1930's Skinny had done a stretch in Lewisburg after being convicted as a "white slaver", and was still there, in fact, when another brotherly friend, Nucky Johnson, arrived at the federal pen to serve his time.

It was after Skinny's release from prison that Reginelli picked him to front the Five. Skinny put the club on the map and made millions for his friends.

According to Skinny, his managerial abilities so impressed another close friend, Chicago Mafia boss Sam Giancana, that was when Giancana and Sinatra bought into the Cal-Neva Lodge at Lake Tahoe they picked Skinny to manage the place. But that was short-lived. Sinatra who was blacklisted in Nevada, came to visit his sweetheart, singer Phyllis McGuire, who with her two sisters was headlining the Cal-Neva showroom.

"In recalling that event, Skinny told me that he and Sinatra had advised Giancana not to come. We died when we saw him drive up. But he was in love, what are you going to do?"

"During the 1960 presidential campaign, Giancana sent Skinny D'Amato to West Virginia to get votes for Jack Kennedy. He was to use his influence with the sheriffs who controlled the political machine of that state. Most of them had been customers at his 500 Club, and according to Skinny, "loved him like a brother." Whether he helped turn the tide for Kennedy in that crucial primary state is not as important as the fact that Giancana sent him there on Kennedy's behalf."

"Sinatra made only one more appearance at the 500 after his Nevada debacle. That was the one in August 1964. As Altantic City Press columnist Sonny Schwartz would note in later years, "Sans Sinatra, summer business in '65 and the following years took a decided downhill turn."

"The flames shot throught the roof and smoke belched skyward. The 500 Club was giving its final performance. Watching from across the street on this Sunday afternoon, June 10, 1973, Skinny D'Amato was being consoled by his two daughters, Paulajane and Cathy, and his son, Angelo. Reporters surrounded them."

"Fighting back tears, Skinny pointed to the second-floor living quarters above the nightclub. "That's where my kids were born... where they grew up." The tears started running down his sunken cheeks. He lowered his head, wiped at his face, and looked up. "I'll rebuild," he said. "I don't know how, but I'll try. I'm going to keep going. I was born on this street." Then he shook his head. "People can't afford it anymore." What he meant was that the 500 had been in the bankruptcy courts."

"A moment later, Skinny was entertaining the reporters with stories about Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra. "They each called on Christmas and spoke to the whole family... to the kids." he said, now ignoring the flames that were ravaging the club. "Sinatra appeared here five times and never charged me a penny."

"After the fire was brought under control, Skinny toured the smoking ruins. The roof had caved in, the rear wall had collapsed. He moved through the muddy debris, shaking his head in disbelief at the skeletal remains. Then he stopped and stared in astonishment at a charred wall where he had hung a lifesize photograph of Sinatra. There it was, untouched by the flames. He took faltering steps toward it to make certain. How was it possible? The heat had been so intense that steel girders lay twisted in the ruins. He reached up and touched the photograph. Yes, it was true. It had survived. This had to be a good omen. God's way of assuring him that the future was secure. It was miracle......"

At the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City, after a 24 minute standing ovation, Bobby Kennedy brought them to tears with his eulogy to JFK, which was put off until the last night because LBJ feared Bobby would be spontaneously drafted to lead the party.

You should be able to ride by the Downbeach home of Carroll Rosenbloom – where LBJ actually stayed that week, using his hotel room for business. Rosenbloom was the owner of the Baltimore Colts NFL football team, and partners with Mike McLaney in the Hotel National Casino in Havana, which they purchased from Meyer Lansky just before Castro took over Cuba on New Year’s Day, 1959.


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