When I was a kid summer vacation meant Wildwood, New Jersey on the south Jersey shore, “Oh those days, those Wild wild Wildwood Days. Every day’s a holiday and every night is a Saturday night.”
Occasionally I make trips back through Wildwood. It really is not on the way to anywhere, being just north of Cape May, land’s end for Jersey. But on drives between Washington, home office of IREX (my employer) and Ridgewood, New Jersey where my mother lived, I sometimes took an extra day, drove to Wildwood, spent the night, took the Cape May Ferry to Delaware and drove on to Washington. Here is the glitz and kitsch of Wildwood, where they are actually restoring the cinderblock strip motels we stayed in 50 years ago, re-decorated with neon tube and plastic palm trees. Here are sections from family letters I wrote in 2001 and 2006.
(2001) I learned about the Doo Wop Preservation Society in Wildwood, N.J. by picking up a leaflet from a rack at a Garden State Parkway rest stop. It’s not a singing society but an organization to preserve a type of architecture and the kitsch that goes with it. Apparently Wildwood has the largest collection of ‘50s and early ‘60s motel and amusement architecture in the world. Motels with names like Astronaut, StarLux, and Satellite speak of modern times in the early ‘60s, and those with names like “Casablanca,” “Tiki” or “Sahara” speak of exotic places that working class ‘50s Jerseyites only saw in service during the Second World War. Cape May has sparked its renewal by preserving its Victorian heritage. Now the Doo Wop Preservation Society is trying to preserve Wildwood’s “Mid Century” ambiance. It has collected money to save some of the most garish neon signs and has even published a paper on how to turn your old, cinderblock, strip motel into a “doo wop” creation. It involves a huge garish sign, an exotic or futuristic (for the 50’s) name, a small lobby, either a boomerang or cheese hole motif in some of the fittings, pink and turquoise paint and lots of neon tubing, instant doo wop. The promoters point out that doo woppers had a lot more fun than Victorians. The doo wop society visitor’s center is full of the stuff I grew up with, plastic Boonton ware dishes, old Bakelite radios, countertop juke boxes, Formica soda fountains. They may have a point. People come to Europe to see Baroque and Gothic, why not come to New Jersey to see doo wop. Reverse culture shock.
(2006) After DC Suzi and I drove to Jersey to visit my mom. We traveled by way of Wildwood “down the shore.” When I was a kid we spent holidays in Wildwood and I wanted to see the progress they had made in branding the Wildwood style of ‘50s kitsch as “America’s best collection of Mid Century Architecture,” or as they put it less pompously — after they got the grant, “Doo Wop Preservation.”
Today Wildwood is in a race between ’00s condo builders and the ‘50s doo woppers. The condos may be winning. But along the boardwalk Wildwood is touting its remaining mid-century hotels and diners and is redecorating newer concrete boxes with this genre of neon and pastel.
I wanted to experience Do Wop up close so we stayed at the StarLux Motel. It became famous when then-Governor Christine Todd Whitman planted the hotel’s first plastic palm tree during its remodel. The lobby has a lava lamp and ‘50s furniture that’s remarkably uncomfortable. We walked the boardwalk past the Doo Wop Diner, and had dinner at the Marvis (Mary’s and Vi’s) Diner. A statue of Betty Boop sat on the counter. And those doo wop motels that remain have whole new forests of plastic palm trees. Wildwood street signs are shaped like palm trees and street lights are turquoise, cast in a Disneyesque Tomorrowland style.
PS. Wildwood is south of the main path of Hurricane Sandy. There was some flooding and the sea came under the boardwalk but most of Wildwood came through the storm ok.
Tomorrow this blog will look at a pair of towns that used to be fishing villages but were cut off from the sea so have become tourist towns. One even has sort of a boardwalk.