When I was a kid I loved to go “Down the Shore.” Well, when I was really young, not too far down– as far as Keansburg, New Jersey to be exact. You have probably seen Keansburg. When movie makers need a rundown kind of seedy Jersey Shore location they pick Keansburg. One of James Gandolfini’s last movies “Down the Shore” was filmed, in part, there. So was “The Big Night,” “Never Among Friends,” “Two Heads are Better than One,” and parts of “Ghetto Dawg.” In all, about a dozen films were shot, in part, in Keansburg, even though they were “set” in more famous places like Asbury Park. Keansburg has just that right seedy look. Keansburg is in sheltered waters inside Sandy Hook so it is a good beach for kids. From the beach you can look across Raritan Bay and Lower New York Harbor to Manhattan and Coney Island. When I was a kid New York City was the glow in the distance. With new tall buildings, the Verrazano Bridge and the new skyscrapers in Jersey City, the city is in plain sight. Keansburg was where we spent our summer vacations for the first 8 summers of my life. Excursion boats from New York and Jersey City pulled into the half mile long pier. A mile long boardwalk ended in an amusement park and arcades with games of skill and chance. I had my first slice of Pizza in Keansburg and was forever changed. I used to love the penny pitch, skee ball, and the classic carousel inside one of the arcades. The black and white picture is of my Grandmother Brew on the Keansburg boardwalk in the early 1950s.
When I worked at WOR during my college summers Keansburg was a quick place to go on a day off. I took my mom there and won her a Jefferson Airplane Surrealistic Pillow album. It has always been a working class resort. As people got more money they went further south to Point Pleasant and Wildwood.
When my mother died in 2010 I took the kids to Keansburg as a way to work through my grief. We went back a week and a half ago. The town looks much worse now than it did four years ago. Hurricane Sandy was not kind to Keansburg. It took out the long pier. The pier is being replaced bit by bit. It now goes out 1,600 feet; they will add 300 more feet once the season is done. The Boardwalk is gone except for the part near the amusements, and that part is paved not wood. The Arcade with the skee ball is condemned. The combination “Tunnel of Love” and “House of Horrors” is gone. I wanted to ride it to see if the final horror was still Joseph Stalin’s face framed in a toilet seat illuminated by a red light bulb, as it was in 1953. The town historical museum has been condemned and many buildings away from the beach are boarded up with condemned signs. One business advertises “Buildings lifted.” Much of the amusement area is restored. The classic carousel is in better shape than it has been in years. Over the years, as the fortunes of the town fell, the classic horses were sold off to antique dealers, leaving gaps in the ride. The family of the original owners bought the ride back and has restored the carousel mostly to the way I remember it. There are still some gaps where there are no horses.
The best thing about the amusement park is the kiddie rides. It is like a living museum of amusement. They are the very same rides that I rode 65 years ago. The planes are still biplanes. The cars that go round and round look like classic 30s roadsters, two tone, with chrome exhaust pipes running along the yellow hood above the huge green fenders. They have steering wheels and little bells that kids can ring by pulling a string. Someone has added seatbelts since I rode the cars. As a kid I walked down the boardwalk from Jerry’s Bungalows (long gone) toward the amusement area. I would get excited when I heard the “berta berta berta” of the two cycle engine running a little train, the first ride at the end of the boardwalk. The same train makes the same sound. I stood there watching kids enjoy the rides I rode. Some grandparents my age were with their grandkids in Keansburg. “It isn’t Six Flags” one of them said, “but it was magic for us, and I think the grandkids love it too.” I think they did.
It was a warm late September Saturday and folks were coming from around the area. At the fishing pier someone had caught a blue fish, and there were some flounder. A polka band at the “Shickhaus” hot dog and brat stand played “Hey Jude” and “I want to Hold Your Hand” in ¾ polka time. The Himalaya ride still features penguins, polar bears and reindeer frolicking together.
A little further east, Atlantic Highlands, NJ sits just west of Sandy Hook. At 220 feet above Sea level it is the highest spot on the US East Coast from Main right to Mexico. It has wonderful views across Sandy Hook to New York and across Staten Island to Jersey City.