Atlantic City historians: A life that might die out?

Historians in the News

Being an Atlantic City historian can be a pretty cool experience. It can mean anything from sitting down for lunch with a famous movie director to hosting documentary crews from France. It might even involve seeing your own name in lights.

Then why aren’t more young people clamoring for the job? The best-known chroniclers of the resort’s history are senior citizens and aging baby-boomers, and it looks as though few young people are coming up to take their place.

This has people like Allen “Boo” Pergament, Vicki Gold Levi, Robert Ruffolo and Richlyn F. Goddard wondering if all their efforts to preserve and celebrate Atlantic City’s past will someday fade into history.

“It’s a bit saddening that there isn’t anyone to take this over,” said Pergament, a 77-year-old Margate resident who has turned the upstairs of his home into a “Boo-seum” crammed with thousands of postcards, pictures and other Atlantic City memorabilia. “We’re all getting old. We don’t know what’s going to happen.”

The uncertainty is exacerbated by concern about the fate of the Atlantic City Historical Museum on Garden Pier, which has been temporarily closed due to damage from the Veterans Day northeaster.

There is hope — in a few months HBO premieres “Boardwalk Empire,” a new series based on a 2003 book by Atlantic County Judge and historian Nelson Johnson. Johnson’s book dealt with crime and corruption in the city from its founding to the start of the casino era. The series, which is filmed in New York, focuses on only a portion of that history — the time during prohibition, when Atlantic City winked at rules barring the sale of alcohol and political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson ruled over a town that was attractive to tourists and criminals alike.

The series — imagine “The Sopranos” set in the Roaring ’20s — is likely to get at least a few hip young television viewers interested in Atlantic City’s past. But whether it will inspire a new generation of would-be historians is another question.

“I’m hoping it does,” says Nelson Johnson, 61. “I don’t detect people much younger than me having a keen interest in Atlantic City history.”

A history of historians

Atlantic City has always inspired historians. The city was founded in 1854, and by 1868 a writer with the pen name Carnsworthe had already published a history of the city, Pergament said.

By the turn of the century, the resort had become not only one of the most popular vacation spots in the country, but also a hub of American popular culture.

The city’s success has enthralled — and daunted — historians.

Atlantic City can claim the world’s first Boardwalk, its first airport and its first paid lifeguards. It’s the place where Al Capone came to hobnob with other crime bosses and Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis first worked together. It’s the birthplace of Miss America, salt water taffy, air-conditioned theaters and Monopoly. Crowds of tourists have been entertained by the Beatles playing Convention Hall, Ed McMahon selling kitchen gadgets on the Boardwalk and beautiful girls riding high-diving horses at the Steel Pier. At one time, Atlantic City was even considered as a location for the United Nations.

And there’s so much more.

A historian with an interest in most towns along the New Jersey shore can become expert in the community’s past with a reasonable amount of hard work and research. Becoming expert in all facets of Atlantic City’s heritage — that’s a job that can consume a lifetime. Most people studying Atlantic City — even those with a deep interest in history — choose to specialize.

Johnson — who is no relation to Nucky Johnson — spent years researching the city’s political elites. Goddard has made herself an expert on the history of the city’s black residents, earning a Ph.D. in the process. She’s now one of the people helping Johnson with a book he’s writing on the role blacks have played in the city’s history. No matter how specialized, if you write a book about Atlantic City history, you’ll likely find an audience for it.

Last year, Leo Schoffer, 57, of Margate, self-published “A Dream, A Journey, A Community: A Nostalgic Look at Jewish Businesses In and Around Atlantic City.”

“People said ‘Who is going to buy that book?’ But we’re almost sold out,” said Schoffer, who’s now researching the history of Atlantic City’s motels. “There’s a tremendous interest in Atlantic City history.”

This interest isn’t limited to the general public. Because of its rich and diverse history, film crews, documentarians, writers and other historians seem drawn to the resort like bathers are drawn to its free beaches on a hot July afternoon.

And when they come looking for information, they usually wind up speaking to Levi, Ruffolo and Pergament — three local historians recognized for their deep and broad knowledge of the city’s past.

All three serve on the board of the Atlantic City Historical Museum, an institution Levi helped found. All three have contributed their knowledge to high-profile projects about Atlantic City.

Levi, co-author of “Atlantic City, 125 Years of Ocean Madness,” has consulted on the Broadway play “Steel Pier,” provided Disney with some Atlantic City inspiration for it’s boardwalk project at Disney World in Florida, and consulted on “Boardwalk Empire.” She’s helped mount museum exhibits and recently provided documentarian Ken Burns with photographs for a project he’s working on about prohibition.

Levi, 68, said a “highlight of my life” was working with film director Louis Malle during the filming of the 1980 Burt Lancaster film “Atlantic City.”

It seems screenwriter John Guare found inspiration for the story about a small-time crook dreaming of past glory in a photo he’d seen in Levi’s book. The photo shows Capone and Nucky Johnson on the Boardwalk when the gangster was in town for a May 1929 summit of the nation’s crime bosses. There’s a third, unidentified man in the picture.

“(Guare) told the audience during a showing at the Met Museum that the little henchman was the inspiration for the Burt Lancaster character. I know my book has been used over and over again as inspiration for many, many projects,” Levi said.

Questions gallore

Researchers from all over the world have also made their way to Pergament’s door. In the past year alone he’s worked with a documentary film crew from France and a team of ghost hunters investigating strange goings-on at the Absecon Lighthouse.

His Boo-seum contains a small library of books in which the authors acknowledge his contributions to their work. Next to his computer is another — equally important to him — book. It’s a notepad where Pergament has listed in a precise hand requests seeking his help on everything from researching magazine articles to tracking down information about recently discovered family photographs.

The one thing the Boo-seum lacks is any books written by Pergament, who has penned articles about area history. He said he’s considered a book, but dismissed the idea because it would take time away from so many other pressing projects.

“Passion is the key thing. A true historian has to have a passion for whatever it is that he’s going to be involved with,” said Pergament, who rarely asks for any kind of pay for his research.

Ruffolo said he too gets “hundreds and hundreds” of requests annually for information about Atlantic City’s past. The questions range from, “Did Duke Kahanamoku, the father of modern surfing, ever visit Atlantic City?” (He did, he was somehow involved in a Hawaiian high-diving act at the Steel Pier) to queries from people trying to track down businesses where their grandparents once worked.

The owner of Princeton Antiques on Atlantic Avenue, Ruffolo is known for his extensive collection of Atlantic City memorabilia, including a trove of about 30,000 Atlantic City postcards. A discussion with Ruffolo can include brief excursions into the history of the resort’s jitneys and how the 1912 explosion of a dirigible leaving Atlantic City in an attempt to cross to Europe affected the French military in the run-up to World War I by effectively wiping out the country’s cadre of airship experts.

Ruffolo said his development as a historian was an outgrowth of his work at the bookstore and his own curiosity about the past.

“It’s a natural thing. People come in and say ‘Do you happen to have ...’ or ‘Have you heard of ...’ When you do this kind of research, word of mouth spreads pretty quickly,” he said.

Ruffolo, 56, has co-written 1998’s “Atlantic City: America’s Favorite Playground” and “Atlantic City Revisited.”

He and Pergament also helped author Steve Liebowitz research the recent “Steel Pier, Atlantic City: Showplace of the Nation.”

Ruffolo said he can take a broad view of Atlantic City history because he knows just where to go to get the details he needs about specific areas.

“I have a list of people in my phone book who specialize in aspects of Atlantic City history. People who know about sailboats or Captain Starn’s (Seafood Restaurant),” he said.

Ruffolo serves as chairman of the historical museum. These days, he’s even more worried about the fate of the museum than he is about who will continue his legacy.

“Right now the pier is closed because of the storm, and we’re not sure what is going to happen when Revel opens up, will we stay where we are, will we find a new home or be pushed out,” Ruffolo said. “That’s all troubling to the board.”

Their heir?

The historian said people like Liebowitz and Heather Perez, the archivist for the Atlantic City Library’s extensive collection of historic documents and memorabilia, leave him optimistic that there is a new generation of historians with the same passion for the past that the current crop of historians has shown.

“Steve Liebowitz, when he walked through the door talking about the Steel Pier, I knew he had the devotion to do the book. It took him 10 years, but he saw it through,” Ruffolo said.

Levi, Johnson, and Goddard also cited Perez as the next, best keeper of the city’s historical record.

The 31-year-old Perez said such confidence in her is intimidating, but does confess to a true-believer’s zeal for the city’s heritage.

Growing up in Lynchburg, Va., Perez always had a love of history. A viewing of the 1991 film “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken,” about Depression-era diving horse girl Sonora Carver, got Perez fascinated with her future workplace.

“That was the first I ever heard of Atlantic City. I just fell in love with Atlantic City, I thought ‘What a cool place,’“ she said.

After getting her master’s degree in archives management at the University of Maryland, Perez heard about the opening at the Heston Room, the research facility where library’s historic documents are stored.

Perez prepped for the job interview by grabbing a copy of the late Grace D’Amato’s book about Atlantic City’s 500 Club and giving herself a quick course in the city’s history.

Now she spends her days cataloging the books, family photos and property records people donate to the library, answering questions from the public and helping historians research books and articles.

“If you are serious about Atlantic City history, you can’t bypass the Heston room,” Johnson said. “It’s like Grand Central Station for history.”

Having only worked at the library for three and a half years, Perez said she can’t claim the depth of knowledge that Atlantic City’s better-known historians possess.

“My biggest hurdle is not being from the area. People look at me as an outsider and I have to prove my mettle each time, but I’m up for the challenge — I hope” she said. “Maybe in 20 years I’ll have the knowledge that Boo or Vicki has.”

Perez said she works closely with the established historians, both to answer historical questions and also promote the city’s past.

There has been talk of the library teaming with the historical museum to create a new venue for showcasing the city’s history.

“It’s a possible nongaming attraction where people can come to learn about our history,” she said. “We want to create something special.”

And while Perez can also rattle off interesting tidbits about Atlantic City’s past, she admits she doesn’t always know an answer.

“I once got a call about Edward L. Bader. Someone wanted to know what his middle name was. We haven’t figured that out yet, but I’m hoping that someday I’ll know the answer,” she said.

Some of Atlantic City’s historians

Vicki Gold Levi

If people are born to be historians, Vicki Gold Levi falls into this group. Levi is the daughter of Al Gold, Atlantic City’s first official photographer from 1939 to 1964. Growing up in the city during the 1940s and ’50s, Levi’s was caught up in the hoopla for which the resort was so well-known. She served as page to Miss America 1945 Bess Myerson and was once billed as the world’s youngest radio disc jockey. Growing up and getting married, Levi was working in advertising and publicity in New York in 1979 when she teamed with Lee Eisenberg, Rod Kennedy and Susan Subtle to write “Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness.”

The book rekindled in Levi a love for Atlantic City history. It also inspired a new career. Levi learned she’d inherited her father’s knack for identifying good pictures. Working as a photo editor, Levi also amassed a collection of historic Atlantic City images. In the early 1980s she, Anthony Kutschera and Florence Miller worked together to form the Atlantic City Historical Museum.

Still living in New York City, Levi remains active in the museum and other Atlantic City projects, including working to preserve the massive pipe organ at Boardwalk Hall.

She’s also worked on numerous movies, plays and TV shows about Atlantic City.

“If a TV show or movie calls me, I’m very good at sizing up what the mission is and I can fulfill it, that’s one of my strengths,” Levi said.

Allen ‘Boo’ Pergament

Pergament grew up in the Inlet section of Atlantic City. But back then, it was basketball, not history, that was his consuming passion. Pergament got a job with South Jersey Gas, raised a family in Margate and coached thousands of local kids at basketball clinics and camps he conducted for 50 years. But something happened about 20 years ago. Pergament was having lunch at a restaurant in Ventnor and noticed some pictures of old Atlantic City on the wall. Suddenly, he was thinking about his childhood.

“Oh, God, the memories that came pouring out,” he said. He borrowed the pictures and copied them. He attended postcard shows, then started scouring local flea markets for Atlantic City memorabilia. When his daughter married and moved out of the house, (and Pergament learned her old room was too small for a pool table) he moved all the memorabilia into the room and his Boo-seum was born.

Genial and loquacious, Pergament is nonetheless a stickler for getting things right. He prefers doing his own primary research rather than depending on information he might read in other books.

“Boo is 100 percent accurate in anything you ever ask him. He is definitely a tremendous source of information,” Levi said.

Robert Ruffolo

When Ruffolo discusses Atlantic City history, he does it with a faint Southern accent, the legacy of his growing up in Greensboro, N.C.

He moved to the city in 1972 to work with his father at Princeton Antiques. Working at the store, Ruffolo began collecting vintage postcards and photographs. Soon he was also on the lookout for other Atlantic City memorabilia.

“Over the years, there is very very little of it that I have sold,” he said. Persuaded by fellow local historian Herb Stern to join the Historical Museum, Ruffolo is one of its most active members.

“With my collecting and things, it was more of a natural thing for me to be an asset for Atlantic City,” he said of his decision to become involved. Ruffolo is now the organization’s chairman.

Ruffolo sees his interest in history as a way of also explaining the city’s present — and maybe even its future.

“The aspect of history that I enjoy is that almost everything has been done before in some shape and form. People forget, or don’t realize, what history was or how it influences what we do today. When people come to Atlantic City and they go to a beautiful casino to see a show, many don’t realize that all this stuff happened in the 1930s and 1940s, when we had all these big beautiful beachfront hotels,” he said. “Everything we do was done 50 or 60 years ago, and maybe better.”

Richlyn Goddard

Goddard got interested in history late in life, but that hasn’t stopped her from making an important contribution to the understanding of Atlantic City’s past.

An Atlantic City native, Goddard, 62, had returned to school in her 40s to get a degree in sociology and anthropology. Deciding to get her masters, Goddard proposed doing her dissertation on life in Atlantic City’s black community during the resort’s first century.

“My professors were the first to let me know that this was something that was really needed. Their initial response was that I could get a Ph.D. I just wanted my master’s degree,” she said.

Goddard got her master’s at Temple University and then went to Howard University and got that doctorate. As she did her research, she realized that while the list of black entertainers who played the city was well-known, practically no one else had examined what life was like for the black men and women who worked behind the scenes as Atlantic City became a hub of popular American culture.

While lots has been written on Atlantic City, resort promoters ignored the city’s sizable black community because they were afraid it would discourage tourists from coming here, Goddard said.

Using census records, papers from civic groups, research done the WPA and her own contacts, Goddard documented the contributions blacks made to the city.

“The movers and shakers are gone,but the family who knew them, lived with them can tell you what it was like,” said Goddard, who is now an adjunct professor of Africana Studies at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, her alma mater.

Goddard remains active. She dreams of someday seeing a center dedicated to the history of blacks in Atlantic City.

“We need someplace more tangible, where we can see our history and the contribution we made to the resort,” she said.

Nelson Johnson

If there is a celebrity among Atlantic City historians, Johnson it is — and he’s not all that comfortable with the designation.

“I just want to be known as a judge, a historian and a private person,” said Johnson, who is an Atlantic County Superior Court judge and author of “Boardwalk Empire,” the book about Atlantic City history that HBO is now turning into a TV series. “I don’t want to be considered (a celebrity) at all. I love to research and write, so being a judge and historian fits in with my proclivities.”

The 61-year-old Hammonton man first became interested in Atlantic City history when working as attorney for the city’s planning board. After writing “Boardwalk Empire,” he recognized the book had the potential to become a Hollywood project. He launched a campaign to find someone to bring his story before the cameras.

“I made a whole lot of efforts to get people interested in the book as a vehicle for some kind of dramatic treatment,” Johnson said. The author made trips to Los Angeles and pitched the book to producers, agents and movie folks. His sales spiel focused on Atlantic City’s shady past.

“I would ask ‘Do you know where organized crime was born?’ and most would answer Chicago. I was telling them “‘No, it was born in Atlantic City with the 1929 organized crime convention,’” Johnson said.

When “Boardwalk Empire” premieres in the fall, Johnson will also unveil his latest book, a history of the black community on the city’s north side. The book was born out of Johnson’s fascination with the topic while researching his first book.

“When I was doing the first book, I realized how pivotal the black community was to Atlantic City’s creation. I had lots of difficulty with that chapter and kept putting it down,” Johnson said. “When I was done with the book, I knew this was something I wanted to explore further.”

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