By Robert Heide with John Gilman
During the 1940s War years I was a wee tot who spent every summer in nearby Olympic Park, New Jersey’s greatest amusement park, which opened in 1840 and sadly closed in 1965. My father enjoyed the beer garden there sitting at a table and listening to Joe Basile’s brass band and a coloratura soprano named Bubbles Ricardo, a former trapeze artist and member of ‘The Flying Ricardo’s’ singing wartime songs like When the Lights Go On Again All Over the World. There was an outdoor swimming pool which was heralded the world’s largest, an amazing fun house and Penny Arcade and what was also called ‘the World’s most beautiful merry-go-round as well as a weekly circus. I found myself, then called Little Bobby, hanging out there with other neighborhood kids, practically every day in July and August. Our house on Franklin Terrace in Irvington was only two blocks from the park. Later summers found me down at the Great New Jersey shore. My older brother Walter who was an Army Air Force tail-gunner during the War and flew over Hitler’s Germany later married and moved to California where he raised a big family. One day my father Louis and my mother Olga came into the living room and announced that they had bought two bungalows, oddly enough, on Franklin Avenue in Seaside Heights. After that my sister Evelyn, who was fifteen years my senior spent time in Seaside with her gal pal Mary Bray. Both worked at the Prudential Insurance Company in downtown Newark. Mary bought a bungalow in South Seaside Park and Evelyn herself married and with her husband Pete moved to the shore and raised a family as well.
– WW II Memory by RH.
As time went on right up to the present, I have continued taking Jersey shore beach trips with my partner John Gilman. Often after we have crossed the Manasquan River we stop to fuel up at the Beach Shack (732-600-0789) in Point Pleasant, at the south end of the boardwalk at 216 Ocean Avenue. My niece Gail Coulter runs this gastronomic delight right on the beach and it is not to be missed. During the season it is open from 7 AM to 3 PM and the fare is delicious—from waffles and shakes to veggies and bagels to egg platters with sausage or pork roll to clam chowder to avocado and egg on toast and practically anything else you can think of. For many years we drove to the shore in our 1954 Pink Plymouth Belvedere convertible but now we go the easy way, by train—from Penn Station in New York the North Jersey Coast line of New Jersey Transit departs practically every hour. The trains go the short distance through the Jersey Meadowlands west to Newark, and then head south to the shore towns all the way to Bay Head where the trains turn around and go back up to New York. From Bay Head, where we often stay at my other niece Carol Tooker’s house ideally situated between the Ocean and Twilight Lake (actually the beginning of the great Barnegat Bay) to points south, you need to drive, or be driven, down the peninsula (Barnegat Bay on one side, the Atlantic on the other) past the enormous beach houses in Mantoloking—Katharine Hepburn and Richard Nixon stayed there, at different times and places of course—and on south to the humble seaside bungalow towns like Lavallette—They love a lot in Lavallette we always sing. Finally we get to the place we consider to be the most amazing out-of-this-world Jersey shore beach town, Seaside Heights. This has a boardwalk and two amusement park piers jutting into the Ocean. Everything in Seaside is a sight and a delight from the wide white-sand beaches to the boardwalk games of chance, ice-cream, T-Shirt and candy stores, to grass-green-haired Jersey boys to Jersey girls with surprise spray-on swirl super-high upswept hair-do’s to the not-to-be-missed world famous pizza at Maruca’s. A short distance south of Seaside is Island Beach State Park that ends at the Barnegat Inlet. This spot, an untouched peninsula 10 miles long with a single two-lane road running down the center, is one of New Jersey’s greatest treasures populated only by Ospreys, dune fox, fish of all kinds on both sides, turtles and even Pelicans. Beyond, going south along New Jersey’s 127 mile length past Tuckerton, Absecon, Atlantic City and Margate the home of Lucy the Elephant—pictured, on the cover of our Jersey guidebook O’ New Jersey, to Ocean City, summer home of Grace Kelly when she was a girl and down to the jumping off point in Cape May for the Monarch butterfly migration to Central and South America.
Cape May is easily a three-hour ride from Manhattan. But much closer, and just as wonderful, is Asbury Park and Ocean Grove. These towns, distinctly different, share their train station and are only about an hour and a half from New York. Asbury Park is an entertainment Mecca, home of the famed Stone Pony where Bruce Springsteen got his start, the nautically decorated Paramount Theater, Convention Hall, the former Howard Johnson’s and the Wonder Bar which features the grinning face of Tillie, a Jersey shore mascot. Overnight accommodations can be found at many places including the historic Berkeley-Carteret Hotel, built in 1925, and the gay, campy Empress Hotel which includes a swimming pool and several lounges and bars that feature male strip routines. Judy Garland stayed at both of these hotels when she performed at the nearby Garden State Arts Center, and famously failed to pay the bills for herself and her entourage. Cookman Avenue, Asbury’s main street, has shops and restaurants, some right on Wesley Lake, which is spanned by two bridges to Ocean Grove and at the boardwalk on the ocean, the copper clad Art Nouveau merry-go-round building. Nothing could be further from Asbury than its southern neighbor right next door, Ocean Grove. This amazing place was founded by the Methodists as a summer camp meeting resort in 1869 and today it seems that it is in a time bubble from its Victorian era past. In the center of the mile square town is a 5,000 seat wooden auditorium where the Camp Meeting Association gives concerts and Sunday sermons. At the end of the auditorium events a giant light bulb lit American flag appears blinking on and off in front of the massive organ. Spreading out from the building, which has a huge lighted cross on the roof donated in 1980 by Woody Allen when he made his movie Stardust Memories there, are 114 canvas tents raised on wooden platforms and attached at the back to shacks which contain kitchen and bathroom facilities. People, mostly good Methodists, rent them for the season. The town features over a dozen or more hotels and bed and breakfasts, at reasonable rates for simple, comfortable and convenient-to-the-beach rooms. Most provide breakfast fare and access to shared eating space as well as family rooms for television watching. One of the best places to stay is The House by the Sea, 14 Ocean Avenue. This is a reasonably priced 18-room hotel built in 1928 with three porches facing the ocean. Call Linda Bedoya at (732) 774-4771 for reservations. Ocean Grove has a wonderful outdoor ice cream parlor named Days and many more places to dine and shop, including a bakery and a bible store. Just inland in Jack Nicholson’s hometown, Neptune, Pete and Elda’s Tavern and Carmen’s Pizzeria is known far and wide for its Jersey-famous cracker thin pizza.
A recent driving trip with our friend, photographer Timothy Bissell, took us from Brooklyn where we had a brief meeting with a Mickey Mouse collector, across the Verrazano Bridge, across all of Staten Island, across the Outerbridge Crossing to New Jersey and then south to the Edison Bridge across the Raritan River. Getting off the road at Keyport on the Raritan Bay, we stopped for a fried fish dinner at the Keyport Fisheries. This was unbelievably delicious and fortified us for the road ahead. From Keyport we went up and down the hills of Atlantic Highlands and burst into full view of the sea crossing another bridge over the Navesink and Shrewsbury Rivers both of which empty into the Raritan Bay. To our left was Sandy Hook State Park, a former military fort. In the pre-Pandemic days a ferry left from lower Manhattan early in the morning taking people to the State Park for the day, and picking them up in the evening. To the best of our knowledge this has not been resumed. The road from here passes the upscale shore community of Rumson, where Bruce Springsteen lives—Bruce, with wife Patti Scialfa, opened his big bucks Return to Broadway engagement in June, the first Broadway show since COVID-19 shut down live entertainment in March, 2020, at the St. James Theater, on stage through August to September 4.
We drove on through the invigorating sea air to Sea Bright where New York meteorologists like Sam Champion and Jeff Smith report on the Atlantic storms, often standing in the flooded town in water up to their knees, the wind blowing their hats off and on to Long Branch, where Robert’s Aunt Emma once saw a beached whale, past the landmark Windmill Hot Dog building, past Deal, another posh Seaside town where the aforementioned Bruce used to live in an oceanfront mansion, and landing in Asbury Park, where Bruce made his first important career steps with the E Street Band at the Stone Pony. We visited the boardwalk, grabbed a slice from Maruca’s pizza stand (the Seaside Heights Maruca Twins have opened an outpost here) and drove around to the entrance to Ocean Grove. We finished our day sitting on the pier, catching the cool breeze and watching the stars coming out, finally returning up the Parkway to the City of New York where we started. On the ride back we sang some of the stanzas from John Pizzarelli’s song, I Like Jersey Best. In a Jersey summer place it all adds up to a lyric from the song Jersey Girl written by Tom Waits and made famous by the boy from Freehold—Bruce Springsteen—
Tonight I’m gonna’ take that ride
across the river to the Jersey side
Take my baby to the Carnival
and I’ll take her on all the rides
‘Cause down the shore everything’s all right
You and your baby on a Saturday night.
Jersey aficionados Robert Heide and John Gilman have co-authored a new 3rd Edition of O’ New Jersey—Eateries, Daytripping, Back roads, Funky Adventures (published by St. Martin’s Griffin, NY), as well as Backroads of New Jersey (MBI Publishing, Minneapolis), and New Jersey—Art of the State (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, NY.)