Disco nights at the Jersey Shore

Donna Summer at the American Music Awards in 1979. Associated Press, File
Donna Summer at the American Music Awards in 1979. Associated Press, File
Posted: May 28, 2012

Don­na Summer died too soon at age 63. The mo­ment I heard of the dis­co diva’s pass­ing, I im­me­di­ate­ly thought of a recurring scene at the An­chor­age in Som­ers Point, N.J., at the height of her pop­u­lar­i­ty.

In the late 1970s and ear­ly 1980s, the icon­ic Jer­sey Shore bar nicknamed one por­tion of its in­te­ri­or "Ralph’s Lounge," a tip of the hat to an epon­y­mous bar­tend­er whose bushy black mus­tache and leath­er avi­a­tor’s cap I can still pic­ture to­day.

The week­ly Ka­mi­ka­ze nights were the busiest at the An­chor­age, while on Ha­wai­ian nights, Ralph would pour shots while wearing a grass skirt. The bouncers were big and the women wore hal­ter tops showcasing sun­tanned shoulders earned from days spent on the beach in Ocean City or Mar­gate. The beer was plen­ti­ful. To this day, you can still see faded and torn T-shirts on some South Jer­sey beaches ad­ver­tis­ing the An­chor­age’s re­mark­able of­fer of sev­en beers for a dol­lar.

And then there was the night­ly bac­cha­nal.

It began when the juke­box amplified Don­na Summer’s cooing the opening bars of a song that became an An­chor­age hym­nal.

Last dance

Last dance for love

Rec­og­ni­tion of the song would cause a drum­beat among the col­lege-age crowd. They’d im­me­di­ate­ly fo­cus their at­ten­tion on Ralph, and a bur­lesque-like ne­go­ti­a­tion would be­gin. The crowd demanded ac­tion. Ralph feigned a lack of ­in­ter­est while fill­ing patrons’ glasses. All the while the song continued.

Yes, it’s my last chance

For ro­mance to­night

By now the shouts from the bare­ly le­gal crowd would al­most drown out the juke­box while Ralph went about his work.

I need you by me

Be­side me, to guide me

To hold me, to scold me

'Cause when I’m bad

I’m so, so bad

Then, bor­der­line pandemonium and a brief sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. May­be he re­al­ly wasn’t going to do it to­night? Hey, what’s wrong with Ralph? But with the timing of a DJ who could hit the mark, just when the mu­sic built to a cre­scen­do, Ralph would run the length of the joint, scale the bar, and com­mence dancing for the crowd, all the while the mu­sic thumped …

So let’s dance the last dance

Let’s dance the last dance

Let’s dance this last dance to­night

The An­chor­age was heav­en on those nights. Ask patrons about some of the oth­er leg­end­ary haunts — Beach­comb­er, Maynards, Tony Mart’s, Dunes ’til Dawn, Mother’s, Phil’s Bon­go Room, Bayshores — and chances are they can tell you sim­i­lar traditions about each.

Summer un­of­fic­ial­ly begins this week­end, and there will be plen­ty of celebrating the Shore for its beaches and fam­i­ly memories. Those of us born and raised here tend to main­tain an al­le­giance to a par­tic­u­lar Shore town and rel­ish taking our kids to the same beaches we once visited with our parents. We also hold firm in our opinions about par­tic­u­lar watering holes, and we re­sist change.

The Geator, Jer­ry Blavat, who has owned Memories in Mar­gate for 40 years, broke it down for me.

"When you own a bar or club and open it up Memorial Day week­end af­ter clos­ing it Labor Day, you don’t have to do a thing to it," explained the Boss with the Hot Sauce. "You don’t have to ren­o­vate. Be­cause next year, peo­ple want to come back to the same feel. But when you own a club in Phil­ly, peo­ple are al­ways giving it a dif­fer­ent look. The Shore bars, they al­ways look the same."

He’s right. It’s been a few decades and Ralph’s Lounge is now a dining room, but the main bar at "the Anch" still looks the same. Sitting on a bar stool there last sum­mer, I was struck by how many patrons seemed to walk in the door and sur­vey the land­scape with a look that says they were there long ago, and have been coming back ever since.

"You want to re­live the mem­o­ry of what you had the year be­fore," the Geator told me. "That’s why I call my place Memories."

Con­tact Mi­chael Smerconish via www.smerconish.com. Read his columns at www.philly.com/smerconish.

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