A reunion Saturday at Atlantic City's Steel Pier

Tony Grant's Stars of Tomorrow were the " 'American Idol' of [their] day." The Steel Pier reunion will honor them and many more.
Tony Grant's Stars of Tomorrow were the " 'American Idol' of [their] day." The Steel Pier reunion will honor them and many more.
Posted: July 21, 2013

Atlantic City's iconic diving horses won't be there. Shiloh and Amir and all those other audience-thrilling equines have gone to the big Water Tank in the Sky.

But one of their warm-up acts, Rich "Cannonball" Carty, will be among those gathering Saturday for a reunion of the Steel Pier's performers, workers, and patrons.

"The pier was a part of my life," said Carty, 73, who as a young man would climb into a little car atop a 50-foot high tower, have it plunge down a track, and then do a midair backflip over the water before oohing crowds.

He's retired now and living in Florida, but said he "wouldn't miss this for the world."

The reunion begins on the pier at 3 p.m., takes a break at 5, and resumes at 8. It is open to anyone with fond memories of the pier's restaurants, theaters, rides, and games in its heyday - a medley of attractions that once billed itself as the "entertainment capital of the world." The pier remains in operation as a small amusement park.

Before the casino era, which began in 1978, the 1,000-foot pier on the Boardwalk was not only home to the Miss America pageant in the mid-1930s, it drew such stars as Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, Louis Armstrong, Bob Hope, Diana Ross, Frankie Avalon, and the Beach Boys.

The pier's owner, George Hamid Jr., also booked the Beatles in 1964, but presented them at the larger Convention Hall.

But the pier was populated, too, by people such as Carty, who drove the trucks, escorted the stars, lugged furniture, sawed and nailed, and took tickets, as well as the millions who for eight decades walked its planks, ate its hot dogs, and watched its shows.

Among these was a 12-year-old Bruce Springsteen, whose mother took him to watch Chubby Checker perform in 1962. There is no evidence Springsteen will attend, but he and anyone else who strolled the pier is welcome, say organizers.

"We all at heart love this place," said Jim Craine, a band leader and radio host who helped put the event together.

"That's where the showbiz bug bit me," said Craine, who started working on the pier as a barker at age 9. ("I was big for my age," he explained.)

For 10 summers, he recalled, he sat on the piano bench with Duke Ellington during his rehearsals. "He got a kick that someone my age dug jazz," said Craine, 58, who also befriended the drummer Buddy Rich.

Craine will broadcast the reunion live on WOND-AM from 8 to 10 p.m.

From 3 to 5, the reunion will honor the memory of Tony Grant and the Stars of Tomorrow, which served not only as a talent show for area dance schools but was, said Craine, the " American Idol of its day."

The late Tony Grant and his son, Tony Jr., "discovered Brenda Lee, Bobby Rydell, Fabian, Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, and Andrea McArdle," Craine said.

Tony Grant "was the most inspirational man," recalled Celeste Mogab, now of Glen Mills, who began dancing for the Tonyettes as a teenager in 1949 and became the troupe's captain.

Mogab, 81, recalled performers such as Jane Russell and Danny Kaye "popping their heads into our rehearsals," and child dancers "sitting on Groucho's lap and pulling on his mustache."

"I have nothing but happy memories" of her pier days, Mogab said.

In 1969, Bob Schoelkopf began working on the pier for Ocean Wonder World, "cleaning tanks and vacuuming the show pool for dolphins." Soon, he recalled, he was "manager of the water circus that featured dolphins and sea lions."

"And because we managed dolphins, we started getting calls whenever someone found an animal on the beach." Although it sometimes irked the show's owners, Schoelkopf began spending more time caring for stranded whales, seals, dolphins and turtles, and in 1978 "decided I didn't want to work anymore with animals in captivity."

He and his wife, Sheila Dean, now operate the Marine Mammal Stranding Center in Brigantine, for which Saturday's reunion is a fund-raiser. The center receives no state or federal funding, according to Schoelkopf.

In addition to "a dolphin we picked up two days ago on Long Beach Island, we've got a sea turtle hit by a boat and three seals in the house," he said.

One is a gray seal pup from "sweet as a puppy dog" that weighs 150 pounds and is "eating 17 pounds a day. Proceeds from the reunion "will help pay for his food," Schoelkopf said.

Contact David O'Reilly at 856-779-3841 or doreilly@phillynews.com or @doreillyinq on Twitter.

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