I expect Frankie and Annette to walk out of the Lollipop Motel. If you know who they are, you will know what I mean. If you are too young to remember them, you owe yourself a ride on a Doo Wop Back to the ’50s Tour, centered in the nation’s capital of doo wop architecture, Wildwood, N.J., located in the big toe of the Garden State.
In the late ’50s and early ’60s, about 300 futuristic mom and pop motels existed in this beach town going through a tourism explosion. Today there are about 100. There may have been a Cold War going on, but in terms of pop culture, these were happy times, the innocent days of rock ’n’ roll. It was the era of Elvis and Marilyn and the Philadelphia sounds of Bobby Rydell and Chubby Checker. Rydell even had a modest hit in 1963 titled, “Wildwood Days,” based on this resort.
Teens at the beach listened to the top 40 songs of the week, mostly about teenage love, on state of the art transistor radios. The name “doo wop” stems from the background choruses of so many pop tunes of the time. Songs protesting war and glorifying drug use were unheard of.
In terms of movies, this period was somewhere between "Blackboard Jungle" and "The Graduate." Cinema for the young generation starred Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, usually partying on the sand and in the surf. The most dangerous things they ingested were greasy fries and sugary soft drinks. Marijuana didn’t touch the lips of Frankie and Annette.
The future looked bright and the Beach Blanket Bingo architecture summed it all up. Our tour guide Tony Eisele (nom de tour guide: Arthur Fonzarelli) explained its genesis as we rode past the doo wop motels still lining Atlantic, Pacific and Ocean avenues and various side roads. World War II was over and families had disposable income for leisure vacations. In previous decades, most transients were men traveling on business and most lodging was in the forms of big city downtown hotels or boarding and rooming houses, none really conducive for families planning to spend a week tossing beach balls and swimming in the Atlantic.
Wildwood-based entrepreneurs and homebuilders, such as brothers Lewis and Wilbert Morey, had an idea. Why not make it convenient for recreation seekers to stay overnight near the beach? Motels, short for motor hotels, already existed throughout the country, but the Morey brothers wanted to inundate the Wildwoods (there are actually four separate towns: (Wildwood, West Wildwood, Wildwood Crest and North Wildwood, collectively known as the Wildwoods By The Sea) with motels. And they wanted their motels to architecturally reflect the happy times and the sparkling future.
Exterior colors of the new motels are exotic; straight lines are avoided, replaced by space-age curves and off-kilter angles. Even the balcony railings of many motels are undulating, resembling the grilles of contemporary automobiles. The motels were given names of glamorous places, such as the Tahiti and the Kona Kai, or futuristic names like the Satellite Motel and the Astronaut Motel; or names that evoked fun in the sun: the Sandcastle Motel and the Beach Waves Motel.
The Casa Bahama Motel went so far as to boast fake tiki huts. Motel signs are bright, cheerful neon, the more glaring and gaudy, the better. Some roofs are evocative of rocket ships or in the case of the Hawaiian Motel, a flying saucer. Some motels, like the Lollipop, are just plain silly. And just about every motel has a pool, usually kidney or horseshoe-shaped.
As we cruised the beachfront area, Eisele (a.k.a. Fonzie), pointed out subtleties that we might not otherwise have noticed. Motels are deliberately angled to face the ocean, and some sidewalks are painted to resemble ocean waves. Eisele pointed out idiosyncrasies such as the Attaché Motel, with a roof line that abstractly resembles the rolling sea.
As indicated by the Attaché, not all the motel names evoke spacecraft or the water. Eisele showed us the Suitcase Motel, whose sign is in the shape of a man and woman sitting in an open suitcase. Years of exposure to sun, wind and sand, Eisele noted, have faded the top halves of the couple, giving them a sort of reverse sun tan. The Bristol Plaza Motor Inn was named for the Dovells’ 1961 hit, the “Bristol Stomp.” Eisele sang a few verses, then announced, “I can remember this song but I can’t remember my cellphone number.” The “Bristol Stomp” was named for a Philadelphia suburb, not unusual considering the amount of vacationers who came here from the Philly area.
As Eisele told us, the wave of motels brought in visitors and their money, but they did not sit well with permanent residents who had lived here for years. Their biggest complaint was that their ocean views that they had enjoyed for decades were blocked by the new motels. When the Pan American Motel opened in 1964, it featured a spinning Sputnik atop its roof. That distraction raised one’s eyebrows but also the ire of longtime locals. After a couple more motels with spinning orbs opened, longtime Wildwooders had had enough. That practice was stopped.
One touch of doo wop kitsch is actually misleading. The Caribbean Motel added a fake palm tree to its landscape in 1958. More were added to different motels over the next few years, but most plastic palms you see today were driven into motel courtyards long after the doo wop years ended. In 1984, Bristol Plaza Motor Inn's Bob Belansen stuck a few fake palms on his property, and in the late Reagan era there was a sudden sprouting of ersatz palm trees alongside many motels. They still stand.
Around the same time, real estate developers seeing dollar signs were showing up as well. Unlike places such as Santa Fe, Charleston, the South Beach section of Miami Beach and even Cape May just to the Wildwoods’ south, there are few ordinances regulating vintage architecture. Two thirds of the original doo wop motels have been torn down, many to make room for big box condominiums that stick out like warts. So while riders on the tour bus cruise down Atlantic Avenue, they might see two classic doo wop motels separated by three blocks of a hodgepodge of later-period architecture.
That change caused the Doo Wop Preservation League to panic. But longtime doo wop motel owner Jack Morey, son of Wilbert Morey, renovated one of the less colorful old motels into a neo doo wop Starlux Motel with an obligatory share of plastic, neon and aluminum. The new Starlux opened July 15, 2000. More neo-doo wop structures have opened since. But so have more condos. Eisele said, “Maybe we’ll have a condo doo wop tour in 60 years.”
Meanwhile, come to the Wildwoods and step back into the 1950s and 1960s while you can.
If you go
Note: Damage from Hurricane Sandy was further north. The Wildwoods were spared.
Doo Wop Back to the ’50s tours are offered Tuesday and Thursday at 8 p.m., June 25 through Sept. 5. They leave from the front of the Doo Wop Experience Museum, actually more of an expanded visitors center with a recreated period kitchen, living room and relics of the era. Admission: $12 adults, $6 for ages 12 and under. Information: (609) 523-1958. The website, www.doowopusa.org, has sufficient background, although it hasn’t been updated for a few years. Better to call the above phone number.
Lodging: Lollipop Motel, 2301 Atlantic Ave., (609-729-2800), rooms from July 12 through Aug. 17 range from $187-$209; rooms from June 25 through July 11 and Aug. 18 through Sept. 5 range from $99-$209. www.lollipopmotel.com
Astronaut Motel, 511 East Stockton Blvd., (609-522-6981), rooms from June 25 through Sept. 5 range from $125-$280. www.astronautmotel.biz
Starlux Hotel, 305 E. Rio Grande Ave., (609-522-7412), rooms from June 25 through Sept. 5 range from $89-$350. hotels.moreyspiers.com/starlux
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received an MFA in professional writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at [email protected].