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 1986 - 1988

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After 47 years at the Palace helm, the Lange family decided to call it quits in 1985.
Courtesy of Billy Smith.
They were still making money, just not as much as during the glory days, and with the fight against theft and break-ins getting harder all the time, the Langes put out the word that they and their current silent partner, insurance man Charles Wiseman, were ready to sell the rides, shut down, and market the Palace as a warehouse.

Up stepped Sam and Henry Vaccaro, bothers in life and business, and perhaps the most active local backers of waterfront reconstruction. Believing that Asbury Park was turning a corner, the brothers Vaccaro invested their sizeable family fortune in 23 waterfront properties, including the Palace, and their acquisition gave the historic arcade three more years of life.

The Vaccaros also condemned the Palace, unintentionally according to Sam Vaccaro, by virtue of having signed a contract as a minority partner to Joseph Carabetta, a big-time Connecticut developer who arrived in town as the presumptive savior of the waterfront. When Carabetta went broke, the Vaccaros fell with him, but that was years later, and in 1986 and 1987, the Vaccaros invested heavily in the Palace.



French-made children's carousel at the Palace (1986). Auction photo from a Sotheby's catalogue. view larger image
In the area between the carousel and the rotating wheel, near a frog bog game, Sam Vaccaro introduced an antique children's carousel dated to 1919. It was of French origin, with two metal racing cars, four metal touring cars, three motorcycles, four bicycles, a motorboat accommodating two passengers, three carved wooden goats pulling a carved chariot with scroll motifs, a carved wooden cow, tiger, fox, lion, horse, deer, and rabbit, and a fiberglass swan, horse and donkey pulling a cart. It remained there, surrounded by a white picket fence, until the Palace closed.



The bumper boats were the last significant addition made by the Langes and the first to be removed by the Vaccaros'. Popular with patrons, the ride was a nightmare for operators. Fuel leaked from gasoline engines, fouling the water. Occasionally, engines fell from the boats and had to be retrieved from the bottom of the artificial pool. Worse yet were the engine fumes, trapped in place by the relatively low roof of the second story apartment of the Crystal Maze building. The ride was disassembled at Sam Vaccaro's direction and replaced by new video and coin-operated games.



The Vaccaros most expensive addition was a $120,000 SR-2 motion simulator located against the south wall of the Lake Avenue expansion, not far from the Auto-Skooter room. Organized like a bus, the simulator's 20 seats were synchronized to a large screen up front and moved through all sorts of twists and dips and wacky turns as one of six video adventures - such as a roller coaster ride or a pilot's-eye view from a jet fighter - flashed across the screen.



The Asbury Park Rock 'N' Roll Museum featured photos, lyrics, posters and more. Photo courtesy of Billy Smith. view larger image
In 1985, the Langes had installed a children's Play Port next to the Fun House; it was a large netted area filled with thousands of colored balls for the romping delight of children. In 1986, it gave way to a Palace anomaly, an unprecedented display of rock and roll memorabilia featuring photographs, posters, instruments and lyrics from musical giants of Asbury Park clubs. Housed in a 900-square foot structure, the Asbury Park Rock 'N' Roll Museum was the brainchild of music fans and collectors Billy Smith and Steven Bumball, whose authority on rock history had been won during thousands of hours spent at the Upstage, the Student Prince, The Sunshine In, the Fast Lane, and the Stone Pony.

"Asbury Park's rich musical history is the city's biggest tourist attraction," Smith says, "but the City was doing nothing to promote that." The museum filled the gap, with an enormous display of rarities including:

  • The 1966 acetate 45 rpm record recorded by Bruce Springsteen's high school band The Castiles (one of four in existence).
  • The Gibson Les Paul guitar played exclusively by Springsteen from 1968 until 1971.
  • A 1966 poster promoting concerts by both The Castiles and Steve Van Zandt's band The Shadows.
  • The original psychedelic glass sign that hung above the entrance to the Upstage Club in Asbury Park.
  • The two Gold Record Awards presented to Vini "Maddog" Lopez (a cousin of Palace artist and animator Ralph Lopez Jr.,) for playing drums on the first two Springsteen albums.
  • Over 40 different early rare concert posters for shows from 1965 to 1971 by Springsteen's various pre E Street bands.

For fans of Jersey shore rock and roll, the museum became a must-see destination.
Rock museum co-founders Stephen Bumball (left) and Billy Smith (right) lead Bruce Springsteen on a tour. Photo copyrighted by Debra Rothenberg. view larger image
"It was amazing, seeing the 1967 Freehold Regional High School yearbook photo of a vintage Bruce, and the 45-rpm record of "Baby I" by The Castiles," says Matt Engel of Wilkes Barre, Pa. "Billy and Steve really had a great thing going." The museum, however, was also the source of friction between the Vaccaros, Henry who favored it, Sam in opposition to the concept generally and specifically over the idea of charging admission to view memorabilia. "It was our only dispute at the Palace," Henry said later. The museum opened on July 4, 1986 and drew over 8,000 visitors a year to the Palace, with visitors from more than 32 countries. The museum was publicized on MTV, in Rolling Stone magazine, on dozens of TV news shows and in countless newspapers and magazines, and brought to the Palace a host of celebrity visitors, including Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Southside Johnny Lyon, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Patti Scialfa, Bo Diddley, and Steve Forbert.

Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven and Southside Johnny memorabilia figured prominently in the museum's displays. Photo courtesy of Billy Smith.
On Nov. 1, 1986, the museum and New York radio station 92.3 K-Rock teamed up to give the Palace a red-letter day, co-hosting a release listening party for Springsteen's Live 75-85 box set at the museum. Over 3,000 fans attended, the largest one-day crowd in Palace history.

"We were way ahead of our time, I guess," Smith said in 2005. "Recently, some of the leaders in Asbury Park have begun to understand that Asbury is a mecca for music fans, and that music is a potential source of tourism revenue for the city. We tried to point that out 19 years ago."


Courtesy of Billy Smith.
Attractions continued to be rotated in and out of the Fun House, much as they had during the Lange era. On one of the battlements, a trio of animated animals - a rhino, an elephant, and a lion - were placed on circus-like barrels from where they had a commanding view of the Olympic Bobs and the Orient Express.

The animated figure of a rhino, elephant and lion, used in various locations throughout the Palace. From the Collection of Peter Szikura. Left photo: Photo courtesy of Billy Smith. Other photos: From the Collectino of Peter Szikura. Photos copyrighted by Frank Saragnese.



The Vaccaros sandblasted and refinished Ernest Schnitzler's rotating wheel, and devoted over $100,000 and two years of work to repainting the carousel. It would prove to be the last touch-up for both classic rides at the Palace.

Suzanna Harris puts final touches on repainted carousel horse (1988). Photos courtesy of Suzanna Harris Libbin. view larger image
Suzanna Harris, one of the Lange employees who stayed on with the Vaccaros', did a little bit of everything at the Palace - taking tickets, operating rides and running the snack bar, "whatever needed to be done. I was the Jackie-of-all trades." Towards the end of the 1986 season, Sam Vaccaro proposed a total repainting of the carousel, and asked Harris, an experienced sign artist, to work on the project. "I was thrilled. I think he asked me because I was his cheapest alternative. Honestly, I was determined to do a good job, but in retrospect,
Three carousel horses in 1988. Photo courtesy of Suzanna Harris Libbin.
I was really under qualified. We learned as we went. We went from using endless cans of stripper, to setting up a big tank and dunk stripping them. I asked Sam if he wanted me to paint them the original colors. You could see (the colors) when we stripped them down. He brought in a book of restored carousel horses and said he wanted them to look like that. The pieces in the book were not original colors, but these slick, fantastic airbrushed living room pieces. We never did finish, but we came pretty close. I feel that we made it look great and function well enough to give lots of rides every day. After all, that was it's purpose."

Quoted extensively in Carrie Papa's book, "The Carousel Keepers," Bill Foster, an ex-cop hired by the Vaccaros to manage the Palace, suggested that the restoration was done not so much to attract customers to the Palace as it was a prelude to a possible move elsewhere. The Vaccaros, Foster told Papa, intended to move the carousel to a new location, but if so, their expectation, like so many others during the late 1980s, was not to be.

Artist Suzanna Harris checks the finish of a repainted horse, 1988. Photo courtesy of Suzanna Harris Libbin. view larger image Carousel horse, repainted in 1988. Photo courtesy of Suzanna Harris Libbin. view larger image

* * *

For a while, business was good. Sam Vaccaro recalls days with so many patrons he worried the crowd might be too large. The character of the crowds, however, was also changing in a way that Vaccaro said lived up to the Palace's reputation as a place parents didn't like their kids to go.

Beyond the Palace walls, however, much larger problems were taking shape that would soon, in combination, have a devastating impact.

During the summer of 1987, a 50-mile slick of discarded medical and hospital trash and household garbage ruined parts of the Jersey shore, and scared visitors away from nearly all the rest. Bill Foster, the Palace manager, was quoted as blaming the disaster for a 55 percent drop in Palace business; others, including Sam Vaccaro, dispute that figure but say the impact was very bad. A year later, mistakes made during the cleaning of Asbury Park's sewage line flushed high levels of fecal bacteria into the ocean, closing beaches for 19 days. The State of New Jersey fined Asbury Park more than $1 million for the mistake. The number of day visitors to Asbury Park dropped like a rock.

Carabetta, meanwhile, was gearing up to rebuild the waterfront, and his activities closed Convention Hall, putting to an end an annual series of shows - autos, boats, cars, flowers, among others - which brought tens of thousands of visitors to the Shore. The Palace felt the pain.

Through it all, Sam Vaccaro said he remained determined to keep the Palace open, and continued a regular maintenance program while upgrading games. Vaccaro said that neither he nor his brother foresaw that Carabetta was about to exercise the option in their contract that required them to turn over all 23 waterfront properties, in exchange for a note worth more than $4 million. That, however, is what happened in November of 1988, Vaccaro said, and on Nov. 27, with no advance notice, the Palace closed forever. The Vaccaros had 90 days to sell the rides, and vacate. Before long, as Carabetta tumbled toward bankruptcy, the $4 million note turned out to be virtually worthless.

The closure cost 25-to-30 seasonal and fulltime employees their jobs: mechanics, electricians, ride operators, painters, ticket sellers, and managers. The oldest, both chronologically and in seniority, was Olive Koster, 78, an Ocean Grove resident who operated ticket booth #1 by the Orient Express for 20 years. She was hired by Edward Lange on the very day she applied. Out of a job was Roger Harris, the shop manager, with a love of practical jokes. (Such as this: Harris rigged up one of the ghouls from the dark ride, a creepy old lady patterned after the axe killer Lizzie Borden, just behind the door of the darkened work shop, so when someone opened the door and flipped on the light switch, Lizzie would stand bolt upright and gnash her teeth.) Out of a job was Ed Kirschenbaum, head of security, who went on to become chief of detectives in the Monmouth County prosecutor's office, as well as Bill Foster, the manager, and his assistant, Brian Maher. And out of a job was Suzanna Harris who, while working the snack bar, made sure the children of a welfare mother growing up in a house behind the Palace got enough to eat when they'd show up each day with a handful of change and a wadded up dollar bill.