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Doo Wop: When Ike Was President But Elvis Was The King

Gaudy? Definitely. Eccentric and outlandish? Positively. Exciting, energizing and fun beyond words? You bet!

And, what exactly is gaudy, eccentric, outlandish and fun? Doo Wop - the music and architecture synonymous with the 1950s when Ike was president but Elvis was the king and the capital of the Jersey Shore was definitely Wildwood.

America was a country on wheels in the 1950s. Everyone was in love with their cars, their huge, gas guzzlers with sweeping tail fins that took them to drive-in movies, to burger joints with car hops on roller skates and to motels, those motor hotels that quickly replaced hotels and tourist cabins. In the Wildwoods, those motels sprang up in volume and variety, but with a look that years later would be labeled Doo Wop, a regional term that connects the building styles to the musical sounds that defined the 1950s and 1960s.

Today, Doo Wop is getting is its due. Over 200 of these Doo Wop-style buildings, most of them ablaze with neon and adorned with plastic palm trees, are clustered in this resort town famous for its boardwalk and beaches. Motels with names like Satellite that recall the space age and architectural features that seem to defy gravity are winning national recognition for the 1950s, a time like no other in America's history.

As "sh-boom, sh-boom and shoobee-doowop doo wah" reverberated around the country, the Wildwoods became a Mecca for show biz legends playing the clubs around town and adding glitz and glamour to an era of endless summer at the Jersey Shore. "The Wonderful World of Disney" and "Meet the Jetsons" invaded every family's living room, thanks to that electronic phenomena called television. Hawaii, a tropical paradise most people only dreamed of visiting, became our 50th state and America teetered on the brink of the Space Age.

Unlike neighboring Cape May, a town whose Victorian architecture was meant to be enjoyed on horseback or on foot at a leisurely pace, Wildwood was building motels designed to catch the eye as extravagant billboards that served as advertisements for themselves. The Art Deco and Moderne architecture of years earlier had, by the 1950s, changed to a moving, vibrant statement, meant to be seen at 30 miles an hour.

Building technology using reinforced concrete was a way to show off America's technology muscle with aerodynamic looks that resembled jet liners, a ski jump or floating balconies. Signs that appeared to be unconnected to buildings, especially at night in the glow of neon, were all the rage as Doo Wop, both as a musical sound and architectural style, flourished.

For people who could only dream of a vacation in an exotic places, there were hotels with names like the Waikiki, Tahiti, and the Royal Hawaiian. Thatched huts, Kon Tiki heads and pagoda roofs helped fulfill travel fantasies for families from South Philadelphia.

The champagne glass door decorations at the Pink Champagne Motel, and its very name, illustrates the luxury people wanted in their vacation accommodations. Tomorrowland-style ramps from the World's Fair were duplicated at the Caribbean Motel. Eden Roc with its levitating balconies was named for a posh hotel in Miami and the Hialeah was supposedly built with money won at the Hialeah rack in Florida. Then there's the Surf Side, named for the popular surfing songs of the day and designed to look like a giant pinwheel.

Part of the fun of Doo Wop is its inconsistencies. Some names are a little convoluted, giving rise to the term "fractured geography." Casa, a Spanish word, is paired with Bahama, a British island, while the Tangiers is a Moroccan name for a building with a Polynesian look. "Phoney Colonee" describes pseudo-Early American look especially a red brick motel, complete with white trim and a cupola with a distinctive New England look and name.

Roof styles of the Doo Wop era are categorized into three basic styles: the gull, defined as a shallow, repeated angle to create a gentle undulating appearance; the butterfly as in the roof line of the office building at the Imperial 500 motel which is almost an accordion pleat, and the boomerang, best exemplified by the Satellite Motel.

Doo Wop walls lean in and lean out, sometimes at the same time as they do at the Caribbean Motel. Other predominant features from the era include a rick rack balcony design, a ratcheted roof line and tiers of balconies. The cantilevered roof, so popular in the 1950s, displays the public's confidence in the technology that was just beginning to blossom.

At Big Ernie's dinner, the original 1959 jukebox still plays three songs for a quarter and the decor features plenty of records - the 45 rpm variety. The Wildwood Diner, just down the street on Atlantic Avenue, is one of three remaining diners manufactured by the Superior Diner Company.

The Satellite Motel is vintage Doo Wop, a Wildwood original with its blast off style. The Starlux, on the corner of Atlantic and Rio Grande avenues, is brand new retro and boasts all the important Doo Wop elements - cheese holes, boomerang lettering and aqua glass, one of THE Doo Wop colors. And, of course, there are the Wildwood miracles, palm trees that grow out of concrete. Down Atlantic Avenue, another new business, the trendy restaurant and martini bar Maureen, sports a Doo Wop look with an oversized martini glass in neon.

Doo Wop tours, a 45-minute guided trolley ride around town with stories about the way life was in the Wildwoods during the Doo Wop days with great tunes from the 1950s, are sponsored by the Mid Atlantic Center for the Arts. The Doo Wop Preservation League, Pine and Pacific Avenues in Wildwood, is open to the public. For information call 609.729.4000.

For more information about these activities or special events call the Cape May County Department of Tourism at 800-227-2297.

EDITORS: For photos of any of these events or attractions please contact the Cape May County Department of Tourism at 1-609-463-6415 and we will be happy to supply whatever photos are needed.

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Revised: 02/11/08