Billy Lee would often tell me how much he hated me throughout high school. There was little harm in this. After we graduated, the two of us became friends. I emulated Billy. He was much cooler – and smarter – than I was. Billy Lee was a gifted artist, and singer, and musician. He scored the lead in a high school musical I could not even summon the guts to audition for. He was cast as Jesus Christ. I wound up hawking programs by the door.
During June of 1993, Billy Lee and I began working together on Surfside Pier, for Bill Salerno, the perennial right-hand man to Bill Morey, Jr. Bill Morey, Jr. was the eldest child of Bill Morey, Sr. Bill Morey, Sr. and his brother, Will, were responsible for revolutionizing the Wildwood boardwalk starting back in the 1970s. As the story goes, Bill and Will were in Fort Lauderdale when they came across a super-slide that was set up inside a parking lot. The brothers thought this was a lucrative idea, and upon returning to the Wildwoods in 1969, the two of them secured enough financing to assemble a similar model along a wooden pier they had purchased at 25th Street and the boardwalk. Bill and Will named their new attraction the Wipe Out. At the time they charged a quarter for the privilege of riding it. Two decades later, the Morey Organization owned three major amusement piers and two water parks across a one-mile span of promenade. The organization was charging a little over $40 for a splash-n-ride combo (AKA a one-day pass).
Bill Morey, Jr. was the owner of Bill’s Concessions, a boardwalk enterprise that included: one Dime Pitch, one Ring Toss, one softball-style Milk Can Game, and one traditional, stand-alone caramel corn joint (named after Bill Morey, Jr.’s grandmother, Anna). All of these outlets were located either at or near the block-long entrance to Surfside Pier.
Billy Lee and I were associated with the gaming side of that business. The two of us were microphone operators, competing night after night to see who could generate the most revenue in a stand. The idea, at least so far as Billy and I were concerned, was not so much to fleece the general public as it was to entertain the masses, accumulating a fair and steady profit along the way. By mid-summer, Billy and I had grown so fatigued that we’d arrive at work in the morning wearing the same outfits we had clocked out in a handful of hours before.
Billy had proven capable of pulling his shit together when need be, whereas I could never seem to acquit myself of appearing vile. Billy was aware of this, and one afternoon he went out and he purchased clothes for me – a rainbow tie-dye, a pair of jeans, a hooded poncho and a pair of sandals. Billy did this because I was poor and because I was incapable of taking care of myself. Billy and his sister would occasionally invite me over for a decent meal, during which they’d allow me to do a load of wash, as well.
Throughout the month of June, Billy Lee ran Bill, Jr.’s Can Game, while I operated a Ring Toss 20 feet across the way. Several times a shift, the two of us would ratchet up the ante, adjusting the volume on house speakers, climbing on top of counters, running quick-hit specials geared toward generating as much business as possible in an abbreviated period of time. The goal was to attract and keep a counter full of customers, maintaining an extremely high level of intensity – or “tip” – for as long as one could. This proved particularly challenging at the Ring Toss – a carney favorite so predisposed to luck that the only sure winners were those who had either devised some fail-safe method of cheating or sought the help of a grifting operator (the two were not exclusive).
One popular method of cheating involved the throwing of cracked rings, which were more prone to rest flat upon the mark. Another common fix depended on the throwing of two rings – one on top of the other, thereby allowing the lower ring to ricochet, then stand pat upon a bottle. Any operator with good instincts and a well-trained ear could squash these scams outright. Cracked rings make a distinctly hollow sound whenever they clank off of a sheet of glass, in much the same way a stack of rings makes an insanely shrill racket whenever it goes careening off a bottle. There were rules posted along the facade of every Ring Toss prohibiting the use of cracked or multiple rings. Most Ring Tosses would also disqualify the first row of bottles – a measure taken to discourage players from leaning over to place a ring, assuming the operator had turned his back.
Come the final week in July, Billy Lee was called upon to run Bill, Jr.’s Dime Pitch – the Mecca of all boardwalk games, frequented by both locals and tourists alike. Billy’s promotion meant I would, in turn, take over as the emcee of Bill, Jr.’s Can Game. I saw this as an opportunity, a chance to incorporate some display of good-time showmanship whenever Bill Morey, Jr. was around.
One night in August, I spotted Bill Salerno and Bill Morey, Jr. having a discussion by the Ring Toss. The two of them were joined by Billy Lee, who was on a break. Assuming this could be my moment, I amped the speakers up to 10, then scrambled spry onto the counter. I shuffled clear across the stand, before launching into a straddle; the precision of which was only rivaled by my landing. “Whew!” I hollered into the microphone. “Who’s ready to get their game on?”
I took a running leap, eager to mount the counter with one leg. Only I measured the distance wrong, and, as a result, I wound up skinning my left leg on the way down. I could feel my knee cap splinter. The microphone thundered with a boom. Billy Lee appeared above me; he helped me hobble to a bench. Bill Salerno and Bill Morey, Jr. were gone now. I could see them wandering north toward the office.
A Wild Ride: The Story of Morey’s Piers by Jack Wright, Exit Zero, 2009.
Wildwood by the Sea by David Francis, Diane DeMali Francis and Robert Scully, Amusement Park Books, 1998.
(Moving On is a regular feature on IFB)