Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


It ain’t what it used to be

I just came back from two weeks in my original stomping grounds:  southern New Jersey, the area east of Philadelphia stretching down to become a peninsular shadow of Delaware. It’s an area of rivers, beaches, swamps, rednecks, amusement parks, many many trees, and high weirdness. (Like the famously supernatural Indian Cabin Road, which you can read about here and here — newly haunted by an endearingly odd friend of mine who moved there.)  It’s where I spent my salad days.

Much remains as it was when I left 21 years ago. I went fishing (to no avail) on the Great Bay, shooting out in the woods (four pistols:  a 357, a 45, a 9mm and a 22, as well as my late father’s double-ought thirty side-by-side shotgun), canoeing, riding rides on the boardwalk and jumping waves in Ocean City, and of course spent lots and lots of time eating clams. (Just to pass this along:  The perfect nutritionally balanced meal is four dozen clams and a beer. You heard it here first.)

But of course much has changed since I left 21 years ago, and since my boyhood. Rich Roesberg, a friend and reader of this blog, sent some photos of lost landmarks of the area that I thought I’d share.


This photo shows the infamous Garden State Park fire of 1977. As you can imagine, this was huge news at the time. (I was 15.)  Garden State Park was a horse-racing track. The success of this attraction pretty much created the boom in surrounding Cherry Hill, giving birth to the Cherry Hill Mall, the Latin Casino (which booked A-level stars like Sinatra and Liberace), and numerous other developments. When I was a kid, Cherry Hill Mall was like Xanadu. I hate malls (now), but at the time I couldn’t wait to see what wonders awaited me at Cherry Hill Mall. It’s about 45 minutes from the house I grew up in, but it may as well have been halfway across the globe. The fire above polished off the Garden State Park; it was competition from casinos that pretty much ended race time at the Atlantic City Race Course.


This is Olga’s Diner, which was on the Marlton Circle, one of those nexus points between Philadelphia and South Jersey. I just learned that it closed in 2008. When I was a young man, I had business that often brought me to this area (either selling comic books in Philadelphia, or delivering auto parts in the area later on). I can’t tell you how many times I ate at this diner. Last month when I was driving my wife and kids down from JFK for our vacation, I looked everywhere for a family-style diner like this at which to eat. I couldn’t find one. Finally we settled on an Applebee’s, one of the ubiquitous casual-dining chains that advertise constantly on TV. I’m still scrubbing the sodium from my teeth.


Yes, this is one of the famed Steel Pier diving horses shown in action. I got to see this act when I was a kid. The horse was trained to dive 60 feet through the air, a beautiful young woman on its back, landing in 10 feet of water. Cruel? Yes. (There were accusations that the horse didn’t “dive,” but fell when a trapdoor was sprung.) But it was an amazing thing to see, back when we were less enlightened about animal welfare. (I remember liking the young woman, too.) The act ended for good when Resorts International casino bought the pier.


This is Zipperhead, on South Street in Philadelphia. Not sure why this was included as a lost treasure in Rich’s email; last I checked — Rich in tow, last summer — Zipperhead was still there. And Lord knows I hope it is indeed still there. Zipperhead is where my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I would get some of our punk and new-wave accoutrements.  (She was punk; I was new wave. I don’t think there’s anything remotely punk about her any more, and given that my music of choice now serves as easy listening at airport terminals, I am feeling very old wave. When I went to see the Psychedelic Furs last month, I found myself wondering “What are all these fat old guys doing here?” Then I realized.) If Zipperhead is now a Polo store, someone must mount a charge.


The Sweetwater Casino was a somewhat-upscale (for the area) restaurant deep in the heart of the Pine Barrens where I grew up. It hugged the Mullica River that I grew up canoeing. I remember never wanting to go there as a kid because I didn’t want to eat anything on the menu. (My tastes have changed.) My parents would order something called “Clams Casino,” which I recall seeming especially repellent. The restaurant burned down in 2008, but the owners just re-opened the deck, and plans are underway to rebuild the restaurant. When my wife and I were first dating, my future mother-in-law insisted that we go to the Sweetwater Casino. I have no idea why. (At the time I thought she just wanted to see me spend some money on her daughter. In retrospect, I was pretty cheap.) She said that all we had to do was mention her father’s name (my kids’ now-great-grandfather) and we would get superior service. He was a local bank executive and a founder of another well-known local business and evidently a great patron of the Sweetwater Casino. So we went to the Sweetwater Casino and mentioned that name and got… blank stares. And then when we got inside I had to deal with the menu prices.


No, this isn’t rural Arkansas today. This is Pennsauken Mart, in Pennsauken, New Jersey. (The similarity in terrain and culture between Arkansas and where I grew up is striking. Except Bill Clinton would not have been corrupt enough for the Atlantic City area.) Yes, Pennsauken Mart was a grimy indoor flea market, but to a kid on the outlook for cheap back-issue comics, this was a mecca. (Berlin Farmers Market was even better.) The Mart was razed in January 2006 to give way to a redevelopment project including condominiums, shopping and, I’ll bet, paved parking.


Not everything that is gone should be viewed with regret. And so, finally, we have Ideal. Ideal was a woman’s clothier located in Hammonton, NJ for more than 50 years in the markedly unstylish quonset hut shown. I remember my mother and sister going there and my insisting on waiting (endlessly) in the car, comic books at the ready. (Whenever my 6-year-old boy doesn’t want to go to this sort of place, I do understand, believe me.)  So what hold could a woman’s clothing store possibly have on my memories?  It wasn’t the fashion, it wasn’t the location, it wasn’t the store, it wasn’t anything that ever happened to me there. It was their jingle. Anyone who ever heard it never forgot it — and I’m convinced it was the secret to their 50 years’ success in business. The song was everywhere, all the time, on television and radio. Take whatever pop song you think was overplayed, and then multiply by the nth degree, and you have the play record of the Ideal jingle. Which I can quote from memory:

“If you’ve got a passion for fashion

And you’ve got a craving for savings

Take the wheel

Of your automobile

And swing on down to… IDEAL!”

Thank God this place finally closed in 2008. Now women in the area are safe to be more fashionable (truly fashionable), and everyone is safe from this disturbing brain-infesting jingle. Some time hence, when the last song of my life goes through my brain as it shuts down, that song won’t be  “Hey Jude,” even with its million la-la-la’s, or “The Star Spangled Banner,” or even “Happy Birthday.” No, I’ll be mentally humming “If you’ve got a passion for fashion….” And I’ll smile knowing it’s no longer there, and no little boy is waiting impatiently in the car outside.

6 Responses to “It ain’t what it used to be”

  1. Paul Crist Says:

    Thank you Lee for getting that stupid jingle stuck in my head!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. Uncle Rich Says:

    Ahh, memories. I lived in Maple Shade and could walk to both the Pennsauken Mart (comic books at 6 for a quarter) and the Cherry Hill Mall (with a real bookstore). Later I worked in the Mart (at the place that sold those comics, natch). Went to the Latin Casino and saw Milton Berle, Manhattan Transfer, and Don Rickles (who had an off night because no one heckled him). My Mom still lives in the house in Maple Shade and it’s fun to visit the area, despite the absence of several former landmarks.

  3. Joe Says:

    I received my Pilots License from the Federal Aviation Administration on April 14, 1977 – as Garden State Race Track was filling my sky with smoke while the examiner was seeing whether I could fly. I’ve never been big on omens though.

    Uncle Milty! I saw Liberace at the Latin Casino with my parents. Hey Uncle Rich, why didn’t you have a wack at heckling Rickles?!?!?…you would have had no competition.

  4. Joe Says:

    Endearingly odd, am I? Shit, as long as that moniker doesn’t stick to the first paragraph of my obit, I’m okay with it. If it HAS to be in the second graph, then fine, I can accept that too.

  5. Curious Portraits Says:

    I really enjoyed this post, even though I’ve lived in NY for over 20 years I originally hail from S. Jersey.I remember all the things you mentioned, Olga’s Diner, Zipperhead etc. I also have very fond memories of Atlantic City. You might be interested in portrait of Mr. Peanut I am working on, you can see it in progress at my blog: http://curiousportraits.wordpress.com/

  6. pauld Says:

    lived in Moorestown before heading to NC for college— I was doing a spur of the moment search for the Latin Casino. I saw Olga’s, knew what the smoke picture was right away, but had no idea Olga’s closed, I can not tell you how many times we ate there. The about chocked seeing the Penn Mart…so many hours at that place…. memory lane LOL The Pub was missing… The Cresent in Maple Shade (that’s for you Uncle Rich) we did OCity in summer..miss it to this day…. now Atlanta land… thanks for the memories!

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