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Tillie
Born to fun, doomed to fall
Icon of Asbury Park a victim of neglect. 'Tillie' no longer will smile on Palace Amusements
(This story originally appeared in the Star-Ledger of Newark, July 15, 1998.)

    For more than half a century, his neon face has looked out on the streets of Asbury Park. And through years of neglect and urban decay, he's never stopped smiling.

    Today, perhaps, he would if he could.

    Palace Amusements, the 103-year-old arcade building immortalized in Bruce Springsteen's song "Born to Run," is slated for demolition. "Tillie," the 10-foot-high face that looks out from the building's northeast corner, is going with it. And with the roar of bulldozer and wrecking ball, another piece of Asbury Park history is about to slip into the past.

    According to Asbury Park city manager Wilbert Russell, city code enforcers made a recommendation to condemn the structure Friday, following the partial collapse of a floor in the building, which has been vacant since 1988.

    The two-story, block-long structure, built in 1895, was for many years home to a Ferris wheel, carousel, shooting gallery and in the late 1980s a rock and roll museum.

    But the Palace was perhaps best known for its neon ornamentation, specifically Tillie. Added to the Palace in the 1940s, he was a beacon in the boardwalk night. Now cracked and crumbling, he's an eerie reminder of the city's years as a popular seaside resort, when thousands flocked to the town's beaches and amusement areas.

    "It'll be very sad to see it go," said Billy Smith, co-owner of the Asbury Park Rock and Roll Museum, which was housed in the Palace from 1986 to 1988. The museum consisted of memorabilia associated with Springsteen and other Asbury Park musicians, including Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. A plywood sign for the museum is still nailed to the building's side.

    "I'd always hoped that they would manage to turn it into something," Smith said. "I grew up going there. I was on that Ferris wheel before I could walk. I don't know what's more depressing, knowing it'll be gone or driving by and seeing the way it looks now."

    The years have been rough on the building, located at Lake Avenue and Kingsley Street. The aqua paint peels from its concrete walls, and the sidewalks outside are strewn with broken bottles and crack vials.

    According to Asbury Park code enforcement officer William Gray, customers in a nearby restaurant reported hearing a crash inside the building Wednesday afternoon. Gray then inspected the site with Vidas Ramanauskas, structural engineer for T&M Associates, the city's engineers.

    "We found a roof collapse and a partial floor collapse," Gray said. "We also saw water had been entering and that the building was structurally unsound."/ Soon afterward, the sidewalks around the building were barricaded, and a portion of Kingsley Street closed.

    "They had a look inside," said Russell. "And the determination was made that it needed to come down."

    The building is owned by the Connecticut-based Ocean Mile Development Group, whose controlling partners, Carabetta Enterprises, helped spearhead a short-lived redevelopment project on the city's oceanfront in the 1980s. Ocean Mile will pay for the demolition, Gray said.

    "They had somebody down here right away to look at it," Gray said. He added that Ocean Mile was gathering estimates for demolition of the building "as soon as possible."

    "You're talking about a large job," he said.

    Calls to Ocean Mile yesterday were not immediately returned.

    The Palace loomed at one end of what was once known as "The Circuit," the oval formed by Kingsley Street and Ocean Avenue, a favorite teenage cruising spot for more than three decades.

    In his 1975 anthem "Born to Run," Springsteen sang about how "beyond the Palace hemi- powered drones scream down the boulevard." Images of The Circuit also are evoked in his songs "Night," "Something in the Night" and his shamelessly romantic "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)."

    "(The Palace) was an icon," Smith said. "At night you'd see the flashing neon there at the end of The Circuit. It was a classic Asbury Park image."

    In November of 1987, Springsteen shot part of the video for his song "Tunnel of Love" on the vintage turn-of-the-century wooden carousel inside the building. Other portions of the video were shot at the nearby Asbury Park Casino.

    When the Palace closed in 1988, its contents including the carousel were sold off.

    "We were basically told to relocate on very short notice," Smith said. "With no option but to store the (museum) material elsewhere."/ In February of 1989, individual pieces from the carousel were auctioned at Sotheby's in New York. The Ferris wheel whose cars were adorned with the names of New Jersey towns eventually ended up at an amusement park near Biloxi, Miss.

    Though the Palace was built in the late-1800s, an addition to the northern end of building was constructed in the 1940s. Color promotional footage shot of Asbury Park in 1938 shows a wooden-roof structure without the trademark neon.

    The Palace is only one of many Asbury Park landmarks that have disappeared over the years. Just one block away is an empty lot that was once home to the Mayfair Theatre, a 1920s-era movie palace that was razed in the mid-1970s. These days, the city's only operating movie house is the Park, an adult theater alongside the Palace that promises "Matinees daily."

    Though the screaming of "hemi-powered drones" has long been silenced, the echoes of Asbury Park's past linger on in the few remaining structures such as the Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall that recall the town's glory days. But those ghostly reminders will be fewer now. And Tillie will smile on only in memory.

   

NOTE: The Palace Amusements building remained on the site in its same state of disrepair - until it was torn down in May 2004. One of the Tillie faces and other icons from the facade were successfully removed from the building beforehand.)




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