When Robert Hentges started his sign business in Wildwood, N.J., in 1964, most of his work involved designing and installing the large flashing neon signs that attracted motorists to motels along the southern New Jersey shore.
Today, his son, Randy, carries on the neon tradition in Wildwood (pop. 5,211), North Wildwood (4,801) and Wildwood Crest (3,862), thanks in large part to local efforts to preserve and celebrate the region’s glitzy architectural style.
“Neon glass-blowing is difficult to learn, but once you have it mastered, it’s pretty easy,” says Randy, 40, owner of ABS Sign Co.
Over the years, the Hentgeses have created and serviced hundreds of neon signs for motels, restaurants and shops in the seaside resort communities collectively known as the Wildwoods. The towns, located along a seven-mile stretch of beach, contain a peculiar and stunning array of modernist architecture featuring pulsing neon signs, angular roof lines, bright colors and plastic palm trees.
In the Wildwoods, the flashy architecture of the mid-20th century has been dubbed “Doo Wop” after the popular 1950s musical style. And with business owners and nostalgic residents leading the way, a powerful movement is afoot to preserve and build upon the area’s kitschy, postwar architecture. In fact, the towns now feature Doo-Wop motel tours, Doo- Wop-themed building renovations and a 1950s music festival.
“We just want to keep what three or four generations have enjoyed,” says Dan MacElrevey, 64, president of the 125-member Doo Wop Preservation League.
“Doo-Wop” architecture is not easy to define. With its big, bold signs and daring designs, it dabbles in different architectural styles and features everything from boomerang-shaped roofs to faux-lava facades. Still, the objective is basically to attract the attention of passing motorists.
As Americans drove their cars to vacation spots in the 1950s and ’60s, the Wildwoods offered more than 250 roadside motels from which to choose. If you wanted cars to pull into your motel, you had to stand out—thus, the emphasis on unique names, signage, colors and building designs. The result was motels celebrating the Space Age (the Satellite), exotic locations (the Singapore), other resort areas (the Cape Cod) and the automobile itself (the Bel Air).
Vacationers flocked to the Wildwoods, as did the nation’s rock ’n’ roll icons. It was a tour stop for pop stars such as Bill Haley and the Comets, Chubby Checker, Buddy Holly and Bobby Rydell, who celebrated the area with the 1963 hit Wildwood Days.
“You name it, they played here,” says Ernie Troiano Jr., Wildwood’s mayor.
Atlantic City now dominates the Jersey Shore entertainment business, but tourists still come to the Wildwoods for its wide beaches, dazzling boardwalk and funky motels. People still want to see the rotating lighthouse atop the Cape Cod Inn Motel, or stay in their favorite room inside the Singapore Motel’s pagoda.
The Wildwood-based Doo Wop Preservation League was founded in 1997 when a group of local business owners and residents sought to preserve and expand upon the towns’ glitzy architecture. Local businessman Jack Morey asked Philadelphia-based architect Steve Izenour to study the motels. Izenour and a group of university students found that the Wildwoods boast the nation’s largest collection of mid-century commercial architecture. His advice: Celebrate and accentuate the towns’ kitsch. Motel owners heeded his counsel, leading to new and creative neon signs for Randy Hentges to design and more orders for plastic palm trees and retro furniture.
Today, a new convention center welcomes boardwalk visitors with an angular roof, curved entranceway and neon signature; a Doo Wop museum, featuring vintage furniture, neon and street signs from the 1950s, is being developed thanks to a combination of community activism and corporate support; and last October, Chubby Checker headlined the second-annual Fabulous ’50s music festival.
“It’s part of the culture and character of Wildwood—the plastic palm trees and neon,” says Tom Byrne, a lifelong Wildwoods resident whose family insurance business is paying for museum construction. “Driving down Ocean Avenue, you can fantasize you’re in Las Vegas.”
Visit www.doowopusa.org or call (609) 729-4000.