Chance of a Lifetime

Nucky Johnson, Skinny D'Amato, and how Atlantic City became the Naughty Queen of Resorts

by Grace Anselmo D’Amato

237 pages, 178 illustrations
ISBN 1-59322-007-3
237 pages, 178 illustrations
ISBN 0-945582-75-7

Excerpt from Chance of a Lifetime

The following excepts are from Chance of a Lifetime, by Grace Anselmo D‘Amato, Down The Shore Publishing.
© 2001 Grace Anselmo D‘Amato


Skinny had an eye for talent, and young entertainers were thrilled to be given an opportunity to perform at the 500 Club. This mutually beneficial situation resulted in Skinny offering his patrons unknown performers who later became nationally and internationally famous.

In 1946, Skinny hired a scrawny, little-known comedian from New York. The man had worked the Borscht Belt in New York’s Catskill Mountains, but outside of that venue, the name Jerry Lewis didn’t mean much to many people. So Skinny paid him one hundred and fifty dollars a week. He also hired a velvet-voiced singer from Ohio. Dean Martin had established himself in nightclubs, so Skinny paid him seven hundred dollars a week. Martin was a carefree, easygoing man; Lewis was intense, sentimental and a worrier.

Skinny was not overly impressed with either performer individually, but, by chance, he got the idea that they could work together. As Lewis told it on an Arts & Entertainment Network biography of the Rat Pack, he was bombing onstage and got the hook. While he was packing his things in his dressing room, Martin went onstage and made a quip about Lewis’s performance. Still offstage, Lewis heard the remark and answered back. The audience found the repartee hilarious, and Skinny took notice. He hired Martin and Lewis as a duo, and one of the most enduring, and famous, comedy partnerships was formed.

The new team went down to the beach and put on a drowning act for beachgoers. The crowd that gathered around them thought they were wildly funny and laughed at their antics. Lewis called out to them: “If you think we’re dying now, you ought to see us at the 500 Club.” The audience roared and applauded.

The two men later sat inside a pavilion on the Boardwalk and discussed possible comic bits. According to Jimmy McCullough, the 500 Club’s publicist, the only thing Martin and Lewis could come up with at first was their friendship.

When they did arrive at the 500 Club, the new comedy duo startled customers and waiters by squirting them with water pistols. The patrons howled with laughter. They loved Martin and Lewis; applause resounded throughout the club. Later, the comics shook hands with those who had been such good sports. McCullough recalled that entertainer Sophie Tucker, the Red Hot Mama, had seen Martin and Lewis and compared them to Abbott and Costello.

Club ownership played to all of Skinny’s strengths as a businessman, congenial host and bon vivant. He knew which table to give to whom, and he always made sure that his serving staff checked with him before handing guests such as judges, lawyers and politicians their tabs. His generosity may have been driven less by altruism than by self-interest and a need to be admired, but no one was keeping score. People came to the 500 Club to have a good time, and Skinny made sure they did. He was a man who was loved and revered a great deal more than he was disliked.


In 1947, Frank Sinatra performed at “Skinny’s saloon,” as he liked to call it. Frank was down about his career and popularity, which both seemed to have foundered. Skinny reassured Frank that his career would revive, and he gave the singer a handsome gold wristwatch as a token of their friendship.

On one occasion when Sinatra was in his slump, he showed up in Atlantic City despondent and broke. He had lost his recording and movie contracts, and he told Skinny and Joe DiMaggio he was going to meet his second wife, actress Ava Gardner, in Africa, where she was filming Mogambo with Clark Gable.

Ava had sent Sinatra money for airfare, but he wanted to buy her a present. He asked DiMaggio for a thousand dollars. DiMaggio refused, and Sinatra went to the men’s room, deeply hurt. In Sinatra’s absence, DiMaggio commented that he would not lend money to a has-been.

Skinny then asked DiMaggio if he would loan him one thousand dollars. DiMaggio glanced around the prosperous club, figured Skinny was good for it and promptly peeled off and handed him the bills. When Sinatra returned from the men’s room, Skinny slipped him the cash. Sinatra left soon afterward for Africa, where we must imagine Ava was the recipient of a lovely gift....


As Skinny had hoped and predicted, Sinatra’s career had found its way back into the spotlight. When Sinatra won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Maggio in From Here to Eternity, Skinny sent him a telegram:

“PER CENTO ANNI!” he wrote, saluting his friend and wishing him one hundred years of life and good health.

Sinatra was in Spain, filming The Pride and the Passion with Sophia Loren and Cary Grant, but Skinny anticipated some word from his friend. It was not immediate in coming, but eventually a telegram arrived: “How about the 23rd, 24th, 25th and 26 of July?” It was signed “El Dago.” Skinny and Sinatra could tease each other about their shared Italian heritage, and they did so rather often, but no one else dared to join in.

In July, 1956, the acclaimed Sinatra arrived incognito at the club’s garage in a beat-up, borrowed car driven by Mario Floriani, a sergeant for the Atlantic City Police Department who would later become police chief. Skinny, Bettyjane and a select group of friends greeted Sinatra, while children sneaked around for a glimpse of him. He took the time to speak to them and sign autographs, and they ran away jubilantly.

Stories have been told about Sinatra’s petulance and temper. He did once overturn a card table holding a rum cake that was almost the size of the table. The cake had been made especially for him, but Sinatra ditched it because the smell of the oozing rum had nauseated him. But he was more kind than fiery, more respectful than not, and he was loyal to his friends.

At the club, elderly men and women who could not afford the price of a ticket to see Sinatra perform waved at him instead. They also tried to shake his hand, but the police shooed them away. Touched by their appreciation, Sinatra told the police to bring them inside to see his performance.

During his engagements, Sinatra added shows to accommodate his fans, who were enraptured with him and his sexy voice. Men stood on chairs, yelling and applauding, while women screamed his name, their faces aglow with love.

The last time Skinny brought enchantment, in the form of Sinatra, to Atlantic City was 1962. The anxious Queen poised herself for Sinatra’s appearance and the flood of people who would come to see him. A sign outside the 500 Club heralded his arrival with an effervescent “He’s Here!”

© 2001 Grace Anselmo D‘Amato

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