A Happy Clown Can Save a Town
Today, I “walked the boards,” following in the same mile long path as my grandparents did, arm-in arm, over 50 years ago. I was gripped with warm nostalgia for this special summer place that I and so many of my generation absolutely and unequivocally loved. The gaudy neon lights of the screaming carneys, ear- splitting sounds of the metallic kiddie rides, and the pervasive smell of freshly made salt water taffy mixed with the briny smell of the ocean, brought me back some childlike delight as I recalled the sun- soaked summer days of my youth spent at the shore.
Asbury in its earlier days was home to the renowned Convention Center, which hosted some of the best rock bands from all over the country. It boasted the indoor Palace Amusements, with a merry-go-round of hand carved carousel horses, outside paddle boats on a narrow stream outside, and a Ferris wheel which carried passengers for more years than any other in history. The entire shebang shut down in 1988 because of unstable finances. The Stone Pony, however, and The Wonder Bar still sit securely across the street from the boardwalk and retain vestiges of their former glory.
The striking image of a funny, round faced, toothily smiling clown sits regally atop the roof of The Wonder Bar. It was painted by the artist Leslie W. Thomas sometime in the 1950s, and became the enduring iconic symbol of Asbury Park. This simple, one dimensional image is truly larger than life. Tillie the Clown represents the fun filled carefree childhoods of so many, especially during the hot, heyday months of July and August when school was officially closed and our lives felt open to all possibilities. This image, to me and so many others, represented this wonderful time.
In point of fact, the still beleaguered shore town now has a souvenir shop on the boardwalk solely dedicated to the perpetuation of the memory and enduring myth of Tillie the Clown on clocks, magnets, post cards, sweat shirts, posters, etc. The importance of symbols cannot be overstated, as it is commonly said, “A picture is worth a thousand words.”
This is the symbol of a smiling future to us ‘big kids’ who still make the trip to walk the boards. This is no dummy mannequin, lifeless of spirit and empty of inspiration. While no Mona Lisa, this rather goofy face represents how both we and the town itself are continually trying, and not giving up, in order to revitalize and rejuvenate ourselves. It is true that the widespread building slump left many unfinished constructions of condos and apartments, looking today like forgotten skeletal remains.
However, hope springs eternal. The builders are on standby, and there is always some large machinery doing some heavy lifting on the premises. Trendy restaurants and other upscale places are queuing up in anticipation of the increase in patrons very soon. So let’s remember the importance of not taking for granted, and preserving even our most common symbols, since they can elevate, and give hope that what was once the ‘glory days’ can be so again.