July 6, 2001
Echoes of the Ocean City Youth Center

Staff Writer

The building is gone but, as you walk toward the gate to Carey Stadium and pass the empty area once occupied by the Ocean City Youth Center, if you listen carefully, you can still hear the music.

"Put another nickel in, in the nickelodeon, all I want is loving you and music, music. music."

Teresa Brewer was singing that song and Ocean City's teenagers - many of whom are now grandparents - were dancing to it in 1950 when the youth center was in its fourth year.

Many of the people who have walked, rode or skateboarded past the since-demolished building had little idea of its history. How, for nearly a quarter of a century, it was the home away from home for Ocean City High School's youth. They would gather to eat at the Chatterbox, Boxwood or at Pop's but the youth center was the hangout. And, of those places, only the Chatterbox still exists.

This was long before the Internet, cable television or even shopping malls. In those days, high school students generally hung around in their own towns. And the youth center was Ocean City's way of keeping them off the streets and entertained.

The building was transformed in 1946 from a seasonal tennis building (the summer pro actually lived upstairs) into a structure capable of housing teen dances. The renovations were done by the Exchange Club, creating a small dance area upstairs, plus downstairs areas for ping-pong and refreshments.

Don Pileggi, who later would become Ocean City's superintendent of recreation, was a freshman at OCHS in 1946-47 and was elected treasurer of the youth center.

"George Gardiner was the recreation director then," Pileggi remembered, "and he tried to create a place for us to dance and hangout in the Forest Laundry building on Asbury Avenue. But it didn't work out too well. My dad was in the Exchange Club and they got things going by fixing up the tennis building."

The Youth Center was a big success for years but, when Pileggi returned from the Korean War in 1953, he found the place struggling a bit. He asked high school principal George Meyer if he could get involved and he received encouragement.

"Oh my papa, to me he was so wonderful. Oh my papa, to me he was so good."

Eddie Fisher's voice filled the dance floor many a night during 1953-54 as Pileggi began to work with local students to re-establish the youth center. It cost 50 cents for a yearly membership (it would double to a dollar years later) and the student officers ran the place. They set the rules, secured the building and determined penalties for those who stepped out of line.

"There were generally four kids from each high school class on the board of directors," Pileggi said. "Those 16 kids ran the place. The youth center was open on Monday and Wednesday nights from 7-9, Fridays and Saturdays from 7-11 and on Saturday afternoon. In later years, we limited Saturday night to grades 9-12. We would also open on the nights of a home basketball game so that the kids had somewhere to go after the game. And we'd invite the visiting teams to come. Many of them did stop in."

As the youth center grew and more kids got interested, Pileggi knew he needed help.

"One, two, three o'clock, four o'clock rock. Five, six, seven o'clock, eight o'clock rock. Nine, ten, eleven o'clock, twelve o'clock rock, we're gonna rock around the clock tonight."

Bill Haley and the Comets were taking the country by storm in 1955 when George Loder agreed to join Pileggi as a second adult supervisor at the youth center.

"I had just graduated from high school and loved the youth center," said Loder, who recently retired as the area's animal warden. "When Don asked me to get involved I was happy to. The youth center was a great thing. Parents would call and confirm that their kids were there. And the kids, because they were setting the rules, treated it like it was their place. And it was."

As membership and interest in the youth center grew, the tennis building started to seem too small. So, Pileggi and Loder went to Mayor Ed Bowker and convinced him to invest some money to enlarge it. The city agreed to build a large dance floor on the west end of the building.

"Oh, well ah, bless my soul, what's wrong with me? I'm itching like a man on a fuzzy tree. My friends say I'm acting wild as a bug. I'm in love - I'm all shook up."

Elvis Presley's voice reverberated around the new dance floor, a big enough area that it allowed the ping-pong tables to be moved upstairs and a new pool table to be added on the ground floor. The youth center also now boasted its own television, donated by Philco.

Disc jockeys from WMID would show up on weekend nights to host the dances, some even broadcasting live on the radio. Singers, like Joni James, would come to the youth center on a Friday or Saturday night to lip-synch to their latest record and sign some autographs. Once in a while there would be a buzz in the building because a couple of the regulars from American Bandstand had showed up as guests of a member.

With the guidance of Pileggi and Loder, the youth center had become the center of the teen social world in Ocean City. Orville Mathis, now the police chief of Somers Point, was selected best dancer in his class, largely because of the steps he demonstrated at the youth center. Legend has it that Lynn Baker, now an insurance magnate, did his best work on the dance floor when the Platters were playing.

"Let's twist again, like we did last summer. Let's twist again, like we did last year."

The new dances, like Chubby Checker's Twist, caught on quickly at the youth center as the 1960s began. When the high school went into split sessions, they would even open up in the mornings and afternoons so the kids leaving school would have a place to go. They had Christmas parties, Halloween parties and special nights to kickoff a new school year and end one for the summer.

Look around. Chances are that somebody you know between the ages of 45 and 73 spent a lot of their nights as a teenager at the youth center. In fact, it is safe to say that there are a significant number of marriages that grew out of social relationships developed at the youth center.

Pileggi became the top man in Ocean City recreation in 1963, a position he held until his retirement in 1987. Loder stayed involved with the youth center until 1967. Guys like Mike Allegretto, who succeeded Pileggi 14 years ago, and Jack Bittner, who went on to become mayor, worked part time at the youth center.

But the dancing stopped just before 1970.

"The world was different and so were the kids' opportunities," said Loder. "More of them had cars. They could go elsewhere, do different things. It was tougher to keep them at home and to keep them involved with the youth center."

Pileggi agrees about the different things competing for the teenagers' time. But he also feels that the youth center building could have - and should have - been saved. "Not as a youth center," he said, "because that would be hard to re-create today. But as another building that could be a meeting place and an addition to the recreation program for all ages. They just didn't maintain the building."

The building is gone, the youth center where thousands and thousands of young people spent their free time. After much debate, City Council demolished it in the spring of 2001. The place where Don Pileggi and George Loder helped make the junior high and high school years special for Ocean City's kids from 1946-67 has been replaced by more parking spaces.

The building may be gone, but the sounds continue to echo among the memories of those who were part of the Ocean City Youth Center.

"Cause don't forget who's taking you home, and in whose arms you're gonna be. So, darling, save the last dance for me"

Be sure to read The Sandpaper in the Ocean City area and The Beachcomber in the Wildwood area throughout the summer months for similar features.