Rolling Chairs Celebrate 100 Years Of Bumping Along The Boardwalk
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. (AP) _ The Orient has its rickshaws and Venice its gondolas, but in this oceanside gambling resort, boardwalk browsers get where they’re going in a rolling chair.
For 100 years, passengers have been put on display in the front seats of rolling chairs - ″wicker on wheels″ that allow visitors to ride rather than walk along the weathered planks of the famed boardwalk.
In 1887, hardware store owner William Hayday saw an opportunity in rolling chairs that were rented to invalids who thought salt air was a cure-all. Hayday hired some attendants to push the chairs, and a trend began when perfectly healthy tourists started faking illness just for the pleasure of being pushed.
A capitalizing entrepreneur developed the two-seater rolling chair, and by the 1920s, hundreds of chair pushers jostled for space on the boardwalk.
Over the years rolling chairs grew into a licensed industry. Many were topped with glass covers to protect customers from bad weather, and in 1948, motorized chairs became the vogue.
But as Atlantic City’s economic health declined, so did the rolling chairs, and by 1976, a rolling chair ride was a rare treat.
Today, a hundred years after their debut and with legalized gambling in full swing, rolling chairs are back.
Larry Belfer, owner of Atlantic City’s Famous Rolling Chairs, is a 32-year- old Philadelphia native who dresses in designer suits and prefers getting around the city in his Mercedes Benz.
″I don’t push the chairs - it’s not me,″ he says.
But three years ago, when Belfer wanted a way to get out from behind a casino hotel’s front desk, he lit upon the idea of reviving the rolling chair. He found a bunch of them ″piled as junk in a garage,″ Belfer recalled.
″I bought them and started investing money into them. I redid the cushioning, the carpeting, found someone to repair the wicker and repair the mechanical works underneath,″ he said.
Belfer then hired college students and jazzed them up with white shirts, black pants and red bow ties.
″And we call them operators - I stayed away from pushers,″ he said. ″That had a stigma,″ he says, referring to the days when poor or working- class blacks pushed nouveau-riche whites.
Belfer runs the rolling chair company much like a taxi service. He rents the chairs to the operators for about $35 a day - more on Saturdays - and whatever is collected above that is the operator’s profit. A rolling chair ride costs $5 for up to 10 blocks or $10 for a half-hour tour.
Getting someone to take a ride requires a bit of savvy, operators said. In the summer, more than 100 rolling chairs are competing against each other. In the colder months, drawing customers out of the warmth of casinos takes a strong will.
″This business requires a hustler,″ Belfer said.
The chairs are a novelty for teen-agers on dates, a ″taxi″ for gamblers shuttling between casinos, or a trip down memory lane for elderly couples.
″There are not as many older people as you think, though,″ Belfer said. ″Some elderly people want to stay away from the chairs because they think walking is like a health kick.″
Sometimes the draw is the operator. James Ernst, a local boxer who also pushes chairs, prides himself on sharing a little bit of Atlantic City history with each ride.
And Wayne Beachem, who at 28 is tall, blond and muscular, admits he pushed a lot of women his first day on the job.
″I think it’s my good looks,″ he said.