A tale of two conventions: What can Cleveland 2016 learn from Atlantic City 1964?

Two conventions separated by more than 50 years
Posted at 10:08 AM, Jul 18, 2014
and last updated 2016-06-14 15:56:32-04

Cleveland's selection to host the 2016 Republican National Convention comes on the 50th Anniversary of the 1964 Democratic National Convention in Atlantic City.

One was hosted by a city looking to save itself, the other by a city looking to show the world it has been saved.

Having lived and worked in both cities I find it interesting to compare the impact and the potential impact of these two conventions that are separated by so much more than 50 years.

Atlantic City was once known as America's Favorite Playground, an image started in the "Boardwalk Empire" days of Prohibition when bootleggers and speakeasies operated in full view of the law.

It only grew in the 30's and 40's as people flocked to the famous Boardwalk, the nation's first, to beat the summer heat during the day and be entertained at one of the city's piers or nightclubs at night.

"One of the greatest weekends of my life was in 1949 when I was a singer with the Freddy Martin Band and we came to play the Steel Pier on the 4th of July holiday," the late entertainer and talk show host Merv Griffin once told me. "On that weekend 150,000 passed through and danced," he said. "It was such a big deal in Atlantic City."

There was the Steel Pier, Steeplechase Pier, Million Dollar Pier and the nightclubs like the 500 Club where Frank Sinatra often performed for his good friend and club owner Skinny D'Amato, the man incidentally who got the idea to team up Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis for the first time at his Missouri Avenue club.

But as the 50's turned into 60's the resort was not only showing it's weathered age but the nation’s growing interstate highway system and air travel had opened up a whole new world to the American traveler.

The number of resort visitors was fading and the city saw the 1964 Democratic Convention as a chance to prove to the world it was still relevant.

When Atlantic City landed the convention it was to be the party of all parties, the renomination of President John F. Kennedy, a throwback to the resort's glory days and a taste of what could still be.

That all changed November 22, 1963 when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas and Lyndon Johnson became the new president.

The convention, held just nine months later, turned into a much more subdued affair, capped off by a 22 minute standing ovation for Robert F. Kennedy, the president's brother and U.S. attorney general.

With the party behind LBJ there was no suspense or political intrigue for the journalists covering the convention to write about. The decline of this once great resort though provided not only the perfect topic but there were endless examples soon readily available.

"The 1964 Democratic National Convention helped to bury the hatchet deeper into Atlantic City," said longtime Atlantic City radio talk show host Pinky Kravitz retelling tales of hotels with only paper towels for their guests and others with only running salt water that had over the years badly corroded the pipes.

There's the famous story of labor leader George Meany who broke off the spigot of the sink in his room simply trying to turn on the water. Salt water in Atlantic City's early days was seen to have therapeutic and healing values that drew people to the resort; in 1964 it was seen as simply out of touch.

The results were devastating, what was supposed to be a shot in the arm turned into a punch in the gut.

"We started seeing we were getting fewer conventions coming to town because they heard the stories that we couldn't handle it," said Kravitz.

The downward spiral continued for another eight years until voters approved casino gambling in 1976.

For organizers of Cleveland's Republican National Convention bid, the approach has been entirely different. They not only welcome the attention of the 15,000 credentialed media that will converge on the city in 2016 it was one of the driving forces behind going for the convention.

Cleveland has a story to tell and perceptions to change. They want the country to know that this city, once the butt of late night jokes is gone, buried under by $4 billion in new development, projects that have set the stage for the city’s future.

“The RNC is more than a political convention it’s an opportunity for us to tell our story,” said Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald.

Research conducted earlier this year by Positively Cleveland showed a massive gap in the perception of Cleveland between people who have been here and people who haven’t been here.

“The opportunity to change that perception is greater for hosting this convention than really anything this community could do,” said Positively Cleveland President & CEO David Gilbert of the 50,000 visitors who will be attending the convention.

“I think for the next generation or two hosting this convention is going to have long term benefits,” he said.

The convention not only tells the country this is a new Cleveland, it tells Cleveland that too. That same research found that only 34 percent of locals would recommend the city as a place to visit; a number that in Pittsburgh for example was up in the 60’s.

“The boost in confidence we’re getting today,” said Gilbert “could not have come at a better time.”

Atlantic City’s convention in 1964 came at the end of decades of decline, Cleveland’s comes after decades of growth. "We've been getting ready for this for 25 years,” said Greater Cleveland Partnership CEO Joe Roman. “This city started changing with Gateway and it hasn't stopped."

On the boardwalk today outside of the Atlantic City Convention Center is a bronze bust of President John F. Kennedy dedicated during the 1964 convention. It’s a statue that has seen the city hit bottom in the 70s rise again with casinos and now with some of those gambling halls closing struggle again.

Atlantic City’s convention experience caused them to hit bottom but it also served as a catalyst for change, Cleveland’s stands to serve as a celebration of change and an example for other cities that down doesn’t have to mean out.