Ocean City,Maryland - Then & Now - LOTS 4, 5, 27 AND 28 - The “Casino Property”
Part Two: 1916 – Present
The charred remains of Dolle's Candyland after the fire of December 29, 1925
Collection of Frank Parsons
Jacob Perskie sold the Casino Theatre to three Philadelphia women, Camille Ottinger, her daughter Florence and Bluma Levin, in June 1920. Camille’s husband Samuel was a physician and Florence worked as a bookkeeper in a real estate office. Bluma Levin’s relationship to the Ottingers is unknown. The three ladies borrowed $6,500 from Snow Hill attorney William F. Johnson, backed by Dr. Ottinger’s personal guarantee, to finance their purchase.
Late in the evening of December 29, 1925 a fire broke out in the electric plant on the southwest corner of Baltimore Avenue and Somerset Street. Fanned by brisk winds, the fire quickly spread to the neighboring Seaside Hotel, and then east across Baltimore Avenue to the Atlantic Hotel, and from there to the Boardwalk, the pier and the entire oceanfront block between Worcester Street and Wicomico Street. In the bitter cold morning of December 30, both hotels, the pier, a large section of the Boardwalk, and the buildings that had stood opposite the pier, including the Casino Theatre, lay in ruins.
Florence Ottinger, now known as Florence Blau after her marriage to Philadelphia real estate broker Samuel Blau, had acquired her mother’s interest in the casino property only four months before the devastating fire. She and Bluma Levin decided to rent out the land rather than incur the cost of rebuilding. In June 1926 they executed a lease with Sigmund Kleiman, a Russian immigrant who had operated a bar and pool room in Baltimore before Prohibition. The lease had a five year term, and granted Kleiman the right to erect a building or buildings on the premises that he could remove when the lease was up, while expressly disclaiming any liability on the part of the ladies with regard to any expense for removing debris from the site or for the construction and maintenance of any structures. They also added this peculiar provision: “Only legitimate business shall be conducted on said premises and the same shall not be used for any immoral purposes whatsoever.”
Kleiman erected a wood frame building that housed amusements where the Casino Theatre once operated, but his venture was not successful. After the 1927 season he sold the building and its contents and sublet the land for the remaining lease term to Lloyd Jester and Joseph Thomas Bryan. Lloyd Jester got his start in Ocean City working at the general store that his father-in-law, James H. Mumford, operated on the southeast corner of Baltimore Avenue and South Division Street. His most recent venture, a confectionery, lunch stand and souvenir shop on the south end of the pier, had been destroyed in the 1925 fire. Bryan was a North Carolina native who had arrived in Ocean City around 1920 and married into a branch of the Cropper family. The two men added a “Fun House” on the north side of Worcester Street to the boardwalk building that Kleiman had put up.
The "Fun House" on the north side of Worcester Street circa 1941
Collection of Irma Jester
On September 3, 1929 another devastating fire, this one the work of an arsonist, wiped out the Boardwalk storefronts between South Division Street and Worcester Street, including Bryan and Conway’s Fun House and Playland and Lloyd Jester’s restaurant. The buildings on the north side of Worcester Street were not harmed, but Jester had suffered another personal setback. Shortly afterward, Frank Truitt executed a new lease with Florence Blau and Bluma Levin for the casino property, adding five more years to the original lease term, and sublet the property to Lloyd Jester and his wife Irma.
Jester called his Boardwalk operation “Sportland”, and together with the adjoining “Fun House” on Worcester Street, he entertained thousands of children and adults alike. Perhaps the best known resident of the Fun House was “Laughing Sal”, whose loud, screeching laugh echoed along Worcester Street all summer long. Sal now resides quietly in the Life-Saving Station Museum (that is, until somebody dares to push her button).
It isn’t known how long Frank Truitt and Lloyd Jester remained business partners. Truitt still held the lease for the land with Florence Blau through at least 1942. Mrs. Blau had become the sole owner in 1931 after buying out Bluma Levin. Subsequent leases are not recorded in the land records. Truitt died in November 1956, and presumably he had conveyed his leasehold and real and personal property interests in the Sportland complex to Jester prior to that time.
The land lease between the Jester family and Florence Blau, later known as Florence Reitman after having been widowed and remarried, continued until Florence’s death in February 1985. Following protracted negotiations with Mrs. Reitman’s executors and difficulties with obtaining financing, Lloyd Jester, Jr. and his two new business partners, Harold Greenspan and Franklin Ash, were finally able to close a deal for the land in September 1987, agreeing to pay the estate $2.3 million for the four lots.
A new Sportland arcade was unveiled in 2002. As reported in The Sun on May 12, “The 56-year-old wooden structure that housed games has been replaced by a 15,000-square-foot concrete structure with a 40-foot clock tower” at a cost of about $2 million.
After nearly eighty-four years, the Jester family ended its association with the “Casino Property” on January 31, 2011, when Lloyd Jester, Jr. sold his piece of Sportland Properties, Inc. to his two partners.
The new Sportland arcade after a $2 million makeover in 2002.
(Ocean City Development Corporation)
The Sportland arcade as it appeared in 2001
(Ocean City Today)
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