Welcome to Vaccaroland… That was the title of New Jersey Monthly Magazine’s 1985 issue about developer Henry Vaccaro and his multi-million dollar restoration of the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel: a project whose success was directly tied to the promising redevelopment of Asbury Park’s iconic Convention Hall, the Paramount Theatre, the boardwalk, and a new oceanfront condominium development called The Ocean Mile.
The Early Years
Close your eyes and imagine your favorite celebrity when you were young… your teen idol…Now fast forward 20 years. Not only have you gotten the chance to meet that person but they have become your very dear friend. That was Henry Vaccaro’s life; surreal and magical until it wasn’t. I believe everyone has at least one book about their life in them. Henry Vaccaro has two and a third one in the making – literally. Henry’s story is a roller coaster of soaring highs and plummeting lows beginning with a successful construction company, to a guitar manufacturing company, a friendship with Johnny Cash, a failed redevelopment project, a battle with the Jackson family, and losing it all.
Henry Vaccaro was born in Asbury Park in his family’s apartment above his father’s medical office at 509 4th Ave. Dr. Sebastian P. Vaccaro, a general practitioner, was the town doctor; many of his patients were poor and lived on the west side of town. His mother was his nurse. Dr. Vaccaro worked seven days a week and made house calls every night, sometimes past midnight. Henry was the oldest of four children: two boys and two girls. When the apartment became too small for their growing family, they moved to the neighboring town of Interlaken. At the age of sixteen, sitting in his brand new red and white Corvette not yet old enough to drive, he was listening to the sound of Johnny Cash and had become obsessed with his music. Cash was a man’s man and Henry wanted to be just like him. And he hoped that someday he would meet him.
Henry always knew he wanted to do construction when he got older. His father had another idea so after graduating high school Henry ended up at Villanova University. He was in his second year of college when Dr. Vaccaro died suddenly of a massive heart attack at the age of 51. Henry left school and came home to be with his family. He bought a used backhoe and took on any construction work he could find. Eventually, he started his own company, Henry V. Vaccaro Construction Co., and set up shop in the basement of 500 Deal Lake Drive, a residential building his father had owned. The company grew to be very successful, commissioning major development projects in Asbury Park and all over New Jersey. In Asbury Park alone his firm constructed the current Asbury Park Municipal complex located at 1 Municipal Plaza, the Asbury Park Middle School, and the 12-story Philips Seaview Towers Senior building. In other areas, he built a $30 million addition to JFK Hospital in Edison, NJ that was larger than the existing hospital, the 200 bed Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, NJ, a Catholic High School in Piscataway, NJ, and many other large-scale projects over the span of more than two decades. Henry was also making investments. He purchased a large parcel of land in Neptune and built his own Industrial Park. He also purchased several office buildings and made one singular investment that would change his life forever.
The Man In Black
It’s well known that there have been many attempts at the redevelopment of Asbury Park. The first one began in the mid-1980s. Anyone who knows about the original redevelopment effort has heard of Henry Vaccaro and Joseph Carabetta. Vaccaro, having been part of the Asbury Park community since he was a child and witnessing the decline as an adult. As a major developer, the desire to bring the city back to life was personal as well as entrepreneurial. Carabetta Enterprises, a partnership between the two men, was awarded the beachfront redevelopment rights, a $550 million project that launched in 1985. (Ed note: I’ll talk more about this in Part II of this series.)
Before we get too far into the redevelopment story, let’s take a few steps back. As with other stories I’ve written about people and their role in Asbury Park’s revival, things would unfold purely by chance or Happenstance.
For Vaccaro, one part of the story begins in the early 80s with an investment in a guitar manufacturing company called Kramer Guitar that designed a revolutionary aluminum neck guitar. Things took a different turn with the guitars after Eddie Van Halen made an endorsement and became the company’s spokesperson. Unfortunately, there were some issues with the new design so they went back to the traditional wooden necks. The Company was successful nonetheless, and soon they were making guitars for every heavy metal band in the country. In 1988 Guitar Player Magazine named Kramer Guitar Company the “Best Selling Guitar in the Country.” Then a “chance” meeting happened with Johnny Cash and his lead guitar player Bob Wootton backstage at the Garden State Art Center (the now PNC Bank Art Center). Vacarro’s guitar company gave him an in, and big game fishing trips to Bimini reinforced their relationship. The initial acquaintanceship with Bob Wootton and Johnny Cash grew into lifelong friendships that included Johnny’s wife June Carter as well. To them he was known as Henry, the guitar maker.
If life didn’t already feel like a movie for Henry Vaccaro, it was about to get even more surreal when he was invited to a movie set by Johnny Cash. Cash was starring in a ‘made for TV movie’ titled Murder in Coweta County, based on a true story and being filmed on location in Griffin, Georgia, (there are some interesting and mysterious events that take place during the filming which you can read about in Vaccaro’s most recent book). At one point during his trip Henry and June were hanging out on the tour bus, which doubled as a dressing room trailer, while Johnny was filming. Over the course of the conversation June asked Henry about his life. He told her he grew up in Asbury Park and began to show her pictures of his latest endeavor, Asbury Park’s iconic Convention Hall, Paramount Theatre, and the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel.
At the time, Henry made an offer to purchase the hotel for $325,000 with his younger brother Sebastian. The offer had been accepted and the deal was under contract. He told June that he wanted to restore it to its original grandeur. He also had a bid in to purchase the Paramount Theatre, Convention Hall, and the entire beachfront development with his partner Joseph Carabetta. Just as he was showing June the pictures, Johnny walked in. June handed Johnny the pictures and said, “Look what Henry is wanting to buy.” June was familiar with Asbury Park because her parents, the famous Carter Family, had played at the Paramount back in the 1940s and she remembered her mother talk about it. Johnny pointed to the Paramount Theatre and said, “Well if you buy that, I want to open it for you.” And the door to Johnny Cash’s time in Asbury Park had just been opened.
Johnny offered to do the opening night for free, but Henry insisted on paying him. Then Henry got an idea. He suggested that Johnny take some of the money and invest in the hotel. Johnny gave it some thought, and after some due diligence of the hotel and Asbury Park, Johnny Cash was on board. They formed a Limited Partnership; which included June called “The Berkeley-Carteret Associates.” A few months later Henry was on tour with Johnny in Florida. Johnny decided that if he was going to be involved with Asbury Park, he should probably make an appearance. Henry thought it was a great idea. Sometimes he would say to people back home, “Johnny Cash is a friend of mine.” Usually they didn’t believe him, but that changed the night he showed up with the man in black by his side.
March 23, 1983
Not long after the Florida trip, Henry receives an unexpected call from Johnny’s sister Reba. She told him Johnny would be arriving the next day at Newark Airport at 10:30 in the morning, and asked if Henry could pick him up, “Of course.” Henry replied.
The next day he left bright and early to pick Johnny up at the airport. About half way up the parkway he hears his secretary, Helen’s voice over the two way radio; “Base to car one, base to car one.” Henry picks up the radio and responds, “Car one to base, what’s going on Helen?” She proceeds to tell Henry that Johnny missed his flight and would now be arriving in LaGuardia at 1:15 and that his driver Curt would be picking him up. Henry turns his car around, goes back to Asbury Park and asks one of his workers to drive him to LaGuardia. He gets there just in time to greet Johnny upon his arrival. The two men get into the limo and head to Manhattan so Johnny could take care of some business while he’s in town. They arrive in the City and stop at Black Rock; CBS Headquarters, (named after the black granite the building was made from.) At the time, CBS owned Columbia Records. Johnny invites Henry to join him and is introduced to Dick Asher, the President of Columbia Records. After discussing the details of Cash’s record deal Asher learns about his new venture in Asbury Park. Having fond memories of the Berkeley-Carteret, he offers to throw his hat into the ring.
Henry had planned to bring Johnny to the City Council meeting that night so he could meet the Mayor, but by the time they left New York it was 5:30. He knew with rush hour traffic they would never make the 6:30 meeting, so he asks the driver to pull into a rest stop. There were no cell phones at the time, so the only way to get in touch with the Mayor directly was from a pay phone. Henry decided to call the police station. He speaks with the captain on duty, politely asking if he would go into the council chambers across the hall, and let the Mayor know they would be arriving late. A lot of people were skeptical about Johnny Cash showing up at a City Council meeting in Asbury Park, but the Mayor; Ray Kramer, let the meeting run late in order to give them time to arrive. Finally, at 8:45 a long black limousine pulled up to city hall. Everyone watched a 6’3″ tall man dressed all in black get out of the limo. Johnny was decked out for the part in his usual garb with black cowboy boots, a black cowboy duster, and a black cape with red lining. After meeting the Mayor and Council, Johnny addressed the audience. Johnny Cash had a commanding presence, and the admiration that emanated from the crowd was palpable. They listened in awe as he spoke about his hopes for Asbury Park. Interestingly, despite the skepticism and late arrival, not one person left city hall that night. Everyone waited for Johnny Cash to arrive.
To Be Continued…