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For one summer, woman was horse diver at Atlantic City's Steel Pier

Barbara Gose prepares to dive on horseback from about 40 feet up at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1966. Introduced in the late 1920s and continuing until 1978, the act became one of the most famous and iconic on the Boardwalk.
Barbara Gose prepares to dive on horseback from about 40 feet up at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., in 1966. Introduced in the late 1920s and continuing until 1978, the act became one of the most famous and iconic on the Boardwalk.
Published May 18, 2013

Her customers at the beauty salon wouldn't know unless she told them. Same for the folks at the New Port Richey farmer's market who buy her orchids.

But in the summer of 1966, Barbara Gose achieved a celebrity status at what once was considered America's greatest entertainment complex. She did it on the bare back of a quarter horse named Gamal in front of thousands of people who also caught a glimpse of her own bare back.

"My 15 minutes of fame,'' she said last week, blushing just a bit. "Fortunately only the top of my bathing suit came down and I quickly fixed it.''

The audience embraced her. They sought her autograph. Comic Soupy Sales mentioned her that night to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. Barbara, then 25 and raising three sons, probably shouldn't have been surprised. She had grown up watching the horse divers on Atlantic City's Steel Pier. She had been among the roaring crowds as young women rode about 40 feet on the back of a steed into a 12-foot-deep pool.

She just never figured to be one of them.

• • •

Everybody knew Mickey Gose, drop-dead handsome, life of the party. Surfer boy.

Barbara was just 17 when she met him at the Steel Pier. Her dad back in Philadelphia didn't like it, but she fell for Mickey, nine years older and a Navy veteran. They danced at sock hops hosted by Grady & Hurst, the forerunners to Dick Clark and American Bandstand. They danced in the evenings to big band sounds.

Every popular entertainer made it to the Steel Pier in the summer, Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Ricky Nelson, Frankie Avalon, Johnny Mathis and countless others. Barbara and Mickey saw their fair share up close because Mickey was part of a "family'' of regular performers, a fearless high diver, a hilarious clown.

Barbara worked some part-time jobs, but mainly she raised their sons (eventually four). Mickey bought a black Cadillac hearse to haul his surfboards and promoted California surfing movies. "We handed out fliers,'' she recalled. "I was in a hearse before my time.''

One day Mickey came home and said the pier's owner needed a replacement for the woman who had been featured in the horse diving show.

"I could do that,'' Barbara said, even though she had only ridden one horse in her life, and that was a long time ago. "How hard could it be?''

She expected some training but once she agreed, her boss said, "You're doing the 2 o'clock show.'' She wore a leather football helmet with chin strap and waited on the platform while Gamal rode up an electric-powered elevator.

"When he was ready, we went,'' she recalled. "They were rewarded with sugar and carrots, so they were motivated.''

Barbara knew well the story of the first diver, Sonora Webster Carver, who started in 1923. In 1931 she was blinded after hitting the water off-balance with her eyes open. She suffered retinal detachment but continued to star in the show until 1942.

"We all figured that was just a freak thing,'' she recalled. "I didn't worry about getting hurt.''

She did five shows a day, seven days a week that summer, earning $5 a show. "It was fun most of the time,'' she said, "and I enjoyed the applause. But that last show was always brutal. I'd be standing on that platform in the pitch black night, cold and wet. The wind would sway the platform. I couldn't wait for that last jump to be over.''

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• • •

Barbara's career as a horse diver lasted just that one summer. She began to have concerns about Mickey and his drinking. "He had problems,'' she said. "I needed to think about how I was going to make a living and raise my sons.''

She divorced Mickey, attended cosmetology school in Pennsauken, N.J., and found a job in Atlantic City. The Steel Pier, damaged by fire, hurricane, neglect and ultimately casino gambling, saw its last horse diving show in 1978. In its 50-plus years, only 20 women could count themselves in the exclusive club.

"The whole city changed with gambling,'' she said, "but many of my customers came with the casinos. Still, it was sad to see what happened to the pier. It was a special place for a lot of years.''

Barbara moved to New Port Richey 21 years ago and worked at Nu Image Beauty Salon. She bought it 12 years ago with partner Rita Berris.

She has kept close tabs on Atlantic City and is pleased to read about a multimillion dollar renovation at the Steel Pier. Owner Anthony Catanoso made headlines last year when he considered bringing back the horse diving shows. Animal rights groups, much more organized and aggressive than in the pier's glory days, expressed outrage. The president of the Humane Society of the United States called it a "colossally stupid idea.'' And after the storm, Catanoso said, "Maybe it's something that should stay in the past and live in the memory of the past.''

Barbara is fine with that, although she said the horses were the "true stars'' of the show. "They were such hams,'' she said. "Some divers got hurt from time to time, but I don't think a horse ever did. They were treated like stars.''

Billy and Ruth Ditty, who trained and cared for the horses before the show closed, agreed. "The horses took bows,'' Ruth said. "They were real comics. And I tell you, Billy and I loved them like family.''

The Dittys, 73, retired to Hudson 33 years ago. He's had health problems but enjoys the chance to talk about the old days, especially with the renovations underway in New Jersey.

"The Steel Pier will never be what it was then,'' he said, "but our memories are special. Those were exciting days.''


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