By Justin Goins,
Am I to assume then that I have your undivided attention? Good.
This article’s title aside, the Angel Lounge Massacre site, the site of one of New Jersey’s most infamous crimes has long been a matter of public record, the reverberations of which are still felt throughout the state today—45 years later. But in order to understand the full story, one must inevitably revisit the sometimes weird, often strange, yet totally factual account of the events that preceded the crime.
I am referring of course to that infamous incident known as The Horror Of Party Beach. As always, the devil, or in this instance, the big fake rubber monster, is in the details.
It was the summer of 1962. Drive-ins, the first of which, coincidentally, were built in New Jersey, represented a rather lucrative investor’s market in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Due in no small part to independent film business’ exploitive nature, financiers stood to make large profits off of small initial investments.
All one needed was some capital, the brass to take a chance and a willing director to helm the project—though a little luck wouldn’t hurt either. One such director was a man by the name of Del Tenney, the autore responsible for such respectable cinematic gems as Psychomania and the equally curious I Eat Your Skin.
Tenney, a seasoned pro in the picture business, could not turn a blind eye to the swinging surf craze that had gripped the nation in the wake of Sandra Dee’s Gidget and Frankie & Annette’s Beach Party.
California’s surf culture had been thrust into the public consciousness seemingly overnight by virtue of such films. As with horror films, beach party movies enjoyed brisk business due to their ever faithful demographic: the American teenager. Surely Tenney himself could capitalize on some of this box-office. Perhaps there was even a way to combine the two above-mentioned genres.
Shopping a script around to prospective investors, titled Invasion Of The Zombies, Tenney intended the film as a companion piece to his now-completed gothic murder mystery Curse of the Living Corpse—double features being the standard by which independent theatres booked film engagements in those days.
Incidentally, Corpse would be the humble film debut of actor Roy Scheider, famous for his roles in the The French Connection and Jaws.
Del Tenney, never to be outdone, envisioned Invasion Of The Zombies as the first film of its kind, a monster musical of sorts, set amongst the sand and sun. Though in reality that dubious distinction already belonged to the succinctly named The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies, a mouthful of a title released on an unsuspecting public just months prior, in 1962.
The central plot of Invasion Of The Zombies, though pretty outlandish, was strangely topical for its day: Nuclear waste, illegally dumped off the coast of New York, pollutes a nearby shipwreck, causing the skeletons of its lost crew to mutate into strange, blood-drinking anthropoid monsters.
Okay, so topical in a rather broad sense.
Shot entirely in black and white, the film’s production was an exercise in cost effectiveness, principal photography being completed in only two weeks. With local Stamford, Connecticut homes and businesses serving as filming locations, the movie boasted a budget of less than $120,000, a pittance even for its time. Most of the cast was unpaid extras from the area. One of the leads was even played by a college roommate of Tenney’s wife! Be that as it may, the most glaringly obvious cost-saving measure on the film would have to be the monsters themselves; those horrors that the title would come to suggest.
Played by assorted crewmen on the set, the creatures, who would serve as the film’s antagonists, were rather laughable even by 1960s standards; their oversized papier-mâché heads practically tipping over beneath the weight of gigantic fins; ping pong like eyeballs popping out of their sockets, and mouths filled not with teeth but with what can only be described as Bratwurst and other assorted summer sausages (I’m not kidding).
It is doubtful that these monsters could elicit terror in anybody, more than likely inducing a fine spray of grape Nee-Hi out of one’s nostrils, or at least inspiring a healthy belly-laugh where screams were in short supply. The ill-conceived design of the creatures, however, were the least of Del Tenney’s worries.
With the start of production looming, Tenney, sensing rather wisely that he couldn’t have a musical without any music, was at a loss as to the casting of the pivotal role of the band whose talents the teens of Party Beach would clamor for; subsequently baiting the monsters’ approach.
The film’s minuscule budget hindered them from hiring any name talent, so in typical low budget fashion, Tenney sent his producer Richard Hillier into surrounding tri-state area bars and nightclubs to find a local band who fit the beach party mold; a group who was young, had the playing chops, and more importantly, one that would work cheap and not ask too many questions.
Having survived in one incarnation or another since 1957, The Del-Aires were a guitar-fronted rock and roll band hailing from Paterson, NJ. They were made up of several teenagers from area high schools that had made a name for themselves playing local dancehalls and clubs, though their reputation for underage drinking and good-natured “trouble” was surely not too far behind.
Well-known in the area as the house band of Coney Island’s famous Atlantis Club, the band’s résumé also boasted some of the most high profile clubs of their day, including Daddy’s in Greenwood Lake, and NYC’s own Peppermint Lounge, a place famously immortalized by the Joey Dee And The Starliters song “The Peppermint Twist,” released at the height of the ‘60s “Twist” craze.
The band even cut a 45-RPM record on Block Records, so named for their manager Archie Block, owner of Block Linoleum, located on Main Street in Paterson, in whose basement The Del-Aires would often practice.
By all accounts, The Del-Aires were a very energetic and versatile group, often playing blisteringly intense rock and roll for audiences more than twice their age. One such concertgoer was Richard Hilliard who, having seen them by chance, decided to offer the band a role in his film, now officially titled The Horror Of Party Beach, in a move to punch up advertising.
The Del-Aires jumped at the chance to be in an actual movie, going into the studio to record a mix of original material along with songs written by the film’s musical directors, Edward Earle and Wilfred Holcombe.
With such titles as “Just Wigglin’ N’ Wobblin,’” “Drag” and “Zombie Stomp,” in which the latter’s rather poetic lyrics boldly proclaimed, “Hey Everybody, do the zombie stomp! You slam your foot down with an awful clomp!,” The Del-Aires were now ready to make their big-screen debut.
Suiting up in matching outfits and hamming it up for the cameras, the band happily lip-synced their prospective hits, guitars in hand, to the twisting teenagers of Stamford’s makeshift Party Beach.
Filming wrapped up in the fall of 1963, with the movie slated for a winter release. In the meantime, The Del-Aires returned to Paterson to continue their quest for stardom, breaking their affiliation with Block Records and signing with Coral Records in a bid to garner more exposure.
Soon afterwards, Coral Records released the first of three Del-Aires 45 singles, featuring two songs from the film: “Just Wigglin’ N’ Wobblin’” and “Elaine.” By the middle of 1964, “Drag” too would be released.
Things seemed to be going quite well for the Paterson natives, with a starring role in an honest-to-God movie and a growing catalogue of records. But in a strange twist, seemingly lending itself to the plot of one of Mr. Tenney’s own movies, The Del-Aires would soon find themselves inextricably linked, through no fault of their own, to one of the worst crimes in New Jersey’s history.
On the night of August 26, 1963, the band found themselves playing to a packed house at a club they were known to frequent, Lodi, New Jersey’s own Angel Lounge, located on 501 Baldwin Ave. and Route 46, a stretch of road known famously throughout Bergen County as ‘Sin Strip.’
By all accounts the show was an energetic one, so energetic in fact that the police were called several times to enforce the local noise ordinance.
As The Del-Aires broke down their gear for the evening and began to load it into their cars, two members of the crowd, Thomas Trantino and his friend Frank Falco, began to get nervous at the police presence. The latter, only moments after, having filled in as a vocalist on a couple of songs; The Del-Aires’ rhythm guitarist and sometimes-singer Bobby Osborne had been sent home by the bartender for being too drunk to play.
There was good reason for the tension.
Thomas “The Rabbi” Trantino and Frank Falco were two friends with a sordid history. Trantino was a heroin addict by the age of 15, and Falco was known for posing as a male prostitute, beating and robbing prospective clients who, given the climate of the times, would be at a loss as to report such an incident to the local police.
Charged with second-degree robbery in 1956, Trantino was subsequently sentenced to five years at Great Meadow State Prison in New York. It was there that he met Frank Falco, a fellow inmate serving time for armed robbery. The two would become fast friends, serving out their relatively short terms together.
Though estranged following parole, the two men had recently become reacquainted; Falco begging Trantino for a place to hide out upon his killing of loan debtor Robert Munoz in plain view of a bar full of people on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The pair, fresh from a series of robberies in Brooklyn, not to mention the murder of Munoz just months before, were understandably nervous that night at the Angel Lounge when the two attending officers, Sergeant Peter Voto and Patrolman Gary Tedesco, approached them, asking for I.D. and inquiring about an earlier incident in which a drunken patron had allegedly fired a pistol in the bar.
Breaking under the pressure of the police officers’ questioning, Trantino pounced on Sergeant Voto, assaulting him viciously before wrestling his gun away. Now armed, the evening took an even more terrifying turn as Trantino and Falco taunted the helpless officers, Officer Tedesco (unarmed, as he was only a probation officer) having since rushed to his partner’s aid; beating them with Voto’s pistol before forcing them to strip naked at gunpoint.
In one final humiliating gesture, the two officers allegedly were made to beg for their lives before Trantino and Falco, having tired of the evening’s events, proceeded to shoot both men point blank in the back of the head before making their escape. Both officers were pronounced dead at the scene.
Andy Voto, brother of victim Peter Voto and a fellow police officer, arrived at the crime scene soon after. It has been said, upon his arrival that Andy Voto slipped in his own brother’s blood.
Trantino was able to evade police the night of the murder, but after several days on the run, he turned himself in to face one count of capital murder in the death of Sergeant Peter Voto.
Trantino’s partner Frank Falco, having no intentions to give himself up, was shot dead just two days later in New York City in room 2503 of the Hotel Manhattan.
On February 18, 1964, Thomas Trantino was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to death by electric chair.
Following an unsuccessful attempt at appealing his conviction, Trantino’s death sentence was later commuted to a sentence of life imprisonment following a Supreme Court ruling effectively overturning New Jersey’s death penalty, but more on that later.
In the wake of the murders, the Angel Lounge and several other area clubs voluntarily closed, or were closed down in an effort to curb violence attributed to the proliferation of local nightlife.
Though not directly responsible for The Del-Aires disbanding, it is plausible that the murders at the Angel Lounge were indeed a contributing factor.
The band released two more singles with Coral Records before in fighting and divergent musical tastes forced them to break up in early 1964.
The Horror of Party Beach premiered along with The Curse Of The Living Corpse in December of 1964, the movie poster’s sensational tagline heralding the arrival of “Weird Atomic Beasts Who Live Off Human Blood!”
As part of the advertising campaign, theatre patrons were asked to sign a ‘fright release’ absolving the theatre of liability should they happen to die of fright while watching the double feature, though it is doubtful that anybody met such a fate, given the rather tongue in cheek spirit of the movies.
The Del-Aires, though now officially disbanded, were commissioned to appear at area showings of the film, reuniting for a short time to perform in theatre lobbies and atop drive-in concession stands. The band played songs featured in the movie, gave out free promotional singles and even signed autographs for excited theatre patrons.
Despite a ludicrous premise and scathing reviews, The Horror Of Party Beach would eventually gross over a million dollars worldwide; not a bad profit for a $120,000 investment, huh?
It has since gone on to live a second life of sorts as a cult classic, owing its longevity, in no small part, to bootleg VHS, late night reruns and a coveted spot amongst the pantheon of “So bad, they’re good” films popularized by the TV show Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
Del Tenney left the film business soon after completing his masterpiece, taking his earnings and making a killing in the investment market. He still remembers the film fondly to this day, citing it as one of his most pleasant filmmaking experiences. Individual members of The Del-Aires continued playing music, forming various bands and projects.
Gary Robert Jones, bass guitarist of The Del-Aires, would go on to play in the ‘60s psychedelic band The Queens Tangerine Machine, while Ronnie Linaires and Bobby Osborne, lead guitar and rhythm guitar of The Del-Aires, both moved to Florida, where they still occasionally perform together at local clubs.
In 1998, Thomas ‘The Rabbi’ Trantino successfully appealed the state parole board’s earlier ruling that found him unfit for release, citing that the parole board did not meet the burden of proof in their assessment that Trantino still posed a threat to the community.
Trantino, previously New Jersey’s longest serving inmate, is now a free man, occasionally, and surprisingly, giving lectures to area universities about, what else but, parole law.
Anyone who has ever seen The Horror Of Party Beach can attest to the fact that, despite its obvious lack of production values, the film is wildly entertaining and wonderfully offbeat in a way that now seems rather quaint.
Featuring sexual promiscuity, voodoo, drag racing, dancing, underage drinking, stripping, live rock and roll, motorcycle gangs, nuclear waste and blood-sucking monsters, the film was actually rather risqué for its time, embodying every cliché of exploitation filmmaking, when too much was never enough in regards to filling the theatres and turning a profit.
Considering all the facts, I’m sure that, given some time and a modicum of inspiration, one could sit down and try and fabricate a stranger tale then the one enclosed.
Be that as it may, that old adage that “truth is stranger than fiction” has never been more apparent than in this case, where cinematic absurdity and men running around in monster costumes served as a precursor to a very real tragedy.
Long gone are the days of drive-in double features, of teenage kids raising the roof off of Block Linoleum and of bloody dealing in New Jersey’s ‘Sin Strip.’ Then, as now, people tend to think back on each successive decade as quaint when compared to the horrors of the present, but they would be wrong.
Real horror is sometimes not as apparent to us as a creature 20-foot high on a drive-in screen might seem, nor are its effects and causes as startlingly black and white.
Lodi, 45 Years Later
Today the stretch of Route 46 that passes through Lodi and in front of the former Angel Lounge is now comprised of video shops, strip malls, gas stations, furniture stores and U-turns. The Angel Lounge property is now a tile and granite shop. Granite and stone cover up any remnants of the old bar (if any—we were told it may have been torn down completely) but the people of Lodi still cannot erase the events that took place on August 26, 1963.
According to the librarian at the Lodi Public Library, the Angel Lounge did stay open after the killings, but eventually closed, as did many of the seedy establishments on the strip.
In an article from NJ.com in 2002, Officer Tedesco’s sister Elaine was quoted as saying, “We tried to move on, but it didn’t work.” Neither the Tedesco nor Voto family can bear to drive that stretch of highway. Both families have been vocal on the issues of the death penalty in New Jersey, and feel that justice will never be served to their families who have to endure the constant grief that Thomas Trantino and Frank Falco brought into their lives so many years ago. They had constantly rallied to deny Trantino’s parole.
The Lodi police department has erected a monument to Gary Tedesco and Peter Voto, in which memorials are held in honor of the slain officers. Behind the glass wall of the building, you can see photos and dedications to the officers. Voto Tedesco Park was also dedicated in their honor.
Thomas Trantino is barred from entering Bergen County and reportedly living somewhere in Camden. –Mark Sceurman