The ‘CEO of Adrenaline’

Alumnus Anthony Catanoso Co-owns the Steel Pier in Atlantic City

Behind Anthony Catanoso looms the newest attraction on the Steel Pier in Atlantic City, N.J., The Wheel. Open all year round, The Wheel offers riders 360° panoramic views. Photograph by: John Emerson
By Tom Nugent

Anthony Catanoso, MS’03 (Metro), gets such a kick out of running his 1,000-foot-long Steel Pier amusement park in Atlantic City. As the 59-year-old entertainment czar praises his №1 all-time attraction, a roller coaster named the Crazy Mouse, he lights up brighter than the boardwalk on a summer night.

“It’s the zero-gravity,” says Catanoso. “The cars don’t just go up and down — they spin. … it’s been our most popular ride ever since we opened it in 1996.”

But the Mouse may not be his top attraction when the numbers come in for last summer. Catanoso, his brothers Chuck and Bill and his childhood friend Ed Olwell — the owners of Atlantic City’s Steel Pier (along with construction executive Tom Bock) — recently added a $14-million, 227-foot-high observation wheel (the nation’s third-tallest) to the lineup of attractions.

A year-round magnet for visitors, The Wheel features enclosed, temperature-controlled gondolas that seat six people each.

How Old Is It?
The Steel Pier celebrated its 120th year last summer.
That Long?
At its peak, the pier reached almost 2,300 feet long.

Catanoso grew up in North Wildwood, N.J., and got started in the entertainment business 30 years ago by launching a handful of go-kart tracks in Cape May County. After that enterprise flourished, he and his brothers extended their reach in 1993 by leasing the Steel Pier from the owner of the nearby Taj Mahal Casino — a well-known local figure named Donald Trump.

The Catanoso brothers enjoyed “a very friendly and very successful” business relationship with the current occupant of the White House, he recalls. Things went so well that they wound up buying the historic landmark for $4.25 million in 2011.

So what was it like doing business with the sometimes irascible and impulsive President Trump day in and day out?

“We had a good relationship with him, for the most part,” remembers Catanoso. “He wasn’t always easy to deal with, but he was always fair. And he also saved us from being terminated on our lease several times, when he stepped in and overruled his CEOs.

The Disney movie “Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken” is based on the life of Sonora 
Webster Carver, who rode the diving horses at the pier for 29 years, 11 of which 
were after she lost her sight in a diving accident.

“I remember one time when we were having financial struggles, he looked at me and said: ‘You could always quit, Tony — but where would that get you?’” That advice helped Catanoso survive his early years on the Steel Pier.

Built in 1898, the landmark pier was once known as “The Showplace of the Nation” — a glittering venue that featured such unforgettable headliners as Al Jolson, Frank Sinatra, Diana Ross, a high-diving horse and a water-skiing canine (“Rex the Wonder Dog”), who knocked the socks off millions of delighted tourists.

Despite the pier’s hard times, which began with a devastating fire in 1982 — and things deteriorating throughout the city for many years after that — Catanoso and his brothers took a chance, invested in the pier, hung on to their dreams and eventually began to turn the pier’s fortunes around.

“I really like coming into the Steel Pier each day and watching people have fun. When people ask me what I do for a living, I tell ’em ‘I’m in the happy business.’” — Anthony Catanoso

Remembering the lean times, he’s quick to point out that “when we started here, Atlantic City had 44 million visitors a year. Now it’s only 24 million. That’s a drop-off of 20 million, and believe me, it hurts.

“But I think it’s clear that Atlantic City is on the way back now,” he says. He’s encouraged that Hard Rock International invested $600 million to turn the Taj Majal into a Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

“We’ve also seen another $1.5 billion in public and private investment poured into non-gaming attractions in the past few years,” he adds. “Lots of good things are happening in Atlantic City now, and we’re thrilled to be part of that.

“There’s no doubt that the Steel Pier has begun to regain its luster,” he says today, while noting that his FDU graduate studies in hospitality management were crucial to him developing the vision required to recapture the pier’s glory days.

Catanoso says he’ll be “forever grateful” to John Avella, BS’63 (Ruth), former senior lecturer of hotel, restaurant and tourism management, who taught him the importance of understanding “emotional intelligence” in the struggle to become a better marketer.

“John never stopped encouraging me — while also teaching me what I needed to know in order to successfully expand our business.”

Avella remembers Catanoso as a “visionary” whose enthusiasm was infectious. “He was a determined dreamer who simply would not be stopped,” he recalls.

For Catanoso, life as the “CEO of Adrenaline” has never been better.

Ed. note: A version of this article first appeared in the Fall 2018 edition of FDU Magazine.