ATLANTIC CITY - Rolling chairs came into vogue in this seaside resort in the coquettish 1880s, when no Boardwalk promenade was complete without a parasol and a spin in one of the stylish contraptions - especially between Easter and Labor Day.
The dainty wicker conveyances, pushed by human "operators," are so associated with Atlantic City that they are featured in the 19th-century Shore re-creation at Walt Disney World's Boardwalk Resort.
"They're really an important part of the Atlantic City experience. I've had so many people tell me that this is the best part of their entire vacation," said Jamar Medley, 34, a city resident and an operator for 10 years for Royal Rolling Chairs, one of the largest such companies in the resort.
Royal will debut 50 chairs with a bright new look this season, a contribution to the city's effort to up the ante in its recently inaugurated tourism district.
"It's nice, very well-done. Best part of my day," Arnaldo Ferrara, 71, of Edison said of Royal's spiffy model last week as he was shuttled between casinos.
Rolling chairs have been an important part of moving tired tourists among Boardwalk gaming halls over the last 30 years, especially in the hot summer months. A ride costs about $1 per block, plus tip. On a good day, operators say, they can make a few hundred dollars ferrying passengers along a seven-mile stretch.
With little regulation by the city, however, the genteel tradition has been under threat. There have been complaints in recent years of some operators' boisterous hawking, drunkenness, and connections to illegal activity, including drug sales and prostitution.
The resort has launched a push to clean up the industry. Under an ordinance to be introduced in City Council on Wednesday, operators would have to pass drug tests to be licensed. Background checks would be implemented to weed out those with felony convictions.
"Our goal is to really put a new face on the entire aesthetic and behavior of the operators so that the quality of the service is increased," said Anthony R. Cox, director of the city's Office of Licensing and Inspection.
Cox said he began formulating the guidelines nearly two years ago in response to negative reports about some operators.
Under the proposed measure, returning operators who failed the drug test this year could retake it after undergoing rehab, Cox said. If they passed that time, they would be granted licenses for a probationary period. New applicants would not be offered do-overs.
The city hopes to have the law in place by May 1, when its 300 rolling-chair licenses are up for renewal, he said. Operators pay a $75 fee for each chair. The chair companies also pay fees.
Bill Boland, who owns Royal Rolling Chairs, is not waiting to raise his game. Over the winter, he replaced his entire fleet of 100 chairs at a cost of $4,000 each.
Half the chairs had their brown lacquer finishes repainted white. Their tan surreys were replaced with jaunty red-and-white-striped awnings. The cost: $2,000 per chair.
Boland also has supplied his operators with new uniforms: red jackets for cool weather and red polo shirts for when it's warm, paired with black pants and white sneakers.
Boland is "a smart man and has raised the bar. . . . [He's] reinvesting in his business to upgrade his product," said John Palmieri, executive director of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, which oversees the tourism district.
"It's an investment in a very important Atlantic City tradition," Boland said. And "these new regulations are good. It was getting like the Wild West out there."
Shakur Williams, 47, who rolls a chair for one of Boland's competitors, Ocean Rolling Chairs, says the new rules and spiffed-up rides might be overreaching a bit.
"The background checks might leave some people out of the equation," he said.
And those new red-and-white chairs?
Williams chuckled. They look like "water-ice stands," he said.
Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo