ATLANTIC CITY - Long before animal-rights activists recently poured cold water on plans to revive the diving horse spectacle on the Steel Pier, animal acts were huge crowd pleasers along the city's famous Boardwalk.

Beginning in the vaudeville era, myriad wacky acts were showcased on the resort's various entertainment piers, including waterskiing dog Rex, a family of boxing kangaroos, and boxing cats.

Kangaroos boxed kangaroos (and the occasional human pugilist) and cats tangled with cats, with the animals wearing boxing gloves.

Cats - and rats - also performed tightrope walks in a circus-like atmosphere.

Bears danced, seals balanced balls on their noses, and elephants rode bicycles down the Boardwalk and then swam in the sea. And before the Steel Pier's horse act arrived in the 1920s, elk dived into a pool of water on the rival Million Dollar Pier, according to Atlantic City historian Vicki Gold Levi.

But the diving horse became the stuff of legend. The breathtaking act remained popular for six decades from when it began during Atlantic City's roaring golden age, drawing hundreds of thousands to the Steel Pier.

Horses with names such as Klatawah and Patches, with a young woman astride, would climb up to a four-story-high wooden platform. After sometimes as long as five minutes - each equine had its own style - the horse would take a running leap off the platform, diving headfirst into a tank below.

Seeing the massive animal flying through the air with a woman on its back in a bathing suit or circus costume and headed for the watery bull's-eye below sent up cheers, yelps, and applause.

"I felt his muscles tense as his body sprang out and down, and then had an entirely new feeling. It was a wild, almost primitive feeling that only comes with complete freedom of contact with the earth. Then I saw the water rushing up at me, and the next moment we were in the tank," Sonora Webster Carver wrote in her memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses.

She began riding the diving horses in the 1920s, and her experiences were turned into a 1991 Disney movie, Wild Hearts Can't Be Broken.

The diving horse act in Atlantic City ceased in 1978 - because of finances, not animal-rights issues, according to historians. It was revived briefly in 1993, but was stopped quickly again amid a backlash from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as well as other activists.

The opposition was again immediate and fierce early this month when the state Casino Reinvestment Development Authority and the current owners of the Steel Pier thought it would be a good idea to bring back the diving horse this summer as part of a three-year, $100 million Boardwalk revitalization.

PETA and other animal-rights groups collected tens of thousands of signatures on an online petition.

Soon after announcing the diving horse comeback, pier owner Anthony Catanoso said the plan was being scrapped. He said he concluded it would be better to "create new memories for visitors instead of recreating old ones."

The diving horse revival was a "colossally stupid idea" and animal-rights activists were pleased with Catanoso's change of heart, said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

"Horse diving has the potential to frighten and injure and kill horses, and it rightly belongs in Atlantic City's history books," Pacelle said.

But history books show that the diving horse act never really did any harm - at least not to the horses, according to Gold Levi, who wrote Atlantic City: 125 Years of Ocean Madness with former Esquire editor Lee Eisenberg.

Gold Levi said the riders were the ones who were injured, with bruises and broken bones part of the routine. Carver was blinded about 10 years after she began riding diving horses when the impact of the water detached her retinas.

Gold Levi, who cofounded the Atlantic City Historical Museum on Garden Pier, most recently worked as a consultant on the HBO series Boardwalk Empire.

Her father was the official photographer of the "Queen of Resorts" from 1939 to 1964. Besides getting to know a string of Miss Americas, Frank Sinatra, and other luminaries, Gold Levi was close friends with Arnette Webster French, Sonora Carver's sister and herself a diving horse rider.

To the end, Webster French recalled her love of the horses she dived with, Gold Levi said.

"There was never a question about whether anyone involved with the act loved these horses. . . . They were like their children," Gold Levi said. "I remember her saying that if a horse didn't like diving, then it wasn't trained to do it. They were never forced to jump."

The people who loved Atlantic City's performing animals loved them in a different way from those who advocate for animal rights today, Gold Levi said.

"We live in a different time now, not in a world that will accept a diving horse act or animal acts in general, even if the animals are treated very well," Gold Levi said.

Perhaps the most lasting tribute to some of these intrepid show animals is at the Clara-Glen Pet Cemetery off Shore Road in nearby Linwood.

Records of the cemetery, on private property where dead pets are no longer accepted for burial, indicate that as many as 3,800 dogs, cats, and other animals were interred there beginning in 1918.

Besides household pets - some memorialized in granite and marble plots - are the monkeys, snakes, birds, and other exotic creatures that were part of famous Atlantic City animal acts, including Rex, the waterskiing dog.

And a grave near the back of the four-acre plot, marked only by the word horse carved into a small white stone, is believed to be that of one of the diving horses.

at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Amy Worden contributed to this article.