INTERVIEW: Rose’s View, Bob Levine at 90

In July of 1976, a drag queen named Terry Warren went to the Pines to have a drink with a few of her friends. Upon entry to a local establishment, she was denied service because she was in drag. The word spread back in the neighboring community of Cherry Grove, home to many drag personalities. It was only a week later when a group of 17 drag queens boarded a boat and entered that same establishment. Because they were now a big group, they were able to have a drink and enjoy each other’s company despite the locals voicing their displeasure with the situation.

Photo by Jay Robinson

One of those 17 was Robert “Rose” Levine. Bob, then a young columnist with Fire Island News, coined the term “Invasion of the Pines” in writing about the event.

Now, he is one of the last remaining original invaders and the Invasion of the Pines has been an annual celebration for the last 48 years and has grown, at its peak, to about 400 participants.

Twenty years earlier Bob arrived in Cherry Grove and has been a resident ever since.

“I’ve heard about Fire Island, but I never thought of visiting. Then, a friend of mine rented a house and invited me as a guest – And I never left.”

It was not long after that Robert got involved in the world of drag. The art of drag was an important part of the community. Their local theater hosted drag shows three or four times a season. Rose performed her first show in July 1955 and has been a fixture ever since.

In the beginning, Bob would borrow wigs and high heels or even go buy yarn for a makeshift wig. “Drag was sort of a frumpy comic relief to people who just got up and did it funny.”

However, Robert was responsible for bringing glamour into what was considered comedy. As a fashion buyer in New York, he was already familiar with the high-end brands and stores all around the United States. From there, Robert was able to refine his look from basic dresses to designer.

“We had a lot of designers here who saw me, and they knew me. They started to design clothes for me, or they would be Seventh Avenue designers who I knew from business. And they would say to me, do you need to dress for a show? I would say yes, and I would wear it on Saturday and return it on Monday.”

Rose was incredibly popular on the island. And from there his drag persona continued to grow. When I sat down with Robert, I wanted to learn more about the origin story behind the name Rose. It was then that he told me the name was practically chosen for him.

Back in fashion school, a classmate of his had written the name “Rose Levine” on a dusty window. From there, the name stuck because another classmate of his who was first to invite him out to Fire Island, had already announced to everyone that Rose Levine is coming. The first day, Robert got off the boat to a banner with the words “Welcome Rose Levine” waiting for him upon his arrival.

Throughout the fifties, Cherry Grove was a haven for the gay community. Bob and his friends would come out on weekends in the summertime and throw themes parties and dress up. It was a time for them to be glamorous and express their bold personalities.

Unfortunately, that all changed in the early sixties when the quaint community was affected by raids that led to the arrest of many gay men. Undercover police officers would arrest those that encountered them. The victims were then removed from the island and needed to pay upwards of $1,000 bail. Robert had to post bail for some of his friends.

“It was a terrible time. And not only that. Many of the people that were arrested were executives of different companies in New York, and they took their names and addresses and listed them in The New York Times, in the New York Post, in the news. They were all arrested, and they lost their jobs.”

When the raids died down, people who could afford it would move down to the Pines. The Pines was just west of Cherry Grove and was considered slightly more conservative and luxurious. This created a clear separation between the two gay communities, which is what led to the events that triggered the Invasion in the first place.

Since the Invasion, the Pines and Cherry Grove have coexisted in harmony. Many events welcome the involvement of both communities. In 1981, Rose was asked to perform in the Pines alongside Broadway composer David Baker. Ten years later, the Rose in the Pines performance launched the Fire Island Pines Arts Project, which brought more musical theater and preforming arts to the Pines. Today, Rose performs in both communities.

Rose Levine has been performing for 68 years now and is still as prominent in the community as ever. From 1955 to present day, Rose has been performing in Cherry Grove and from 1981 to present day, she has been performing in the Pines. This summer Rose will have a show on July 1, called “Rose of Cherry Grove Fame,” and her own act at the Ice Palace on Aug. 28.