Cherry Grove & Fire Island Pines: Rose’s View

Cherry Grove & Fire Island Pines: Rose’s Viewby Bob Levine

CHERRY GROVE IS A SMALL, fiercely independent community on Fire Island. It was a getaway for many Long Islanders in the early 20th Century who loved to fish and relax. When I arrived in 1955, many of the original families were here with their children who had grown up in Cherry Grove. In the l940s, there was a group that arrived as guests of some of the homeowners. Many of these guests were from the Broadway community. Within a few years more and more Broadway dressers, performers, dancers, directors, choreographers, set directors and the like were arriving. Richard Kiley, Arlene Francis, Joan McCracken, Donald Cook, Bertha Bellmore, Nancy Walker, Martin Kraft, Alan Prescott, and Denny Beach were among them.

There were no telephones, electric, or running water. It was pure primitive living. This lifestyle appealed to a select group of people. In 1962 it became mandatory that we put electricity and running water in our houses, against the wishes of many. In 1945 the Arts Project was founded by Broadway personality Earl Blackwell and Mrs. Helen Ely, a Grove resident with her husband Howard. There were many people in the Grove who started saying, “Let’s put on a show.” They sure did and it was a successful event, which raised just a pittance of money, but gave everyone something exciting to do on Saturday night.

The only other source of entertainment was the bar at Duffy’s Hotel, sadly it burned down in 1956. The Grove Hotel was built in 1957. In the 70s the Ice Palace was born shortly after the rise and convictions of Stonewall. Then we had Disco! For the first time two people of the same sex could dance together and not be afraid of being arrested. This town of course was a haven for gay and lesbian people. The Ice Palace featured celebrity guests beginning in 1972. That summer Della Reese, Paul Lynde, Wayland Flowers & Madame, Lynn Carter and Barbara Cook appeared – as well as myself sometimes.

We also had a nightclub called the Atlantique back in the 70s, which stood where the Sandcastle later was. It too featured gay icons like Dionne Warwick, Sylvia Syms, Kaye Ballard, and Sarah Vaughan. The Monster, a famous restaurant that opened in the late 60s, frequently served clientele that included Fire Island elite – Ethel Merman, Mel Brooks, his wife Anne Bancroft, Milton Berle, and Tony Roberts. Margaret Truman Daniel had a standing reservation every Wednesday night.

When I arrived in the Grove, the shows sponsored by the Art’s Project at the theatre were a major factor in Cherry Grove. We had three shows per season, and three shows per night – 9 and 11 p.m. and a late show at 1 a.m. The late show always sold out immediately.

Costumed “theme” parties thrown at houses also became very popular. We looked forward to the simple high-heeled party, the hat party, a caftan party, western-themed parties and many others. As the years went on the parties grew ever larger and sophisticated, but were still hosted at private homes. The wedding party, MGM Party, Chintz, Kilt, Cleopatra and the Hadassah parties were just a few that we looked forward to.

As the years went on Cherry Grove became very popular with the press and it was no longer a hideaway for gay people. The Meat Rack became famous for cruising and there were many raids in Cherry Grove by the Suffolk County police. Residents who were arrested were often executives of big firms. Their names appeared in all of the New York papers, and they would be fired from their jobs. In the early 60s many of the executive types moved and bought property in the Pines, which at that time was known as a family community with a sprinkling of gay men and women.

The Pines had an influx of people who loved Fire Island, but did not want the parties and the notoriety that the Grove offered. John Whyte bought the Botel and opened the Blue Whale restaurant. Soon after he began the tradition known as the Tea Dance. In 1976 we had the first Invasion to the Pines. The Pavillion opened soon after the Sandpiper came down. John instituted Low Tea at the Botel and High Tea at the Pavillion. The crowds were enormous. People came from all over the world to enjoy the new, free, gay lifestyle we created in the Grove and the Pines.

The Pines clientele began to change. People with yachts and vacationers arrived from all over the world. Celebrities like Tennessee Williams, Noël Coward, Rock Hudson, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler, Joe Kipness, Dorothy Loudon, Liliane Montevecchi, Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Angelo Donghia, James Baldwin, and Claudette Colbert to name a few. There were also fashion designers like Tracy Mills, Giorgio St. Angelo, Jeffrey Banks, Michael Vollbrecht, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Cathy Hardwick, Perry Ellis, Michael Kors also joined the Tea Dance. They were guests, rented or bought property.

By 1963 Jerry Herman had two Broadway hits “Milk & Honey” and “Hello Dolly.” He bought his first house in the Pines. Many of the Dolly’s stayed with him. Carol Channing, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers and others. Later Tommy Tune became a homeowner in the Pines as well. Today we have Tony Award-winner Jerry Mitchell.

In 1984 John Whyte presented yours truly, Rose Levine, at the first “God’s Love We Deliver” benefit on Fire Island at the Botel. We continued a show for four years. We also raised money for other charities like GMHC and People With AIDS Coalition. During the darkest days of the AIDS epidemic superstars shed their light by lending their support and performing in the Pines for AIDS benefits. They included Melisa Manchester, who I knew as a child growing up in Ocean Beach; Joan Rivers; Dionne Warwick; Peter Alan; Julie Wilson, Colleen Dewhurst; Bernadette Peters; and more recently Jane Krakowski.

Today important organizations like Lambda Legal, Hetrick-Martin, GMHC and SAGE are part of the core fundraising in the Pines and the Grove. Fire Island Pines established FIPAP in 1981, founded by David Baker and Sylvan Cole. Their first show was “Rose in The Pines” and then “Pines Needles.” We have done “Guys & Dolls,” “La Cage Aux Folles,” “Hello Dolly,” “ Little Mary Sunshine,” “Very Good Eddie,” “Anything Goes,” and “Dames at Sea.” Yes, we started it, we did it all and now the lifestyle continues. It is just a matter of fact. What does the Pines and Cherry Grove mean to me… I’ve been here a lifetime and it’s my slice of heaven living with Michael Fitzgerald and our West Highland Terrier, Mr. Burberry. I want to thank Jay Robinson for always being there to help, and Jason Vercace before him. Cheers!

The Kilt Party.