How Fire Island Got Its LGBT Theater Back
Carson McCullers helped organize the first productions at Cherry Grove Community House and Theater in the late 1940s. This summer the theater’s $1.5m restoration will be complete.
Every party is a theme party in Fire Island’s Cherry Grove, where the frequent click-click on the boardwalks makes residents wonder: deer hooves or a drag queen’s heels?
This is not the popular image of the summer “gay utopia.” Most conjure panoramas of muscle parties, “Chelsea boys,” and lavish homes with pristine pools, but that’s the Pines—the larger and relatively newer (1950s, compared to 1868) town of recent reality-television fame.
In Cherry Grove, the more laid-back beach colony next door dubbed “America’s First Gay and Lesbian Town” by anthropologist Esther Newton, the theatrical is ever-present.
This penchant for dressing up, whether for a Venetian masquerade or Gatsby bash, is not just an expression of camp. It is an essential part of life that traces back 70 years, when a vaudeville revue entitled The Cherry Grove Follies of 1948 was performed at what would soon turn into the Cherry Grove Community House and Theatre.
In 2013, this building became the third of only five LGBTQ sites on the National Register of Historic Places.
In August, near the end of a rich event season that includes a performance by Justin Vivian Bond and the annual Cherry Grove Pride Parade with DOMA vanquisher Edie Windsor as this year’s Grand Marshal, the six-year fundraising and full-scale reconstruction of the house will be complete.
Fire Island’s separation from the mainland has always given LGBTQ people there a sense of freedom, whether from bigoted “lewdness laws” or the jeers of judgmental neighbors.
Prominent gay and lesbian cultural figures including W. H. Auden, Noël Coward, Christopher Isherwood, and Patricia Highsmith no doubt felt this as they spent time among the Grove’s idyllic beaches and car-free boardwalks.
In its early days as a thriving summer destination, one particular group, a Manhattan theatre set, defined the hamlet as a center for live theatre as well.
Author Carson McCullers, producer-director Cheryl Crawford (cofounder of the Actors Studio), actresses Marcella Swanson and Bertha Belmore, and theater critic George Freedley helped organize that barebones first production in 1948.
Audiences came from around the thirty-one-mile-long island and nearby Long Island, where this type of entertainment was scarce, and even as far as New York City.
Excitement was so high afterwards that parties were held in Manhattan to raise money for a theatre-centered expansion of the c.1900, shingle-covered carriage house that until then was used only as a meeting space.
Richard Avedon, another frequent resident, contributed to the project by donating profits from sales of photographs he took at a fundraising Halloween fête. By the summer of 1949 and the return of the Follies, a proscenium and orchestra pit were in place.
Gay theatre, like queerness itself, resists a fixed definition. In the Grove, two characteristics stand out.
Broadway in the 1940s and ‘50s was hostile to queer people, just as the Hays Code specifically targeted LGBTQ actors and themes in Hollywood, making it difficult for majority-gay or even gay-inclusive creative teams to mount productions.
But gay and straight people worked side-by-side for decades on productions at the Community House and Theatre, just as they lived, drank, and tanned together on the beaches.
Secondly, the Follies and subsequent shows, including the storied 1950 production Berthe of a Nation (a gender-inflected parody of the 1915 D. W. Griffiths film), focused on tongue-and-cheek humor, double entendre, and fluidity of gender, especially through drag.
This history had been forgotten by most Cherry Grove residents, many of whom considered such entertainment as just a bit of low-brow, silly fun.
But in 2010, when a building inspection of the house revealed that it either needed tearing down or immediate, extensive repair, a change of perception occurred.
Aided by research undertaken by resident historian Carl Luss, people began to understand the site’s unique place in gay culture. Demolition then became inconceivable, and donations from the community poured in.
“The restoration revitalized the community,” said James Crapotta, a retired Barnard College professor and longtime Grove resident. “It gave us a different sense of purpose. Saving the house became about saving our history and, in a way, Cherry Grove itself.”
Though the community provided the bulk of the $1.5 million needed, the government also assisted when the case was made that this wasn’t just another tiny community theatre.
The federal and state-level support culminated in the National Register of Historic Places recognition and a formal visit by New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand who called the site “the first civic entity to integrate gay and lesbian interests into governance and social life.”
But restoration does not guarantee increased ticket sales.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, we would sell out five shows, revues, and all kinds of fun things each season,” said Thom “Panzi” Hansen, president of the Arts Project of Cherry Grove (APCG). “Since the ‘90s, however, people stopped buying tickets. It’s an aging process—people often need to live here for ten years or so before they begin to understand the community.
“There’s an upswing in sales of late, and we’re also bringing in different artists like Theresa Caputo, ‘the Long Island Medium.’ The young people are starting to come, and the drag queens especially bring their friends!”
Regardless of audience size, pomp is never spared for an ARPG event: that season’s Homecoming Queen, elected at a Memorial Day pageant, enters to “God Save the Queen.”
The house remains an integral part of the ever-changing but constant artistic presence in Cherry Grove. Visual art has increased its prominence with the Fire Island Artist Residency (FIAR) program. “FIAR is the first program of its kind in the United States exclusively for LGBTQ artists,” said Chris Bogia, a New York artist who cofounded FIAR in 2011.
The first season had seventy-five applicants for five spots; this year, about four-hundred applications, from around the world, were received.
“It’s well known that Fire Island’s LGBTQ community has deep roots in the performing arts, but celebrated visual artists like Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney were here too,” said Bogia. “FIAR artists continue that legacy of visual-arts production as they experience this amazing community, where people of every gender expression, age, and color come together.”
Instead of sitting dark for most of the season as it once did, the house now functions as a true community center for every aspect of social life, from Sunday church service and an opera discussion group to Al-Anon meetings and yoga sessions.
The final restoration work is scheduled to wrap up in August in time for the annual honors dinner celebrating this year’s nominated Cherry Grovers for their contributions to the community. For the first time, it will be held at the house. $40,000 for a new sound system needs raising next—which means more fundraising theme parties.
Next year’s cultural calendar will be posted in the spring. Cherry Grovers do not cling to their datebooks as they might in the city though, an effect of the satisfying haze affectionately called “beach brain” that takes over anyone who spends even a few hours there.