Fire Island Prepares for Summer Season

by Steve Weinstein
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Jun 2, 2012

This article is from the September 2012 issue of EDGE Digital Magazine.

This winter, the news coming out of Fire Island painted a picture of a community destroyed, of a resort that couldn't offer much in the way of a good time, of a desolate landscape reminiscent of Berlin in 1945. People immediately began speculating that Fire Island was "over," that the most storied gay resort in the world had lost its mojo.

The truth is nothing of the sort. Despite a fire that destroyed a major nightclub and bar, Fire Island's businesses are well on their way once again to hosting the expected hordes of visitors.

First, the facts: Yes, last November, a freak electrical short caused one of the biggest fires on Fire Island in decades. Fire departments responded in a way that resembled New York firefighters on 9/11. But Fire Island didn't come by its name lightly: The island is covered by trees, and all of the buildings are made of wood.

So by the time firefighters got the fire under control, the fast-moving fire gutted the Pavilion, the huge nightclub in Fire Island Pines. It also burned down the building that houses the Sip 'n' Twirl, the town's major bar. The photos that emerged across all media were disheartening, to be sure. But that was then, and this is now.

Remember also that there are two predominantly gay towns on the 32-long barrier reef that stretches along the south coast of Long Island. Along with the larger Pines, there is the older settlement of Cherry Grove. The two are only a short walk away from each other, either on the beach, or for the more intrepid (or more horny), there's the world's most famous outdoor cruising spot, the patch of National Seashore known as the Meat Rack. More about the Grove below. But first, let's take an honest look at the situation in the Pines.

Tragedy & Rebirth in the Pines

In the Pines, the site of the destruction, there has been marked progress toward a rebirth. The owner of the Sip ’n’ Twirl’s building moved quickly to hire an architect, consultants and a contractor. The officials responsible for building approvals in the Long Island Town of Brookhaven, which governs both the Pines and the Grove, swiftly came to the conclusion that a tiny handful of protests about the building’s size were outweighed by its importance to the community. As a result, work has been going on all winter on the Sip ’n’ Twirl, which is expected to be completed and open for business by the big July Fourth Weekend.

The good news? The reconfigured building will include a much bigger Sip ’n’ Twirl, with a more regularly shaped dance floor and better passage between the "sip" (the non-dancing bar) and the "twirl" (the dance space). Regulars at DJ Lina’s afternoon teas are counting down the days until the princess of House gets to play the decks on the Sip ’n’ Twirl’s outdoor deck.

As for the Pavilion, the three co-owners have contracted with one of New York City’s top architectural firms and they, too, have received the necessary permits from local government.

Contrary to certain unfounded Internet rumors, the Pavilion and the other harbor properties owned by the three men are most definitely not for sale. They have pledged to rebuild the Pavilion, and, by correcting the deficiencies in the original, restore the club to its pride of place in the pantheon of gay nightclubs.

In the meantime, their other businesses are either opening or have already opened for business. That includes the Blue Whale, the restaurant and bar that is the site of the world’s first "tea dance." In the Pines, the schedule is as unerring as Tokyo’s Imperial Palace, with the "teas" the centerpiece of the weekend days’ activities.

This year, to compensate for the lack of a venue for High Tea and its dancing daughter Middle Tea, the Blue Whale will remain open for High Tea. The bar deck, already crowded, will probably be so crowded during High Season that the staff will have to resort to a "velvet rope" on weekends. But that just means all the more hot, shirtless men - and they don’t get any hotter than the men in the Pines.

To compensate for the loss of the Pavilion the Blue Whale will remain open for Tea until 2 a.m. Canteen, which had served as a café serving café and sandwiches, will become a full-service restaurant. Expect even more performers - especially drag revues - at the Blue Whale on weekends. A Saturday daytime speakers’ series on issues relating to gay life and Fire Island proved hugely popular; I hope it continues.

The Grove Prepares for Its Close-Up

Since the three men bought these properties, they have made a concerted effort to maximize their spaces. This meant there was a South Beach-type lounge area in back of the modest buildings that housed retailers between Hotel Ciel (which they also own) and the Pavilion’s footprint. Except for major holiday weekends and special events, however, this area, which includes a bar for blended drinks, a huge pool and open cabanas, had not been fully embraced by the community at large.

This year, expect happenings to draw in revelers all weekend. Having Middle Tea in the pool area for about two hours on weekends will certainly draw the crowds.

Aside from the harbor, the other non-residential space in the Pines is Whyte Hall, the town’s community house, halfway between the harbor and the entrance to the Meat Rack. There is a concert hall and a huge outdoor deck. I expect the leaders of the community have been huddling about how to utilize this space while retaining its use for community-based events.

In Cherry Grove, the several bars and restaurants have been opening like flowers during the early spring season. Although the Grove has only one-third the population of the Pines, the downtown commercial area is larger - an accident of history. For that reason the Grove has always been known as more raucous, more rambunctious, more out there.

Some people disparage this reputation, but one brave man has embraced his inner sleaze. For the past few years, New York promoter Daniel Nardicio has been fighting to bring a young vibe to the old town. His most remarkable success has been his Friday night Underwear parties, which have rocked the Ice Palace and even entice many Pines’ boys to trek over for the evening.

Impressed by his success, the owners of the Ice Palace have given Nardicio carte blanche to promote the town’s only disco. So this year Nardicio will take over Saturday nights as well. Instead of rotating the music among brand name DJs, Nardicio plans to have a resident DJ, New York’s Johnny Dynell.

One problem that has held the Ice Palace back from reclaiming the precedence it enjoyed in both communities in the ’70s is the constant barrage of noise complaints from neighbors. Nardicio says the problem comes from patrons not closing the glass doors that line one wall, and that management is making a "concerted effort" to make sure the doors don’t pose a problem.

Bringing big-name talent to Fire Island is a specialty for Nardicio. Most famously, he booked a New York singer-songwriter named Lady Gaga, who graciously showed up even though she had become an international sensation playing venues hundreds of times larger.

While it’s hard to top that one, Nardicio has a line-up of talent for this summer that includes the living person who can most claim to be gay royalty: Liza Minnelli. Yes, that Liza Minnelli. Along with "the girl who married the boy and had the mom both from Oz," Sandra Bernhard, Lisa Lampanelli and a Vegas casino’s worth of marquee talent will be riding the ferry over to the island to perform.

Sirius OutQ radio will be carrying a live program of Dynell’s music and Nardicio’s patter every Saturday night. The publicity for Cherry Grove (and Fire Island in general) will be invaluable, Nardicio claims: "People driving in the Midwest will be hearing ’Live from Cherry Grove.’"

Special Events

With the Pines lacking a major disco, expect the special dance events to be bigger than ever this year. Pines Party’s theme this summer is "Summer Games," so bring your tightest Speedo or, if you’re more modest, fencing outfit. The all-night party, which stretches along the Atlantic Ocean coastline, will take place July 28, with a closing party the next night at Whyte Hall.

The other mega-dance party is Ascension, a full weekend of dances August 17 to 19. This day party, which also sprawls along the beach, has featured huge entertainers, so expect one of your favorite dance divas.

July Fourth attracts crowds from all over the island and mainland to take part in a truly "only in Fire Island" experience, the annual Invasion. It began modestly enough: In 1976, a few Cherry Grove drag queens took a boat to the Pines to protest one of their own not being served at the Blue Whale. They were greeted with cheers - and have been ever since.

The event has grown to include dozens of drag queens in one of the ferryboats. They disembark to the cheers of the assembled throng, and then everyone gets rip-roaring, stinking, flat-out-on-the-boardwalk drunk. I mean stinko. If you find this kind of behavior morally reprehensible, you probably should stay away; over the years this event has cultivated a collective raised middle finger at political correctness.

The Fourth of July Weekend in general has become one of the most popular on the calendar, so not surprisingly, parties have sprung up to take advantage of the crowds.

One of the most sought-after tickets in the Pines is to the annual theme party thrown by the men who rent Reflections, a beautiful white mansion bay front mansion. Last year, "The Book of Mormon" featured go-go dancers (un-)dressed in white shirts, ties ... and little else. The party takes place around Independence Day.

In Cherry Grove, the biggest event of them all is the Miss Fire Island Contest. Since 1966, a gal has strutted her stuff down the runway wearing a sash and a smile. The contest traditionally takes place on the weekend after Labor Day.

So forget about the fire, say "No" to the naysayers, grab a towel and some sunscreen and take the ferry to the beach. But leave the attitude and the negativity at home.


Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early '80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).


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