Sea Shack Cherry Grove.
THE SEA SHACK: A SHACKFUL OF MEMORIES, By Mary Kapsalis.
The following is the second in a series of articles written by Mary Kapsalis for The Fire Island Tide in the mid-nineties.
LET ME SING YOU A SONG OF THE SEA SHACK, of Sunday night opera in pre-Pavarotti days, glorious music that started after the last ferry had left at 4:00 p.m. So grand that an Island bar would do that and that we could have supper with La Boheme. The more romantic operas were the most popular and were played on a regular schedule. It was the preeminent bar of its time and it featured in a good part of our social lives. It had a lot going for it. For one thing, it had atmosphere, appropriate atmosphere, the theme was distinctly beachy with cork floats, nets and driftwood. Not too surprising when you consider its origins.
The exact details of those origins are lost in the mists of the past. My past at any rate. Come on, folks, give a gal a break. We’re talking about the 50s here. At any rate, the original Sea Shack started as a house just west of where the lonely pilings on the oceanfront now stand. The house, a typical, early Fire Island cottage, owned by Alex Grenier, a family man from the South Shore, was constructed, in part, from found materials. He and his family spent their summers there and then rented it out to Boo McHugh. McHugh had the option to rent for the following season but, when the new year rolled round, he discovered that the house had been sold.
The purchasers were two men named Vinnie and Charlie who owned an establishment on Montauk Highway called the Dog and Duck. Little is remembered about them except that they used to come over in their boat fairly frequently, that Charlie was a New York City Fireman and that Vinnie had a fondness for liquor. Around 1952 they decided to open a place in the Grove and bought the Grenier house which they turned into a bar. The name of their boat was the Sea Shuck and they named their bar after it—sort of. One small extra mystery. The land next to Grenier was vacant and zoned commercial. The little house wasn’t. I guess they hoped that the Zoning Board wouldn’t catch up with them and they won the gamble.
Now all this was in the days before electricity came to the Island so they had old Mr. Pausewang, a Sayville resident and mechanical genius, make them a generator. It worked wonderfully, but it was a bugger to start. It had a hand crank and needed several sharp turns before it caught. Legend has it that it was their growing antagonism to the generator—some machines take on human characteristics—that made them willing to sell the business in the late 50s. Enter Jimmy Merry and his partner, a beauty named Kenny Hoerig.
In the beginning, Jimmy stayed somewhat in the background, but it wasn’t long before he came kicking and screaming to the forefront—and I’m not kidding either. One night, Lois, the first woman bartender on Fire Island in modern times, came running out of the kitchen. “There’s a crazy man on the floor kicking one of the waiters,” she exclaimed. It was Jimmy having a disagreement with his current significant other. His relationships were always like that, comprised of two equal and opposite forces, and it was no accident that he usually wore combat boots. He acquired the habit while serving his country.
Say what you like about Jimmy Merry, and I’ve heard some pretty raunchy things about him in my time, he knew how to set a scene. The original bar had plastic protecting the windows and the employees lived above and below the bar. There was laundry hanging from the roof from time to time and the way down was through a hatch in the ceiling above the restaurant floor. He soon expanded to the east with a front deck fashioned like the bow of a boat.
There was an outside serving bar, a place where hamburgers were grilled and benches along the walls. Inside, a long bar dominated one wall and a mammoth fireplace another. A juke box arrived with the obligatory Frank Sinatra selections. The juke box was also obligatory since it provided the house with money when it needed it.
Electricity was a fact of life by then, which certainly made running a kitchen easier and the Sea Shack’s food was far from ordinary. Then as now, every last radish had to be trucked to the terminal and brought over by boat, but good refrigeration meant excellent steaks and luscious lobsters, treats that weren’t available elsewhere. Our cooks sang in the kitchen and it seems to have made a difference. You can’t keep a secret on Fire Island and word soon got out. Beach taxis, yes Virginia, there used to be taxis running up and down the beach, brought diners from Kismet, Saltaire, Fair Harbor and other points both west and east. Dancing was allowed after 11:00 p.m. and the bar closed around 2:00 when the visitors would climb back into the beach buggies and depart. Sunday nights and weeknights were ours.
There was at least one historic occasion, a cloudless, star-strewn night when we all rushed out and crowded together on the deck with our heads craned back to watch the first artificial star cross the heavens. We had such mixed feelings, awe, reverence, resentment that, with Sputnik, the Russians had got there first—Cherry Grove and competition were scarcely strangers. The underlying response, however, was typical of the era. When faced with something way beyond our ken, or when things threatened to become too serious, we were flippant. A voice from the back of the crowd drawled, Well, I’m sure glad we know how to repair those things. We all drank to that.
It wasn’t that Sputnik was no big thing, it was just that in the Grove of the early sixties a new, younger group was coming in. We were accustomed to the sudden appearance of new stars who might last a season, but were almost certain to be eclipsed the following summer. Then again, what the Russians had done was to make the seemingly impossible appear before our very eyes. For most of us then, leading deceptive lives during the working week, Cherry Grove was the stuff of dreams come true. It proved that all things were possible. Sputnik flew outside the confines of the earth and so did we.
I recall other glittering nights when we gathered around that over sized fireplace and knew that we were a family. We were united and tight, with our gossip lines clear and understood. Have you ever noticed how relaxing gossip can be? And if there was a tinge of bitchery, it was meant. It was a mixed group. The men were clad in expensive slacks, sweaters, blazers. A page out of Gentlemen’s Quarterly. Well, a lot of them were male models. Anyway, we were living our own Great Gatsby. It was unthinkable that one didn’t dress up. It was like a New York City watering hole with roaring waves outside.
There was also a fairly large and chic contingent of lesbians who not only enjoyed the company of the men, but hoisted right along with them. And why not? If you are going to get pleasantly buzzed, what better place than Cherry Grove? No automobiles, no muggers. If by some mischance you fell off the boardwalk, someone would pick you up and guide you home. Being polite, yes, people were polite then, you invited him or her in for a nightcap. Many of the ladies, one didn’t mind being called a lady then, maintained long-term relationships with the guys. It was all very enjoyable and it seems to me that there is definitely something wrong with the present day gender separations.
It must be admitted that we were tough audience. One night one of the waiters came roller skating out of the kitchen carrying a full tray of hamburgers. No one, but no one, paid him any mind. He rolled back into the kitchen in dismay. Then again, of an evening when popular music was rolling out onto the deck and people were singing along and toasting the rising moon, our very own Ethel Merman would hide in the men’s room until the appropriate song was played and then burst forth and lipsynched while dancing all over the deck. We never called him Madam or Gypsy. We could be rotten that way.
Drop-ins in that era were Montgomery Clift, Johnny Ray, Farley Granger and Rick Besoyan, the composer of the Off-Broadway hit Little Mary Sunshine.He had such a good time that he stayed and built a house, which he named for the show that paid for it. I remember him being happy all the time. I didn’t know then that he started his days with martinis for breakfast. He always sat at the same spot at the bar, next to a cartoon depicting a woman sitting naked on a bar stool with a bathing suit lying crumpled on the floor beside her. The sign on the bar read No bathing suits after 5 p.m. When Rick died, they put a small bronze plaque in front of his regular place.
Ah, those were heedless days. The approach of a hurricane signaled an instant party at the Shack. Too dumb to evacuate, we saluted the crashing waves from that sturdy back deck perched atop the dune until it seemed likely that the deck would be taken out from under us. Time to take the party indoors. We denied disaster, we were too busy having a blast. When the party that was the Sea Shack paused, we fanned out to private parties. Most of us didn’t sleep until we were thirty. We thought it would never end, but of course it did. “Ah, the youth of the heart, like the dew in the morning, you wake and they’ve left you without any warning.”
Copy sourced from “As the Grove Turns” initially from FI Tide newspaper.
The Sea Shack is featured in a 1970 gay film called “Sticks and Stones.”
We came back at the beginning of a new season to find everything changed. Our beloved Sea Shack had been bought by some people from the Pines. It has been enlarged, and purple featured in the decor. The only familiar element was the fireplace, repository of so many secrets. The overall effect was stylish, but it wasn’t the Sea Shack. Just as well they changed the name to The Copa Cabana. Disco didn’t suit the old place and the old name wouldn’t do for a discotheque. The new place never really caught on. It was too damn big. Dancers who rarely touched had replaced the extended family that sang along together. It didn’t last. It succumbed to a suspicious fire. When the Cherry Grove Volunteer Fire Brigade arrived, four separate blazes were going. There are pilings now where the Sea Shack stood.
When I started this piece, a friend said Tell ’em it was the best. Another said Deal with the dream. It was the best, and like the best of memories, seems like a dream. While I was coming to the end of this account, a close friend said You look at those round, naked pilings and you miss it. I don’t miss it. You have to look just above the pilings, I replied. It’s still there, with all those beautiful young people on the pointed deck. The old Sea Shack will always be there. You might try it, if you’ve a mind to. Pick a moonlit night. And if you see it, say hello to me. I’m the slim, dark-haired young woman on the deck. The one with the glass raised in a toast.