OUR HISTORIC THEATER
From its early days, Cherry Grove has attracted a community of artistic folk looking for an idyllic bit of sand on which to relax, commune with nature and be creative.
Fire Island, a narrow, 31-mile-long barrier island off the coast of Long Island, became a realistic leisure destination for New York City dwellers when, in the late 1800s, the Long Island Railroad expanded service to nearby Patchogue. By the 1920s, Cherry Grove stood out among the many small hamlets that sprouted on the island as a haven for artistic—and among them, LGBT (albeit closeted)—vacationers.
The Arts Project of Cherry Grove came into being in 1948 when the Property Owners Association (CGPOA), the de facto government of the unincorporated hamlet, established an “Artistic Activity Group.” CGPOA was incorporated in 1944 with a large, established membership in need of its own home. It purchased an old carriage house in Sayville and had it floated across the Great South Bay on a barge in 1945 (a not uncommon occurrence in those days).
At first the new building was used as a meeting place for CGPOA and for religious services, social events, and basketball. The CGPOA’s Artistic Activity Group (later the “Arts Project”), began fundraising events in Cherry Grove and New York City, including mounting its first theatrical production, the Cherry Grove Follies of 1948, in the carriage house. Profits from these events eventually made it possible to construct a large addition to the building, that would house a real theater with a stage with wings, fly space and an orchestra pit! (This last feature was later eliminated in favor of prop storage.) The Fire Department eventually housed its equipment in an extension to the theater wing which later was converted to a community meeting room (since demolished).
Ever since then, the Arts Project has played a central role in the community life of Cherry Grove. Right from the start the theatre attracted some of New York’s most prominent arts personalities. Earl Blackwell, Jr., a homeowner with his partner Ted Strong (famed creators of the Celebrity Register), was one of the first presidents of CGPOA, and founder of the new Arts Project. Helen Ely, a homeowner, and Blackwell with a cigar box in hand, buttonholed everyone on boardwalk, beach, boat, and bar in Cherry Grove who eventually contributed $3,000 (or $39,699 in 2016 dollars) towards the new theater. The donors (property owners and renters) became the founding members of today’s Arts Project of Cherry Grove.
Other early participants included Frank Carrington, founder of the Paper Mill Playhouse, Cheryl Crawford who co-founded the Actor’s Studio and novelist Carson McCullers. George Freedley (founder and curator of the Theater Library at The New York Public Library) directed the first shows with his partner, Ed Burke. Performers included Hollywood and Broadway actors such as Peggy Fears, Bertha Belmore, Nancy Walker and Betty Garde. These professionals appeared alongside local amateurs in revues and parody productions as well as legitimate published plays. Other arts luminaries involved in the Project included, Broadway talents; Miles White and Oliver Smith, famed costume and scenic designers, playwright Robert Sherwood, and Richard Avedon who would become one of the most famous fashion and portrait photographers of that era.
The theatre crowd was a very mixed gay/straight demographic with very laissez-faire attitudes. While officially closeted in their day-to-day lives, the veil tended to drop when the ferry docked in Cherry Grove. It was a place where high camp and drag could flourish to the point that drag became a hallmark of Cherry Grove theatricals. Entertainment tastes changed with the times, as did the offerings of the Arts Project. Attempts by well-intentioned community members to tone down some shows’ more risqué content, along with conflicts over Community House income, eventually led to the Arts Project seek complete independence from the CGPOA. As the years passed, the local population became more and more LGBT oriented, and society in general more accepting. Cherry Grove became well known as a gay resort community.
Our theatre has flourished throughout the decades with literally hundreds of shows produced or hosted by the Arts Project. Archives of printed programs and event photos have lovingly been collected in the Arts Project’s Archives. (Photos from the Archives are featured above.)
In 2013 The Community House was nominated for inclusion in the New York State Parks and National Registers for Historic Places. Cherry Grove resident, Carl Luss, researched and wrote the extensive nomination papers which ultimately resulted in its official designation on June 4, 2013. The Community House is one of three places designated for their seminal importance in LGBTQ history. (The others are The Stonewall Inn in New York City and the Frank Kameny home in Washington, D.C.)
The Arts Project of Cherry Grove and The Community House are proud to be considered seminal in the history of the LGBTQ movement. We invite you to become active participants in this ever evolving legacy.
For a thorough discussion of the history of the Community House, see the book, Celebrating the Heart of Cherry Grove, The Community House, by Lorraine H. Michels. You can download the fascinating and eminently readable Historic Places nomination here.