The Fight To Preserve The History of Fire Island

"One day someone might say: 'Once upon a time there was a place called Fire Island…'"

For close to a century the Pines and Cherry Grove communities of Fire Island have been safe havens for gays and lesbians.

From the beginning of the Blue Whale Tea Dance in 1966 to the annual Invasion of the Pines, the island has been known for years as a place where gay men and women could be out and live freely.

FIRE ISLAND, NY - SEPTEMBER 2:  The Fire Island Express heads to Fire Island Pines from Sayville at sunset on September 2, 2005 on the Fire Island Ferry off the coast of Long Island in New York.  Ferry service to Fire Island began in 1856; passengers could take the Long Island Railroad from Brooklyn to Thompson (now Brentwood), get a stage to Islip, and get on the waiting ferry. Nearly 150 years later, transportation to Fire Island is basically the same. Although there are more ferries from different locations, you do have to take a ferry to get to most parts of Fire Island. Fire Island,  which is the only developed barrier island in the United States without roads, is located 45 minutes outside of New York City, just a 30 minute ferry ride across the Great South Bay. Fire Island is a premier getaway spot for families and friends. Sand dune beaches rollout into the Atlantic Ocean on the south side of the island, while the north side has dining and bars overlooking the bay.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Christopher Isherwood, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Montgomery Clift were just some of the celebrities who visited the beach community back in the day, including male model John B. Whyte who developed the Pines as a more upscale getaway in the 1960s.

When the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, though, much of that history was lost along with the men who had made the Pines their summer home for years.

1960s boys
FIPHPS

The Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society works to save the legacy of the Pines for future generations, so they can learn about the beach community’s place in LGBT history.

“It’s about creating remembrance for those who spent time here or lived here and it’s also about mentoring a generation of people who have no clue what Fire Island is, the experience, what it meant, it’s place in gay history.” FIPHPS president Robert Bonanno told NewNowNext. “When you mention the words ’Fire Island’ it goes hand in hand with Stonewall.”

fire island pines 1970s

The historical society got its start in 2010, when Bonanno heard a rumor that new owners were changing the name of the Blue Whale, the bar where the Pines’ infamous tea dance was born. “I thought to myself ’how can they change the name of something that was so historic?'”

tea dance1976 a
FIPHPS

The name didn’t change and starting then Bonanno was determined to make sure that the history of the Pines would be preserved.

Not only does FIPHPS have an essential website cataloging the history of the Pines, the society also throws events reminding visitors about the island’s past like last year’s 50th anniversary celebration of the Blue Whale’s Tea Dance.

tea dance 50
FIPHPS

The society’s extensive online archives include everything from the island’s early 20th century beginnings as a theater community to iconic Pines architecture and events from the ’70s and ’80s that became legendary in Fire Island lore like the Morning Party.

1973-tv-house-david-jarrett
FIPHPS

“Gay Mens Health Crisis partnered with people on Fire Island during the beginning of the AIDS crisis—this woman, Nikki Fried, was instrumental. She and her friends created the Morning Party, which was what people did after they danced all night,” Bonanno explains.

1991 GMHC Morning Party
FIPHPS

“They came back to somebody’s house and they had a [dance] party. She decided that that was how they were going to raise money for their friends with AIDS. Eventually GMHC got involved and it became the biggest fundraiser in their history.” The final Morning Party was held in 1998.

“One day maybe somebody will make a movie or a documentary out of it because it’s a great story.”

man and harbor sign 1960'S.
FIPHPS

Bonanno reveals that if he could pick any time to be on Fire Island he would pick the summer of 1969.

“The swinging ’60s were happening and it was just about to explode into the ’70s,” he says. “I would just love to be a fly on that wall.”

tea dance1979
FIPHPS

Bonanno is focused on Fire Island’s past but he’s fearful for its future.

“One day someone might be saying: ’Once upon a time there was a place called Fire Island…’ That’s why what we do is so important to me, and that’s why I’m so passionate about it,” he confesses. “It’s a history that needs to be preserved. It’s a part of our culture and it’s a part of gay history.”

For more information and history, visit the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society website.

Below, watch the trailer for Logo’s new reality series, Fire Island.
 

 
Fire Island premieres Thursday, April 27 at 8/7c on Logo.

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