On a perfect, late summer evening -- cloudless, warm and dry -- the sign on the Jones Beach boardwalk slowed the flow of pedestrian traffic to a crawl.
"Now Viewing: Saturn," it read, the words accompanied by a vivid image of the sixth planet and its distinctive rings. Arrayed around the sign were 10 powerful-looking telescopes and a group of volunteers, hawking celestial wonders as if they were popcorn vendors at a ballpark.
"See the rings of Saturn," cried one. "It's free!"
Brendan Scanlon of Farmingdale and his 2 1/2-year-old son, Kevin, were among those who stopped to nibble on the heavenly offerings.
"I saw the moon, in fantastic clarity, unlike I've ever seen it before," Scanlon said. "We saw the rings of Saturn, and a couple of different constellations, too."
"This is one of the best places on Long Island to do this," he said. "There's not a lot of ambient light, and you get a clear view of east, south and west."
While astronomical observation might be new to the list, it could be argued that Jones Beach is probably one of the best places to do a lot of things. While it's usually associated with surf, sand and rays, Jones Beach comes alive when the sun goes down -- in particular, this part of the 2,400-acre state park known as the Central Mall.
Flanked by the snack bar to the west, the vacant site of the old Jones Beach restaurant to the east, and, in its center, the 95-foot-high flagpole (lined up exactly with the iconic tower that stands to the north), Central Mall is the heart of Jones Beach. That's by design, courtesy of Robert Moses, who created this oceanfront state park.
"The vision of Moses was that this was the city square," said John Norbeck, former director of operations for Jones Beach State Park and, later, regional director for Long Island State Parks. "It was the main focal point, the backbone of the park, one that also lent itself to transition to evening. Central Mall was really made for nighttime activities."
Like many other aspects of the beach, those activities are changing. A half-century ago, people here would have been visiting the Indian Village, target-shooting at the archery range (10 arrows for 10 cents) roller skating, enjoying saltwater taffy and clam chowder at the snack bar.
While the snack bar still serves clam chowder, the big sellers there now appear to be waffle fries and supersized servings of soda. The archery is gone, too (park officials, Norbeck noted dryly, realized that "shooting arrows in a public area was not the safest thing"). On the site of the roller rink there is beach volleyball. On a recent Friday night, 10 games were being played simultaneously in a tournament, part of the summerlong volleyball scene at what organizers call "the ultimate happy hour."
"This is great," said Perry Dell of Huntington, watching the games with his wife, Shari. "I had no idea they even had this here."
The Dells had come to Jones Beach to listen to a Rolling Stones tribute band at the nearby Boardwalk Bandshell. The Nikon at Jones Beach Theater, on the other side of Ocean Parkway, may be the high-profile venue for big-ticket entertainment, but it's not the only place to hear live music at the beach.
Located just west of the snack bar and beach shop, the Art Deco-style bandshell once echoed to the sounds of swing-era dance bands. This summer, it was classic rock tribute bands on Friday nights. On Sunday nights, it was Latin music, which draws large crowds as well.
This combination of sounds and stars is what brought the Scanlons to Jones Beach.
"We wanted to make sure we got some quality time at the beach before summer ends," said Brendan Scanlon, who is originally from Freeport. "I grew up going to the beach, so did my wife. We want to get our boys acquainted with it."
For Scanlon and his wife, Kelly, though, there's one thing along the Central Mall that's conspicuously absent. Their first date was at Jones Beach, on July 17, 1999. They had dinner together at the Boardwalk Cafe. That site has been empty since the eatery was torn down in 2004. In the meantime, New York State and developer Donald Trump argued about the basement of his proposed new establishment. Now that this the impasse has been resolved, Central Mall will be whole again. But will Trump on the Ocean -- which garnered much criticism when it was first announced six years ago -- enhance the look of Central Mall or clash with Jones Beach's existing, historic architecture?
Andrew Nies of Levittown, sitting by the flagpole with his long-boarding buddy Rob Stabile of Massapequa, was of the opinion that anything would be an improvement.
"This is an eyesore," said Nies, gesturing to the empty site, obscured by temporary wooden walls. "It's too beautiful of a place to have this."
George Ferguson of Amity Harbor, gathering by the bandshell with some of his motorcycle-riding friends to enjoy the music, said he was happy the new restaurant would finally be constructed -- and for a reason that had nothing to do with aesthetics or nostalgia.
"People need jobs," he said.
Speaking of which, not everybody at the beach on this night was there to relax or reminisce. Keith Call had work to do. As the lead singer of the band known as the Glimmer Twins, Call impersonates Mick Jagger -- wiggles, gyrations, pursed lips and all. Based in Philadelphia, the band tours the East Coast and had played the Boardwalk Bandshell once before.
"I love it here," Call said. "It's a special place."
He appreciates the lack of commercial development along the boardwalk -- a feature of most seaside areas and something Moses expressly forbade here. "I share that view," Call said. "I go for the natural beauty, and Jones Beach has that."
The ersatz Mick was also buoyed by the crowd of 2,500, who cheered when the band blasted the familiar chords of "Start Me Up."
"Everybody in the front was way into it," Call said, noting that the crowd "looked to me like a sea of people really enjoying the show."
And enjoying one last summer night at Jones Beach, under the stars.