Remembering when Jones Beach brought Broadway to Long Island

Nearly 45 years after starring in “Annie Get Your Gun” at the Jones Beach Marine Theatre —now known as the Northwell Health at Jones Beach Theater — Lucie Arnaz still cherishes belting out Irving Berlin standards on floating sets, emoting to a sea of 8,000 faces across an eighth-of-a-mile lagoon, (an audience that included, on different nights, her famous parents, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz), and somehow avoiding an unplanned slip into the waters of Zach’s Bay (unlike one of her famous co-stars).

In a word, she had a ball.

“It was kind of astounding to play that place, that your sets float on pontoon boats and you’re singing a gorgeous song like, ‘I Got Lost in His Arms' under a moonlit sky,” Arnaz, now 70, said in a telephone interview from Palm Springs, California. “It was eight shows a week at the mercy of the elements. You’d be in the middle of the show and the people on stage are sloshing around and slipping like crazy but they haven’t called the show.”

Arnaz kept a record of that two-month run in a journal while living in a summer rental in Massapequa, memories mined for the “mini-retrospective of my life in the musical theater” in the one-woman show she's performing throughout the country next month. 

“There’s a huge section of the show where I talk about how fortunate I was to spend an entire summer performing with a 30-piece orchestra at the Jones Beach Theatre,” Arnaz said.

Oh, those summer nights of long ago, spent in a stadium seat under starry skies (or holding up an umbrella when those skies opened up) to embark on a musical journey to Siam in “The King and I,” the Austrian Alps in “The Sound of Music” or coastal Maine in “Carousel.”

Programs from four of Jones Beach Marine Theater's musicals: "Annie...

Programs from four of Jones Beach Marine Theater's musicals: "Annie Get Your Gun" (1978), "Hit the Deck" (1960), "The Sound of Music" (1970) and "Song of Norway" (1958). Credit: Newsday/James Carbone

June 26 marks the 70th anniversary of the launch of Jones Beach’s nearly 30 year-run of musical theater magic from 1952 to 1981. Long Islanders who purchased tickets — which initially cost $1.65 for nosebleed seats and $4.80 for the orchestra — were treated to productions with astonishingly lavish sets; special effects-created floating icebergs, spewing volcanoes and 100-foot waterfalls; and dramatic fireworks — not just the pyrotechnics set off during shows but also the dazzling turns by music legends (Louis Armstrong), stage veterans (Constance Towers and John Cullum) and stars from Hollywood’s heyday (Eddie Bracken). And of course, the gorgeous scores, some co-written by Guy Lombardo’s brother, Carmen, wafting from an orchestra pit manned by the Freeport bandleader and his Royal Canadians.

“It was a unique gift to Long Island and the perfect thing for people looking for things to do in the summer,” said Katherine Boulukos, a former president of the Long Island Arts Council, who lives in Freeport. “The shows were very elaborate, many were glamorous, the costumes were very pretty, it wasn’t amateur night,” added Boulukos, who is in her ’70s and attended many of the 1950s shows on day trips with her parents from their home in Astoria, Queens.

Mike Todd's adaptation of "A Night in Venice" was the...

Mike Todd's adaptation of "A Night in Venice" was the first show at the Jones Beach Marine Theater in 1952. Credit: Bill Doll (public relations) New York

A few years before he produced the 1956 Oscar winner “Around the World in 80 Days” — and became Elizabeth Taylor’s third of eight husbands — producer Michael Todd served as the theater's impresario in its first two seasons. He initially tried to lure Milan, Italy’s La Scala opera company to make Jones Beach its summer home. Failing that, Todd christened the new space with a sumptuous adaptation of Johann Strauss II’s 1883 operetta, “A Night in Venice” in 1952.

Ever the showman, Todd dreamed up gimmicks like “Midnight Madness,” a water-skiing, comedy diving circus that performed following “A Night in Venice" (for an additional 50 cents admission).

Two years later, Lombardo, a London, Ontario, native known since 1929 as “Mr. New Year’s Eve” for hosting ball drop broadcasts on radio and later TV, took the helm as producer with 1954-‘55’s “Arabian Nights,” starring Metropolitan Opera tenor Lauritz Melchior cast as a sultan in an original musical based in part on “Sinbad the Sailor.”

Throughout his tenure, Lombardo would often be seen waving from the deck of his boat, Tempo, from the theater’s lagoon, and hosting afterparties in the adjacent Schaefer dance tent.

Guy Lombardo and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg share a laugh during...

Guy Lombardo and E.Y. "Yip" Harburg share a laugh during a rehearsal of "Finian's Rainbow" in 1977. Credit: Newsday/John H. Cornell Jr.

Although Jones Beach musicals had million-dollar budgets and rated among the nation’s most elaborate summer stock offerings with first-rate production values and major stars playing leads, they were aimed less at traditional Broadway showgoers than working-class Long Islanders, said Michael DeLuise, who worked on Jones Beach theater advertising campaigns in the early to mid-1970s.

“It was really for local enjoyment. The audience was Levittown,” said DeLuise, formerly of Dix Hills and now retired to Eugene, Oregon. Top Broadway stars such as Cullum would come back summer after summer, easily making the 8:30 p.m. curtain commuting from Manhattan apartments or summer rentals in Fire Island or the Hamptons, DeLuise said.

By the 1970s, with musical theater tastes evolving, “the rainy years would make it difficult, and by the end of the season we’d be saying, ‘Gee, should we really do this again?’ ” DeLuise said.

The golden age of Jones Beach musicals ended in 1981, four years after Lombardo’s death at age 75 following heart surgery at a hospital in Houston. After consistently losing money for many years on musical revivals, the theatre began to turn a profit in the early 1980s with the schedule of pop-rock music concerts that continues to this day.

Here are memories of nine of the shows that thrilled audiences long before rock and pop concerts echoed across the gentle waters of Zach’s Bay.

"Show Boat" kept on rollin' for two seasons, 1956 and...

"Show Boat" kept on rollin' for two seasons, 1956 and '57, at Jones Beach.

'SHOW BOAT' (1956-57 and 1976)

The Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein classic sold nearly half a million seats the first summer it ran, so it was reprised the following year with a major crew change. Added to the cast was Andy Devine, the rotund, gravel-voiced TV and movie Western character actor and host of the popular children’s show “Andy’s Gang.”

Devine, then nearing the end of eight years playing Deputy Marshal Jingles P. Jones on TV’s “The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok,” swapped his Stetson for a naval cap to play Cap’n Andy, the skipper of the Cotton Blossom. Newsday dubbed Devine’s turn “a big triumph.”

A floating iceberg and an armada of three barges played...

A floating iceberg and an armada of three barges played huge role in "Song of Norway" in the summers of 1958 and '59. Credit: Unknown

'SONG OF NORWAY' (1958-59)

If you bought tickets to this operetta based on life and music of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg, there was a fjord in your future.

An iceberg with its own ice machine floated through the lagoon-cum fjord, part of a “marine armada” that also included three barges — the biggest a 106-footer with an onboard waterfall — and an authentic Viking ship borrowed from the 1958 Kirk Douglas screen epic “The Vikings.” The show also featured a figure-skating ballet performed on an onstage ice rink.

“It was the show that sticks in my mind the most,” said Dick Harrington, 90, of Oceanside, a retired insurance agent who saw a number of the Jones Beach musicals from the 1950s on. “The music was gorgeous, and the barges were going by to the Peer Gynt Suite."

'PARADISE ISLAND' (1961-’62)

Lombardo topped himself with this Hawaiian musical fantasy, an extravagant outing bursting with color, special effects and specialty dances by 32 Native Hawaiian performers. Although the show is all but lost in the mists of time, “Paradise Island” was a favorite of Freeport Village historian Cynthia Krieg.

“I knew one of the Hawaiian swimmers they hired to dive off the towers into the lagoon in ‘Paradise Island’,” said Krieg, 85. She recalls warning the visiting Hawaiian swimmers that “there might be fish swimming in the lagoon, and it could be dangerous.” As far as she knows, no bluefish attacks were ever reported.

Lombardo reportedly spent nearly half a million dollars on such spectacular effects as a 100-foot-high waterfall and a smoking, lava-spewing volcano. Proper English comic notes were sounded by Arthur Treacher, the perfect movie butler (and future fish-and-chips mogul) playing the perfect musical comedy butler.

A moat was created for the 1965-66 productions of "Mardi...

A moat was created for the 1965-66 productions of "Mardi Gras," which featured Louis Armstrong the second year.] Credit: NYS Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

'MARDI GRAS' (1965-’66)

This New Orleans-flavored musical really got cooking in its second year, when Lombardo coaxed jazz great Armstrong to cross the city line from his home in Corona, Queens, and come marchin’ — make that sailin’ — into the lagoon on a floating set midway through Act II.

Satchmo growled out the Kurt Weill-Bertolt Brecht classic “Mack the Knife” — an odd choice for a show set in 1905 New Orleans. It made no difference to the audience. They stuck around long after Armstrong and Lombardo’s Dixieland finale for a friendly battle of the big bands with the Royal Canadians in the adjacent tent-pavilion and danced to encores of Armstrong’s 1964 pop chart topper, “Hello, Dolly."

'SOUTH PACIFIC' (1968-'69). 'THE SOUND OF MUSIC' (1970-’71) and 'THE KING AND I' (1972)

For six seasons from the late 1960s to the early ’70s, Rodgers and Hammerstein ruled the Zach’s Bay waves — with popular TV and Broadway divas diving into powerful women’s roles.

Before Constance Towers gained soap opera fame playing matriarch Clarissa McCandless on “Capitol” and the villainous Helena Cassadine on “General Hospital,” she sang about her favorite things as love-struck novice Maria von Trapp in “The Sound of Music.” Towers also whistled and sang a happy tune as the iron-willed Englishwoman Anna in “The King and I.”

Nancy Dussault, who had played Maria in “The Sound of Music” on Broadway from 1959 to 1963, signed up as “cockeyed Optimist” Nellie Forbush in the Jones Beach production of “South Pacific.”

'ANNIE GET YOUR GUN' (1978)

Arnaz recalls opening night of the Irving Berlin classic as a star-studded affair. “A lot of wonderful, well-known people were there on opening night,” Arnaz said, among them artist Andy Warhol and TV journalist and host Bill Boggs. Along with the regular folks packing the stadium, they hoped to catch a glimpse of Lucille Ball, there to support her daughter’s budding stage career.

George Gorman, New York Parks regional director for Long Island, was working his second season as a stadium cleaner when he saw Ball arrive in a classic car. “It was a madhouse,” Gorman recalls of that evening’s scene, “the audience was thrilled.”

Desi Arnaz took in the show later that summer, prompting a midshow vocal tribute from a member of the cast, Lucie recalls. “When my Dad was there, the guy playing Sitting Bull ended his routine banging his drum and singing, ‘Babalu!’ ”

Arnaz also remembers the night her co-star, Harve Presnell, took an unexpected plunge in the bay when his attempt to tickle a chorus girl was met with a slap. He was rescued in time to make his first entrance, albeit with his toupee hilariously askew. “His makeup is dripping down his face,” Arnaz recalled. “I can hardly keep from laughing, and he gives me a look that says, ‘Don’t you dare say a word.”

'DAMN YANKEES' (1981)

The Jones Beach musical era entered its final inning with this musical comedy about a man who sells his soul to the devil so his baseball team can win the World Series.

In a bit of stunt casting, star quarterback Joe Namath, recently retired from the NFL, made his stage debut by filling main character Shoeless Joe Hardy’s shoes. Namath gave his fans, if not Lola, what they came for.

Although Hollywood Golden Age comic stalwart Bracken played the devilish, soul-poaching Mr. Applegate, it was the Namath who turned up the heat — and helped his fans forget his wobbly vocalizing — by appearing shirtless in a locker room scene.

“He [Namath] was really good in that show although his singing left something to be desired,” recalled former West Islip resident Joan McHugh, 81, who now lives in Land O’ Lakes, Florida. “I can’t remember who played Lola.”

SETTING THE FIRST STAGE AT JONES BEACH

The Jones Beach Marine Theatre was actually the second floating showplace built on Zach’s Bay’s shores.

The original marine stadium was a temporary wooden structure constructed as a Depression Era work project, according to state parks records. It hosted water ballets, fireworks shows and operettas. It closed in 1941 and was eventually razed to make way for construction of the 8,200-seat concrete amphitheater in 1949. 

The towers bracketing the main stage were originally topped with diving platforms, according to George Gorman, New York Parks regional director for Long Island. Legend has it that MGM’s diving diva Esther Williams was among the mermaids that took the plunge into Zach’s Bay below.

Another vestige from the musicals era is an underwater tunnel running from the main theater to the backstage, with access via elevators at each end. It’s rarely used now that roadies and stagehands prefer to haul equipment on a walkway from the parking lot to the concert stage, Gorman said.

— JIM MERRITT