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Jones Beach heirloom: 'Home movie' of FDR, Robert Moses adds to state park history

On Aug. 3, 1930, the cornerstone was laid for the Jones Beach West Bath House and Robert Moses was joined by then Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt for the celebration. Ed Hawkins, of Malverne, owns family footage his uncle shot of FDR walking around Jones Beach that day. Credit: Newsday / Morgan Campbell

Ed Hawkins rolls his wheelchair into a back room of his Malverne home that is cluttered with boxes and books. “My office,” he says, with a wry smile.

Hawkins, 84, long retired from the restaurant business, has devoted much of his time in the past year to the contents of these boxes, some piled high on a card table.

They are filled with DVDs, videos and 16-mm film versions of home movies, originally shot on 8-mm (and decades later transferred to various modern formats by one of Ed’s brothers). The films were taken in the 1930s and 1940s by Ed’s uncle Charles Hawkins, who in the age before selfies and video cameras was called a “home movie buff.”

“No matter where you were, there was my Uncle Charlie with his camera,” recalls Ed.

A couple of years ago, Ed volunteered to go through the old films and organize them. And amid the hours of footage of long-ago family Christmases and summer vacations was a one-minute, 40-second clip that he immediately recognized as being of historic import.

That segment, now uploaded to YouTube, is what brought a visitor to his home one morning in early summer. With a little help from his older son, Peter, 55 — “Just click on that, Dad” — Ed calls up the film on his desktop computer. Crisp, black-and-white images appear on the screen: Men in summer suits and straw hats congregating at what appears to be a two-story shingled building.

The frames jump awkwardly for a few seconds, then the cluster of men can be seen gathering around a familiar figure. Could it be . . . Franklin D. Roosevelt? Yes, although looking a bit younger than the well-known familiar images of him in the White House, it’s unmistakably FDR — the long patrician face, the glasses, the radiant smile.

What’s more, the future president, who was left paralyzed from the waist down by polio in 1921, is doing something rarely seen in any film or photo: He’s walking, stiffly on braces, while holding a cane in one hand and, with the other, supporting himself on the shoulders of some of the men. As the scene shifts, he seems to talk amicably with one fellow. Although the film is silent, they can be seen laughing like old chums.

Who is this man? None other than a young Robert Moses.

The film then cuts to Roosevelt in the back seat of a car greeting well-wishers. Off camera, probably standing next to Uncle Charlie, the cameraman, was Ed’s father — Crawford Hawkins, then a 27-year-old Brooklyn assemblyman who knew both Moses and Roosevelt.

Crawford Hawkins, an attorney, had been dealing with Moses in the legal fight between the state and the residents of High Hill Beach, the summer community at Jones Beach that Moses was in the process of vacating to make way for the new state park. While the two were on opposite sides of the dispute, Ed Hawkins said, his father and Moses — only 32 at the time himself — became friends.

The film ends with a final image of a car driving down what is recognizable as the Wantagh State Parkway. The Jones Beach Tower looms in the distance.

After screening the clip, Ed Hawkins smiles and shakes his head. “I’d heard the family legend that FDR walked in one of my uncle’s films,” said Hawkins, who first saw the footage last year. “But it’s pretty great to see it.”

The Hawkins family had long believed the film was taken Aug, 4, 1929, the opening day of Jones Beach State Park. Charles Hawkins in later years spoke about being there and seeing Roosevelt. But a comparison of the film with official New York State Parks photographs reveals that it was actually shot a year later, in August 1930, when Gov. Roosevelt returned to Jones Beach to lay the cornerstone of the West Bathhouse. (In 1929, photos of opening day, photographs show him wearing a dark suit and bow tie; in 1930 photos of the West Bath House cornerstone laying, he is wearing the same, light-colored suit and necktie as in the Hawkins film.)

Regardless, the film is a revealing artifact from the early years of the Long Island landmark that celebrates its 90th birthday on Aug. 4. For presidential historians, it’s a major find.

“Any film that shows FDR walking with his braces is very significant,” said Paul Sparrow, director of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum in upstate Hyde Park. “And to show him doing it on the arm of a known enemy is unprecedented, to my knowledge.”

The bonhomie seen in the film between Moses and the future president was mostly an act: According to Sparrow, Moses had never been fond of FDR. But the dislike turned to hatred when Roosevelt, brushing off the advice of his predecessor, Gov. Al Smith, decided not to keep Moses as his secretary of state after being elected governor in 1928.

The next year they would meet again at Jones Beach.

Jones Beach: The opening day

One thing Moses and FDR agreed on was the value of public parks — and there was no parks project bigger than Jones Beach. After a long political battle with local Long Island townships, Moses had acquired the land on the then-remote barrier beach and began to develop it into what would become one of the most iconic oceanfront parks in the world, an architectural marvel beloved by generations of Long Islanders.

Of course, no one knew that on Aug. 4, 1929. Both Moses and FDR were on the defensive. The landowners of the North Shore were fighting the state’s efforts to build the Northern State Parkway through their estates. There was also resistance from state legislators who felt too much public money was being spent on parks.

That day, a procession of cars had streamed down the newly opened Wantagh State Parkway, connecting the barrier beach with the Long Island mainland for the first time. Three thousand people gathered for the 2 p.m. ceremony at a tent outside the East Bathhouse (about 10,000 visited the new park on its first day).

Smith, the gravelly voiced former governor who had the year before lost his bid for the presidency to Herbert Hoover, spoke first. While governor, Smith had made the development of parks a high priority. He spoke to the need for these public spaces, which he, Moses and FDR saw as vital for public health, particularly for those in crowded New York City.

“It behooves us to give the people the benefits of what the state has to offer,” Smith said to the crowd. “The preservation of the health of the people is a vital concern. No state can rise above the physical strength of its people.”

To some, this sounded like socialism.

If so, Roosevelt said (no doubt with the aristocratic inflection and beaming smile that, in a few years, would be familiar to all Americans), “well, Gov. Smith and I are pretty good socialists.”

The memories of many in attendance that day had nothing to do with socialism or speeches, however. During the ceremony, what was described as a “howling” windstorm developed. In an account written in 1949, state parks historian Chester Blakelock quoted the recollections of one official present:

“Sand blew over everything and everybody. It drifted across the roads to such an extent that they became dangerous for driving, it filled eyes and ears and noses, got into the carburetors of cars and stalled them.”

The subsequent planting of beach grass prevented future sandstorms. But while the cars may have stalled on Aug. 4, Jones Beach soared. News of the magnificent, nautical-themed oceanfront park quickly spread across the country.

As author Robert Caro later wrote, “A nation looked at Robert Moses’ dream and found it good.”

Gov. Roosevelt returns

In 1930, its first full season, attendance at Jones Beach was 1.75 million. That may be another reason Roosevelt returned on Aug. 3 that year — and perhaps why he and Moses seemed so jovial in the film shot by Charles Hawkins. Politicians like to associate themselves with success, and by then, Jones Beach was an unqualified success. Editorial writers were already calling it “The King of All Beaches.”

A third major figure — whose name is still familiar to Long Islanders — is seen in the film as well: Philanthropist August Heckscher, erect and white-bearded at 81, had helped the state purchase the park in East Islip that bears his name.

In his speech at the West Bathhouse site, Roosevelt again stressed the importance of the parks for public health. According to The New York Times account of his remarks, he also poked fun at critics of the new $600,000 bathhouse. One unnamed legislator from upstate New York, the governor quipped, had also objected to the fee (50 cents) that visitors were charged to use the beach. But even this legislator couldn’t resist Jones Beach, Roosevelt said. “When he sneaked down to the end of the beach here one day and went swimming in his underclothes, we looked the other way,” he said. “We didn’t care. So long as the legislature continued to supply the funds for development.”

Gov. Roosevelt would return once more in an official capacity to Jones Beach. In July 1931, he gave a speech from the balcony of the newly opened West Bathhouse, overlooking the crowd in the saltwater pool, and pronounced the investment in Jones Beach State Park “the best money the state ever spent.”

By then, however, Roosevelt had bigger things on his mind. The next year, he was elected to the first of his four terms as president.

Meanwhile, the seemingly bright political future of Ed Hawkins’ father failed to materialize. In 1938, Crawford Hawkins ran for Kings County district attorney, losing to future New York City Mayor William O’ Dwyer. He returned to his law practice and died in 1952 at age 50. His brother, the filmmaker Charles, also an attorney, was 65 when he died in 1970.

Ed Hawkins — who plans to donate his uncle’s film to the Roosevelt Presidential Library — grew up in Brooklyn and spent childhood days at Jones Beach and at the family’s summer home in West Gilgo. His path would again intersect with Jones Beach as an adult. Working for a major restaurant management firm, Hawkins — who had run eateries at the 1964 World’s Fair — was sent in 1965 to reorganize an equally important venue: the Boardwalk Restaurant and Jones Beach concession stands.

There he met Robert Moses, by then 76 (Moses would die in 1981 at age 92). The power of the Power Broker at that point was waning, but he was still active in operations at the beach.

“He’d come into the restaurant every day,” Hawkins recalled. “He remembered my dad.”

Although he rarely visits Jones Beach because of the diabetic infection that requires him to use a wheelchair, Hawkins is proud of his family’s connection to the King of All Beaches.

“It’s a place that’s very dear to me,” he said.

Jones Beach timeline

December 1926: A month after voters in the Town of Hempstead passed a referendum ceding part of Jones Beach to New York State, a surveyor’s stake is driven into the ground where the water tower will soon be constructed.

Aug. 4, 1929: Jones Beach State Park opens with a ceremony at the new East Bathhouse — and a sandstorm.

1930: Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt lays the cornerstone for the West Bathhouse.

1932: The U.S. Women's Olympic Swimming Trials are held at Jones Beach

1934: Completion of the Meadowbrook State Parkway adds a second route to the beach.

1949: “The Girl From Jones Beach,” a Hollywood motion picture starring Ronald Reagan and Virginia Mayo, is released. (Most of it is shot in California.)

1950: Rosebud Yellow Robe, daughter of a Lakota Sioux chief, ends a 20-year tenure as director of Indian Village — a popular educational attraction along the boardwalk that exposes children to American Indian culture.

1952: The new Jones Beach Marine Theater is dedicated by Gov. Thomas Dewey, replacing a wooden structure that had been the site of swimming competitions and aquatic shows since the early 1930s.

1956: Louis Armstrong stars in “Mardi Gras” at the theater.

1960s: Two new parking fields in the western end of Jones Beach are opened: West End 1 in 1960 and West End 2 in 1962.

1977: Guy Lombardo, longtime musical director at the Jones Beach Theater and a beloved L.I. figure, dies.

1978: An estimated 225,000 people seek relief from the summer heat at Jones Beach during a major blackout.

2004: On the 75th anniversary of Jones Beach, the first Bethpage Air Show is held. It’s now an annual tradition, drawing hundreds of thousands of people on Memorial Day weekend.

2012: Although many of Jones Beach’s iconic structures withstand superstorm Sandy, major damage is done to the boardwalk and the theater, which undergoes a $20-million renovation.

2019: Jones Beach marks 90th anniversary on Aug. 4 with 1929 prices for admission: 50 cents, instead of the usual $10.

— John Hanc

Sources: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation; “Jones Beach: An Illustrated History” (2007, Globe Pequot Press)

Jones Beach 90th anniversary

“Let them eat cake,” Robert Moses said.

OK, so maybe he didn’t quite say it that way. But starting in 1939 — marking 10 years since Moses’ greatest creation, Jones Beach State Park, opened to the public — anniversaries have been celebrated with colossal cakes often featuring replicas of the park’s iconic water tower and bathhouses.

This every-decade cake-fest perhaps reached its peak in 1979 — the 50th anniversary — when, according to Long Island State Parks, a 1,600-pound cake was served to 80,000 visitors at the beach who also sang “Happy Birthday.” And for good measure, the marching band for the Philadelphia Mummers paraded down the boardwalk.

While expressing some skepticism as to whether all 80,000 patrons that day interrupted their swimming and sunbathing to get a free slice of giant cake, State Parks director George Gorman — who began working at Jones Beach as a part-time summer employee in 1977 — said that parks office takes the tradition seriously. “This started with the 10th anniversary, and we’ve continued it since,” he said.

This year’s mega-cake will be unveiled Aug. 4 — Jones Beach’s 90th anniversary — at 11 a.m. near the flagpole on the Central Mall. Slices will be served to those in attendance — and there will be plenty to go around. According to State Parks, the cake will be 4 by 6 feet and weigh about 400 pounds. There will be a 31/2-foot tall replica of the Jones Beach Water Tower in the center, and the cake — yellow layer with filling that is half chocolate and half vanilla — will be adorned with replicas of the beach’s seahorse logo.

In the past, large sections of the cake were sliced off to be distributed to visitors at the other Jones Beach locations. But at the suggestion of former Jones Beach director Sue Guliani — back as a part-timer helping with the 90th anniversary — and L.I. state parks’ director of recreation AnnMarie Agostinello, the decision was made to go a different way. While the ceremonial cake will be served (for free) at Central Mall, those on Field 6, the East and West bathhouses, Zach’s Bay and elsewhere will get cupcakes.

“The cupcakes are easier to distribute at the different parking fields,” Guliani said. Plus, “they’re easier to eat, and there’s no need for plates and forks.”

What the imperious Moses would have felt about Jones Beach-goers eating cupcakes on its anniversary, instead of official cake, no one can tell. But in anticipation that this change in tradition will be greeted almost as enthusiastically as the back-to-1929 parking fee for Aug. 4 (50 cents instead of $10), 9,990 cupcakes (half chocolate, half vanilla icing) are being ordered.

—John Hanc

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