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In Fire Island Pines, the past is still present

The 2012 drag queen

The 2012 drag queen "Invasion" arrives in Fire Island Pines from neighboring Cherry Grove. The Fourth of July tradition began in 1976. Credit: Fire Island Pines Historical Pre

A 1960s real estate sales ad for the Home Guardian Company of New York almost says it all: "The children love it here" and it's a place for "lazy days."

The ad is part of an endless array of vintage and recent snapshots of celebrities, entertainers, locals and visitors. It's a glimpse of earlier decades -- as single adults, married couples and gay men basked in the sun, relaxed or socialized poolside and danced together with abandon -- and reflects Fire Island Pines' unique place in history, as a family-oriented community that morphed into a world- renowned seasonal playground for affluent gay men.

Since August 2010, a plethora of such images has been archived on Facebook's Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society page. The nonprofit society is the brainchild of the site's main administrator, Robert "Bobby" Bonanno, a Bellport hairdresser who first visited the Pines' neighboring gay community of Cherry Grove in 1976, while he was still in beauty school.

Cherry Grove and the Pines are part of the 17 communities that make up the 32-mile-long barrier beach called Fire Island, which sits between the Great South Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. In 1980, Bonanno ventured to the more upscale Pines community. Calvin Klein and David Geffen are among the moguls who once had homes there.

On discovering the Pines, Bonanno never looked back -- until four years ago.

One day while on the Sayville Ferry, he overheard passengers talking about a possible name change for the Blue Whale, the restaurant/ nightclub well-known within the gay community for its 5-8 p.m. Tea Dance parties. The first one took place in 1966. Since then, the legendary shindigs have become a ritual for Pines homeowners, renters and guests.

"The Tea Dance has been replicated in gay resorts all over the world," marking the Blue Whale's important place in local and gay history, Bonanno said.

Andrew Kirtzman, an author, a lifelong Fire Island resident and one of the building's owners, realized that, too, and retained the name.

"I think we thought about that for about five seconds, and then we realized what a bad idea that would have been," Kirtzman said. "It's a part of what makes the Pines 'the Pines.' "


Thousands of followers

Kirtzman co-owns FIP Ventures, which in 2010 spent $17 million to purchase the Blue Whale, the Pavilion complex, Botel -- the island's sole hotel -- and other harborside properties; in all, 80 percent of the Pines' commercial district.

The threat of losing the iconic name spurred Bonanno to act, and four years later his interactive Facebook page has about 5,000 followers. Bonanno said the society's mission is not only to preserve the past but also to enlighten young gay people, who enjoy a level of social acceptance that was unimaginable in the past.

"The Pines used to be an escape from terrible oppression in the world," Kirtzman said. "Today, I think it's the ultimate in gay freedom."

In the 1970s, the Pines witnessed the dawn of disco, but in the mid-1980s, the AIDS crisis reached its shores. Scores of Pines community members died and rentals went vacant during high season, resulting in an economic downturn.

"We were decimated," said resident Karin Adir, who grew up in her father's beachfront home, where the HBO movie "The Normal Heart" was recently filmed. "I was afraid to open The New York Times for fear of looking at the obituaries."

Longtime Pines resident and society board member Tony LaRocca, 70, provided some of the initial photos to the society. LaRocca was gifted with a collection of photographs, menus, posters and more from his late friend Milton Lubich. Longtime Pines resident and architect Scott Bromley, who designed Studio 54 and is on the society's board, also gave Bonanno hundreds of personal slides.

Bonanno posts these on Facebook several times a day. Resident Ron McKenna, who died in 2007, had saved many local newspapers from the 1960s. His niece gave Bonanno the entire collection. "Then the Fire Island News gave us all their archives," Bonanno said. "Both have been invaluable."

But he's not only looking at the past. "The future is constantly changing as technology is," Bonanno said, so his dream is to develop a website for the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society. "I want a place where collectively all of this is there and easy to access" -- a virtual museum.

Bromley shares that vision.

"We learn from history. That's a basic fact," he said. "It shows us what we did wrong and right . . . and it's really important for folks coming to enjoy this little island to know the struggles, the pleasures and the beauty of the place."


Fire Island Pines celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2013. The same year, two books about the community were published: "Fire Island Modernist: Horace Gifford and the Architecture of Seduction," by Christopher Rawlins (Metropolis Books/Gordon de Vries Studio, $60), and "Fire Island Pines, Polaroids 1975-1983," by Tom Bianchi (Damiani, $50).

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