Why you should care
Before the CDC gave AIDS a name in 1981, New York’s Fire Island saw plenty of partying.
In the middle of a storm, it’s hard to tell that there is anything out there other than the storm. In the mid- to late 1970s in New York City, a storm swept in. A couple, in fact. Wised up from the end of the Age of Aquarius and the start of the Stonewall riots, and fired up by decreased inhibitions ushered in by party drugs, these storms were something else. So much something else that people of note started taking note, and what they were noting was partially the sort of stuff happening at places like Fire Island’s the Sandpiper: parties fueled by a feeling that the party would never end.
“It was the bar of choice until the AIDS plague hit,” says Jim Fouratt, one of the early members of the Gay Liberation Front, former club owner, and front and center during the Stonewall riots that kicked off groups like the GLF. “A gay beach bar fronted by a gay man and run by the mob, which was par for the course in those days.”
Ensconced off Long Island’s south shore, Fire Island, supposedly drawing its name from the habit of pirates setting fires to lure ships onto its shoals in the 1700s, was close enough to New York City to carry a West Village vibe; and the summers saw the shore packed with party people dancing until four in the morning and cruising just as long as they felt like it.
So it goes that this one-story, blue-and-white wooden restaurant and bar born in the mid-’60s … became a physical representation of an era.
Pre-AIDS? Magazines were trumpeting “bisexuality chic,” experimentation was de rigueur, and it was on with the motley, portions of which captured the imagination of a Moroccan-born Frenchman named Jacques Morali. While cooling out at downtown’s gay disco nonpareil, the Anvil, Morali spotted a dancer/bartender with a lithe body and full-blown Native American tribal regalia. In a great Schwab’s drugstore moment of discovery, this sighting led to the recruitment of Felipe Rose, known to the rest of us as the Indian from a group that Morali had decided to call the Village People.
Later derided as a campy producer creation — like the Monkees, but gay — the Village People, pre-internet and well in advance of their first U.S. hit, 1978’s “Macho Man,” sang about “the scene.” So, if by some chance you didn’t know where to go to get loose? After hearing their song “Fire Island,” you knew.
Groove at the Ice Palace (get on down at the Monster) / Been there, been there (been there at the Blue Whale) / Peckin’, I’m peckin’ (peckin’ at the Sandpiper) / Pumpin’, I’m pumpin’ (pumpin’ at the Botel).
And if that wasn’t clear enough, the chorus put a finer point on it:
Don’t go in the bushes, don’t go in the bushes, no / Don’t go in the bushes, someone might grab ya, someone might grab ya.
By which, it can safely be assumed, the Village People very specifically meant “go in the bushes.”
“I just remember dancing there,” says Fouratt, laughing. “Dancing at the beach. But our bars have always been like community centers.”
So it goes that this one-story, blue-and-white wooden restaurant and bar born in the mid-’60s, holding no more than 600 people and with an ambience that could generously be described as “funky,” became a physical representation of an era. Specifically, the pent-up joy connected to coming out and into your own, the thrill of the cross-cultural mix heralded by not just the disco but disco music and dancing and, before the era’s end, a sense that this was just the beginning.
Which it was. But not of what was expected. While changing tastes in music would have eventually changed things, nothing changed things like what they originally were calling Kaposi’s sarcoma, and which came to be known as HIV and AIDS. “Plague” is how Fouratt describes it, and with 35 million having died from it globally since then, the description seems apt.
“Lots of those were kids,” says Dr. Steve Ballinger, an Oregon surgeon with an early and abiding interest in infectious diseases. “People who had had blood transfusions, people in Third World countries” where the disease was first diagnosed. But no community was hit like the gay community, and when this second wave of the storm hit, well before it was clinically diagnosed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1981, it was enough to change everything — enough to close the Sandpiper in 1979. On Oct. 27, to be exact.
Fouratt went on to open New York club of note Hurrah, where scene sprite Haoui Montaug worked the door before he too succumbed. While rushing out for an evening with friends, Fouratt waxed only a little nostalgic. “People knew each other even if they didn’t know each other,” he says. “The Sandpiper was that kind of place. And the Sandpiper scene was that kind of scene.” And now? “It’s very expensive now. So, just rich people and lesbians are all that’s left now.”
Well, at least they got half of that right.