Fire Island’s Pines Party Is Full of Magic, Mystery and an Important Bit of Queer History
My first Pines Party was a night I’ll never forget.
The sun crept up and peeked over the horizon. I couldn’t believe the sun was already rising. How did the night go by so quickly? I looked out on the sand, and still in the first glimmers of a new day, hundreds of gay men danced to the beat of the music.
Most of the night, I side-stepped to the pounding beats of songs with no lyrics. But not now — DJ Morabito played a remix of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me.”
I instantly became overwhelmed with emotion. My eyes began to well with tears. As I looked onto the sun-drenched sands of this oasis, at the writhing mass of dancing men, I remembered our lost brothers and sisters at Pulse Nightclub, only a few weeks prior. I was still emotionally frail from the huge hit our community and safe spaces took from that tragedy. Despite the heartache, our community clamored back together — and there was nothing more evident of this resilience than this moment right now.
This is a memory I will have forever.
What is the Pines Party?
The Pines Party is the jewel of New York’s queer nightlife calendar, bringing thousands of gay men to the shores of Fire Island Pines. A charitable event that’s the pinnacle of every season, raising money for the community and the Stonewall Community Foundation that helps LGBT organizations grow.
How did it come to be?
The Pines Party started in 1983 as the Morning Party, a fundraiser for Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) — New York’s new charity trying to combat an illness killing of thousands of gay men in a matter of months.
But Fire Island Pines community member Gil Neary thinks its roots go back even more:
“In 1979, when Fire Island Pines needed a new fire truck, the community staged an all night dance on the beach called ‘Beach 79.’ France Joli made her debut performance at 16 and later went on to international stardom.”
During the early 1980s, at the beginning of the AIDS crisis, a morning party by definition was an afterparty that’s exactly how it sounds: After an all-night dance party, the crowd would then go to someone’s home for more revelry, laughter, libations and of course, cruising.
Morning parties were common in the Pines, too. It was traditional for the stragglers on the Pavilion dance floor to ascend on someone’s oceanfront deck for a morning of mellow dance music. The party would continue as the sun rose, making it even more memorable and heightening the experience.
As the AIDS crisis grew among the Pines community and the world, many felt the need to respond in some way. One of them was a woman named Nikki Fried. She had been coming to the Pines for many years, and was now watching her best friends become ill and die.
In 1983, GMHC set out to do a weekend of fundraising events in the Pines. Cocktail parties, lavish dinners, dancing at the Pavilion; the island was a buzz with ideas of raising money for the new GMHC and the fight against AIDS. But Fried and her housemate, Burt Charmatz, had their own ideas.
They opted to host their own fundraising event for GMHC, Fire Island Pines-style as a traditional morning party. Their house at 106 Scaup Walk (known as Romper Room) was deemed too small. They included housemate Jerry Bovenschen and approached Frank McDermott who owned a house at Ocean and Driftwood (the same house that years later belonged to Calvin Klein and then David Geffen).
McDermott agreed to host the party. The group of party planners decided to keep the price of admission at only $10 so that the party would be accessible to everyone.
Each year the party grew in size, production values and fundraising results.
Neary remembers one memory in his infamous Bambi Sue column:
“I have a vivid memory of one Morning Party that was on Ozone and Ocean during the Reagan administration when the ‘Just Say No To Drugs’ was a First Lady buzz line that was emblazoned on grocery tote bags. The party got rained out and eventually moved to the Pavilion. My housemates, trying to put together a rain proof outfits for the walk downtown, realized if you cut the bottom off the bags they made excellent muscle tees with ‘Just Say No’ across the chest. Ironic, yet stylish!”
In 1991, GMHC’s Randy Wojcik knew they needed to move the Morning Party to the beach. After long negotiations the party blossomed into a legendary event with 3,500 people partying between Beach Hill and Coast Guard. That same year, Gloria Gaynor performed.
However, bad press about drugs at the party overtook the event’s shine and sparkle in the eyes of outsiders. GMHC tried to interfere. In 1997, a New York Times article cites the organization’s attempts to stop partygoers from drugging at the event.
“They cited a July 23 ‘Dear Morning Partygoer’ letter in which the group’s executive director, Mark Robinson, wrote, ‘Protect yourselves and the future of the event by not taking drugs at the party.’
”It was like saying, ‘Don’t drink at the party, come drunk,’ said Troy Masters, a GMHC critic and publisher of LGNY, a newspaper whose readership is mainly homosexual. Michelangelo Signorile, a writer on gay issues and another GMHC critic, said: ‘It’s troubling that there were that many arrests. We’re talking about a benefit for a health agency. Would the American Cancer Society throw a drug party?’
“GMHC’s supporters are equally vehement. Dr. Howard A. Grossman, a GMHC board member who directs medical services at the party, said that drug use was exaggerated and scolding ineffective. ‘Troy Powers and Mike Signorile are the Nancy Reagans of the gay community,’ he said. ‘”Just say No” doesn’t work.’
“Mr. Robinson called some criticism ‘unfair and self-serving,’ adding, ‘We took huge pains to make a significant dent in drug use, and I think we were successful.’”
However, the bad press was too much and GMHC stopped sponsoring the party after 1998.
Out of the ashes of the Morning Party, the Pines Party was born.
In 1999, the local homeowners’ association saw a void in the summer calendar. The summer’s most prized week for renters lost its luster. They also saw an opportunity.
So they created what is known today as the Pines Party. That first year was titled “Pines 99” — paying homage to the “Beach 79” event that Neary told us all about. The theme was “Arabian Nights” — and tents were brought onto the beach to provide refuge to some of Fire Island’s bougier citizens. Also, the party would become an all-night fete that year too, starting at 10 p.m. and raging until sunrise the next day.
The party exceeded all expectations that first year, and raised half a million dollars for the charities it benefitted.
“I was the lighting designer for the first Pines Party on the beach,” Guy Smith, now the producer, explains. “The producer that time, who didn’t exactly love me, flew someone else in to do it, and that designer didn’t know the lighting console at all, so I had to come in and program it for him. I think we had about 12 moving lights on the beach, and the rest were just gelled conventionals.”
Problems in the new millennium.
In the new millennium, the party struggled to make a profit. The costs to put on such a fabulous event made it impossible to have something left over for charity.
Since that year, Smith became the party’s producer with a promise to fix that problem.
“About five years ago, the Pines Party had lost money for several years, and the ticket sales had been steadily falling for about ten years. FIPPOA canceled the party for the following year, since it was a huge amount of work for them, and made money for no one but the producer of the party. I felt that the party was really important to the community, and that it could make money and be a centerpiece event again, with a little vision and creativity. I convinced the FIPPOA board to let me produce it, with the understanding that if it didn’t net them $50,000, they could keep my and my husband’s producer’s fees. They agreed. My agreement was that I could redesign it and theme it as I saw the party, so we built a huge projection stage and took the roof off of the party.”
Board member Allan Baum also cites those challenges a few years ago:
“I ran for the FIPPOA board four years ago with preserving the Pines Party as my number one issue. At the time I ran for the board, the event was on life support financially and in terms of its support in the local community and among the members of the FIPPOA board.
“Since being elected and taking over responsibility for the event, the Pines Party has been revived as one of the premier events for the LGBTQ community, enjoying broad support in among the local community and raising significant funds for our beneficiaries, the Pines foundation and Stonewall Community Foundation.“
Smith explains the challenges of creating something new every year while still staying true to the party’s history and what people expect:
“This isn’t a circuit party. It’s a community event for the most extraordinary population on the planet, at least as far as I’m concerned. I have an amazingly creative husband and creative family, and we do late-night brainstorming sessions weighing themes and creative ideas, some of which are so awful and offensive I can’t even tell you the names. We always want to make the experience magical, sexy, and other-worldly for everyone involved — queer, straight, trans, young, old, and from all the myriad backgrounds we have. We can’t talk down to this crowd, it can’t be commercial or basic. It has to be complex and surprising and delightful. It’s always a challenge.”
Last year’s Pines Party theme was Xanadu. The party concluded with an incomparable finale performance by RuPaul’s Drag Race queen Courtney Act channeling her best Olivia Newton-John.
This year’s theme is Labyrinth. Many people are assuming the ’80s film starring David Bowie, but Smith is pointing us to a very different direction.
“This year’s theme is really a slice of Midsummer Night’s Dream. I am a lifelong fan of Shakespeare, and this party is going to have a very ‘enchanted forest’ feel. The Labyrinth in this theme is that labyrinth. The minotaur in that play is actually Pan, another horned god. We live on a sandbar covered in magical creatures and enchanted forests. This party is going to amp that up a notch.”
Smith tries to pick one quintessential Pines Party memory:
“Oh, Lord. There are so many. I have been involved in some way with that party since its inception. We have had one that was dramatically shut down by a lightning storm. There was my first party as producer, South Pacific, where an elderly lesbian couple (I think one was in her 90s) danced together at the beginning of the party together in the back of the WWII military trucks I used as the VIP deck. There was another couple at that party in their 90s who were leaving at 2:00 am, and who I was going to escort home, and the woman said, ‘Hey, can you take my husband to bed? I want to go back and keep dancing!’ So many adventures and misadventures. Some repeatable, some definitely not.”
Neary relays one of his fondest memories:
“Every party is special. For me it was the year of the colossus party. The theme was ‘ancient world.’ And my friend Mark Burkley, said, ‘You know this year, let’s go counter theme and instead of doing something ancient lets have our tent be Plato’s Retreat.’ That was a notorious sex club in the 1970s. So we all went in ’70s mod drag, crazy bell bottoms and big afro wigs. And we made our tent into Plato’s Retreat. It was famous for having a mirrored orgy room and a pool. So we had a splash pool out front of the tent and built a little wall that people had to give the password to get in. The big outfit that year was gladiator skirts (with no underwear, of course). So it started to rain and all of these gladiators in skirts with no underwear ran into our tent and it turned into exactly what Plato’s Retreat was intended for.”
But why is the Pines Party so iconic?
Articulate Neary has trouble finding the words to answer: “It’s a unique party. They create this nightclub on the ocean and it’s an incredible environment. Culturally, Fire Island is very unique and Pines Party is part of that culture. It’s the legend of it and the word of mouth. Ten people tell ten people and now you have 1,000 people. But no matter what you’re told, you just have to experience it yourself.”
Neary’s right. So don’t take our word for it. See for yourself. Like the mysterious energy of the island, it’s really impossible to describe what makes the Pines Party so magical in words.
No matter what though, you’re bound to leave with a memory or two you truly will never forget.
I know I did.
For tickets to Pines Party 2017, visit here.
Source material and vintage photos via Fire Island Historical Preservation Society. Donate to them here.
The Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society is a group of the Pines community members whose mission is to collect, preserve, display, and celebrate the rich and colorful history of the Fire Island Pines for present and future generations. Established in 2010 , they are a recognized non-profit working towards establishing an ongoing presence in the community to help establish an internet site devoted to the history of Fire Island Pines.
Photos from Pines Party 2016 via WilsonModels.