Women Pioneers of the Arts Project of Cherry Grove

Discover the rich history of this cultural community of women on Fire Island

The earliest adventuresses boarded trains from New York’s Pennsylvania Station with tickets to a small, sub-rural town called Sayville, N.Y. on Long Island.

There, they hired taxis to the town’s ferry dock where they obtained passage across the Great South Bay. Others piled into automobiles and drove the scenic Long Island Expressway to the same embarkation point. The well-to-do among them arrived by Cadillacs, some with uniformed drivers. Still others commandeered their own sailboats or speed boats, and a very few flew their own sea planes.

They came from New York, San Francisco, London, Paris and Rome, and from cities and small towns all over the country. And from the resorts that dotted the barrier island, women would walk for miles along the sandy beaches to get to a rumored special place. Thus began the annual summer migration of generations of women; youngsters in their twenties, middle-aged and older, to a hidden utopia were they could be “themselves”—women who loved women.


© 2014 APCG Archives

It was a long time before the words “lesbian” or “gay” could be uttered publicly; before any organized social movement could even hint at same-sex attraction. But the word was out, if only within this cloaked population, that there were homosexuals renting cottages at a beach colony called Cherry Grove. They called themselves “the girls”, according to Esther Newton’s narrators in her seminal study, Cherry Grove, Fire Island: Sixty Years in America’s First Gay Town. And among them were some of the “Most Beautiful Girls in the World.”

That was the song title for one of the musical production numbers in the very firstCherry Grove Follies of 1948″ and the “girl” on the arm of a tuxedoed boy” was a stunning beauty, Kay Guinness. In her 1930s days, Guinness was a near-twin to the movie star Alexis Smith. A party girl, she had been coming to Cherry Grove for ten years. She and her husband had made a pact: when she came to the Grove, she arrived alone.

© 2014 APCG Archives

The Arts Project of Cherry Grove, with its many events, provided a venue and safe harbor unattainable in any other locale for lesbian and straight women residents. By 1949 a new generation of girlscame to Cherry Grove, including another beauty, Mary J. Ronin. Her movie star double was the young Katherine Hepburn. Ronin, a watercolorist and filmographer, appeared in the “Cherry Grove Follies of 1949” as a married woman who (with her spouse) won a weekend in the Cherry Grove beach resort–unaware of its gay resort reputation. Among Ronin’s amorata in the Grove was Patricia Highsmith, lesbian author of Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt.

© 2014 APCG Archives

Natalia Danesi Murray, the powerhouse behind New York’s Rizzoli bookstore, took to the Cherry Grove stage in 1951 with the inimitable Hermione Gingold, who would go on to Hollywood movie stardom in Gigi. Murray and Janet Flanner, the innovative essayist of The New Yorker, formed a thoroughly modern, open relationship that lasted more than 30 years.

© 2014 APCG Archives

The “girls” Joyce Grenfeld and Maggie McCorkle (an Arts Project multi-decade veteran) populated the stage with Fairy Godmothers, Cinderella and a Christine Keeler. With an authentic Mrs. (Shirley) Munnell and a little help from some “boys,” they created Boardwalk Melody of 1963, an overtly gay camp production.

© 2014 APCG Archives

In 1977, the APCG staged Little Mary Sunshine by Rick Besoyan (1924–1970). The musical, an affectionate satire of early 20th century operettas, was actually written in Cherry Grove and later premiered off-Broadway at the Orpheum Theatre. The Grove’s production starred Peggy Hewitt in the title role. Hewitt and her partner, Misty del Giorno, were homeowners in Cherry Grove in the 1970s. Lyn Hutton also performed in this production, and she later became the first female chief of the Cherry Grove Volunteer Fire Department.

© 2014 APCG Archives

One of the original musicians was Maggie Torre who is currently with Cabaret on Broadway. Tommy Tune, Broadway’s well-known gay director and choreographer, discovered Hewitt on the APCG stage and made her a Broadway star in A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine.

Lesbian involvement in the APCG increased during the 1980s with Ruth and Susan Freedner, otherwise known as “The Twins.” Ruth and Susan did a book show in 1978 because twins were needed. “The Twins” have played twins many a time. They were attracted to community theater and participated in numerous musical comedies and reviews during the early to mid ’80s, along with their mentor Maggie McCorkle (who appeared in APCG shows for decades until her death in 2005), Lynne Tunderman, Dinah Stoller and Celia Recupero.

© 2014 APCG Archives

It wasn’t until 1987 when Maggie put a girls number together for inclusion in the Golden Girls, directed by Dominic DeSantis and Don Riseborough.

The ensemble of women known as RG’s (Real Girls) were to become a fixture in the musical reviews that were staples of the APCG show season of that era. “There is Nothing Like a Dame was the first RG number, which featured eight women.

Photo by Sue Kravitz

During the past 20 years, many directors (Sal Piro, John DeMarco, Thom Hansen, Phil Stoehr and Randy Riggs) gave many more numbers to women, including solos, duets and the big RG number, with as many of the women in the cast who wanted to perform.

To date, a number of shows have had women directors, such as Lynne Tunderman, Sherri Rase and Del Harbin. In addition to theatrical productions, both the nights and the yearly art show have attracted many women, younger and older: Marge Cozzolino, Francine Sardone, Sue Panzer, Bobbi Green, Doreen Rallo, Joan Van Ness, Lorraine Michels, Cathy Eckdahl and many others.

© 2014 APCG Archives

Throughout the 1990s and into the 21st century, the individuals who have come and gone, as well as newcomers, have been and will continue to be welcomed to the Arts Project of Cherry Grove–and its theatrical productions, art shows, nights and other performances–both in front of and behind the curtains.

Things have changed in The Grove–and our Arts Project community is aging. Yet the APCG has always had a wonderful history of participation by women. We want YOU to join us!

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