By Thomas McGann
Fire Island has had its share of exposure on the big screen (movies), not often, but enough to be notable. However, it is not much seen on the small screen (television), until fairly recently.
To touch on just a few movies, perhaps the most significant was “Last Summer,” a 1969 coming-of-age story about burgeoning adolescent sexuality. The renowned team of Frank and Eleanor Perry (director and screenwriter respectively) chose Ocean Beach and Seaview as the setting for their film. Maguire’s Restaurant served as headquarters for the film crew. “The Irish Whiskey Rebellion,” released in 1972, was shot mostly in Saltaire, Long Cove and Skunk Hollow. In 1989, Fire Island played host to the movie “Longtime Companion,” again starring Bruce Davison, for which he received a nomination as Best Actor in a Supporting Role. Then the 2013 HBO movie “The Normal Heart,” starring Mark Ruffalo and Joe Mantello, a movie yes, but made for home cinema – the smaller screen.
But much of Fire Island on TV over the decades boils down to casual mentions on evening shows such as “Law and Order” and “NYPD Blue.” We did get a mention on “Darts on BBC America” when a young woman said she had learned to play darts barefoot on Fire Island; as well as the game show “Jeopardy” over the winter, and we are still trying to figure out exactly who calls Fire Island “New York’s Key West,” but such mentions are like ships that pass in the night.
However with the advent of reality TV, producers have found our island. Back in 1999, Stephen Fry produced the documentary mini-series for Bravo TV, entitled “Fire Island.” It followed “the real lives and loves of two summer-share household’s, one gay male, the other lesbian.” The show only lasted four episodes.
In 2006, ABC and CTV premiered “One Ocean View,” a reality show about 11, 20-something single New Yorkers (four men and seven women) looking for sex and romance (or both) on weekends at an oceanfront beach house in Corneille Estates. It rated as ABC’s least watched show and was cancelled after only two episodes. Its demise was wildly celebrated by Fire Island locals who objected to the production for disturbing the quiet enjoyment of their community with noisy helicopters for aerial footage.
However the crew, with their long hair and tattoos, was apparently more appealing than the cast themselves. Some group-rental babes made inquiries about those hot crew guys at the best source for all good scuttlebutt, their watchful neighbors. Later that evening those same gals, all gussied up, visited the crew, sporting bottles of wine and smiles, anticipating the evening yet to be. The show may not have been a hit but the crew sure was.
More recently (spring of 2017), we saw the reprise of another show also titled “Fire Island.” It was produced by Kelly Ripa and her husband Mark Consuelos. Mark commented, “We fell in love with Fire Island years ago the minute we stepped off the ferry. We’re excited to share the long-standing magic of the island with this new series and to be working again with our Logo family.”
This “Fire Island” was about six gay men sharing a super-luxurious oceanfront home in Fire Island Pines, searching for the “romance, temptation and thrills that have brought the LGBTQ community to the island for decades.”
Even before the new season began, however, The Advocate – the largest LGBTQ publication in the U.S., published an article decrying the behavior exhibited on the show as detrimental to the reputation of the gay community as a whole. The gay community “must choose to elevate public perception of us as best we can. We are above this…” read the article. Whether or not that piece had any bearing on the success or failure of the show will remain unanswered. It ran for only seven episodes.
Fire Island Pines, given its cachet, and diverse, albeit upper class, gay and straight community, has proven to be a prime location. Captain David J. Mahler, president of TCS Marine Services, docks his boat in the Pines for the season and has provided transportation for several reality stars. Captain David had a top secret 1 a.m. mission to ferry Cher from Sayville to the Pines for a Hillary Clinton fundraiser. When Cher arrived the town went wild, cranking up her music for all to hear. He also transported three stranded “Fire Island” cast members, and their dog, to the Pines. While docked at the Blue Whale restaurant he was within a “short Grey Poupon jar toss” from his yacht to friends who had appeared on “Below Deck.” But is it any surprise a reality show about boaters came to our shores?
This season’s incarnation of Bravo’s spinoff “Below Deck Mediterranean” includes Sayville native, Colin Macy- O’Toole. This handsome young fella got his sea legs working as a deckhand at Sayville Ferry Service at the age of 15, eventually working his way up to ferry captain. We understand that after filming he returned to his day job, again no surprise, because fame does not spoil Fire Islanders.
We cannot however forget documentaries that see this island’s beauty for what it really is: “Greetings from Fire Island” may be the best travelogue; “Baymen,” filmed on Fire Island and the Great South Bay; and “Modern Tide: Midcentury Architecture on Long Island,” shot in Fire Island Pines.
But no matter how artists try to portray Fire Island, cool or crazy, drunk or sober, gay or straight, the island remains a Lady – stately and beautiful, wild as a hurricane, and as self-possessed as mythic shadows dancing in sunken forests.