By Shoshanna McCollum ~ Mike Fisher’s acclaimed documentary “Cherry Grove Stories” burst on the Fire Island scene in the summer of 2017. After its premiere at the landmarked Cherry Grove Community House Theatre, former FIN reporter Bruce-Michael Gelbert described it as “a kaleidoscopic and moving view of the past six decades of Cherry Grove history.” The film would go onto screenings elsewhere, including Whyte Hall in Fire Island Pines, and assorted LGBTQ film festivals. It started gaining national attention as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising approached.
Yet for all its accolades, summer deadline pressures kept this editor from seeing it for herself, even though Fisher had graciously extended invitations to her on several occasions. So when I heard there was a special screening on November 23 at the YMCA Boulton Center as a charity fundraiser to benefit the Northwell Health facility at Cherry Grove, making a night of it was kind of a no-brainer. The cool autumn months meant I had the luxury of time, and the venue itself was appealing.
For over a decade the YMCA Boulton Center in downtown Bay Shore has been a popular South Shore Long Island destination. As the former Regent Movie Theater space on Main Street, the building was originally constructed in 1929. Operating for many decades with success, the Regent fell on hard times and closed their doors in the late 1980s, as Bay Shore’s downtown district itself began facing a period of decline. However philanthropists Frank and Karen Boulton recognized the promise the beautiful old theatre still held, and gifted it to the Great South Bay YMCA in December of 1997. After a two million dollar renovation, the YMCA Boulton Center was completed in December of 2003, and it became a crown jewel of Bay Shore’s downtown comeback. Today the 261 seat stadium style space offers theatre productions, concerts, films, as well as student productions and children’s entertainment. The screening of “Cherry Grove Stories” at this location is but one example of the success story that the YMCA Boulton Center has become.
Doctor’s Office fundraisers are a proud tradition in the community of Cherry Grove. For years the Cherry Grove Doctor’s Fund would organize variety shows to raise funds for the hiring of medical professionals to staff the clinic during the summer months. Since Northwell Health took over operation of the Grove clinic in 2014, they have demonstrated a sincere commitment to the health needs of the LGBTQ community, both on Fire Island and the metro region. The evening felt like a natural extension of the old time Cherry Grove Doctor’s Fund premise with raffles and silent auction tables in the theatre balcony, as well as the enticement of a post-film drag show to offer some light entertainment.
After over two years of wanting to see “Cherry Grove Stories” for myself, what is there to be said? As an editor I admired how Mike Fisher made every frame count. Be it an interview, a photo still, or archival footage – fastidious attention to every detail made the film taut without a wasted moment. As a writer whose livelihood has involved the history of Fire Island in one way or another for over 20 years, I believe this film is an important addition to the Fire Island and LGBTQ historical record. Even if much of the history is already familiar to some audiences, listening to the firsthand accounts spoken so eloquently by longtime Cherry Grove residents like Joyce Rogers, Don Hester, or FIN columnist Robert Levine discussing subjects like the Meat Rack police raids of the 1950s, the AIDS crisis of the 1990s, or the many humorous anecdotes that was woven into the tapestry “Cherry Grove Stories” made the Fire Island history fresh in a way the printed word can’t always achieve.
Much like the cherry on top, the drag show was a triumphant finish to the evening. This production included some of Fire Island’s elite, with performances by established veterans like MC for the show Ariel Sinclair, Panzi, and Rose Levine – as well as some new comers like JizzaBella who has gained popularity in the CG nightclub circuit, and introducing Ivy Stalls – a greater Long Island performer who Ariel Sinclair promised we will “see a lot more of” in Cherry Grove 2020.
The show included music, dancing, and of course a heaping dose of raunchy humor. Bless Panzi’s heart, I will never be able to hear Celine Dion on the radio again without chuckling a little. Kudos as well to Christine Sutin, who accompanied Rose Levine on the piano; and Northwell’s Community Relations Vice President, Edward Fraser – who oversaw coordination of this one of a kind fundraiser beautifully.
UPCOMING events at the YMCA Boulton Center include Martin Sexton on Dec. 6, “Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol the Musical” on Dec. 21 & Dec. 22, and Popa Chubby on Dec. 27, 2019. For more events and additional information, visit https://boultoncenter.org/
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