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The Shipwreck Rose: Late December, 1934

Thu, 11/30/2023 - 09:41

It wasn't until I was 33 years old — a biblical age, though not at all holy — that I decided I was done with nightclubs. I'm a member of Generation X, the generation that got old too soon and remained kids too long, and that is why my adolescence went on forever and ever, amen. It began in seventh grade, in the seedy backwash of the 1970s, when I observed certain sad classmates taking quaaludes at the East Hampton Middle School, and only ending some 21 years later, well after I was in theory an adult and should have hung up my Cuban heels. My after-hours career in clubs, discos, dives, and dancehalls was extended and attenuated beyond all reason, stretching from the night in November when I celebrated my 16th birthday in the Stephan Talkhouse in Amagansett to a last hurrah at a private basement club (password "gabardine" at the door) not far from the old Ratner's on Delancey Street, dressed in seamed silk stockings and a black 1940s cocktail dress with a gardenia corsage to my chest, carrying a pack of cigarettes in a grosgrain-satin purse with a cat-tongue pink lining that snapped shut with a crisp, heel-click snap, very Lauren Bacall.

I gave up cigarettes the same year I gave up clubbing.

It's impossible to provide a full catalog of the names of the nightclubs of my never-ending youth because — while I'm no Keith Richards and indeed a bit of a square in terms of illegal-substance abuse — it's all, naturally, a bit of a blur and I cannot recall them all. But here are some. They are like bonbons in the box of memory, to me, each one with a different flavored filling, raspberry nights, strawberry nights, orange creams, truffles, almond brittle. 

If you don't count preteen afternoons at Mellow Mouth on Three Mile Harbor Road, where we did the bus stop to "Ring My Bell," my very first real New York City nightclub was the Peppermint Lounge ("the Pep") on West 45th Street, then the Ritz, Danceteria (in Manhattan and in Water Mill), Limelight, Downtown Beirut, CBGB, the World, 8 B.C., Save the Robots, the Palladium, the Pyramid, King Tut's Wah-Wah Hut, the Milk Bar (not the recent Milk Bar, but an earlier one), Hank's Crystal Palace, the Love Club, the Lismar Lounge, and Continental Divide. After college, it was off to Central Europe. Tilos az A, Picasso Point, and I genuinely cannot remember the names of the other many clubs in Budapest, Zagreb, and Prague. Then back to Manhattan for the swing revival. Coney Island High, the Chatterbox, Jackie 60 at Mother, and a series of pseudo-speakeasies accessed down side alleys on the Lower East Side or in Hell's Kitchen when you had to skip and jump like a jitterbug to avoid tripping over the packs of rats. . . . And that is probably only half of them. Less than half. Mixing metaphors, from a chocolate box to Hollywood Babylon, this list is only the highlight reel. 

In the same way that old codgers in cliché bore the children by buttonholing them at family Thanksgivings to reminisce on and on about the snowstorms of their youth — when the ice was nine inches thick on the pond, geese froze in midflight and fell from the sky like stones, and the railroad was halted by drifts on the tracks in Babylon — I habitually buttonhole the adolescents in my orbit to impress upon them the richness of the nightclub culture that has disappeared from this Earth with the advent of the internet. 

The kids today just will never know what a panoply of late-night fun was out there, after dark, for anyone with a car, or a friend with a car, and $10. This summer I helped a reporter for East magazine research the long-lost club culture of the South Fork, and was reminded with an emotion approaching awe of all the discos that used to operate between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., many of them year round, in the 1970s and 1980s. I was too young to catch Martell's, the Moon, Tomatoes, the Potting Shed, the Alley, Great Scott, L'Oursin, or Hot Dog Beach — and too cool for Marrakesh or the Boardy Barn — but made the scene at the Jag, Hansom House, the Sea Wolf, the Wild Rose, and the Swamp. Again, that's not the half of it. Not a third of it.  

Looking at write-ups of rock bands and ads for discotheques in the newspaper archives, I'd wager that there were at least 30 nightclubs operational on the South Fork between the Shinnecock Canal and the commercial dock at Montauk in the year of our lord 1978, just to pluck one year from thin air. Many of the clubs advertised D.J.s or themed nights even in midweek, even in February.

It's my opinion that, in a weird way, counterintuitive and surprising, there's less to do out here on a given winter night in 2023 than there was on a given winter night in 1938 or 1969. I've spent a lot of time reading old newspapers and I believe this is factual. Our population is 10 times what it was — 20 times what it was? 100? — but everyone, come nightfall, is either home alone watching Netflix or, if they leave the house, eating sushi out at a restaurant before heading home to watch Netflix. 

Check out the variety of evening amusements that kept East Hampton entertained the week of Dec. 20, 1934, at the height of the Great Depression: On Three Mile Harbor Road, Mickey Cole and His Orchestra were performing over lamb chops and steaks at a supper club called Roma's Inn, with a line of chorus girls performing a floor show. Chorus girls! In December! There was live music over dinner, too, at the Old Oaks Inn (with the seven-piece Imperial Orchestra), and the Huntting Inn. There was a bowling alley on Three Mile Harbor Road, with league competition most nights. The high school band and glee club held concerts at the John Drew Theater. The senior class play, a farce called "It Pays to Advertise," was presented to the public there, too, and the Harlem Orchestra performed at a public dance thrown by the Community Basketball League. Tickets were selling briskly for an annual Christmas show of tableaux vivants by the Guild Hall Players and carol concert by the East Hampton Choral Society. At the Edwards Theater, eight different movies — including "Great Expectations" and Ernst Lubitsch's "The Merry Widow" — were screened, up to 12 showings daily. A Kiddie Kartoon Karnival featured Mickey Mouse (and was followed the next morning by a Kiddie Toy Matinee, featuring Popeye and promising a handout of gifts for the under-12 set). Boys and girls numbering 200 were anxiously awaiting a prize drawing for bicycles and dolls at 10 o'clock on Christmas Eve at Rowe's Pharmacy. There was a "men's supper" at the Presbyterian Church Session House, at which a lecturer spoke on the Christian duty to embrace change and tolerance, and women's parties for the Reading Club and Ramblers, with homemade refreshments and punch. 

Tastes change, certainly. Not many Americans circa 2023 want to attend a covered-dish supper at which the poems of Robbie Burns will be discussed, but I do. I really do. And if we still had chorus lines of hoofers in tap pants and tap shoes and jazz orchestras playing "Top Hat, White Tie, and Tails" at a roadhouse on Three-Mile Harbor Road, I'd probably still be a nightclub crawler, too.


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