By Robert Levine ~ In the early 1950s Cherry Grove was a small quiet community on Fire Island with quaint cottages where families from the mainland would spend their summer weekends relaxing and fishing. Electricity was not even a thought at that time, but was ultimately installed in 1962. Sprinkled among the privately owned cottages were a few rental houses – one in particular was a bed and breakfast named The Monster.
Located on Ocean Walk, it was owned by a nice woman named Annie, along with her husband. Joe Scialo purchased the property in 1969. Soon after, he converted the house into a small restaurant with a few tables. It was limited seating by reservation only, but the food was good, it had soft lighting and a nice atmosphere. It took off quickly.
Soon more tables were added, staff expanded, and a pianist played light music during dinner. A sing-a-long would follow at the piano bar until closing time. It became a destination for other Fire Island communities. Randy and Sally’s Beach Taxis was the only cross-island transportation to get to the Grove at that time, but people from Ocean Beach, Fair Harbor, Kismet, The Pines and Davis Park made the journey.
They were famous for their obscene Lobster and Steak Monster entree. Legendary bartender Sherwood poured the drinks generously, and people lined up to get in. Reservations had to be made at least one week in advance. Margaret Truman and her husband, Clifton Daniel, from Point O’Woods had a standing reservation every Wednesday. Mel Brooks and his wife, Anne Bancroft, from Lonelyville would dine there with guests Milton Berle and his wife, Ruth. Ethel Merman brought her host Goldie Hawkins from Ocean Beach. Tennessee Williams, Tommy Tune, Jerry Herman, Bette Midler, Richard Kiley and Zachary Scott were among other notable patrons.
Greeting the guests was “the infanta” in his oversize caftan. The waiters were good looking young men, usually college students working for the
summer. Frankie “Piano” kept the place hopping for years, followed by Bobby Pico and then Vernon Larsen, both of whom kept up the tradition of singing till 3 a.m.
With the rise of discotheques in the 1970s The Monster became one of the hottest Fire Island nightclubs in town. What The Monster had that Studio 54 did not however were their contests. One could not call them beauty pageants exactly – you had to be UGLY to enter their contests! Rose Levine was never a contestant, always a performer. For 28 years the crowds and fun continued. A Key West location opened in 1975, becoming a place to see and be seen.
Then the AIDS epidemic began. Traffic came to a halt by the 1980s. Joe sold his Cherry Grove Monster in the 1987, as he had the Key West location some years before. He opened a bar by the same name in Manhattan in Sheridan Square. It had no food, only drinks, piano bar and drag shows, which is still a happening scene in New York City. Here Joe found his calling in AIDS activism, becoming a major benefactor to the Gay Men’s Chorus, as well as SAGE and other causes until he passed away in 2004 at the age of 69.
Meanwhile in Cherry Grove, the spot that had been The Monster underwent its own changes. Three restaurants and bars have opened and closed on The Monster site over the past 20 years – an upscale Italian place, Chinese and American food. Their most recent incarnation was a place called The Tides. The building has sat empty and in disrepair for at least eight years. At present it is being restored. We are looking forward to a new restaurant and bar, which should open next season.
Shoshanna McCollum contributed to this article. We thank the Fire Island Pines Preservation Society for being such an excellent resource.
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