CAMP Memories: Rehoboth's Gay History
|by Fay Jacobs and Libby Stiff|
This is the first in a series of remembrances, oral histories and tales of the way we were in gay Rehoboth during the Twentieth Century. The short vignettes are based on interviews, newspaper clippings and whatever lore has been passed down through the years in our gay-friendly town.
Almost a decade before Stonewall, when Rehoboth's homosexual population (we were just newly naming ourselves "gay" then) enjoyed this resort town via dinner parties at friends' homes and other low key socializing, at least two more public venues were born to host the growing community of gay folks flocking to the beach.
Up on Rehoboth's Boardwalk, where Victoria's and The Boardwalk Plaza currently stand, was the Pink Pony. While it was predominantly straight, gay men frequented the early evening happy hour, 4-7 p.m. Folks who recall the Pony note that Rehoboth had long had a tolerance for diversity and gay vacationers. Delaware liquor laws, however, prohibited the kinds of bars we have today in both the straight and gay world. It was illegal to walk around with a drink in your hand. This, in turn, made it very difficult to meet anyone other than the fellow sitting right beside you, recalls one former Pony regular. While he is not gay, owner Jim Booth is remembered as
gay friendly and happy to have had this new clientele The Pink Pony was destroyed in the huge 1962 Nor'easter and rebuilt. But those who were there say it never was the same and closed in the late 60's.
A clipping from the June 1971 Washingtonian notes the change to an all-straight bar, reporting that "the new owners of the Henlopen Hotel changed the name of the Alibi Lounge to the Roostertail and it's the place to have a drink." The article noted that the same owners had taken over the Pink Pony on the Boardwalk and "its name has been changed to Surf Alley, with new air-conditioning and shocking pink carpet."
Meanwhile, we spoke to Jim Short, semi-retired, but working part time at the historic Nomad Village on Route One between Dewey Beach and Bethany. Opened in 1960, Nomad owners Randall Godwin and his wife Betty had no thought that their bar and package store would become a huge part of our Rehoboth area gay history.
In the years right after the Stonewall riots for gay rights in New York City, the Nomad's popularity surged. By 1971, Nomad Village housed two distinctly different bars. One side of the building was a straight bar for local residents and the other became the gay bar The Other Room. Soon, the crowds grew huge and threatened to overtake the facilities at the Nomad. According to Short, the owners weren't particularly comfortable with having a gay bar, and made the young men sign their names to get ina practice which bothered visitors from Washington D.C. and other cities, as life was getting more liberal for them in their hometowns.
However, unable to argue with success, Godwin conceived the idea of opening a gay hotel in Rehoboth Beach. In the early 1970's three enterprising men, Godwin, Jim Short and Fred Baker purchased the old Stokes Hotel at the corner of Brooklyn and First Street, opening it as the Sandcastle. They. were unable to get a liquor license, but opened the basement as a game room and spa, where guests were required to bring their own liquor. A 1981 News Journal article noted the "early 1970's" existence of a gay guest house with an after-hours club in the basement. The hotel was only open about three years, rumored never to have made much money, and ultimately fell victim to the ravages of an electrical fire.
But the ground had been broken. From that time forward Rehoboth's reputation as a gay-friendly resort grew and prospered. Where before the rise of the Nomad (for the longest time, "the ONLY game in town for a Saturday night" accordin9 to one old-timer), the Sandcastle, and a short time later the Boathouse and the Renegade, "there was no place (gay men) would feel comfortable going out enmasse." These establishments filled a void and added to Rehoboth's already excellent reputation as a dinner-party kind of resort for homosexuals.
Oh yes, there were women here, too. Stay tuned for their memories of the early years, stories about that dinner party crowd, and lots more.
Can you tell us more about these and other Gay Rehoboth memories? Rehoboth residents and visitors wishing to contribute their recollections, photos or printed matter may contact both authors via CAMP Rehoboth or Fay at firstname.lastname@example.org ; Libby at lstiff@hotmaiLcom. We'd love to hear from you!
LETTERS From CAMP Rehoboth, Vol. 9, No. 12, Aug. 27, 1999