CAMP Memories: Rehoboth's Gay History
|by Fay Jacobs and Libby Stiff|
The Birth and Brief Life of The Boathouse, Rehoboth's First Gay Dance Club
This is one in a series of remembrances, oral histories and tales of the way we were in gay Rehoboth Beach 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.
Back in 1971, Francis Murphy opened the first gay dance bar in WilmingtonThe Gas Lamp. This came after the change in liquor laws allowed patrons to walk around with drinks in their handsa change that ushered in the contemporary era of the dance bar.
Murphy was a hairdresser by trade, who came to visit Rehoboth one weekend and, as he recalls, "saw a lot of really well educated guys, who seemed to have money, but no place to go. They were all dinner partying and the only place they could go was the Nomad in Bethany Beach."
"This was really exciting to me," he says. "I was already in the gay bar businessand I started thinking."
Murphy went to his friend and client June Sennabaum for help pursuing the idea. She was a logical choice for two reasons: her friends numbered many gay men, and she liked to make money. That good combination led she and her husband Sid (a retired waste management company owner) to join with Murphy to begin planning a gay dance bar in Rehoboth. Well, almost Rehoboth, it was on the shore of Rehoboth Bay in Dewey Beach.
Wanting to insure the success of the former Hawaiian theme bar now turned gay bar, and to keep it free of harassment and anti-gay problems, Murphy hatched a unique business plan. He hired football players from the University of Delaware as bouncers at the club. But he had rules. In exchange for a promise never to utter one syllable of anti-gay talkon or off the joband to be fully supportive of the operation and its patrons, Murphy agreed to pay them $75 a night. It was two times what other bar owners paid. Their girlfriends were welcome at the bar and could have free drinks, but one breach of the rules and the players and their fat paychecks would be out. It was a win-win contract.
At the end of June 1973, Murphy sent his beefy bouncers to Rehoboth to put up posters announcing the opening of The Boathouse on July 4, 1973Independence Day.
On that Independence Day night, if you drove to Dewey, and turned toward the water where the Bottle and Cork is now, you'd come to The Boathouse. Between the posters and word of mouth, opening night saw people standing in line to get in.
Rehoboth's first legitimate gay dance bar was a spacious room, a long bar at one side, and a big dance floor at the front. At high tide on the Bay, water sometimes crept up to the porch, which extended out over the water.
Its clientele was 70 percent men, 30 percent women, and it was usually packed. "We went almost every Saturday night for the longest time," recalls co-author of this column Libby Stiff.
"The Nomad seemed as if it were in the boonies; this was in town and a legitimate bar. It was the first step toward liberation. We could actually go there and kiss and hold hands and dance together. It was rustic, but nice. And, we had a bit of legitimacy right here in town," says Stiff.
Murphy recalls that as the place took off, his business associates were no longer silent partners. "June and Sid were there every night."
"The thing that was so amazing," says Murphy about the club's success, "was that in addition to the hundreds of gays vacationing in Rehoboth and coming to The Boathouse, the club attracted members of the Washington Redskins, FBI and CIA agents, and the occasional U.S. Senator. People came to Rehoboth just to go to The Boathouse."
Lee Mills and Don Gardiner, who now have a home in Rehoboth, remember a visit here in the summer of 1975. "The stretch between Ocean City and Dewey was a barren wasteland except for the Nomadwhich is where we heard about The Boathouse. We drove to Dewey, turned off Route One and just followed the stream of boys heading toward the water from all directions.
"The place was really jumping. It was magicaleven though it was in town, it was like a desert oasis," Mills recalls.
Sadly, after a year or so, the partners quarreled about management of The Boathouse, and Murphy sold out to the Sennabaums. A year later, they sold the place, and it soon burned down.
The Boathouse, looming large in many people's memories, was only open a short two years or so. But as the first dance bar in the history of gay Rehoboth, it has earned its status as a landmark.
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. 13, Sept. 17, 1999