In 1988, what was to be the crowning achievement of the Blue Moon restaurateur duo, Joyce Felton and Victor Pisapia, instead became a turning point in the “Battle for Rehoboth.” This is a saga of confrontations and celebrations: historic police raids and arrests; forgotten one-night stands and cherished anniversary moments; hastily enacted ordinances and a watershed referendum; spring and fall follies, double-strand pearl parties, and lavender balls; and standing room-only meetings attended by angry citizens.
It was groundbreaking: an entertainment complex featuring a European cabaret-bistro, a splashy 1950s diner, and a second floor Studio 54-style nightclub.
It was audacious: a 600-person “neo-disco inferno” in the heart of Rehoboth’s business district.
It was glittering: state-of-the-art lighting effects designed by Richard Erskine, a veteran of NYC’s infamous Saint discotheque, and imported New York DJs pounding out the beat as mirrored balls spun and spandex fabrics ruffled against back walls.
It was worrisome: the long-dreaded homosexual tsunami washing a “family town” into the ocean of olden days.
It was innovative: the first floor West Side Cafe featured Friday night drag karaoke emceed by Gladys Kravitz with a twist: wannabe singers first entered the backroom to choose a wardrobe matching their performer-persona.
It was flashy: the Surfside Diner, replete with juke box, original 1950s booths and countertops, and sassy waitstaff chewing bubble gum, sitting with customers—“Hi, doll. How ya doin’?”—announcing blue plate specials, and occasionally performing dance routines on the sparkling black and white tiled floor.
It was a bacchanalia of uninhibited desire: shirtless men shimmying on speakers, along with “boys in briefs dancing on banquettes above the sunken dance floor.”
It was shocking: a New Year’s Eve party “invitation of a half-naked man laying on satin sheet” riled one Whale reader who declared the town was “turning into a house of ill repute.”
It was late night: Baltimore, DC, and Philly twinkly-clad men formed lines stretching down Rehoboth Avenue awaiting the doors of midnight to open.
It was early morning: as dawn approached and the festivities ended, “a hunk clad only in a Tarzan loin cloth” searched for his car; a couple, sporting cowboy boots and go-go-shorts, strolled toward Bayard Avenue; “three men dressed in combat boots, ripped shirts, and dog collars, waited patiently in line at the Cosmic Bakery.”
It was infuriating: one writer to The Whale queried, “Who will control Rehoboth—God-fearing decent people or Satan’s puppets?”
It was exclusive: A-List gays investing $10,000 or more skipped the lines by flashing their membership cards, and enjoyed the smartly furnished VIP lounge, overlooking the cavernous dance floor, with feathers painted on walls by local artist Murray Archibald.
It was notorious: Rehoboth’s only pre-dawn summer raid by 60 state and local police netted just six arrests on drug charges from among the hundreds on the dance floor (35 of whom were undercover cops).
It was glamorous: Paige Phillips, the legendary lesbian-adored bartender, danced with John, her betrothed, in an Oscar de la Renta silk jacket with matching lipstick and an exquisite black satin dress to the applause of hundreds of her admirers attired in Hugo Bass, Ralph Lauren, or casual chic.
It was death by a thousand cuts: a building permit moratorium; hundreds of off-street parking spaces required; petitions and protests against a liquor license; a city ban on nightclubs and tap rooms; a state law granting greater local authority over liquor permitting; reduced decibel levels for outside noise which then was simply changed to the subjective standard of “offending a reasonable person”; restricted entertainment or music on restaurant patio decks; all music (including TVs) banned in commercial areas after 9 p.m….
It was smoke and mirrors: were the erstwhile opponents really bothered by noise and parking, or fear of homosexuals, or perhaps, business competition—or one masking another?
It was angelic: at the back bar (sans alcohol) Letters editor Jim Bahr, wearing iridescent wings and a leather harness, served mineral and spring waters.
It was rock of ages: Thursday nights the upstairs “Rock Lobster” teen club was reserved for the MTV-dressed crowd dancing to the techno pop Pet Boys and heavy metalists Def Leppard, while Sunday mornings were set aside for MCC churchgoers singing traditional Christian hymns.
It was intimidating: manager Steve Elkins arrested 24 hours after a new noise ordinance was passed but not yet in effect; Police Chief Creig Doyle’s “zero tolerance policy” requiring officers to enforce “jaywalking, rowdy behavior, sidewalk shouting and laughing after 2300 hours”—but only on the second block of Baltimore Avenue.
It was celebratory: the first SunDance kicked-off and raised $6,400 for AIDS groups. There, too, were the Greg Myers Dance Company “Shades of Grey” benefit, the performance of four former Miss Gay Americas, and the July 4th Glitter Ball Extravaganza.
It was fractious: one house owned by the couple leading the opposition was paint-bombed while a gay homeowner reported his rainbow flag burnt to a crisp.
It was calamitous: wreckage of friendships, financial carnage, and a historical building demolished.
It was The Strand Complex.
It divided progressive residents from their conservative neighbors as well as closeted homosexuals from their Queer-as-Folk contemporaries. It was—and is—a Rehoboth Beach story that nearly no one recounts the same. It was complex, from its lavish 1988 premier to its bulldozed demise seven years later.
James Sears’ forthcoming book is Beyond the Boardwalk: Queering the History of Rehoboth Beach. He is still looking for remembrances. Anyone interested should contact him through CAMP at 302-227-5620.