By The Sea, By The Sea

 By The Sea, By The Sea

Show Business Meets Rockaway 1952

By Jean Caligiuri McKenna

‘Now July, Time for Swimmin’, Vacation Time for Men and Women, So Grab Your Lunch and Sun Tan Lotion. We’re Off to Rockaway, by the Ocean’

When television host Arthur Godfrey introduced these lyrics to the tune “Rockaway Beach” for his popular TV talent variety show, the peppy melody and catchy phrase “Rock-Rock-Rockaway Beach” fashioned Rockaway synonymously with cheery 1950’s optimism. At mid-century, Rockaway Beach was getting its due as a happening place, particularly from July through August when shoehorned beaches and Playland were hopping by day and Irish Town’s boisterous pubs by night. In the 1900s-30s, Atlantic City and Coney Island’s popularity had been well established in movies and song as bustling meccas. Now, with more autos, roadways, and bridges on hand, an eager postwar public seeking a more tranquil but vibrant escape from the sweltering city was discovering the nearby idyllic seaside oasis of that Rockaway residents had known for decades. With an unceasing harmony of young and old timers mingling with bungalow renters and down-for-day visitors, the peninsula’s soaring beach attendance in the summer of 1950 soon also began catching the attention of show business.

At this same time, television was the new craze and rapidly spreading this ’50s cheeriness through a slew of live variety entertainment shows. Emcees like Ed Sullivan introducing pop songs, pie fights and acrobats whirling in front of howling audiences gave TV a vaudeville spirit of nostalgia, fun and gaiety, as well a quick ticket to popularity. Since not everyone had a television set at the time, TV viewing was a neighborhood event enjoyed in large groups at the homes of friends or families who owned one. As teens in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, my chums and I would gather every Tuesday night at our friend Kaye Hughes’ house by the El at 86th Street to watch with hilarity, the frenzied antics of “Uncle Milty” (Milton Berle), then hear everyone talking about it in school the next day. After Arthur Godfrey’s TV Calendar Show had “the whole town rocking to the rhythm” of “finding some romantic spot within reach, at ‘Rock- Rock-Rockaway Beach,’” Rockaway found itself en vogue on television’s map.

In 1952, at the height of TV fever, word had it that our parish, St. Rose of Lima on Beach 84th Street, was to put on a musical comedy stage show in the spirit of a TV stage show, with all the trimmings. The Church was regarded as the center of community life, and with the surging popularity of the town, felt a call of duty to promote the culture and civic life of the Rockaways, while pulling out all the stops to do so. Set designers, make-up artists, and choreographers were to be engaged. And when we heard that the costumes were being rented from the popular TV program “Your Show of Shows,” which was broadcast weekly from the NBC Roxy Theater in Rockefeller Center, we knew it was a big deal. The cast was to be a showcase of young local talent with show biz aspirations, but when we learned that our church teen youth confraternity was also invited to be in the ensemble for one number, we fervently leaped at the exciting chance to wear real TV show costumes talent or no talent. Joining the show business bandwagon came with thrills but also with nervous anticipation, right up until the opening night, when my sister-in-law Nell over prepared my hair with a pompadour at home an hour before curtain.

Held at St. Mary’s Lyceum in Far Rockaway, in front of a buzzing sold out auditorium, the program for “So Long Mary” boasted a cast of 50 young men and women billed as “The St. Rose of Lima Players.” Presented as a celebration of Americana in summertime, the program commenced with the American Legion color guard before transporting everyone to Rockaways’ Playland on a sultry Sunday afternoon. With art imitating current life, the setting centered on a fictional television broadcast covering the hoopla of Playland’s Summer Beauty Pageant. A dizzying cast of “bigwig TV producers,” “announcers,” “cameramen,” bathing beauties and the St. Rose of Lima “Rosettes” dancing chorus, which I was in, all colorfully revolved around the main characters, filling the bill with a musical variety portrait of summertime folly, romance and frolic. With odes to yesteryear as well as popular songs of the day, the auditorium resonated with the music of Rogers and Hart and Jerome Kern with all the fixings of Rockaway life and love by the sea.

Technicolor-esque mural designs, courtesy of Playland, decorated the stage with lifelike Fun House, photo booths, and boardwalk backdrops accompanying a musical July day of high spirits and amusement. Sunny sky images of “Girls and Fellas Beneath Striped Umbrellas, Hot Dogs that are Sandy but Dandy, Cuddlin’ Closer on the Roller Coaster,” shone so vividly you could almost hear the seagulls and rollercoaster clatter.

Fellow Rockawayites of mine also seemed to transform before my eyes that night into show biz professionals; Louise Miller, under Playland at night blue light, singing Mario Lanza’s big hit of 1951 ‘The Loveliest Night of the Year, Marvin Maskin, son of Maskin’s Clothing Store’s owner, leading a tap troupe in the Charleston, Peggy Lyons, cast in the lead of Mary, singing “Can’t Help Loving That Man,” from “Showboat,” and Jimmy Devine, one day to be Father Devine, Pastor of St. Rose, as her leading man.

Initially feeling out of place amongst the talent, I too felt transformed once I donned the satin royal blue and bubblegum-pink tutu and tiara costume from “Your Show of Shows.” Safely blended with my chum, Jeannie Vega, within a chorus line of 20 smiling Rosettes, we bounced jumbo beach balls while singing in unison the merry summertime standard “By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea, You and Me, Oh How Happy We’ll Be,” festively prompting an audience sing-along in the process.

When the cast finale of George M. Cohan’s “Mary’s a Grand Old Name” concluded to rousing applause, the audience sounded so much like the audiences on TV that it seemed the only thing missing were the TV cameras. The show was a memorable success! It felt as if the Ziegfeld Follies, Rockettes, Hollywood and television all came together for a grand old American day of song and fun at Rockaway Beach in 1952. Even as a 17-year-old with no show business aspirations, I couldn’t help being swept up in the fervor and glamor of it all too!

The heart of the evening’s entertainment, however, was in an unassuming splendor, evoking a sentimental innocence of the Rockaway Beach I grew up in. That town, woven by love and community, exuded a simple and ordinary loveliness of its own that would be romanticized in songs, poems, and movies for years after. For one night on stage, the golden age of showbusiness met a Rockaway in its own golden age, perfectly painting the happiness of what it was to be alive and young in those Rockaway days; colorful rosy halcyon days by the sea, that when I close my eyes, still come to me in dreams.


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