Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society brings a piece of Fire Island to St. Petersburg

(Photos by Meryl Meisler)

Each May, thousands of New Yorkers take the ferry to Fire Island for their summer vacations. The car-free paradise, a well-known gay sanctuary since the 1920s, is a hotbed of queer history, art, literature and tradition. Decades after its formative years, summer still brings tea dances, drag invasions and LGBTQ+ artists to the Island — and this year, a piece of the action comes to St. Pete.

The weekend of May 17-19, The Werk Gallery and The Wet Spot celebrate Fire Island traditions in St. Pete’s first Fire Island Weekend event. It begins with Meryl Meisler’s Fire Island photographs at The Werk through the end of June. Inspired by queer joy, Meisler’s photographs capture disco-era Fire Island in the late 1970s, before AIDS, crack and cell phones. The time travel continues with 70s Saturday at The Wet Spot. From 4-10 p.m. Studio 54 legend DJ Robbie Leslie spins 70s hits in a disco tea dance paradise created special for the event. Steve Sidewalk keeps the party rolling into the 80s on Sunday.

This weekend of Fire Island revelry comes to St. Pete courtesy of Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society President Robert Bonanno.

Bonanno was in his early 20s when he first visited Fire Island.

“Getting off that boat in Cherry Grove was like ‘The Wizard of Oz’ where you stepped into technicolor,” Bonanno recounts. “It was the freedom that place gave you. You walked around and you could be whoever you are.”

Public school teacher and photographer Meryl Meisler was also in her 20s when she made her first pilgrimage to Fire Island. It was July of 1977. A NYC beautician 40 years her senior invited Meisler to come to his summer place.

“I had an aha moment,” Meisler recounts, realizing, “this is the place with the naked fairies they were talking about.”

Meisler stayed in the attic of a place called The Survivor near the post office.

“And it didn’t matter if it was hot or dusty, because you barely slept,” says Meisler. “You were out dancing, meeting people, going to The Ice Palace, going to the beach.”

Meisler likens the energy of the place to that of a Duracell battery.

Although they didn’t know each other then, Meisler and Bonanno use similar words to describe their earliest Fire Island memories.

“Going on the ferry, you’re literally leaving the mainland and going someplace new where there are no cars,” says Meisler. “Everything’s walking, and everything’s biking. It’s an adventure to a little paradise of acceptance. Whoever you are, you are welcome here.”

Except for 2020, Meisler has visited Fire Island every year since her first trip in 1977. Asked how the place has changed, she says she notices more similarities than differences.

“Maybe some fashions change, but not much,” she says. “I actually feel the reverence that something’s still there. It’s very similar.”

About 14 years ago, Bonanno remembers overhearing a conversation in The Pines, which Bonanno describes as Cherry Grove’s younger sister.

“There are two gay meccas on Fire Island,” Bonanno explains. “There’s Cherry Grove and the Pines, and they’re very different. They are sisters — one is older, one is younger — and of course the younger one wants to think they know everything. But I overheard a conversation about how they were going to change the name of the club where the tea dance started.”

The Blue Whale bar hosted the first tea dance in Fire Island Pines in 1966. The event has an interesting history that’s difficult to grasp in today’s time. But there was once a time when it was illegal to knowingly serve alcohol to homosexuals. Afternoon tea, however, was perfectly respectable, and so “tea” took on another meaning on Fire Island. At the Blue Whale, “tea” was a combination of gin and blue curacao simply named a Blue Whale.

“It’s like a gay bell rings at five o’clock,” says Bonanno. “People hear it and you see them come out of the woods. And all of a sudden by 6:30 it’s packed, and the music is playing. It’s a tradition that started at The Blue Whale, and it’s replicated in gay resorts all over the world.”

When Bonanno heard that this legendary Fire Island locale was about to lose its name, he felt the need to do something.

“How could they do that to someplace that held so much history?” Bonnano put out on social media.

“Needless to say, the name was never changed,” says Bonanno.

Still, the incident demonstrated to Bonnano the importance of preserving Fire Island history. Realizing that no one was actively keeping the Pines legacy, Bonanno founded the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society in 2010. The nonprofit organization has been collecting, preserving and displaying Fire Island Pines stories on its website for over a decade.

In collecting these stories, Bonanno came across some of Meisler’s photographs, which he posted to the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society’s website. This was how Meisler, who tracks all her photographs through their meta data, discovered the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society.

Meisler started reading the site’s contents and was intrigued by it. And while Meisler doesn’t take kindly to her photographs being lifted by commercial sites, she was attracted to the mission of this small nonprofit. For the sake of preserving history, Meisler wrote the website administrator and provided additional information on when and where the photos were taken, and Bonanno responded.

“I understood what he was doing and how important it was,” says Meisler.

“Like any group of people, the LGBT people have a history and culture that’s passed on from generation to generation,” Meisler continues. “And you can see that these traditions continue. And it’s a good thing to have that shared history.”

As a film photographer, Meisler is relatively judicious with her photography, yet she’s taken too many Fire Island photos to count. Meisler sent about 100 photos, via Dropbox, to Werk founders Matthew and Fritz Faulhaber.

“There’s a myth sometimes about Fire Island that it’s very white and very male, but that’s not these images,” Fritz tells Watermark. “By going through the whole thing, we were able to show a much more diverse community of people. There was a lot of intimacy, there were a lot of stories happening. So we tried to have a survey of everything that was going on.”

The pair selected about 23 photos from Meisler’s archives to show at The Werk this May through June.

“Matthew and Fritz did an outstanding job curating the work,” Meisler says. “It’s a selection of images that tell a very diverse story of quiet moments and lovers and older people and younger people.”

Revisiting these 23 moments in the dark room, Meisler says she feels their energy coming through.

Asked to pick a favorite, she says, “I’m just going to talk about one that I just printed — they’re all my children. But Matthew and Fritz picked one I printed yesterday. There’s three guys waiting on the dock, and they’re so happy and at ease with each other. One is resting into someone else’s body like it’s a couch, and they’re smiling, and their hands are interacting and their feet are interacting, and there’s someone walking by and there’s the ocean on the side. It’s very simply and beautifully composed, and they are so cute and so pleased with their friendship and their relationship and the beautiful day. It exudes joy and comfort.”

Meisler took the image in Cherry Grove in July of 1978.

Beyond beach vibes, Meisler incidentally captured some LGBTQ+ celebrities during her time on Fire Island. One of the images Matthew and Fritz selected was a portrait of famous drag king Storme DeLarverie, who allegedly threw the first punch during the 1969 Stonewall uprising.

Having never been to Fire Island, Matthew and Fritz, like this writer, are seeing the place solely through Meisler and Bonanno’s eyes. It is their shared history, their legacy, that comes to St. Pete this summer.

This year, as Bonanno plans his move to St. Petersburg, he considered how he could bring a piece of the Island with him. So on his last visit to St. Pete in September, he stopped by The Werk and told Matthew and Fritz about Meisler’s photography. Then he visited Cocktail and The Wet Spot, where he told owner David Fischer about tea dances and their history on Fire Island.

After a series of Zooms, emails, and phone calls, Bonnano says, “I’m very proud to say that we’re here … we’re bringing it, and I’m just so excited.”

There’s much to be excited about. Meisler and Bonanno put together a catalog to accompany The Werk exhibition. The collector’s item pairs Bonanno’s words with Meisler’s photographs for an illustrated history of Fire Island. And Fischer says he’s putting a lighted dance floor out on the pool deck at The Wet Spot, where they’re serving Blue Whales per Fire Island tradition.

Most exciting of all, Fire Island Weekend lets Tampa Bay experience Fire Island without leaving town.

“Fire Island: The Photography of Meryl Meisler” opens May 17 from 5-9 p.m. at The Werk, located at 2210 1st Ave. S. in St. Petersburg, and runs until June 30. Learn more at TheWerk.Gallery. The Fire Island Classic Tea Dances will be held May 18 and 19 from 4-10 p.m. at The Wet Spot Pool, located at 2355 Central Ave. Learn more at and for more on the Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society, visit

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