Crayton Robey’s “When Ocean Meets Sky” offers a thorough –bordering on exhaustive –history of Fire Island Pines, the resort community a couple of hours’ outside Manhattan that’s become one of the most gay-identified places in the world. Docu could stand trimming, particularly in its more familiar later chapters. Still, it’s a lively, upbeat, often surprising chronicle that cuts a wider cultural swath than you might expect. Beyond gay fests and possible regional hardtop gigs, future lies in broadcast, especially as an attractive pubcaster item for Gay Pride Month.
Decades after the Coast Guard constructed an 1876 lookout station for shipwrecks there, the Pines area began drawing a small, loyal band of nudists who treasured its pristine beauty and privacy. Some photos survive of their frolics, as do a couple of original participants (one of whom is, at 101 years, the island’s oldest resident). The nudists were chased out once development commenced in the area, bringing at first just a handful of bungalows and families.
Nonetheless, a bohemian reputation persisted, boosted by a new influx of vacationing show biz types ranging from Pola Negri to Xavier Cugat and Mary Martin. Given the seclusion and that industry’s usual don’t-ask-don’t-tell attitude toward homosexuality, Fire Island soon gained a glittering, rather libertine aura furthered by such entrepreneurs as lesbian couple Peggy Fears (a popular songstress) and Tedi Thurman (TV’s first glamour “weather girl”) and leading male model John Whyte, who later took over the lodging/lounging “boatel” Fears and Thurman had built.
By the early ’60s, the area’s image — and hearty-partying ways — had grown loud enough that more conservative residents tried to turn the tide, posting a prominent sign warning “We believe in a community that is clean both morally and physically.” Tolerance won out, however, at least among those homeowners who didn’t flee the gay “invasion.” Longtime resident hetero couples interviewed say they’ve felt delighted and lucky to participate in such a vibrant, no-holds-barred social atmosphere — even if it rendered them a minority group.
The parties became enormous and legendary in the freewheeling ’70s, as Gay Lib tore down final barriers to openness (police raids had troubled prior decades). Pic spends perhaps too much time detailing the creation of “Beach ’79” fete, an unwitting last gasp of unfettered hedonism before the deluge. There’s also a long-winded feel to pic’s chronicling of subsequent response to the AIDS epidemic, since most elements of that story have been extensively told elsewhere.
Nonetheless, colorful array of archival materials and diverse interviewees hold attention in well-crafted package. Those heard from include such luminaries as “Boys in the Band” playwright Mart Crowley, still-droll Tedi Thurman, Broadway songsmith Jerry Herman, scribe/activist Larry Kramer, and funny/annoying “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” regular Carson Kressley, as well as numerous articulate if lesser-known residents. Pic could use a more authoritative sounding narrator.
Docu makes just passing, dismissive note of the site’s notorious “gay A-list” emphasis on money, fame and looks. (Summer populace has been called “A bunch of 10’s looking for an 11.”) At San Francisco fest, the shallow, drug-fueled, fashion- and youth-obsessed aspects of that fairly accurate stereotype were hilariously skewed in a short shown before “Ocean,” Randy Eisenberg’s “Fire Island on $0 a Day.”