Released on Theatre’s 70th Birthday
Beach Haven — Last Thursday, June 27, was Surflight Theatre’s 70th birthday.
Yep, 70 years, to the day, before a man named Joseph P. Hayes unveiled his very first show on LBI in a tent called the Surflight Amphitheatre, pitched on a vacant lot on Long Beach Boulevard near the present location of Kubel’s Too in Brighton Beach.
It was quite the premiere for a three-week season of shows boldly titled “Summer Rhapsody, A Musical Revue Under The Stars,” with the entire 1949 production devised, staged and produced by Hayes. The first performance was titled “Centennial Salute, A Musical Tribute to Long Beach Island and Ocean County.” The opening number, “Good Night For A Show,” was sung by the entire company, with the backing of the Surflight Amphitheatre Orchestra conducted by Edward Sewell.
An interesting smorgasbord of acts followed. “Miss Geraldine Sloan” soloed on two standards: Victor Herbert’s “Indian Summer” and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Joseph Rodgers, who for some reason wasn’t accorded the title Mr., sang a “Show Medley.” The pair combined to sing “Holiday On Long Beach Island,” with words and music by Hayes. The ensemble also performed “The Dance of the Beach Balls.”
Fairly traditional, right? But the evening also starred James Evans, billed as “the world’s greatest foot juggler,” who, my research showed, typically did his entire act while laying on his back. The “Feature Act of the Evening” was a man named Johnny Woods, billed as “the originator of radio satire.” My research indicates he may have been a ventriloquist.
No doubt about it, the evening’s mix of talent had much in common with “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which hit the airwaves in 1948.
Let’s not forget Sid Kroft and his “Marionettes in Motion.” One has to wonder if Kroft was a typo. It seems likely the performer was actually Sid Krofft, a legendary puppeteer who is best known for creating, along with his brother Marty, the 1969 TV children’s show “H.R. Pufnstuf,” which has become a cult classic.
The night’s Act II opener was an “Indian Ritual and Ceremonial Dance” performed by the ensemble. If you tried that in today’s politically correct times, you might have as many protesters as attendees. By the way, that first show reportedly attracted over 2,000 people!
I know all of this thanks to a book that was released last Thursday: Joe’s Dream, The Magic of Surflight Theatre. The book’s frontispiece is a copy of a yellowed-with-age playbill from that first Surflight show.
The book was conceived and edited by current Surflight owner Al Parinello. Principal author was Fay Austin while other contributors included Parinello, Surflight favorite Andrew Foote, local poet Pat Sullivan, and yours truly.
It is a slim volume but is stuffed with historic pictures that came from Surflight’s own collection and from friends of the theater, especially Manahawkin’s Bill Yoder, who had been a longtime resident of LBI and an ardent collector of Surflight memorabilia. He, for example, came up with the August 9, 1963 issue of Life magazine, which featured a story about the theater. Yoder provided so much material for the book that he was honored with a page about him, calling him “Surflight’s accidental archivist.”
Joe’s Dream also contains numerous facts and stories that are largely unknown to the general public. Indeed, this writer, who has been intimately associated with Surflight in one way or another for almost 30 years, was sometimes blown away by what he read.
Joe Hayes a Vet; Catches a Break
It is difficult to find somebody who remembers Joe Hayes in his early days on Long Beach Island. After all, he came here from New York, supposedly after being mugged, in 1949. Early friends and co-workers of Joe Hayes are like WWII veterans: they literally are a dying lot.
Some Joe Hayes legends have remained alive for decades. It was well known, for example, that he didn’t drive a car, probably a habit he picked up in the Big Apple. His trademark phrase at the start of every show through 1976 (when he died in Massachusetts from a heart attack) is fondly remembered: “And now the lights will slowly dim.”
Many people remember him portraying Boffo the Clown in Surflight’s very first children’s theater show. He always was a great promoter of Pepsi, leading some people to wonder if he secretly held stock in the company.
But his origin was hidden in the mist of history, until Joe’s Dream was published.
Hayes, it turns out, was born in Albany in 1927. He grew up in Washington, D.C. where he developed a love of the boards, thanks to community theater and, appropriately enough, summer stock theater. He joined the U.S. Navy in 1944 and staged three Navy shows that he wrote while serving: “Ankles Aweigh,” “Hook, Line and Stinker,” and Knock It Off.” When Hayes was discharged, he moved to NYC, where he performed in several shows, including “Annie Get Your Gun” on Broadway. He was a technical supervisor for the Ringling Bros. Circus and an assistant stage manager for the Ice Capades, and staged the Flushing Meadows Aquashow for two years.
So Hayes had plenty of showbiz experience both on, in back of, and in front of the stage. Still, he was only 23 years old when he ended up on LBI with the audacious idea of staging tent shows with a cast of 60 and a 12-man orchestra. Talk about chutzpah!
Andrew Foote wrote about one decision that Hayes made that may have been responsible for having the guts to strike out as he did.
Cole Porter was having tough times in the late 1940s. It had been over 10 years since his last Broadway hit, and he was having trouble attracting investors for a new show, “Kiss Me Kate.”
“Undaunted,” wrote Foote, “Porter came up with an idea, rather than once again turn to his top-line producers with his hand out, he decided to go to the people who really put him where he was – the lifeblood of all live performance – the young singers and dancers in the choruses of shows all over New York City. And here is where the hero of our story, a young man named Joseph P. Hayes, enters the picture …”
According to Foote, Porter put up posters in the backstage callboards of every show in New York’s five boroughs advertising an opportunity for chorus kids. They could invest small amounts in a show he was attempting to mount. Foote said Hayes invested an entire paycheck and ended up, after “Kiss Me Kate” was a success, making $10,000.
That’s worth about $105,000 today.
So Hayes could make his dream a reality.
“Ok, Ok, Ok, I know,” wrote Foote. “It’s too much of a stretch, right? Too easy. Too much of a fairy tale, perhaps. But whatever kernel of truth there is to it, in my heart of hearts I want to live in a world in which something like that is true.”
Book’s Text In Three Acts
To repeat, Fay Austin is Joe’s Dream principal author. She broke the history of Surflight into three acts. The first covers the theater’s early years when Hayes was at the helm. The second covers the “custodians of Joe’s dream,” folks such as Eleanor Miller, Scott Henderson, Guil Fisher and Eddie Todd who kept Surflight above water after Hayes’ death, up through 1998. Act 3 covers the arrival of Steve Steiner and his wife, Gail Anderson; the tremendous growth of the theater in the first decade of the 21st century; its decline in the second decade, despite the efforts of such people as Roy Miller, Tim Laczynski and Ken Myers to keep it from sinking; the effects of Superstorm Sandy flooding; and the sad shuttering of Surflight in 2015 due to Chapter 7 bankruptcy.
The final act, though, ends on a high note, with Parinello buying the Surflight complex and bringing back Steiner and Anderson in 2017.
The book also includes chapters on Surflight’s children’s theater, the Show Place Ice Cream Parlor, and a reflection of what LBI was like in the 1950s while Hayes was slowly but surely building the Surflight tradition. Another chapter is about Surflight alumni who have become famous or influential in the world of showbiz.
Surely Al Stroker – who became, as far as the crew that assembled Joe’s Dream knows, the first former Surflighter, and the first performer using a wheelchair, to win a Tony Award – would have been included if only the book had gone to the printer a few days later. Alas, it went off the very same day Stroker later gave her acceptance speech for winning the Best Featured Actress in a Musical Tony for playing Ado Annie in the Broadway revival of “Oklahoma!”
In other words, Surflight is still making history. Will there be an updated reprint when the theater celebrates its 75th birthday?
We’ll see. Hey, one can dream, can’t one?