Montauk Playhouse: Big Community Center Goes Bigger

Montauk Playhouse
Montauk Playhouse, Photo: Lisa Tennenbaum

Most of the towns on the eastern end of Long Island have community centers for the locals. A few small villages and hamlets do, too. They are usually modest affairs, perhaps about 5,000 square feet, and they usually consist of a kitchen, a common space that could be used for a meeting or a dinner or maybe a bunch of people playing cards. Sometimes there’s a small stage. There’s usually a TV area. And sometimes there’s an exercise studio involved.

Montauk is small hamlet. Population year round is about 3,000. But somehow about 15 years ago they got, for $1, a building that they have made into a community center that is about 25,000 square feet in size. And now they want to increase it by half again. It will be about the size of King Kullen in Bridgehampton. And they need the space.

What facilities are in this building and what they are going to add to it, I will shortly get to. It’s called the Montauk Playhouse Community Center. After a one-summer attempt at making it a summer stock live Broadway show venue in 1959, it has another distinction. It is a building that has perhaps the most interesting history of any building still standing on the East End.

It was built in 1929, long before zoning. Had there been zoning, the Playhouse building, enormous as it is, would have been designated an “accessory structure,” like a shed or garage. It was built as an accessory to a hotel, which was then and is today the Montauk Manor, which opened in 1926 with 200 rooms for the summer resort season that year high on the adjacent hill looking down the hill at it. Also opened for the resorters in that year and the subsequent two years were a surf club with cabanas and boardwalk on the ocean, a yacht club, a polo field, a racetrack, two churches, a golf course and a little village that was called Shepherd’s Neck, where all the workmen and locals lived.

A grid of roads was laid out for a new downtown in what had been an open field down by the ocean, and on this grid during 1927 and 1928 were built half a dozen stores, a post office, two churches and a big six-story office building at the top of which the developer of this project, Carl Fisher, had a penthouse apartment. He’d bring rich friends up there and go out on the balcony and show them lots they could buy where he wanted more commercial buildings, a beach resort or private homes. Unfortunately, this whole project, called Montauk Beach—“Miami Beach in the Winter, Montauk in the Summer”—came crashing down when the Great Depression began on Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929.

Carl Fisher lost everything, even Miami Beach, which he had built 10 years earlier. And of course he lost Montauk.

Unfortunately for this accessory building, it was one of the last things built by Fisher. I guess a huge glass-enclosed tennis court building could be something like the icing on the cake.

It opened, according to Maureen Rutkowski, the Project Director for the Montauk Playhouse Foundation, on August 30, 1929. This was just in time to celebrate the last four days of the summer resort season in Montauk that year. And it was just 60 days before the whole country collapsed into the Depression and businessmen were jumping out of windows on Wall Street.

And it did not open with tennis matches. It opened with boxing matches. According to a newspaper clipping from the time, there were several preliminary fights, with a main event that featured Rene de Vos versus Babe McGorgary of Oklahoma in a 10-round middleweight contest.

De Vos won by decision. The crowd in the stands was estimated at about 1,000 people. The article says that Mayor Jimmy Walker of New York City was supposed to be attending. So was former heavyweight champion Jim Corbett, who in 1892 dethroned John L. Sullivan (who had knocked him out). Money raised went to help build the St. Therese Catholic Church in town.

So that’s how it opened. Three days later, the summer season ended. The manor and everything else shut down. And then you-know-what happened.

At the time, of course, nobody in 1929 knew that the Depression would last as long as it did. And so, the Manor and the courts and the other facilities opened in 1930 for the summer. And they opened again in 1931. Fewer and fewer people came each year. The company fell into bankruptcy in 1932, but it soldiered on in receivership. It is not clear when the tennis court building was last used. We do know that in 1938 some public relations people, still trying to prop up this bankrupt resort, held a 40th reunion of the Rough Riders, the horseback soldiers led by Theodore Roosevelt who fought in Cuba in the Spanish-American War in 1898, at the Manor up on the hill.

The Rough Riders had camped at Montauk after that war for a month. Roosevelt was there. President McKinley visited him there. But some of the Rough Riders, including Roosevelt had passed away by 1938. And many of the others lived scattered around the country. Still, a few Rough Riders did show up for the reunion, as did some members of the New York press and some other guests. Dinners were held, speeches were made and a plaque commemorating the event was attached to an interior wall of the Manor by the elevator banks as flashbulbs popped.

As for the tennis court building, we think that tennis was over by that time. The building was used as an indoor car-park for a while. Valets would take your car after you stopped in front of the Manor, drive it down there, and inside they’d wash it for you, then bring it back up to the Manor when you needed it.

During World War II, the Manor and its attendant all-glass tennis court building became a U.S. Navy Base. The base also included, across the street from the tennis court building, adjacent to the Montauk Railroad Station, the small summer fishing village of little summer cottages built on railroad property, many of which were bulldozed down and replaced with an enormous torpedo-testing station complex of buildings. Among these buildings was a seaplane hangar. Seaplanes would take off and circle over Fort Pond Bay and monitor the accuracy of torpedoes fired from PT Boats in the bay by observing the trail of bubbles left by the torpedoes on the bay. Those that failed the test were sent back to the city to be fixed at the factory in Queens. Those that passed were sent off to fight World War II.

Up at the Manor, the hotel was temporarily closed and Naval officers were housed there and the sailors housed in two temporary barracks buildings constructed on the property (since torn down). There was also a medical building (since torn down). As for the tennis courts, it was now drafty and deteriorated inside. Birds flew in and out. The Navy trained its sailors in the tennis court building. They also used it as a recreational space.

After the war, what was left of the tennis courts vanished under the hoof-beats of quarter horses that Phin Dickinson would bring down from the ranch out toward the lighthouse to train for horse shows. The Carl Fisher polo fields had become horse and cattle pastures and the bunkhouse for the polo players was now used by ranch hands out there. The place was now a working dude ranch, with a hundred or so head of cattle fattened up there every summer to be driven through downtown and herded up inside the tennis court building awaiting the freight trains that would take them to slaughterhouses to the west.

Meanwhile, the Navy was gone. And for two years, 1950 and 1951, the Navy building by the torpedo station dock was used as a bar, restaurant and store called Fishangri-La. Fishing boats tied up at the dock there. The fishermen would come out every day in the summertime, boarding trains in Queens at 4:30 in the morning to arrive in the dark of early dawn at Montauk and then rush across the railroad tracks to get the best spots along the railing of one of the fishing boats docked there, which would then go out fishing for porgy, fluke, sea bass and stripers. In that second year, a rogue wave struck an overloaded fishing boat called the Pelican only a half-mile off the Montauk Lighthouse. The ship, found turned upside down, was towed back to Fishangri-La. But the lives of 50 or so fishermen and Captain Eddie Carroll were lost. Fishangri-La closed.

In the mid 1950s, the old torpedo testing station across the street was used as a storage area for repair parts for the Republic Aircraft Company. Republic built Sabre Jets, the fighter planes that fought with Soviet MiGs over Korea in the Korean conflict. The torpedo testing station was surrounded by a chainlink fence and was off-limits in those years. Also at that time, some of the empty buildings outside the chain link at the torpedo testing station were used as storage rooms for retail stores downtown on Main Street, one of which was my dad’s store, White’s Drug and Department Store.

In 1958, with the cattle drives over and the cattle now taken from the ranch by special livestock trucks, the old tennis court building was first considered as a possible location for a new and larger firehouse. It was decided it would be too expensive to convert the tennis courts to a firehouse. Instead, a large firehouse was built adjacent to the tennis court building and is there today. Soon thereafter, the tennis court building was sold to a developer who hired local builder Ed Pospisil to restore the building into a summer stock theater to be called the Montauk Playhouse. The elevated bleachers were removed, a stage was set up inside, and about half of the open space was outfitted with folding captain’s chairs, about 350 of them—very uncomfortable chairs to sit upon for two hours to watch a show, it seemed to me. In the summer of 1959, Broadway shows starring aging Broadway stars were produced there. My family had moved out from New Jersey in 1956 and by 1959 I was 19 years old. I saw The Boy Friend at the Montauk Playhouse, and I think they also produced Girl Crazy. Both are well-known musical comedies.

On a personal note, during those summers I was a college student living with my parents and out most weekend nights enjoying the town’s nightlife. There was little to choose from. Mostly it was just locals, but there were also the waitresses at the Montauk Manor in the summer, and wherever the girls decided to hang out, we boys would follow. From our perspective, all the actresses from the summer stock were a welcome addition to our singles bar scene then. Mostly we’d go to a bar on the Old Montauk Highway called the Surf and Sand, or we’d go to Ray Bimson’s Blue Marlin, which was halfway between the old tennis court building and the torpedo testing station and is now called Camp Hero State Park. Other places we frequented were Ruschmeyer’s and the old Lakeside Inn (now the Surf Lodge).

That was a good year, 1959, and probably that was so because that was the only year the summer stock played in Montauk. The following year it became a movie theater. But after that, until the early 1970s, that failed and the building closed down for what everyone thought was for good.

Meanwhile, across the street, the abandoned torpedo testing station became for a short time a laboratory facility for a company developing hovercrafts, a vehicle that could go on land and sea, hovering either over the waves or the grass. Then that closed and the torpedo testing station was converted, for about 10 years, as the New York Oceanic Institute, which, affiliated with numerous colleges in the Northeast such as Cornell, Columbia and Princeton, would host students out there to study sea life. In the 1980s, the old torpedo testing station dock became a refueling station for nuclear submarines from Groton, Connecticut, and after that, in 1981, the torpedo testing station was decommissioned and the next year replaced with Rough Rider Landing, a condominium waterfront apartment complex which is there today.

About that time, there were plans afoot to tear down the tennis court building, which certainly had become an eyesore. It was so well built, however, it would cost a fortune to take down, so that plan was scrapped. Instead, in 1999, the building was donated by Joseph Oppenheimer, Richard Bernhard and William Buffa. The Montauk Playhouse Community Center Foundation was established that same year, with the goal of restoring the building and turning it into a community center. The building was given to the town for the reasonable sum of $1.

And so, the Montauk Playhouse Foundation is running the place today. How they had the courage to take this on, I don’t know, but Joan Lycke, John Keeshan, Maureen Rutkowski and many others have played a key role in the project. They developed it in stages. So far, they’ve raised about $2 million out of a $7 million total they expect to need to make this into the most wonderful oversize small-town community center on earth. It’s been open about nine years. Currently, there is a gym with a basketball court, a physical therapy unit run by Montauk Physical Therapy, an aerobics unit, a boot camp unit, a volleyball court, a senior citizens center including a nutrition center and meeting room, a childcare center and a low-net badminton court game room where they play something called pickle ball. There’s also a yoga program sponsored by the town and a toddler free-play area, and outside a playground for kids under 12, also courtesy of the town.

There have been, for years, plans to eventually put in a large 45-by-70-foot swimming pool in the area where the tennis courts were on the ground floor. Recently, the Foundation has been discussing a very new idea with their architects. The tennis court area is an open area nearly three stories tall. It would cost more, but not much more, to build a second story between that ground floor and the ceiling, and install the pool on that second floor. That would result in a new ground floor space of about 10,000 additional square feet, which could accommodate large events such as boat shows, car shows, interior decorating shows, art shows, farmers markets, concerts and theatrical productions. Above, the pool above would benefit as well.

“Part of the restored roof of the building is a replica of the old glass roof tennis courts,” Maureen Rutkowski told me. “The swimming pool would have sunshine on it much of the day.”

The Montauk Manor is a condominium resort hotel today with its 200 rooms turned into about 65 apartments, which can be rented out by the public when available. The Montauk Surf Club and its cabanas and boardwalks have washed away, but have been replaced by a new condominium complex bearing that name. The old six-story office building is now beautifully restored as an apartment building. Someone lives in Carl Fisher’s penthouse. The Yacht Club has undergone a series of elegant and major renovations. The ranch and its surrounding grounds have become a park, and much of the old polo grounds is still in use raising horses and cattle. The golf course is now a New York State–owned public course, among the best in the country, with an award-winning modern clubhouse and adjacent swimming pool. The Shepherd’s Neck is still there. The downtown has expanded greatly. And Lake Montauk, which was dynamited through a sand bar to make it a harbor, is a thriving fishing resort village.

When complete, the Montauk Playhouse will be a facility unique for a village of this size, but what a draw it will be for the residents, and for visitors who might enjoy the open cultural space on the ground floor for its various projects. It is also expected, with the showroom, to be able to be financially self-supporting.

One last thing. Around 2004, I got a call from John Lycke, who had been hired to clean out the Playhouse building in anticipation of its revival. He had found some storage material from White’s Drug and Department Store at the Playhouse, which included filing cabinets that contained, among other things, cancelled checks that my mom had sent to pay vendors who sold us stuff wholesale back in those days. Did I want them? I did. My parents had stored stuff in the torpedo testing station warehouses. I guess when they cleaned that out in preparation of bulldozing it down in the years earlier, some of the stuff in it got moved over to the Playhouse. Now two of the checks, one to the MacGregor Sporting Goods Company and the other to some long-ago jewelry manufacturer, are in filing cabinets in my basement in East Hampton.

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