Enforcing Morality: From the LVIS to ‘Summer House’

"Summer House" cast
“Summer House” cast, Photo: Virginia Sherwood/Bravo

So what happened is this: In the spring, a production company went to East Hampton Town Hall in the hopes of getting a permit to make a TV show at a beach house in Napeague all summer. It would be their main set.

The film permits are given out in the same office as mass gathering permits, and so a lease that showed the place was being rented by them needed to be shown. Another rule that had to be abided by was that at least two people among the renting party were related, so this couldn’t just be a big party house. The production company said two were related—Ashley Wirkus and Lauren Wirkus. But the film company never got the permit to film.

The reason was that, though the Town allowed the house to be rented, the Town soon found out the filming would be for a show about a nine young people illegally sharing a beach house for good times 24/7. Without a permit you cannot film on our public beaches, streets and parks. Who would want to portray the Hamptons as if it were like the Jersey Shore? Well, the network would. Summer House is to be about drinking, casual sex, loud music and all sorts of bad behavior and wild times in a summer home. The show unofficially premiered earlier this week.

With the permit refused, the production company went ahead and did filming anyway, correctly assuming that these permit laws did not extend onto private property, so they’d do it entirely on private property. Some restaurant owners and storeowners refused to allow them to do it. But enough did allow it, to make it possible to go ahead. And so that’s what they did all summer.

Ashley Wirkus and Stephen McGee of "Summer House"
Ashley Wirkus and Stephen McGee of “Summer House,” Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Bravo

The four people renting—which was allowed within the laws relating to bedrooms—was just the tip of the iceberg. The Town also learned that Ashley and Lauren were twins, which, because it was true, helped the application qualify—but they were just some of the stars of the show. A family home it was not. But by that time, it was too late to do anything about it.

As a result of this experience, the Town has seemingly waded into the deep waters of ethical behavior, although they claimed at a recent meeting about a revision of the filmmaking permit rules, that they weren’t.

“As much as we might have a personal opinion,” Supervisor Cantwell told The East Hampton Star, “we do not have the constitutional authority to regulate the content.”

"Summer House" gathering
“Summer House” gathering, Photo: Eugene Gologursky/Bravo

Instead, they discussed placing new restrictions on filmmakers on private property, as well as on public property—something that has never been done before in the permit process. The police will be looking at bright floodlighting that might upset neighbors, or loud music that might interfere with things. Somehow they’ve got to get a handle on this.

Lots of movies are now being made here. Just in the last four months of 2016, film permits were issued to Sabine Schenk for the filming of the movie Return to Montauk, to Aidan Sleeper for the TV show Girls, to John Skidmore for the TV show Younger, to Gilana Lobel and Sara Furey for the motion picture The Enchanted Forest, to Claude Rivers for a TV documentary on the History Channel about the Montauk Air Force Base, and to Gus David for the TV show The Affair on Showtime.

Montauk is a windblown, beautiful place. It’s great to base a movie in Montauk. But now there will be new restrictions because of what transpired with Summer House.

Indeed, as we transition into a new, more conservative national government, there are all sorts of fears that certain civil rights or freedoms might be undermined. As commentator Bill Maher said on HBO back in October, “If you elect Trump, you will not recognize America in four years.” One can only hope that he is wrong.

In some ways, however, this will mirror a time in East Hampton, from around 1880 to 1970, when civil rights and freedoms were widely trampled upon by members of this community. During that era, East Hampton was largely ruled, informally, by the Ladies Village Improvement Society (LVIS). They’d walk up and down Main Street. They’d patrol the beaches. They were looking for immoral and unacceptable behavior. Keeping your store open on Sunday. Showing too much skin on the beach. Being on Main Street in shorts, or just plain badly dressed, and maybe walking along in shorts eating an ice cream cone was frowned upon. They’d approach, tell you to either change things or leave town, and they’d report people to the police to enforce their moral positions. Maybe you’d even be mentioned in church. They’d get their way.

Southampton also had their enforcers to keep things the way they were supposed to be. A storeowner on Jobs Lane named Nina Murray was one of them, and she wrote many letters to The Southampton Press reporting on bad behavior. Much of it had to do with clothes. To this day, there is a dress code in Southampton. Anywhere in town, and as close to the beach as 100 yards, you must cover your body from the top of the aureole of your bosom to midway between your hip and knee.

There are interesting stories from that time.

In East Hampton in the late 1980s, the owner of a shop a few doors down from the movie theater displayed a five-foot-tall poster of a naked and extremely overweight woman full frontal, looking straight out at you. It was meant to be put on the front door of a refrigerator to keep you from succumbing to midnight snacks. Come down in the dark and there she is. Well, the LVIS tried and tried to get this man to remove this poster—it was inside the store, but just inside. You’d open the door and she’d confront you—and he wouldn’t do it. He was a liberal from Greenwich Village and he knew his rights. He’d gotten the Civil Liberties Union on his side. And so it stayed, completely unnerving the blue-haired ladies, as they were referred to at that time, for six months.

New York City was a dangerous and filthy place back then. One day, the editor of a New York City weekly newspaper, The West Side Spirit, told a reporter to dress up like a bum, park on Jobs Lane in Southampton and spread out a cloth on the sidewalk and sit on it, along with a tin cup, asking for spare change. He did it. As I recall, the community was so shocked they pretended not to be. He remained there the whole day. Finally a policeman told him to move along. I had my own personal encounter with the LVIS in East Hampton back then. It was about 1967 and Dan’s Papers was just seven years old. Out at the Mulford Farm by Town Pond, the LVIS Summer Fair was underway, and I waited in line to pay the $4 admission fee to a group of blue-haired ladies sitting at a bridge table set up at a break in the snow fence. Nobody would be getting in without paying.

While I stood there, I saw that behind them, a group of 12-year-old boys had leveraged a gap into the snow fence and were quietly sneaking into the fair. When I got to the bridge table I told the ladies about it.

“It’s right behind you,” I said. “The kids are just sneaking in.”

I got glared at. “We don’t need the likes of you to tell us how to run our town,” one of them said.

I should say, however, that to their credit, this did not prevent them from allowing me to pay my money to attend their fair.

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