Jones Beach Memories

July 11, 2003.

Warren Wissemann recently sent us some "Beach Memories." Have any of your own? We can add them to the page. :0)) Just click here:

"Brings back a lot of memories.

Prior to World War II

Prior to World War II, my parents would take my brother, Robert, and me to Jones Beach for a day at the beach to go swimming or go in the evenings and watch a free Billy Rose's Pool Shows at the West Bathhouse. With the bright sun and white sand everything during the day was ten times more colorful than anywhere else. Robert Moses built on the bright sunshine, white sand, blue water, and added beautiful green lawns and planted flower beds everywhere.

We would park at the East end of Field 4 and take the wide, curving walks through the tunnel under the Beach Parkway. Once in the tunnel we would yell and listen to our own echoes. My wife and I did the same with our children ans grand children. At the end of the tunnel the bright sunlight would hit our eyes and my brother, and I would get a boost up onto the cement retaining walls and walk along the edges with the beautiful array of beach trees and scrubs to the side. As the walkway approached the Art Deco Central Mall Bus Stop, you would be met with large areas of colorful flower beds. The colors were incredible! Then when you made the turn south towards the beach you were met by a long (600 feet?), rectangular pool of water with green grass on both sides enclosed by a continuous line of 2' high boxwood hedges. On each side of the boxwood hedges were wide walkways ringed by a series of natural stained wood park benches. The benches were cut into a line of tall pivot hedges which surrounded the perimeter of the mall. Visitors could sit down and enjoy the view. The Mall was anchored at the North end by the Art Deco Bus Stop and at the south end by the Boardwalk and the beautiful white beach. As you approached the boardwalk, there was a brick wall topped by limestone. Out of the wall was a stone spigot spouting water into a small semicircular pool below. From there water would overflow and run down into the 600 foot rectangular pool that spanned the mall. Then right in the center of the Boardwalk, overlooking the beach stood a gigantic white, wooden flag pole similar to a ship's mast. Circling the mast was a natural wood railing with 15-20 semaphore flags rising to the top just below the American Flag. Every night at 6 p.m., a cadre of beach employees in white uniforms and peaked caps would assemble and ceremoniously lower the flag while speakers played the national anthem. Boardwalk pedestrians stopped & stood at attention while the flag was lowered.

When we went to Jones Beach at night it was to watch the free Billy Rose Pool Show at the West Bathhouse. Billy Rose was a famous Broadway showman & once dated an NYC showgirl from Merrick named Joyce Mathews. She lived in one of the English Tudor houses on Babylon Turnpike. The best place to see the show was from the walkway above which surrounded the West Bathhouse pool. The show would start about 8 p.m. when it was getting dark. Bright flood lights would be turned on a little later and were aimed towards the shimmering green pool below. Mr. Rose put on a mix of a Busby Berkly water ballet with beautiful swimmers and a Barnum & Bailey show with clowns performing on the white diving boards. The kids especially loved to watch the clowns push each other off the diving boards or teeter on the edge for a few seconds before falling. The higher the board the more fun it was to watch. As the night grew darker the colors became more vivid.

On weekend nights on the Central Mall Boardwalk there were Black porters in white uniforms and hats who pushed oversize wheel wicker chairs. These chairs had a high arched top which allowed for a full view of the beach and a breeze to cool you. The cost was 25 cents, about the cost of a boy's haircut but I don't recall how long the ride was because we never took one. I saw those wicker chairs again in the early 1950s stored at Gillgo Beach Pavilion when I was a summer employee for the LI Park Commission helping to cater private parties. The wicker chairs were later lost in a hurricane along with the pavilion.

Also there were a set of waterfalls on the south side of the West Bath House (one on each side of the entrance to the Pool and Concession) built into the limestone towers. There were similar set waterfalls upstairs in the brick walls along the walkway surrounding the pool. At night the green glass behind all four waterfalls would be lit and give a wonderful white foam and green effect as the water cascaded down to the small semicircle pools below.

With the start of WW II, the waterfalls were shut off to conserve energy and the porters along with Billy Rose's water shows disappeared. All labor was needed for the war effort. After the war Jones Beach priorities changed and the wonderful extras never returned.

The 1950s

I worked for the Park Commission at Jones Beach from 1951-1958. We lived in Merrick, so my 1933 Plymouth two-door sedan could easily make the short ten-minute trip to the beach. Working there provided me with gas money and help pay for my Hofstra College tuition ($350) and books ($50) for a semester. Never made as much money as my friends Dick and Ben Beckmann or Ronnie Knettel working on Coca Cola trucks, but the 1950s were rife with labor strikes (i.e., trucking firms, construction workers, etc.), and much of the time they were out of work. We probably ended up even. My hourly rate was 35 cents an hour in 1950 and ballooned to $1.35 an hour in 1958. However I usually saw more of my friends at the beach then they saw of their friends. They were on strike!! In my first year the raise was 5 cents an hour after an official saw me working in the rain. Jones Beach in the 1950s was a wonderful place to work — lots of air and sun, and I thought the sound of the pounding surf was soothing. Of course there were days it was unbearably hot but I was in my teens and no one had air-conditioning except when we went to a movie theater.

Working at Jones Beach was like working with your high school friends. Everyone worked during the high school years then. There was no free ride if you wanted to go to college. When you worked there you most likely found some of your high school teachers were acting as temporary Park Policemen; high school nurses worked the various First Aid Stations at the bath houses and parking lots, and some of your high school friends were working at cleaning the beach, at the WB Pool or renting umbrellas. Among the summer workers there was a "pecking order." The life guards considered themselves at the top of the pyramid. They earned more and were high school or college athletes working in bathing suits on Life Guard Stands (No swimming pool at Mepham so no life guards from Mepham). The life guards had little to do with those who worked the beaches and referred to us as "rag pickers" with "idiot sticks" even though all of us were either high school or college students. For those of you who don't know, idiot sticks were 30" aluminum shafts with a handle and a trigger. When you squeezed the trigger a pincer at the other end would close and hold onto a piece of paper, bottle or a beer can in its grip. You would then deposit the day's catch into a canvas bag which you wore over your shoulder and proceed further along in your assigned area of the beach. Perhaps at the bottom of the social order were the Brass Rail the younger concession employees -- mostly high school freshmen of which few ever came back for a second year because their pay was lower than the state workers. They were almost always stuck inside their buildings cleaning and cooking. The most fun they ever had were the "hamburger fights" in the back rooms on a rainy day when management had to find something to justify keeping them working on a rainy day. The kids would shape the burgers by hand before freezing. They were similar to snow balls. Bet few of you ever knew that about the Jones Beach hamburgers you ate! Another classmate, Carol Carle, actually lived there. Her father was one of the three executives who were required to be on call 24-hours a day. The three two-story houses were located at Short Beach. The houses were all gray cedar shingles to blend in with the beach but inside they were attractive and very comfortable. Once I was sent to one of the houses to clean the six-over-six pane glass windows. There must have been well over a 100 window panes, and it was there and then I appreciated the hard labor of house keeping my mother and others like her went thru during their life times.

While working there I learned that the Park Commission had greenhouses at High Hill, and the permanent workers would grow the park's flowers during the cold weather and then transplant them in the Spring, Summer and Fall to the East Bathhouse, West Bathhouse and the Central Mall walkways. High Hill was a couple miles east of the Water Tower and north of the Beach Parkway hidden by the pine trees. Many of the year round workers then had helped build the beach in the late 1920s and stayed on to become gardeners in the Depression, retiring thirty years later in the same jobs. They took great pride in their flower displays and would change the mix to keep them fresh looking and to match the season. I especially remember the large beds of portulaca planted every year on the beach side of the West Bath House as you came out of the pool and Brass Rail concession area.

In 1956 I was working at Parking Lot # 6 on the night shift when they opened the Jones Beach Music Theater at Zach's Bay. Norma (Gieseking) Knettel was a hostess at the West Bathhouse Restaurant (above the pool) when she was asked to work nights, too, as an usher for the opening night. It was a dark, clear night with a gentle land breeze blowing from across the bay to the beach. Then, in the utter quiet I heard the first notes of the orchestra playing a song followed by the lyrics ----"I am just a teeny, weeny genie!" I think the show was "A Night In Venice." Later shows were "Show Boat" and Edvard Greig's "Song of Norway." In the 1960s Guy Lombardo and his band played at the theater for many years.

The beach was the center of our life on the South Shore in Nassau. Mostly swimming, homemade lunches and searching for spare change at the beach water fountains so we could get into the WB Pool. Some of the worst skin burns of my life came from those early adventures to the beach. Sixty years later I have to have my skin watched for problems. We didn't have sun tan lotions in the 1940s.