Before it was Poodle Beach

The best known gay beach in Rehoboth for more than two decades has been Poodle Beach, at the south end of the city’s boardwalk. Last year, USA Today even annointed it one of America’s best gay beaches.

What USA Today didn’t mention was the origin of the Poodle Beach name. Maybe that’s because nobody really knows for sure how it came about. I like the “two cousins theory” where these two cousins from Maryland would drive up to the end of the Boardwalk in a big Cadillac convertible and then bring their poodle dogs onto the beach and set up camp. Another theory says its because the gay guys sit on the beach, all coiffed and groomed, much like a poodle. And I’ve heard a redneck contractor suggest the name stems from the way the gay guys walk around with their butts in the air, just like a poodle dog in heat.

Until the late 70s, however, Poodle Beach was known as Carpenter’s Beach — physically it was just beyond the two current Carpenter (du Pont) houses, down towards Dewey Beach across from Silver Lake. Back in the 30s and 40s, du Pont heiress and well-known lesbian Louisa Carpenter was said to have entertained her gay and lesbian and bisexual theatre and Hollywood friends on the beach in front of the family compound.

Two friends of mine who began visiting Rehoboth back in the mid-70s tell me there was nothing but beach and sand dunes at Carpenter’s Beach. None of the big houses you see now. And, no women. Guys would spend the entire day on the beach, slathering themselves with Hawaiian Tropic tanning oil or a concoction of baby oil and iodine. You played volleyball and Frisbee and drank Seabreezes and dropped Quaaludes. Boom boxes blasted disco music. And everyone wore their RayBan aviator sunglasses.

A Washington Blade article from 1978 talks about Carpenter’s Beach attracting 300-400 gay guys on a holiday weekend. It also points out that the Carpenter/du Pont family occasionally throw eggs. I have an eyewitness report of a well-remembered walter balloon incident. A few teenagers were up on the dunes outside the Carpenter house launching water balloons. A couple of guys finally stormed up to the house and got into an argument with the kids and a middle aged blond haired lady about rights to the beach and the watermark laws. Her response: “Darling, it comes down to the haves and have nots….we are the haves and you are the nots.” Then she called the teenagers into the house and that was about it.

Carpenter’s Beach was cruisy, of course, but it wasn’t an outdoor bathouse. The beach was too too public and not private enough. If you wanted sex on the beach, you went up to the beach at Gordon’s Pond. As its popularity grew, the beach gradually spread out and moved back towards the Boardwalk. For a year or two it was called “Lazy Gay Beach” because guys got tired of walking so far from the Boardwalk.

I’ve also been told that gays and lesbians gathered in the 50’s on the beach at the end of Olive and Virginia Streets — very near the Pink Pony, a well-known bar that catered to gays and lesbians up until its destruction by the great nor’easter of 1962. The Pleasant Inn, in the house that now stands at the corner of Olive and Second Streets, had a word of mouth reputation as a gay-friendly establishment. It had been in the Ocean block of Virginia Street before it was moved. According to one old boy I know who began visiting Rehoboth in the early 50’s, the gay guys would play volleyball on the beach and it was the way to meet guys that way. And, if you were staying at the Pleasant Inn you didn’t even have to sneak ’em into your room. Peck Pleasonton, the somewhat closeted gay owner of the Inn passed away a few years ago. He and his mother had run the Inn and were known for their cocktail hour with guests. I’ve even heard that his mother preferred to rent to gay men because she didn’t get any trouble out of them.

Gays also frequented the beach at Nomad Village, a now defunct hotel and bar complex eight miles south of Rehoboth in Bethany Beach, after it opened in 1960. It catered mainly to those staying at the Nomad hotel and it attracted some lesbians. I’ve also heard that the beach area just north of the boardwalk was as a place where gay guys had cocktail parties on the beach — all dressed up in madras shorts and nice shirts.

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