Garish, yet alluring. Crowded with joggers and strollers, fat girls and pretty boys, nitwits and old folks, all suffused with a sensuality reflecting idyllic splendor and urban squalor, natural grace and gauche artifice. This could describe a Paul Cadmus painting or the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk.
Rehobothians have a love-hate relationship with their Boardwalk, named by the Travel Channel as one of America’s best. The Boardwalk is an acquired taste, much like whiskey. No, make that a White Russian. Something you don’t want all the time, but every now and then…
The mile-long Boardwalk as we know it was built in 1905. Shorter versions existed earlier. The first one in 1873 was made of 8-foot, rough-cut oak slabs and laid across the sand. It has been damaged by big storms in 1914, 1962, 1992 and 1998 and rebuilt each time — thankfully, of wood. Boardwalks in other places are often built of concrete.
Dolle’s Candyland is a Boardwalk landmark, best known for its looming orange sign and salt water taffy. I can’t figure out why people like salt water taffy. It’s not tasty and it sticks to your teeth.
Dolle’s opened in 1927. But, salt water taffy started in Atlantic City in the 1880’s. Supposedly, a shopkeeper’s boardwalk candy store was swamped by the sea in a summer storm. As he was cleaning up, a girl walked in and asked for a bag of taffy. The shop owner sarcastically invited her to help herself to his “salt water taffy.” The name stuck and salt water taffy became the quintessential souvenir of a trip to the seashore and synonymous with boardwalks all along the Atlantic shore. Stroll by Dolle’s and watch the confectioners making the taffy. If you don’t care for it, try the caramel popcorn.
Pizza is another boardwalk staple and popular history says this tradition began on Coney Island in the 1920’s. Grotto Pizza is Rehoboth’s original pizza parlor, founded in 1960. It’s very popular at 1am, but the florescent lights aren’t very flattering. I prefer Louie’s Pizza, a small family parlor just a few steps off the Boardwalk on Rehoboth Avenue, when I’m looking for a slice.
For more than a half century, Thrasher’s has been serving up hot tubs of French fries. I like them as an “après plage” snack with a lot of salt and a few shakes of vinegar. The seagulls are fond of them too, and I love it when a hungry gull snatches a fry right out of the greasy fingers of some unsuspecting child. Oh, the screaming and flailing – like a scene from “The Birds.”
In terms of gay history, the Pink Pony was at the corner of Olive Street and the Boardwalk, where the faux-Victorian Boardwalk Plaza Hotel stands today. During its heyday in the 50’s and early 60’s, it attracted a mixed crowd of straights and gays. One gay couple from Washington remembers Saturday afternoon tea dances where guys would come in off the beach in their trunks – if they were too skimpy you were told to change. Gays made up half of the clientele most Saturday afternoons. They hung out with their cocktails near the planters of plastic plants beside the dance floor.
If you like athletic, sun-bronzed, shirtless young men – and, seriously, who doesn’t – I recommend you check out the Rehoboth Beach Lifeguard Olympics. Held every summer in late July on the beach in front of the Rehoboth Beach Patrol headquarters at the Boardwalk and Baltimore Avenue, it pits squads from Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey in all sorts of running, swimming, and tugging competitions.
The Rehoboth Beach Patrol was founded in 1921 and its history is well-documented. An official Beach Patrol Historian maintains a collection of old photographs that you can view by appointment. And, if you miss the Olympics, you can always watch the lifeguards exercising most mornings on the beach
Not far from the Beach Patrol is a wigged-out version of the old “Photo-Me-Booths” where you went behind the curtain, slipped some coins in, and came out with a strip of photos. These booths hit their popularity in the 40’s and 50’s on boardwalks and in amusement parks. They’re getting trendy again. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino just purchased a vintage booth for his home. Check out “Hair Style Illusions” booth just north of Rehoboth Avenue where three dollars buys you photos in bad hairdos. It’s a hoot after a few cocktails.
Four generations of the Fasnacht family have operated Funland amusement park. On summer nights it’s jammed with screaming children, love-struck teens, and the occasional hot daddy. Tickets for rides only cost a quarter, and I recommend the swinging Viking ship. Grab a seat in front and you’ll sail within 5 feet of the neighbor’s living room window. Try your hand at “Wack-a-Mole” and try to hit the mechanical moles with a mallet as they pop up from their holes. The whole Funland experience is sort of like being in a cartoon. It was actually the subject of a film by Delawarean Sharon Kelly Baker. Nothing Beats Fun: The Funland Story debuted at the 2004 Rehoboth Film Festival.
So I challenge you tea-toadlers to take a drink. Order a White Russian. You might just enjoy it.