Reading the Writing on the Doors

The other night at a local watering hole, I was scolded by this queen who had clearly taken offense to some of my good natured ribbing of Provincetown in an earlier column. Didn’t I know Tennessee Williams had spent time in P’town? Didn’t I know that Michael Cunningham, who wrote “The Hours,” summers there? And didn’t I know that I ought not to wear a blue and red striped belt with a pair of orange poplin shorts?

Well…..fashion sense aside, I felt compelled to point out that if he had indeed read my column closely he would know that I had not disparaged P’town’s artistic pedigree. To the contrary, it’s one of the things I like best about the place. C’mon, John Waters has a place there. And Divine – bless her chubby soul – was a P’town girl. The queen wrinkled his nose.

He wrinkled it again when I mentioned Rehoboth’s arts heritage. I asked if he knew about a book called Doors to History, chronicling the story of the Rehoboth Art League through the tradition of artists signing what are called the “Doors of Fame.” He didn’t.

So, I’m dedicating this column to The Scold, though I don’t remember his name, just his nose and too tight Hollister t-shirt.

While not recognized as one of the country’s elite summer artist colonies, Rehoboth did attract some well-known artists: American watercolorist Howard Pyle, NC Wyeth, and Ethel Leach. The arts really flourished after the founding in 1938 of the Rehoboth Art League, which is headquartered in Henlopen Acres in one of the oldest homes in Sussex County.

More than 285 artists, creative people, locals, and notable citizens have signed the Art League’s three “Doors of Fame” over the years. The tradition began on June 18, 1938, at the dedication ceremonies for the League. Signers actually did more than sign the doors. They also affixed their “trademark” to their signatures. These symbols had different meanings and were associated with the character of the artist and his or her work. Ethel Leach, one of Delaware’s premier artists, for example, painted beside her name the symbol of the rare lotus plant that grew in the waters of Delaware. Travel author Amy Oakley from Philadelphia drew a Viking ship. Earle Chesney drew a head with captain’s hat and smoking pipe. Chesney, a Washington, DC, cartoonist who served in the US Navy created the cartoon character “Eggburt” for the Navy.

I’m fascinated with the short bios of the door signers in the book. You know, a lot of very interesting, if not necessarily very famous, artists have spent some time in Rehoboth. Some of the signers that caught my attention follow.

Amos Burg, an explorer, author, and lecturer. He made nine explorations to Alaska and was a lecturer at the National Geographic Society in Washington, DC. In 1943, he presented a lecture on Alaska at “Mon Plaiser,” the summer home of that penultimate Rehoboth Beach matron Mrs. H.B. Thompson.

Victor Clarke. A baritone from Wilmington, DE, who performed in both opera and Broadway musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun. Clarke sang in the Baroque Room of the Plaza Hotel in Rehoboth during the late 1940s. He departed from Rehoboth in 1949 and traveled to Milan, Italy, to appear in the title role of Verdi’s opera Otella.

Rachel Hawks, a Maryland sculptor whose bronze fountain figures, portrait busts, and decorative mural reliefs were exhibited in New York, Baltimore, Houston, Detroit, and at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. During WWII, she worked for the Baltimore Marine Hospital and sculpted false noses and ears in plastic for disfigured servicemen.

Marquis James, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author from Philadelphia. His prizes were for his biographies of Sam Houston and Andrew Jackson.

Hans Kindler, a Dutch cellist and former director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, DC.

Sandy Leach and his wife Mary both were asked to sign the doors because of their active service to the Art League. The couple lived in Henlopen Acres and Sandy was a regular winner of the costume contests for the League’s Artists Balls. He appeared as “Salome” in the 1964 Night of the Opera Ball. He also won rave reviews for other appearances as “Little Red Riding Hood,” and “Geisha Girl.”

Norwood MacGilvary, an artist and professor at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. MacGilvary exhibited his work in Paris, New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia. Some of his work is held in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Art. When he died in 1949, his ashes were strewn from an airplane over the beach.

Mary Mullineaux, from Germantown, Pennsylvania, was a color block printmaker whose prints are held in the permanent collection of the National Museum of Art. She directed the early “clothesline” shows at the Art League.

A.J. Obara, Jr., a Pennsylvania sculptor specializing in wildlife bronzes. His work is collected by Paul Newman and the Prince of Wales. It is part of the White House collection, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Delaware Museum of Natural History. His work was the first bronze sculpture to be put into space as part of the Discovery Launch by NASA in 1985.

Stanislav Rembski, a Pole who studied in Germany and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He lived in Baltimore and exhibited widely, especially in Maryland where his portraits are found in the Maryland State Capitol.

Eddy Ruhl, a musical child prodigy from New York and Washington, DC, and an opera singer in Europe and the United States. In 1949, he performed in Rehoboth and delighted audiences with arias and ballads by from Handel, Brahms, and Debussey.

C.A. Schenck, a German forester who founded America’s first forestry school when he became chief forester for George Vanderbilt at his Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. For more than a decade, Schenck managed 120,000 acres that is now Pisgah National Forest.
The Biltmore Forestry School opened in 1898 and lasted until 1913. It catered to the sons of tycoons.

The book also mentions fifty others who should have signed the doors. My favorite of this group, Betty Atkins, lived in Lewes and taught shell arranging classes at the Art League during the 1940’s. She was the first accredited Master Flower Show judge in Delaware and a pioneer in raising the standards of flower shows throughout the state. She traveled in her automobile “bulging with massed flowers” and taught legions of women in local garden clubs to “extend themselves through flower arranging.” She also wrote a popular gardening column for the Wilmington Evening Journal.

If you’re interested in the history of the arts in Rehoboth, I suggest you stroll over to the Rehoboth Art League and buy a copy of Doors to History. It’s a great beach read.

PS. To the queen in the Hollister tee, wait ‘till you see what I wear with my pink and green ribbon belt…


A State Fair Foray

It was a hot and sticky Rehoboth evening. You know the kind, when you drink your gin real fast prior to the ice melting and before you know it you’re stewed and bad ideas sound like good ones.

That’s how I wound up one Saturday afternoon at the Delaware State Fair.

I’ve witnessed synchronized cowboy dancing at the Texas State Fair and I’ve ridden on a school bus with drag queens to the Monroe County Fair, just outside of Key West. So the notion of checking out the 87th annual State Fair was somewhat intriguing.

I mean, who wouldn’t appreciate studly farm boys showing off their prize cocks and heifers? And speaking of heifers, I could only hope there’d be lots of ‘em, squeezed into hot pink tube tops and short shorts and sporting straw cowboy hats. I wanted to buy some peaches, tomatoes, and local hand crafted cheeses. Perhaps I’d even catch sight of a watermelon grown big around as a white wall tire. Oh, and the human rooster crowing contest was a must-see. Yes indeed, I had high expectations for a cornucopia of bounty from the Delaware countryside.

Peaches were high on my State Fair agenda. That might sound odd to you, but please remember that I am a Southerner, and as such eat them on ice cream and cereal, in salads and salsas, with peanut butter sandwiches, and even by themselves. I find the scent of an overripe peach most beguiling, though the fruit flies are annoying.

I was excited that there’d be blue ribbons awarded for the best basket of peaches, best jar of peach preserves, and even for a peach dessert bake off. Visons of wizened country women – gingham gladiators – battling for supremacy in the peach cobbler division danced in my head.
A lot of people aren’t aware that Delaware was once known for its peach producing prowess. Delaware led the nation from 1840 until the close of the 19th century. The peach is mentioned in the state song and the peach blossom was designated the state flower in 1895. Delaware even named its 1893 Atlantic League baseball team after the fruit – The Wilmington Peaches.

However, a blight called the “peach yellows” brought disaster and devastated most of the state’s orchards. The industry collapsed and moved south. There are only a few large peach orchards left in the state. Most peaches are grown in small family farms.

White peaches, like state fairs, are a classic summertime delicacy. I was anticipating discovering some heirloom varieties at the Fair. Or, at the very least, I could pick up a bushel of fresh picked ones for a new white peach sangria recipe I wanted to try.

Well, it didn’t take long to discover that my downstate fantasies were, in fact, nothing more than gin-inspired hallucinations. I’d hoped for Rodgers and Hammerstein and instead got Billy Ray Cyrus.

Nobody was selling agricultural goods at the State Fair, just sunglasses, t-shirts, funnel cakes, pretzels, and pizza – Boardwalk fare! The closest thing to produce for sale was a corn dog. One stand advertised “chicken on a stick,” which sounded intriguing. But, it was merely a couple of dried-out chicken tenders on a skewer, not a small rotisserie bird impaled on a kabob, as I had hoped. The Mennonites were selling home-cooked food, but all the Jesus banners kept me at bay.

I didn’t see one single farm boy in tight Wranglers and boots, chewing on hay and grooming his goat. But, there were plenty of scrawny Eminem wannabes in baggy jeans, wife beater tank tops, gold chains, and baseball caps cruising for girls. In fact, the livestock pens weren’t attracting crowds at all, unlike the recreational vehicle display…

More disturbing, however, was a booth trumpeting the world’s smallest woman, just 24 inches tall. For one dollar you could observer her in her natural setting — the living room. I’m not kidding. This poor old Jamaican woman was propped up in a La-Z-Boy watching the Home Shopping Channel on TV. She looked to be all head and feet. For an extra dollar she’d stand up. One more dollar and you could snap a photo.

One dollar also gained you entry to the bear cave, which was nothing more than a glass-enclosed pen housing a couple of mangy little black and brown bears. In a nearby outdoor pen, a tired old elephant walked round and round and round with fat screaming teenagers strapped to her back. I prayed for a rampage, and I wondered how the hell Governor Ruth Ann Minner can allow these sorts of noveau freak shows but not permit beer sales on the Fair grounds?

After two hours, I wanted to quit and head back to Rehoboth. Then I saw it, a big ugly metallic building with a sign reading “Competition Hall.” One last chance for redemption.

Can you believe that a dozen hopefuls from across the state had pursued the blue ribbon for the “best ear of corn on a stick” while only one brave soul chased his dream of winning “best display of five okra in Delaware?” I counted four submissions for “best basket of peaches.” The “best cabbage” contest, however, attracted a lot of entries, including one from an 82 year old man. How long do you think he’s been raising and entering his cabbages? There were ribbons for jars of beans and jars of pickles, for green peppers, red peppers, and hot peppers. Some of the champion eggplants were quite lewd. To my great disappointment, the desert bake offs had been held earlier and the cooks had taken their prize winners home. I quickly followed suit and high-tailed it back to Rehoboth.

Someone once said the place where optimism most flourishes is the lunatic asylum. Clearly I must be a little nuts to have trekked all the way to Harrington for this, even on a rainy day. Can I blame it on the gin?


Which Rehoboth?

My father and younger brother Jefferson recently rolled into town for a short, impromptu visit. As the host for this little family gathering, I had to seriously think about what experience to share with them. What image of Rehoboth did I want to promote?

I should point out that all my family, except me, live in Charlotte, North Carolina, that gleaming straight-laced city of bankers, barbecue, white sneakers, golf shirts, and cell phones. They say it’s a nice place to raise kids, and everyone’s a civic booster.

That’s so not me. I like odd places and I admire eccentrics. I prefer noisy fans to air conditioning, bikes to cars. I’ve been known to throw back the occasional Manhattan on a Sunday morning, and one of my favorite emotions is to be appalled.

So surely you see my dilemma. You’ve probably encountered it yourself. Do I proffer up a Rehoboth of quiet cocktails and witty tête-à-tête on a screened porch? A picnic on the beach perhaps? Or, like a Nepalese sherpa, do I escort my visitors to tea dance to watch gay boys slurp liquor off the bellies of faux lifeguards and afterwards guide them through the jumbos and nitwits on the Boardwalk for a high-calorie supper of pizza, French fries, and ice cream? Oh, Rehoboth, you offer so many treats for the senses, so many delicacies. Where to start?

The Starboard in Dewey Beach, that’s where, especially on a rainy afternoon when you’re squiring around two straight men away from their wives for a few days. A lot of gay guys are afraid of the Starboard, but not me. It’s an old fashioned rowdy beach bar full of attractive half naked guys and girls. Sure, it reeks of beer, suntan lotion, and sex, but the music is always good and so are the Bloody Marys. What’s not to like? The old man even got into the spirit, ordering up a round of “Whoo-Whoo” shooters (a peach concoction of some sort) from a very well-endowed young lady. Claimed he was having a flashback — the Elbo Room, Ft. Lauderdale, 1960. Hmm, I was born in 1960…

After a rollicking start, I slowed the tempo and invited a few friends over for a quiet garden cocktail party. Luckily, the rain held off. Beside flickering torches and fragrant lillies, we sipped a cold French Muscadet, nibbled on crab claws, and talked about presidential hopefuls and Caribbean dictators. A casual stroll into town got our appetites worked up for dinner on the front porch at Planet X.

The next day, a must-see was the old du Pont house on the beach at One Cullen Street. It’s a big cedar shingled house built in the 1940’s by Alexis Felix du Pont Sr., and owned more recently by Michael Scanlon, the Rehoboth lifeguard turned Republican politico turned lobbyist, convicted recently along with his buddy Jack Abramoff of scamming $80 million from Indian tribes and bribing federal officials. My father had been following the scandal in the Wall Street Journal and had learned of Scanlon’s Rehoboth Beach connections. He was quite envious upon hearing that I’d actually toured the house back in 2003 when it was on the Rehoboth Art League Cottage Tour.

A stop at Quillen’s Hardware on Rehoboth Avenue was next for mosquito repellent and some flypaper. Yes, I said flypaper. The old fashioned, sticky, brown kind. My brother refused to believe people really used the stuff. That is, until one of the Quillens employees explained how bad the biting flies could get in summertime in Rehoboth, some as big as a nickel. By the way, they were sold out of flypaper.

Because the old man is a bit of a WWII history buff, we drove up to Fort Miles at Cape Henlopen State Park. The concrete watch towers lining the beach from Lewes to Bethany are well-known to Rehoboth regulars as part of the fortifications built in 1940 to protect the Delaware Bay and the port of Philadelphia from potential German attack. If it’s open, you can climb to the top of Tower #7.

Fort Miles, I learned, was one of the country’s most secret and heavily armed harbor fortifications. It featured some of the largest guns in the U.S. weapons inventory. And, it was one of the most expensive forts, built at the cost of $24 million. At its heyday it covered 1,600 acres and housed 2,500 soldiers who had to endure windswept sand, extreme heat and cold, biting flies, and odor emanating from a nearby fish processing plant. I’m not making that up; I read it in a new book out about Fort Miles. After the war, the Army began dismantling the fort and eventually ceded part of it to the State in 1964. Cape Henlopen State Park was created on its site. Plans are underway today to create a museum housed in an old bunker.

I was enchanted with the great dunes upon which the remains of the fort sit. They’re the highest dunes on the East Coast between the Outer Banks and Cape Cod. What wonderful vistas looking north and south. Thankfully the developers never got their greedy hands on them or they’d be ruined for sure.

All in all, it was a haphazard and broadly defined Rehoboth that my brother and father experienced, an unruly, unstructured tour, which in my opinion is the best kind. They enjoyed themselves. I kept my family reputation intact. A good time was had by all.


A Midmorning Manhattan

Lucius Beebe, an Edwardian at heart, was a journalist and newspaper publisher. In 1946, he authored the “Stork Club Bar Book” and listed the Manhattan as a morning drink to be drunk before noon because of its unrivaled tonic qualities as a restorative and element for firming the moral fiber. He’s absolutely right. I would never have imagined it until the New York Times did a story about the Manhattan and my neighbor Tim on Columbia Avenue began hosting impromptu mid-morning Manhattan parties. Its mildly decadent, especially if there’s some goody-goody among your crowd who gasps out loud and looks at his watch when he sees the silver tray of frothy amber cocktails. Something about sipping a Manhattan or two on a big screened porch shaded by the pines and hollies on a hot summer morning and fanned by the old lazy ceiling fans that just transports you back to another era.

Recipe for a Mid-Morning Manhattan
Maker’s Mark bourbon
Sweet vermouth
Maraschino cherry