The Beachcomber

Long Beach Island Wasn’t in Tune With Woodstock in 1969

By RICK MELLERUP | May 24, 2019

Surf City — Bethel, N.Y., and Long Beach Island are about 200 miles distant from each other. But on Aug. 15-18, 1969, Bethel and LBI were light years apart.

In Bethel, hundreds of thousands of people were sloshing around in the mud and breathing pot-infused air on Max Yasgur’s 600-acre dairy farm, listening to a veritable Who’s Who of rock artists including Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, The Who, The Band, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, the Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Mountain, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, Canned Heat, and 20 other acts at the Woodstock music festival.

The musical scene on LBI that weekend was, to put it mildly, a little bit different, as demonstrated by advertisements appearing in the Aug. 14, 1969, issue of The Beachcomber.

The attraction at Wida’s Brant Beach Hotel and Seafood Restaurant was a man named Warren Partelow, who, Wida’s ad assured readers, was “at the organ nightly.” The Surf Villa, a Surf City bar, featured the Ralph Bonds Duo, with Bonds – a “famed Epic recording star” – at the “new Baldwin pro organ with the orchestral stereophonic wrap-around sound” while Jack Cassidy – who had played with such folks as Glenn Miller, Paul Whitman and Sammy Kaye – was “at the drums.” Not to be outdone, the Surf City Hotel proclaimed itself “The Organ Spot of the World!” because it featured “Bill Floyd at the ‘MIGHTY WURLITZER’ Theatre Organ.” The Sea Shell in Beach Haven, “the INN Place for the BEAUTIFUL people,” touted Johnny Whitman at the piano and organ on weekdays and the Buddy Sharp Trio on Friday and Saturday nights. Meanwhile, Herb Feiler’s Rip Tide Bar & Restaurant in the Queen City didn’t have to pay for musical entertainment, considering Herb Feiler himself was “at the ORGAN” every day.

Organ and piano music was beloved on the Southern Ocean County mainland as well. None other than “The Sensational Charlie Bailey” tickled the ivories at Jimmie’s in Manahawkin while there was dancing every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night to “The Big Band Sound” with Sam Jackson at the Mighty Baldwin Theater Organ at Clayton’s Log Cabin.

To be fair, the Philadelphia-born Ralph Bonds was a legitimate star, best known for playing Hammond Organ duets with his older brother Buddy. They made numerous recordings, with the most famous being a 1959 album titled All Stops Out, and made TV appearances and radio broadcasts. You can still hear samples of their musical stylings thanks to YouTube.

Organ virtuosos, though, are mostly forgotten today – but hey, so are some of the acts at Woodstock, such as the Keef Hartley Band, Sweetwater and Bert Sommer. The last was a folksinger who got a huge ovation singing Simon and Garfunkel’s “America” at Woodstock, but with his name it is easy to imagine a Beachcomber ad announcing “Bert Sommer at the TREMENDOUS WURLITZER THEATRE ORGAN!”

That’s not to say the counterculture hadn’t touched LBI at all. The Island had a rock club for teens in 1969, called Le Garage, which billed itself as a “Discotheque Au Go Go.” On the weekend of Woodstock a band called The Night Watch starred at the club.

“This psychedelic world, filled with new directions’ music, dancing, flashing strobe lights with blending modes of dress, is located at 23rd Street in Spray Beach, Long Beach Island,” an unknown journalist had written in a July Beachcomber article with no byline.

“‘New Directions’ might be defined as non traditional,” the writer continued. “A break with the past. Modes of thinking, dressing, doing are influenced by the season of the year, emotions, moods and evolving change. What was ‘in’ last year might be ‘out’ this year, whether it be music, dress or teenage jargon which mystifies adults.”

Bob Dylan had written “something is happening here but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” in his 1965 song “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Buffalo Springfield followed up with a 1966 tune called “For What It’s Worth” that started with the lyric “There’s something happening here, What it is ain’t exactly clear.” On LBI, at least, that was still apparently true in 1969.

Hippie fashions and accessories had also arrived on the Island. Any LBI flower children who couldn’t make Woodstock could “do their own thing at Stop the World,” a shop located in Beach Haven. It advertised “real tarot cards,” incense and burners, granny glasses, black lites, Dayglo posters and paints, mini and maxi dresses, sandals, fringed vests and 134 colors of loose beads. Another store – The Loading Zone, associated with Le Garage – was having its second annual Rock Sale, with specials on “dress bell bottoms” and “regular bell bottoms.” A shop called 18 Steps Up offered strobe lights, black light kits, lava lamps and “Indian Beads” in “colors galore.” The owner of 18 Steps Up must have loved “Easy Rider,” which had been released on July 14, because, the store also offered “Peter Fonda Glasses” in two styles, one costing $3 and the other $5.

18 Steps Up was located in the Colony Theatre Building in Brant Beach. If you are a newcomer to LBI you might not know that the Island boasted three movie theaters in 1969, the Colonial in Beach Haven, the Beach in Beach Haven Park and the aforementioned Colony. A young Dustin Hoffman was big that summer, with “The Graduate” playing at the Colonial and “Midnight Cowboy” at the Manahawkin Drive-In theatres.

The Surflight Theatre show for Woodstock weekend was “George M!” The George M in question was George Michael Cohen, the composer of such All American tunes as “Over There,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “Yankee-Doodle-Dandy.” As reviewers Knight Cragin and Jerry Walnut wrote in The Beachcomber, “He expressed a brash, whole-hearted confidence in himself and his country which reached its highest point at San Juan Hill and now seems to be almost an anachronism.” Remember, 1969 was known not only for Woodstock, but also for the height of the Vietnam War.

It is probably safe to say no George M. Cohan songs were performed at Woodstock – although who knows, considering Jimi Hendrix played a version of “The Star Spangled Banner” that produced more “bombs bursting in air” sounds than any other. And here’s a bit of Woodstock trivia that you can amaze your friends with: Roy Rogers had been asked by festival organizer Michael Lang to close the festival with a rendition of “Happy Trails.” Rogers declined.

The run of “George M!” actually produced a moment of Long Beach Island entertainment history. Surflight, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year, was founded by Joe Hayes, so his theater was 20 years old in 1969.

“‘George M!’ also marks the first appearance of that theater’s owner, Mr. Joe Hayes, in a leading role,” wrote Cragin and Walnut. “Although his touch has always been evident behind the scenes, Mr. Hayes has hitherto confined himself to campy little cameo bits and impromptu announcements at intermission, some of which frankly show more polish and stage presence than the whole rest of the show. When all is said and done, Mr. Hayes is a professional, and he knows consummately well how to snare and hold the attention of an audience.”

“George M!” had opened on Broadway in 1968 and closed on April 26, 1969, so Hayes had been quick to obtain the rights to the show – Surflight had to be one of the first summer stock companies in the entire country to produce the show. Interestingly, “George M!” competed against a rock musical, “Hair,” to fill Broadway seats and for 1969 Tony Awards. The former won the award for Best Choreography; the latter was nominated for Best Musical honors, losing to “1776.”

There was clearly a battle between the old and the new on both Broadway and throughout the entire country in 1969. It is safe to say Long Beach Island tilted toward the old.

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