by Dusty Grant
I had the honor of interviewing Blue Flettrich, the creator of the Islanders’ Club. He is a Southern gentleman with extreme charisma. In his charming, southern New Orleans accent, he entertained me with the making of his dream and the ambition that he added to an era long gone. Stuart Lee, the crew captain on one of the legendary buses, was also a pleasure to speak with. His sense of humor in relaying stories to me made my conversations with him light-hearted and memorable. And, Sandy Paul Money, who donated her personal recollections of her trips as crewmember. I would also like to thank all those who made this narrative possible and made me realize how treasured these memories were to those who were lucky enough to be a member of the Islanders’ Club.
The year was 1970 when bus number 13 stopped at a storeroom on 322 East 34th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. The chartered bus stocked up with alcohol, wine, soda, and mixes. The crew waited on board. They were dressed in uniforms consisting of tight white pants with white sailor belts and beautifully pressed orange or blue polo shirts; they were the colors of the logo of the Islanders’ Club. The bus trip was a first-class ride from Manhattan to the Sayville Ferry terminal, and what made this one-of-a-kind excursion unique was that the members of the club were gay.
Stuart, the crew captain told me that upon boarding, he would get on the microphone and make an announcement, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen, my name is Stuart, and I’d like to welcome you to the Islanders’ Club Bus Service to the Sayville ferry docks, where you can get to Cherry Grove or the Pines. I’d like to inform you that the first four rows are for non-smoking guests. Once we clear the Queens Midtown Tunnel, our bartender Manny Frier will be pleased to make your cocktails. Steve and Michael will be starting from the front of the bus with cocktails and some snacks. I’ll be starting from the rear to collect your fares.”
“I’d like to remind you that you must be an Islanders’ Club member, or guest of a member, to take advantage of our service. I’ll also be pleased to take return reservations if you care to make them at this time. We have a few announcements to make. For your information, there will be shows at the Pavilion, the Monster, and the Ice Palace. If you are a member, please have your ticket tag for Islanders’ Club. We accept credit cards and cash. If there is anything we can do to make your trip more comfortable, please don’t hesitate to let us know. Sit back and enjoy the ride.” Stuart then started in the back to collect fares.
I asked a question of Blue Flettrich, the creator of the Islanders’ Club: How did you ever get started and what made you think of starting a club? “It was my dream to create a special and exclusive means of travel for gay customers who didn’t want to be subjected to the general population’s prejudices during the ride from New York City to the Sayville Ferry,” Blue said.
In the years between 1970 and 1980, AIDS was a terrifying epidemic and was kept a secret. The gay population had to be discrete about where they socialized. They were destined to party in filthy, Mafia-run bars in the city, where they could congregate mostly unnoticed. In addition, the ride on the LIRR train was horrible, and there was no air conditioning. Changing trains in Jamaica usually left not enough seats, and the train was always running late. Once the train arrived at the Sayville station, taunting and ridicule ensued with the gay passengers coming off the train. The magic of the bus ride was meeting people and the convenience of not being harassed. In later years, the trains eventually became better, since gays were no longer in hiding and AIDS was more understood and accepted.
Blue believed that gay people should be proud of who they are, “They belong in first-class accommodations and shouldn’t be suppressed,” he said. So, he commissioned a bus line, made a schedule, and his vision was born. You needed to be a club to legally charter a bus, so he created the Islanders’ Club. In later years, the Hampton Jitney was an offshoot of their club. There was a vast schedule, with 35 pick-up points in Manhattan. Eight buses at once would run during rush hour. They would start in Chelsea, which was just starting to become a relevant gay neighborhood. They’d travel down to the Village, across the West Village, through the Middle Village, into the East Village, and then up 3rd Avenue through the Gramercy Park neighborhood to meet at the Islanders’ Club office. They would then meet with the uptown buses and/or midtown buses and would travel out all together in tandem. For a while, they even ran a bus from Brooklyn Heights. However, that didn’t make any money because there weren’t enough passengers.
On Fridays, five or six buses would be dispatched during the day to different gay areas. There was a crew of four on each bus: one of them collected the money, one fixed the drinks, and two were servers. At times, Elite and Forbes modeling agencies would recruit the bus crew.
The Pines and Grove promoted the club as “wonderful camaraderie with cocktails.” Oftentimes, when an event was happening, some buses would have a theme party with decorations, costumed crew, special cocktails, and the like. Printed schedules were left in the Grove and the Pines, and seats were made by reservations at the Fire Island Pines Botel. Stuart Lee recalls, “Sleek-looking people dressed in Louis Vuitton waiting on corners in 1974, that’s the audience I want.” That was the first time Stuart heard of the Islanders’ Club. “It was like a classy airline on the ground,” he said. Between 1970 and 1995, the bus had 41 passengers. There was only one problem, as Stuart recounts, “I couldn’t get 50 people to listen to the same kind of music!”
I had a very pleasant conversation with Sandy Paul Money, who was also, as she said, “A part of Blue’s entourage.” Sandy said, “The bus trips from Manhattan to Sayville were amazing! Mostly men, we always served drinks, and everyone had an enjoyable trip on the sometimes very backed-up Long Island Expressway.”
Sandy recalls, “On one trip home, the bus had a problem and could only go a few miles per hour. We pulled to the side of the road (the one we took from Sayville to the LIE), and I got out and hailed a bus coming down the road. It was some religious group’s bus, but it had no one on board but the driver. I talked him into taking our busload into Manhattan. As we rode through the village, someone in drag saw the folks aboard this religious bus and led us down the main street across the village, clapping all the way.”
Any time a disco opened, Islanders’ Club was invited to dance and party. As Stuart said, “We WERE the party!… They knew who we were and didn’t have to ask anyone. In fact, our nights at the clubs, (usually the night before the official opening to the public) was the night to try to get into.”
“On show nights,” Stuart said, “We would literally have the entire Broadway Theater for the shows we would select to see! Ninety percent of the cast and authors went out to ‘the Island’: we knew just about everyone in the shows!… After Evita, we had our party at Bond’s International Casino – perhaps the largest totally un-fillable club in the world at that time, and we filled it!… The only time it ever got filled!… After Cats, we had our party at The River Club. Every club owner would kill to have us open their clubs or discos because we were the ‘A-Gays’ and would then talk up the places. We would be the best public relations that any club owner could get!”
Training of the Crew
Blue developed portable liquor bar cabinets stored in the bus, with two doors to hold the mixes and sodas. The bar had straps tied to railing on the stairs to secure it from falling, and the shelves folded out. All passengers saw drinks coming down the aisle, carried by gorgeous gay men in tight white pants.
Edwin Rosenberg,“Eddie,” was one of the bosses and a big shot of the Islanders’ Club. He ran training sessions. All new boys and girls would meet at 34th St. and take a practice trip all the way to Sayville. He taught the new crew how to hold drinks. For practice, they would use food coloring in water not to waste booze. The other hand held the overhead rack, napkins, and snacks. Stuart said, “You try serving those damned red things down the aisle of a bouncing bus traveling at high speed on the LIE when all the passengers are dressed in their best Islanders’ bus outfits!… And, heaven help us if we ever spilled anything on the passengers’ gorgeous designer clothes… It took plenty of practice… They practiced on the floor of the bouncing bus how to take fares, etc. Nikki Fried also ran training sessions and captained one of the buses… She would want you to imagine going 50 miles per hour, then coming to a short stop. ‘Be prepared for anything’,” she would say. When it was dark in the bus and after the bus fares were collected, Stuart did his calculations in the bathroom with the light on, “It was like my private little office,” he said.
Captain of bus #13 was Stuart; the co-officer was was Harry Diaz. There were two waiters and bartender Manny Frier. It would all go so well, like a classy airline crew, and they were all mostly multi-lingual. Everyone wanted to be bus crew: Gerry Herman, multi-Tony-award-winning composer and lyricist of classic Broadway musicals; Al Hewitt, the VP of Playboy; Calvin Klein, who was “everybody’s fantasy”; Clovis Ruffin, the youngest designer to win a Coty award; and Georgio di Sant’ Angelo, a famous fashion designer and member of the avant-garde. “The Islanders’ Club was where it was at and a truly money-making enterprise! Tips were great! If we didn’t get that much in tips, we could take it out of the bank, it all helped,” said Stuart.
Once off the LIE to Sayville, some people would be sleeping. Stuart would tap the mike (“We were not allowed to blow in the microphone, only tap it”) and say, “Ladies and gentlemen we are approaching the Sayville ferry dock… Please check your seats to make sure you haven’t left anything… And, thank you for riding with us and have a wonderful weekend!”
The Islanders’ Club Sets Sail
Blue Flettrich was also instrumental in organizing the first gay cruise. In the late 60s, they had exclusively gay cruises on the MV Renaissance, Grench Paquet Line Dalmatian Ship “Sugar and Spice Cruises,” Stella Solaris, Atlantic from Home Lines, and a Hailey’s Comet Cruise. In Stuart’s words, “If that ship sank, there wouldn’t be a salesman in Bloomingdales or Sax Fifth Avenue!”
There was an Islanders’ Newsletter that would highlight each of the cruises. There were themed trips, such as “Sunday Picnic River Float,” a scenic tour up the Delaware River, and “Fourth of July New York Harbor Cruise.” “On those parties on the Hudson River, we completely re-did Staten Island Ferry with disco balls,” Stuart recalled. “Once we were parked right adjacent to Malcolm Forbe’s enormous yacht, The Highlander. Liz Smith the celebrated columnist was a guest on Forbes’ boat; however as soon as she saw us, and she knew us all, she was dying to jump ship and swim over! So did some of the other guests once they realized that an Islanders’ boat was right over there,” he said.
The grandest cruises of all were the trips to other countries. There was a “Weekend on the QE2,” which was a cruise-to-nowhere to and from New York City. Sandy Paul Money said, “I was instrumental in helping Blue brainstorm the cruise excursions, and proud to be a part of the first cruise to the Caribbean!”
Islanders’ Club Gets National Notoriety
In 1975, an article was written in the New York Times. It was the first time ever that the word “gay” was used as a synonym for homosexual, and that was the last time – until a decade later. At the end of the article, there was an address to which people could send a postcard if they wanted information on the next cruise. Blue received more than 10,000 after this article was published. The article was about their first gay cruise. The ship was called the Renaissance. It was Blue’s idea and a great success!
Excerpts from the article that ran in the
The New York Times – April 6, 1975
The All-Gay Cruise: Prejudice and Pride
Two speakers the size of steamer trunks blasted rock music of the fantail deck one evening as the Renaissance lay docked in a sleepy Mexican port. Merchant seamen on a nearby Brazilian ship put down their mops and elbowed the rail to get a closer look at – ooh la la! – Boys dancing with boys. The seamen guffawed; poked each other, waved enticingly; three or four started to dance, but the parody was quickly stared down by their shipmates. Up on the Renaissance bridge some starchy French officers watched tolerantly at first until finally they were moved to grins and restrained toe-tapping. Below them on the main deck, 50 boys did The Bump as Labelle sang “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi, ce soir?”– Her invitation echoing over the village, out across the waters, deep into the jungle dusk.
We were halfway through a seven-day pre-Christmas cruise out of Fort Lauderdale, making brief stops in Guatemala and the Yucatan with 300 homosexual passengers aboard. Most of them were men – well-heeled and under 35, from New York, California and Florida. They were new to sailing and new to each other too; but the mixture of six-course dining, pampered loafing and casual mating – staples of more traditional heterosexual cruises soon had the passengers feeling at home. Before the voyage was over, they had added a few outlandish touches to the annals of “special interest cruises” and had learned something important about themselves. There are plans for a repeat cruise later this year.
It took an odd couple to invent the all-gay cruise. The Islanders’ Club is in its seventh season of running weekend shuttle buses to Fire Island for the 2,000 subscriber members, most of them gay. Paquet Cruises, the Marseilles arm of a travel conglomerate, has run pleasure cruises since 1860. A sedate French provincial company reaching agreement with Americans who practice Le Vice Anglais.
But how? “Amicably,” according to Blue Flettrich, the Islanders’ 32-year-old president. “If we seemed like ring-tailed baboons to them, they never let on. It was always good manners and hard bargaining.”
Paquet has lots of company in its pitch for the gay market in America, estimated at somewhere between 6 and 15 million adults. When the packaging is right, gay patronage can spell success for Broadway shows, films, pop singers, rock groups, magazines even hotels and dude ranches. Group travel is a recent development.
Announcements of the Renaissance cruise were handed out on the Islanders’ buses last Memorial Day and word-of-mouth spread the news. There were 300 reservations by Labor Day but then the flow stopped. At sailing time, when 60 berths remained unsold, some said the reason was the $375 to $790 price tag (air fare to Fort Lauderdale not included) during a recession, or the absence of help from travel agents and advertising. Flettrich thinks it was these reasons and more.
“Some figured on a week of bad taste and were just not interested,” he says. “But mainly I think it was because so many ‘closeted’ gays could lose their jobs if newspapers and TV played it up and word got back.”
Nevertheless, roughly half the passengers booked were “in the closet” among them doctors, lawyers, designers and businessmen. The Islanders’ saw an obligation to protect these men’s privacy. Moreover, soft drugs were sure to be on board, so the club concocted a sort of mini-cover-up: A public relations man was hired to fend off inquiring reporters. A psychologist was consulted for the best “posture” to take should the cruise become public knowledge. Press releases were mimeographed and held at-the-ready for any emergency. Cruise folders in the hands of 5,000 people all over the country asked them to remember that “discretion is the better part of frolic.”
… But when the big day came, 316 passengers and 28 Islanders’ staff darted through rain and up the gangplank without a hitch. No reporters were on hand to view the scene with its mounds of Vuitton, its smattering of passengers in head-to-toe black leather. When one husky Islanders’ officer took his first step on board, after the strain of eight months of planning and expense, he burst into tears of relief.
As the ship moved out with the usual confetti and steamers excitement, three young girls at dockside waved to a pair of bearded bruisers at the rail. “S’long, Georgie and Michael,” they hollered. “Happy honeymoon!” A few seconds later, a French-accented voice piped over the public address system: “Dinner for the main seating was 10 minutes ago. If you don’t hurry up, you may miss it and then – won’t you be sorry?”
… Where were the “queens,” those dyed and cosmetized symbols of homosexuality? Were they (a) purposely excluded, (b) unable to afford it, (c) becoming an endangered species or, (d) all of the above? Probably all of the above but especially and ironically – (a). The gay world’s old guard was politely excluded. Effeminacy, seen by younger gays as a symptom of needless guilt feelings, is considered embarrassing and old-fashioned. Later in the week, some passengers were a little uneasy when a young architect with blond curls appeared at a ball in crepe dress and silver fox clutch cape. He himself confessed to feeling foolish in the “Ida Lupino look” and wore it only long enough to pose for photographs before returning to Kiwanis clothes.
… Back home, even the passenger’s friends were betting that any 300 gays together on a boat for one week would sink it with bitchery, pretension and bad manners. So they themselves were surprised when the week passed in a warm spirit of moderation and mutual respect.
“Something happened out there on the Renaissance – everyone still keeps telling me,” says Flettrich. “While we were having the laughs, we were sort of changing our minds about each other.”