In a Fire Island House, the Soundtrack of Love and Loss

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In a Fire Island House, the Soundtrack of Love and Loss
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By T.M. BrownApril 29, 2022

In tragedy, music provided solace during the AIDS epidemic, and newly discovered cassette tapes captured two decades of parties and pain.

By T.M. BrownApril 29, 2022

In tragedy, music provided solace during the AIDS epidemic, and newly discovered cassette tapes captured two decades of parties and pain.

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Last summer, as Peter Kriss and Nate Pinsley moved into their new two-bedroom beach house on Pine Walk in Fire Island, they took stock of the keepsakes and tchotchkes the previous owners had left behind — a pair of old sewing machines, a box of Halloween decorations, racks of colorful costumes.

The island, a remote 32-mile spit of sand and shadblow trees, does not allow cars, and the unspoken rule is that homeowners must save or toss what the former residents did not carry with them by freight ferry. The massive collection of blue and white porcelain they knew would have to go, same with the coat rack made of cats doing a kick line that they gave to a friend, a former longtime Radio City Rockette. When they stumbled upon a set of milk crates piled high with cassette tapes, they assumed those would go too. Even if they wanted to salvage the greatest hits of Whitney Houston or Queen, neither of them had a tape deck.

But as they dug through the crates, they noticed that not all the tapes were commercial releases. Some had hand-drawn inserts with the names of legendary Pines nightclubs and venues — the Ice Palace, the Pavilion — and more of them had neatly written labels spelling out names, places, and times in thick black ink.

The tapes laid out a who’s who of D.J.s: Robbie Leslie, Michael Jorba, Richie Bernier, Michael Fierman and Roy Thode, whose performance at the Ice Palace showed how shimmery, guitar-driven disco slowly gave way to the driving bass of house music.

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Wanting to ensure that what they had found would be properly archived, Mr. Kriss and Mr. Pinsley reached out to their friend Joe D’Espinosa, a software engineer and D.J., to ask about the best way to digitize the collection. Judging from the names and places scribbled on the cassette cases, it was clear to Mr. D’Espinosa that his friends had unearthed a cache of long lost classics.

Since last July Mr. D’Espinosa has spent countless hours remastering, editing, digitizing and uploading the recordings to Mixcloud, where they’re available to the public as “The Pine Walk Collection.”

The tapes, which were accumulated from 1979 to 1999, capture the sonic evolution of disco into more modern house music — often on the very same night. More than a catalog, the tapes are the soundtrack to a critical juncture in gay history as the AIDS crisis emerged and a new generation of activists fought for their rights and survival.

Buried behind the joyful exuberance of each mixtape in the Pine Walk Collection are grief and ecstasy for a community in peril that simultaneously mourned and struggled to escape what was happening around them, if only for a moment.

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The tapes captured occasions that could never be recreated, like Terry Sherman’s summertime performance under the glittering chandeliers of the original Pavilion, long before a fire destroyed the building in 2011.

The story of the tapes began with Don Castellanos and Peter Vogel who had been active in the early days of the Lambda Independent Democrats of Brooklyn in 1978. Mr. Vogel was one of the most influential advocates of his generation, serving as vice chairman of the New York State Advisory Council on AIDS and chairman of the Governor’s Task Force on Gay Concerns under Gov. Mario M. Cuomo.

The architect Horace Gifford designed many houses in the Pines after first coming to Fire Island in the early 1960s.

Like many other gay men, the couple were attracted to Fire Island, which has 17 communities, starting with Kismet near Robert Moses State Park to Davis Park on the far eastern tip. The Pines is made Up of 650 homes near the middle of the island, and boasts a significant collection designed by the architect Horace Gifford, who died of complications from AIDS in 1992 after having his career effectively ended in the 1970s after he was outed as a gay man.

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The Pavilion, the harborside dance hall, has long served as a landmark and social center of the island.

The population shuttling between the clubs in Chelsea and the homes in the Pines created a sort of parallel community on Fire Island, where music reigned supreme.

Regulars, bartenders and performers of clubs and dance halls have long been part of the fabric of Fire Island.

The Pines and Cherry Grove also represented something else for gay people: freedom. “I had come to Fire Island and found it just amazing,” says Bob Howard, a real estate agent who has been working in the Pines since the 1970s. “I couldn’t believe the place existed. It was the only place in the world where we felt safe.”

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The original Pavilion was lost to a fire in 2011. The new, modernist incarnation was designed by the architecture firm HWKN and opened in 2013.

In the 1970s, Mr. Vogel and Mr. Castellanos bought the beach house — an 850-square-foot saltbox, with dove-colored clapboard siding and elevated wooden decks that make the property feel like a private treehouse nestled on a corner overlooking the Pines unpaved main road. They lived there together, until Mr. Vogel’s death in 1986 from pneumonia exacerbated by AIDS.

Barbara Svoboda remembers her uncle Don being the life of the party. Here, Mr. Castellanos, left, and Mr. Wollenziehn, right, smile in the back of a limousine with Mrs. Svoboda’s daughter.

Mr. Castellanos loved music more than anything. He grew Up listening to Motown and classical before eventually discovering the joys of disco and house. “Visiting Uncle Don was always so exciting,” said his niece Barbara Svoboda, 69. “He would turn on music at night and dance in the living room. He always made us mixtapes and gave us his newest collection.”

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Still grieving Mr. Vogel’s death, he met Dan Wollenziehn on the dance floor at the Saint, the short-lived but widely celebrated gay club in the East Village. Mr. Wollenziehn, who grew Up in Milwaukee, moved to New York after nursing school, and soon became a regular at the gay clubs dotting Chelsea and the East Village.

Mr. Wollenziehn and Mr. Castellanos had an open door policy at their house on Pine Walk. Mr. Castellanos would provide the soundtrack, while Mr. Wollenziehn would cook Up a feast.

When Mr. Wollenziehn moved into the Pines Walk house with Mr. Castellanos, they set about creating a home that could help serve gay men navigate a hostile world.

Patty Rosado first met Mr. Wollenziehn and Mr. Castellanos in the 1980s, and they soon became inseparable at home and on the dance floor.

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“Dan and Don were very involved in the idea of bringing generations together, because at that time there were a lot of people that weren’t able to be out,” said Patty Rosado, a close friend of the couple.

The original Pavilion was decorated with crystal chandeliers, giving the venue a unique backdrop for parties that lasted into the dawn hours.

Mr. Wollenziehn and Mr. Castellanos — also having a keen sense of when a D.J. was on or off their Game — would often lead a caravan of friends from the dance floor of the Pavilion back to their house on Pine Walk if the club soundtrack wasn’t Up to their high standards, Ms. Rosado remembered. Mr. Castellanos would throw on a mixtape from his collection and the music would pulse through the house and spill onto the walkways, inviting passers-by to stay for a dance and a cocktail.

Some of the tapes included “Sleaze,” a down-tempo offshoot of disco, perfect for dancers who had been going full-speed all night to unwind, like Warren Gluck’s 90-minute set from 1989.

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“It was a revolving door. People would come in. They would dance an hour or two, three, and then the shift would change. There’d be a new group of people in,” said Mr. Wollenziehn, now 72. “We had a fabulous time in the Pines. But there was also so much pain, he said. Mr. Castellanos died from lung cancer exacerbated by AIDS in 1997.

“There were times on the dance floor where some of us would have breakdowns, because a song would come on and it reminded us of somebody that we loved and had lost,” Ms. Rosado said. “But in spite of all that strangeness, there was still joy. We kept trying to stick with the joy of trying not to get morbid and bitter and angry. That was our release.”

On one tape, you can hear DJ Michael Jorba reacting to the emotions of the crowd.

The D.J.s felt the weight of providing a musical balm for the moment, as the dance floor took on the shape of a kinetic mourning.

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Before the era of streaming and digital bootlegs, D.J.s would tape their performances to trade and sell them to fans and other performers. These “tape clubs” were a vital part of the club scene during the ’80s and ’90s, and it was often how D.J.s built buzz around their talents in the booth.

The D.J.s would show off with music that has faded with time, like the Italian band Firefly that emerged from the Italo-disco scene of the late 1970s heard on the D.J. Tom Johnson’s mix from July 1986.

In the early 1980s, the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (G.M.H.C.), an AIDS nonprofit started by six men including playwright Larry Kramer, started holding Morning Parties on Fire Island to raise money to help those with the disease, a mission whose urgency only grew as the years went on.

The music from one of those Morning Parties in 1986 is included in the Pine Walk Collection, and you can hear Mr. Jorba unearthing and reacting to an oscillating set of emotions being felt on the dance floor: joy, fear, defeat, defiance. A recording of the D.J. Chuck Parson’s Labor Day performance in 1989 transports a listener with a remix of Donna Summer’s “Love About to Change My Heart.”

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Robbie Leslie and Michael Fierman, D.J.s who are featured in the Pine Walk Collection and were behind the decks at some of the biggest parties in the Fire Island Pines and Cherry Grove, treated their sets as a duty to their community. “The dance floor was a very cathartic thing,” Mr. Leslie, 66, said. “For some people, it was an escape. You could go into denial for a few hours and completely compartmentalize the misery and that loss. You could put it on hold and get lost in music.”

Mr. Fierman, 65, played marathon sets at clubs like the Saint in Manhattan and at the Pavilion in the Fire Island Pines throughout the 80s and 90s. “My whole thing was bringing a whole room together and feeling that unity of the room, where everybody can feel the same thing,” he said. “You knew that you were providing a trip for these people to dance to, and you knew they trusted you.”

“Every year those parties were a celebration of the Pines, and I would go to dance for the folks that I couldn’t dance with,” said Scott Bromley, an architect known for designing Studio 54 and currently updating the home where the tapes were found. “The music carried everything,” he said.

He began keeping a journal in 1981 that only worsened over the next two decades. “I started a diary book on the 1st of January of somebody that had died. And then on Jan. 2, I wrote another name. There were 30 names by the end of the month, and another 30 in February and another 30 in March,” he said. “That’s a lot of people that just disappeared.”

The disappearances are what Mr. Wollenziehn remembers. “Entire houses of guys died,” said Mr. Wollenziehn.
He found love again with Scott Clark. Mr. Wollenziehn and Mr. Clark met on the roof of the Chelsea gay bar the Eagle in 2005, and married in 2011 at Beit Simchat Torah, a Manhattan synagogue known for its L.G.T.B.Q. congregation.

They now live in Manhattan after selling the house to Mr. Kriss and Mr. Pinsley in the summer of 2021. The only keepsakes Mr. Wollenziehn and Mr. Clark took with them were a poster from the Saint’s final party in the late 1980s and a piece of the club’s consecrated dance floor. “It got to the point where going out there just dredged Up all these good and also sad memories. There was a connection between all the people who used to come out and now they were no longer there.”

That period of illness and death — before the stigma of H.I.V./AIDS lessened and before successful treatment — has left a permanent impression on Fire Island, like a scratch on a vinyl record that you just can’t fix. The last mixtape is dated from the winter of 1999.

But Ms. Rosado still remembers their curation of mixtapes whirling through the bungalow. The Pine Walk Collection is a way of celebrating those friends, lovers, and dance partners. “It was important that whoever bought the house was going to keep its spirit, which was always as a party house. It was about dinners and people just dropping in unexpectedly. It was always a welcoming place,” said Ms. Rosado, who helped Mr. Wollenziehn and Mr. Clark with the sale process as Mr. Wollenziehn’s health declined.

She asked Mr. Howard, the broker, to make sure that the torch was passed to buyers who understood the home’s role in the Pines. “It wasn’t just about the house itself. It’s about what it represents to the community.”

Mr. Kriss, 39, and Mr. Pinsley, 37, have accepted the responsibility of their inheritance. They are looking forward to sharing the hours of disco and house mixes with their intergenerational community — now that they finally have a way of playing the tapes.

“A lot of our friends who are in their 70s and 80s are finding the collection and listening to the recordings,” said Mr. Pinsley. “And even though it may be painful because of who it reminds them of, these songs are connected to their memories.”

Produced by Michael Beswetherick, Phaedra Brown and Gabriel Gianordoli.

Additional research by Susan C. Beachy.

Sound credits Tapes songs from The Pine Walk Collection. Ambient sounds of birds and the ocean were recorded on Fire Island and then transferred to cassette tape.

Methodology Ambient ocean and bird sounds were recorded on Fire Island and then transferred to cassette tape.

Photo credits: Tony Cenicola (tapes, Peter Kriss and Nate Pinsley, Fire Island beach, boats); Fire Island Pines Historical Preservation Society (Horace Gifford home, historic photos of the Pavilion, DJ Michael Jorba); The Cherry Grove Archives Collection (clubs and dance halls scenes); Barbara Svoboda (Barbara Svoboda’s daughter with Don Castellanos and Dan Wollenziehn); Scott Clark (Mr. Castellanos and Mr. Wollenziehn); Frank Corradino (Patty Rosado).

Fire Island

Explore a package of articles on the culture, architecture and music of the popular summer resort.

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