It would be impossible to write about the renaissance of Asbury Park and not pay homage to the LGBTQ community and their pilgrimage to Asbury Park.
It’s difficult to pinpoint when it all began. Some say it happened in waves; a first wave, a second wave and maybe even a third wave starting in the 1990’s — although there are some who came as early as the 1970’s.
One person, in particular, was Carol Torre, a Jersey-born realtor in Asbury Park who arrived here from LA by way of NYC in 1975, buying a house on Fourth Avenue for $48,000. Four years later, with a degree in Business Education, Torre and two of her friends, Kay San Fillippo and Camille Neto, opened a lesbian nightclub called Owl and Pussycat.
These entrepreneurial women each had their own strengths. Kay maintained the order and kept the peace because, as Torre noted, “Put 400 women in the same room, add alcohol, and figure the moon is in the wrong phase for at least 1/3 of them. You’ll need some law and order.” Camille took care of business in the back of the house, keeping watch on the checks and balances, while Carol steered the ship.
Asbury Park has long been a progressive city. Gay bars have been in town as far back as the 1930’s. At one time there were 13 such establishments within the city limits. The Owl and Pussycat was unique at that time as the only women’s club that also allowed men.
They opened their door in 1979 on the corner of Cookman and Main, the same spot where Brando’s now sits. However, they were only there a year. Unfortunately, as they were getting an oil delivery one day, a dead body was discovered in the basement. It turned out that a Veteran got mugged as he was walking late one night in the back alley behind the buildings. Inebriation and a bit of bad luck got him pushed down the basement stairs, hitting his head and killing him. The mugger opened the unlocked door and shoved his body inside. After that, Carol and crew decided to move to another location.
They soon found their new home at the Albion Hotel, which used to be on 2nd Avenue, directly across the street from The Stone Pony.
A bit of history on the Albion: the original building had burned to the ground in 1939. Then WWII started and all the steel was being used in the war effort. When the 1939 World’s Fair ended in 1940 they used the steel from the dismantled famous French Pavilion to rebuild the hotel.
The Albion had been closed for two years when Torre first saw it. Looters had ripped out all of the plumbing and it was in great disrepair. She showed it to her partners and the project was so overwhelming it brought tears to their eyes. But they trusted Torre and moved forward with the deal, purchasing the building in 1980 from their friend Paul Wisniewski, who was moving his establishment, the M&K Bar to the Charms building on the corner of Heck and Monroe (now the construction site of the Monroe Condominiums).
The Albion was a hundred room hotel with three bars and a ballroom known as the Rainbow Room, named after the 1930’s famous supper club in New York City. The Rainbow Room was a 3,000 square foot ballroom with a 1,500 square foot dance floor. It was on a lower level from the main floor, which had a separate entrance and was mostly used for special events.
With no money for renovations, Torre bartered for all of their goods and services: free room and board along with a moderate wage for the most talented laborers, one of whom was Angelo Palma. Not only was Angelo an expert craftsman, he was also an exceptional cook and he became the house chef in the hotel’s restaurant. Angelo worked side by side with Gary Morris, a young apprentice. The two men reconstructed the hotel one piece at a time. Having a low budget, much of the furniture and equipment came from auctions. The bar stools and tables were remnants from the Playboy Club in NYC. The reopening of the hotel made its debut in June of 1981, along with a new name, The Key West.
The Key West had a brush with stardom in 1988 when the movie Homeboy, starring Mickey Rourke, was filmed in Asbury Park. Much of Asbury Park was used in the background for the film, including Convention Hall where the boxing scene took place. A nightclub scene was filmed in The Rainbow Room, completely transforming the space into a strip club. In yet another bartered agreement, Torre requested that some of her staff be used as extras in the film.
In 1983, Henry Vaccaro and Joseph Carabetta purchased the waterfront development rights and took control over much of the deteriorated beachfront real estate. The Key West was eventually taken by eminent domain, and on New Year’s Day, 1990 they closed their doors for good.
Last year a Key West reunion was held at Paradise nightclub, conceived and organized by Mickey Carter, Torre’s life partner. A high point in the evening was when Deputy Mayor Amy Quinn presented Torre with an award, then read a proclamation declaring May 14th as “Key West Reunion Day“. There were nearly 400 women in attendance from all over the country, some as far away as Texas came back to Asbury Park to see their old friends. It was a joyous event. There was a bond between these women. They were pioneers in many ways — and they were family.
Word started to get out about the growing gay community and in 1991 Asbury Park was chosen to hold the first New Jersey gay pride parade and has been here ever since. This year on June 4th, 2017, the 26th annual gay pride parade and festival will take place. And on April 30th Jersey Pride, Inc. and Garden State Equality will be producing a new event: United 2017: Community Activism & Organizing in an Age of AltReason. for more info go to: http://united.jerseypride.org/]
In early 2012, thanks to the Asbury Park Historical Society, the original lighted neon sign from the Rainbow Room that once hung above the door was restored and now sits inside the Asbury Park Transportation Center. In an interesting synchronicity, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission designated the famous Rainbow Room an interior landmark in the fall of that same year.
*This article was edited on March 29, 2019