Fire Island, a sleepy, 19th century beach town became a modern-day queer mecca for artists and the New York City theater community, became part of LGBTQ history and has been part of queer pop culture for decades and has been the subject of numerous movies, including the recent comedy Fire Island on Hulu.
A new podcast, Finding Fire Island takes listeners behind the curtain of the mystique, legends and lore of the LGBTQ+ communities (Cherry Grove and The Pines) from folks who experienced their evolution from the 1950s to today. This docu-series debuted on July 6 on the Broadway Podcast Network.
Finding Fire Island is created and executive produced by writer, producer and native New Yorker, Jess Rothschild. Since 2019, Jess has published and hosted the podcast Hot Takes & Deep Dives, centered on queer pop iconography and New York City culture. Jess has received acclaim from The Huffington Post and The New York Times for her interviews with Rosie O’Donnell, Sandra Bernhard, Isaac Mizrahi, Melissa Etheridge, Roxane Gay, Mario Cantone, The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken, Fran Drescher, and more. Jess Rothschild was a founding writer for the largest independent LGBT website still in existence – Autostraddle – from 2009-2013.
The podcast boasts an impressive roster of talent, including comedians Joel Kim Booster, Matt Rogers, and Margaret Cho, iconic DJ Lina Bradford, Sister Act and First Wives Club screenwriter Paul Rudnick, Tony Award winner and former Advocate editor-in-chief Zach Stafford and so many more.
We spoke with the podcast’s creator, Jess, about the origin of the series and more in our exclusive interview.
You’ve covered both queer pop culture and New York’s cultural scene on “Hot Takes and Deep Dives”. Why did you decide to devote an entire podcast to Fire Island?
A thread I’ve pulled on over the years with Hot Takes & Deep Dives has been asking NYC figures about their experiences performing on Fire Island. I noticed it would completely disarm them and they would light up. I’ve been obsessed with Fire Island since my first visit in 2008 and I became more entrenched in Cherry Grove and The Pines communities, reading and watching anything I could get my hands on. But, there really has not been a piece of media that satisfied all of my curiosity. I wanted something that married the queer cultural legacy with how the rituals play out today… so I set out to create that missing piece of media.
I love that you are looking at this topic from a woman’s perspective. What differences did you discover between the experiences of men and women on Fire Island?
While The Pines can sometimes be perceived as “relentlessly male,” I actually do not have that experience. I feel very welcomed there and always see familiar faces from the city. Matt Rogers and I talk in Episode 1 about how it really is a “choose your own adventure” experience. If you’re a man looking for a certain “thing” – you will find it there, in excess. But as I discussed with Housewives writer Brian Moylan in the series, you can also opt-out of all that! It’s also becoming a lot more diverse with each passing day.
Cherry Grove definitely celebrates women/lesbians/trans/non-binary folks, is a big drag hang-out, and welcomes gay guys who are “over” the pressure that can sometimes be felt in The Pines.
How accurately do you feel Fire Island has been portrayed in the media (for example in the recent season of American Horror Story and the Hulu comedy Fire Island)?
I love any time Fire Island is depicted on screen. Andrew Ahn (the Fire Island film director) and their cinematographer Felipe Vara de Rey made a gorgeous-looking movie that transports you there. The film’s depiction of The Pines’ “richer or poorer” attitude and the Underwear Party scene are 100% accurate.
American Horror Story was a different animal in that it took place in the eighties and the entire season was a metaphor for the darkest time in gay history in NYC and on Fire Island (the AIDS epidemic). That being said, I loved seeing them go to Tea at the Blue Whale, the boardwalks, the houses, and of course my queen Sandra Bernhard.
What is your favorite story from the podcast?
Hearing DJ Lina Bradford tell her first-person story of coming out for a one-weekend DJ gig in The Pines which evolved into a 10-year reign, is the centerpiece of one episode. DJ Lina is a cult of personality who changed the SOUND of Fire Island. Lina’s presence brought color to the island. The story of people chanting her name and dancing so hard to her deep soul and house music that it broke the deck (twice!) is transcendent.
Have you been to Fire Island yourself? If so, what was the experience like for you?
Of course! I first went on July 4, 2008, for The Invasion of The Pines and have never missed a summer since. I used to do day trips, but it wasn’t until I began spending longer stretches of time out there that I fully understood the magic and the community. Sleeping there for several nights offers the opportunity to meet people, go to dinner parties, see late-night performances, and fall asleep to the sound of the ocean.
In doing the series, I discovered I am the rare person who has no real favoritism toward Cherry Grove or The Pines. I like to go out at night in Cherry Grove (dinner, entertainment), but I want to wake up in The Pines (beautiful long walks, watch the ferry come in the harbor with coffee).
Did you learn anything surprising while working on this podcast?
Two things really come to mind. The first is — I interviewed 20 people (men and women aged 35-65+). At least 25% of them revealed to me during the interview that they were sober and/or part of a 12-step program. It was so interesting to me that a place like Fire Island, infamous for its party-forward sometimes hedonistic atmosphere, had thriving communities, particularly in Cherry Grove. That definitely became part of the story we told.
The second thing is how the same socio-economic, racial, and political issues that play out across the United States are played out in these tiny, remote gay communities of Cherry Grove and The Pines as well. It’s all just a microcosm for the rest of the world, down to the historic rivalry between the two.
Did you have a favorite episode to record?
Episode 4 titled “TEA” is wild. It starts with the history of The Tea Dance in 1966 and then moves into Margaret Cho, Joel Kim Booster, Matt Rogers, Brian Moylan and DJ Lina Bradford’s most memorable, wild experiences at some of the famous parties on Fire Island. Everyone was so hilarious and forthcoming in sharing their experiences and did not hold anything back. I think the series reaches its comedic height in that episode.
You’ve got an impressive roster of guests on this podcast. Is there someone you’d like to have on a future podcast that you haven’t had the chance to speak with yet?
The dream guests I was able to get for “Hot Takes & Deep Dives” were Rosie O’Donnell and Sandra Bernhard. I’d still love to interview Niki Harris and Donna De Lory– Madonna’s back-up singers from The Blond Ambition Tour. And Michael Patrick King, obviously.
What other podcasts do you listen to?
“Sexy Unique Podcast” has been recapping Vanderpump Rules since day one and has the funniest, most scathing takes.
Do you have any plans for any future podcasts like this one dealing with other specific places, people or events in queer culture?
I would like to do more capsule (bottle) episodes of “Hot Takes & Deep Dives” where I take on one subject. I’ve done them on The Rise & Fall of Gawker, the cult of SoulCycle, Showgirls and midnight movies. I could see doing a deep dive on Provincetown (which I also love)! Two years ago I did a bottle episode on Fire Island with theater director Ben Rimalower which was the seed that turned into this series, so you never know!
Finding Fire Island is presented by the Broadway Podcast Network, with new episodes available now on BPN.FM or wherever you get your podcasts.