One of the first images in Jennifer Callahan’s documentary “The Bungalows of Rockaway” is a close-up of a woman’s wrinkled face wearing an expression of amazement and delight. The face belongs to Maxine Marx, daughter of Chico, and we see that she is watching a black-and-white film reel of a family carousing on the beach. “Is that Daddy?” she exclaims. “Oh, he was so cute.”
Chico and Groucho Marx had seaside bungalows in Far Rockaway, a neighborhood on Queens’s Rockaway Peninsula, as did legions of families who lived for the summer days when they could escape the cramped streets of New York City for the beach. As Callahan explains in her film, Jewish, Irish and black families who couldn’t afford The Rockaways’ tonier hotels first set up camp in tent cities along the shore, which in the 1910s and ’20s gave way to thousands of small but functional bungalows.
Excerpts from Callahan’s film, which is still a work in progress, will screen in Manhattan on September 9 at the Anthology Film Archives, as part of an evening devoted to The Rockaways.
“They captured my imagination, and they stayed there,” Callahan said of the beach homes, which she first saw in archival photographs while working on an oral history project. “I just did not expect to see bungalows in New York City. I think of New York City architecture as skyscrapers or tenements or brownstones. They made this visual impact that I couldn’t shake.”
Perhaps surprisingly, given the specificity of her subject, Callahan did not have a personal connection to the bungalow colonies before she saw the pictures — although she later discovered that her mother had spent a summer in a Rockaway bungalow in her youth.
In her research, Callahan found that the town of Far Rockaway had been a summer home for such luminaries as Sid Caesar, Arthur Miller (who referred to it in his memoir as “Siberia”), Lionel Trilling, Judy Garland and former New York City mayor Abe Beame. Composer Richard Rodgers was born in the neighboring upscale town of Arverne.
In the middle of the night in the mid-1930s, Callahan said, Billie Holliday “would get in the car with her friends and drive out to Far Rockaway and sit out on the beach and look at the stars. She didn’t swim, but she just liked looking at the water.”
In the 1950s, the bungalow communities began to drop off. The neighborhoods declined further when the New York City government began sending poor city dwellers, whose homes were being destroyed in the course of urban planning projects, to live in the flimsy, un-winterized bungalows during the off-season.
“It was supposed to be temporary,” Callahan said. “But then they got stuck out there.”
As the documentary tells it, that act of unsatisfactory city planning led to the depressed state of the town today. Housing projects loom over the fewer than 500 bungalows that remain. But those bungalows have once again become the province of immigrants. Cuban, Indian and Bangladeshi families now summer at them, Callahan said, alongside a block that remains stubbornly Irish.
“Everyone says the same thing” of The Rockaways, said Callahan, who hopes to finish a rough cut of the film and start shopping it around to festivals and public television stations within a few weeks. “‘I love the water. I love the birds on the shore. The air smells different.’”
Marissa Brostoff is a staff writer at the Forward.