Just take a cab to Penn Station, then a train to Babylon, then switch to another train to Sayville, then take the shuttle van to the ferry landing, then board a boat to either the Pines or Cherry Grove. And then walk, walk, walk down the wooden planks (there are no streets), and you have the effortless resort of Fire Island, where you can fend off rabid deer and look for hotties all day and night until you drop! No one knows this exasperating yet fun queer resort like Greg Scarnici, who started going to the island in 1992 and currently rents an apartment in the Grove with his husband and a friend.
Scarnici has spent 24 years at Saturday Night Live (he worked his way up from costume department intern to associate producer), and on the side, he dons some heavy sass as his drag alter ego, Levonia Jenkins, who shops, with wig askew, at C-Town. What’s more, he’s an author, having published Dungeons and Drag Queens: Fire Island Through The Eyes of Its Worst Drag Queen (pictured below). I tracked down Scarnici for some fiery talk about the wretched yet delightful excesses of the fiery island.
Hello, Greg. First, some background. What is your role as associate producer of SNL?
The main thing is the show is always running 10 minutes late, so I’m in the control room saying, “You’ve got to cut a sketch or two.”
That show doesn’t have the greatest gay reputation. Has that changed?
Things have changed drastically and they’re ridiculously gay friendly now. There are almost as many gay writers as straight writers.
How did your drag character, Levonia Jenkins, evolve?
It happened during a drunken brunch on my rooftop in Cherry Grove in 2010. My friend came up with the name and her persona is a sort of Suffolk County lesbian meets Real Housewives of Atlanta. My friend took the Fire Island ferry for the first time and was enamored of the lesbian haircuts—the purple porcupines.
Has Fire Island changed a lot in the last 10 years?
I think it never changes. It could be 1978 or 2019, and it’s always the same.
Audience members at a concert in the Fire Island Pines in 1999.
So, rampant sex there is a constant?
There’s so much sex going on out on the island. It’s mainly hookup apps nowadays, so the Meat Rack [the area between the Grove and the Pines, which used to be filled with anonymous sex] is basically dead. But if you’re into public sex, there’s plenty of it at Daniel Nardicio’s underwear party at the Ice Palace in the Grove. Sometimes there are more people in the back room than on the dance floor.
And you don’t see much underwear.
Around the ankles.
Have you partaken?
There’s a story in my book about trying not to partake in outdoor sex because I know too many people, but one time I got drunk and was lured into the back room. It was a huge mistake because neighbors started coming over to me, and I didn’t want to have sex with these people I see on the beach all the time!
But basically, there’s no shame on Fire Island.
No, no shame at all. Who cares?
I long ago noticed that the Rack isn’t quite what it was. If anyone’s still there trying to cruise, they simply didn’t get the memo.
It’s so sad. But my friend who’s 60 and grew up with Meat Rack culture says there’s still lots of action there after the underwear party on Fridays because they’re horny and want to get laid. Friday night, he gets dick left and right.
How about someone 80 years old like me?
No problem, because it’s fucking pitch black. [Laughs] Eight years ago, I hooked up, and as soon as we were done, I realized it was my fucking roommate.
It’s sick to have sex with someone you know and like.
The same old man I mentioned, he used to bring a piece of cardboard and there was a couple he’d meet there, and they’d play Spin the Bottom. He’d lay on his back on the cardboard, with his knees up and his ass exposed. They’d spin him, and whoever was closest when he landed, would fuck him.
Beachgoers in Cherry Grove back in 1983.
Charming! Have you ever done something embarrassing out on the island?
Every single day. I think the most embarrassing thing I ever did was fuck some guy over a garbage can after the underwear party one night.
Yikes. Did he know what was happening?
It was his idea.
Have you ever had sex as Levonia?
No, I find it weird. Those Suffolk County bi guys hit on me all the time when I’m in drag. But it’s a ridiculous, dumb character, and I don’t feel sexual. I can’t think of getting hard.
Have you ever had sex with a drag queen, whether in or out of drag?
I’ve had sex with guys who are out of drag, but I don’t need that wig glue getting in my mouth, so take that shit off first! A neighbor once got drunk and picked up a guy in drag. He ended up with the guy’s eyelash stuck to his forehead and he didn’t realize it.
What are your thoughts about the two communities there—the Pines vs. Cherry Grove?
I think the towns are starting to become more similar. The Pines used to not embrace drag until July 4 [when the annual drag Invasion happens], but now they have drag brunch and queens from Drag Race, and if you dress up, they’re not scandalized, they might even go home and throw on a wig themselves. It’s loosening up all those tight assholes out there.
As we attain our place at the table, does it make sense to have these isolated ghettos at all?
I kind of like that because it allows people to let every single one of their inhibitions go, whereas if you’re intermingling with straight people, you might have a subconscious fear of being a total queer in front of a straight guy, but in a gay ghetto, you do whatever the fuck you want and know you’ll be accepted.
Scarnici as Levonia Jenkins.
Do you find the Fire Island crowd nice or nasty?
You get both. It’s a little bit of a stereotype, but I find that the guys in the Grove are more welcoming and nice, whereas in the Pines, you might get guys who are stuck up because they’re gorgeous and rich. But we ain’t got much of that in the Grove, so nobody has attitude.
You have a worked out body. Is that because of peer pressure?
No. I discovered in my teens that working out helped me with my depression and anxiety.
No wonder I’m depressed. Does having a body make you more accepted in that community?
Not really, because I’m in shape, but when I’m next to those ripped fucking steroid-ed GHB bodies, I don’t even compare.
Is there ageism for not being in your 20s?
The exact opposite. The second I turned 40, everyone in their 20s wanted to fuck me. Everyone has daddy issues, I discovered. You’re suddenly hot because you’ve got some grey in your beard.
Is that still happening for you?
Knock on wood, yes. But I give it another year, until I’m put out to pasture.
Well, until then, keep having fun and writing about it. Thanks, Greg.
Tidbits From the Edge
In between underwear parties, the aforementioned promoter Daniel Nardicio told me that his Club Cumming partner, superstar Alan Cumming (pictured above), is looking to buy into Nardicio's other East Village club, Bedlam. He added that if that happens, the hangout will most likely undergo a name change to Second Cumming. Mama like!
Another hot producer-promoter, Frankie Sharp (Westgay, Three Dollar Bill), might be very visible extremely soon, but I can’t say more right now. Unlike some of those Fire Island queens, I know when to plug it up.
And I hear FX is doing a docuseries on gay NYC, and the ‘80s segment will include an Anthony and Alex-directed segment about late videographer Nelson Sullivan, who back in the day captured every bit of my cavorting with his penetrating lens. And I am not ashamed! That much!
Audra and Michael in the Clair de Lune
To answer your first question, yes, Audra McDonald sings in the revival of Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. A tiny bit. The six-time Tony winner practically turns a few seconds of orgiastic moaning into operatic trilling at the outset of the play, and later on, she warbles a couple of notes from Brigadoon [a show which also happens to be referenced in Beetlejuice]. But that’s it, folks. Debussy’s “Clair de Lune” and Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” are the primary musical pieces you’ll hear here, as dictated by the romantic plot. This is the well known dramedy—filmed in 1991 with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer—in which a feisty short order cook tries to peel back the armor of a battle-scarred waitress (who wanted to be an actress but will probably become a teacher) while insisting that they need to connect in the dark and even with the lights on.
There are many coincidences that join the two characters, including the fact that they’re named Frankie (Audra) and Johnny (Michael Shannon), just like in the famous song about a woman who kills her man when she comes upon him romancing someone else. In this case, Frankie didn’t shoot her then-husband when she found him doing that, but she’s about to metaphorically annihilate him by throwing away her resistance and bonding with her co-worker Johnny, an ex-con who’s determined to grab life by the throat and stop forging other people’s names.
In one more coincidence, this play is remarkably similar in theme to another currently revived 1987 work by a gay playwright: Lanford Wilson’s Burn This, in which a shell-shocked woman is lured back into romance by a relentlessly pushy, weird creature who turns out to be a tender beast. In McNally’s play, the two leads banter, engage in frank sex talk, and try to negotiate their relationship, as she continually says “Sorry” while he constantly swears, then adds “Pardon my French.” They blab about Prizzi’s Honor, western omelets, and Shakespeare, in between morbidly peering out Frankie’s window and watching a neighboring woman get beaten up by her spouse, a situation Frankie has tried to alleviate, to no avail. (The woman is too entrenched to fight back or get out, a trap Frankie has studiously come to avoid.) Their dialogue can be repetitive and too cute or cliched (Love “doesn’t grow on trees”), but as a character study, it’s fascinating. The talk heats up when it goes to the limits, like Johnny desperately wanting to stare at Frankie’s privates; Frankie yelping, “Don’t blame me for your limp dick”; or her asking Johnny if he’s queer, to which he replies, “Does this look like a gay face?” Fortunately, this being before cell phones, these two can concentrate on working each other’s nerves nonstop as they work the various areas of Frankie’s walk-up apartment in pre-fabulous Hell’s Kitchen.
The 2002 Frankie and Johnny revival with Edie Falco and Stanley Tucci exuded such chemistry that, as I recall, both stars left their partners for each other in real life (for a while, anyway). This time, Shannon is appropriately invasive and insistent—Frankie screams for him to go at one point—and Audra is skeptical yet obviously intrigued by someone who proposes marriage and kids on a first date. Classical music wafts as a backdrop throughout, and the closing moments—as directed by Arin Arbus—neatly balance the lyrical and the mundane, with Johnny’s high-flying ideas grounded by a couple of toothbrushes in motion. It’s good stuff, but you should mainly see this for the excellent star duo of Audra and Michael—and Frankie and Johnny. They sing.