CHERRY GROVE, N.Y. -- Decades before the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, lesbians and gay men were living freely and openly in a place called Cherry Grove.
The seaside resort on Fire Island, about 60 miles east of Manhattan, was known as far back as the late 1940s as a sanctuary where gay writers, actors and businesspeople from the city and beyond escaped to relax, hold hands and show affection in public.
"It's probably one of the earliest examples of don't ask, don't tell," Carl Luss said after learning in June that the Cherry Grove Community House and Theater, opened in 1948, added to the National Register of Historic Places. The theater was cited for being the oldest continuously operating gay and lesbian theater in the United States.
"The message is, we have arrived, finally," said Diane Romano, president of the Cherry Grove Community Association.
"We remember when we could be arrested just for being gay," Romano said. "To now be applauded and to be allowed to marry and to be recognized by the government for being a gay theater for so many years is just thrilling. It's thrilling."
Cherry Grove is one of about 17 hamlets and villages on the 30-mile long barrier island five miles off the southern shore of Long Island.
Virtually obliterated in a 1938 hurricane, the community now has about 250 houses that can sell for $400,000 or more. Two miles of white, sandy beaches facing the Atlantic are accessible via a network of narrow boardwalks. Denizens either walk or get around on golf carts; no cars are permitted in most Fire Island communities.
Cherry Grove and the nearby Pines neighborhood are the predominantly gay communities on Fire Island, although the Pines developed its reputation as a haven decades after Cherry Grove.
"By the nature of its isolation and beauty, it became a safe haven for gay people, where they could not be afraid of repercussions from work, or anger from their families about being gay," said Thom "Panzi" Hansen, president of the Cherry Grove Arts Project. He and others noted there were occasional raids in which police would enforce laws prohibiting same-sex dancing or ticket people for lewd behavior, but largely because the island was so isolated from the mainland, they were generally left alone.
Landlords and businesses desperate for cash after the Depression, the 1938 hurricane and World War II generally overlooked their tenants' sexual orientation in order to fill what were then largely rental properties, locals said.
Notable Cherry Grove visitors and residents have included poet W.H. Auden; playwright Tennessee Williams; author Truman Capote; actresses Nancy Walker, Tallulah Bankhead and Hermione Gingold; comedian Kaye Ballard; and New Yorker journalist Janet Flanner.
Residents sought landmark status for the Community House and Theater to jump-start interest in funding a renovation of the 151-seat barnlike structure.
It is only the third gay-rights landmark to get the federal designation, joining the Stonewall, where gays clashed with the New York Police Department for three days in 1969 over harassment, leading to the modern gay rights movement, and the Washington, D.C., home of Dr. Franklin E. Kameny, who became a gay rights activist after he was fired from his job with the Army Map Service in 1957 for refusing to answer questions about his sexual orientation.
The walls of the theater's basement dressing room feature autographs of many of the performers who called the stage their temporary home. While some were willing to sign their real names, Luss said, others left only initials or aliases, still reticent to out themselves publicly even in a relatively safe atmosphere.
"It was a secret hidden in the open," said Luss, who wrote the application for landmark status. "Everybody sort of knew they were all on the same page and as long as there wasn't you know, ultra behavior, people were satisfied."
Gay visitors would -- and still do -- catch a Long Island Rail Road train in Manhattan for the 75-minute trip to Sayville and slowly begin to relax.
Once they got on a ferry for a 20-minute ride across Great South Bay to Cherry Grove, "personalities changed. The uprightness just began to fall off. You would see men start to chat with each other and laugh and smile," said Jack Dowling, who began visiting Cherry Grove as a teenager in the 1950s and now, at age 80, lives there.
Once on Fire Island, they would hold hands and kiss as they walked through town, Dowling said. Others dressed in drag for celebrations such as an annual baseball game on the beach.
"It was a safety zone," said Dowling, a painter and writer. Other gay enclaves were beginning to gain popularity in such places as Provincetown, Mass., San Francisco and Key West, Fla., but Cherry Grove "was without question the leading place that was predominantly gay," he said.
With acceptance of gays and lesbians evolving to the point where the Supreme Court has granted federal benefits to gay couples who are legally married, Romano and others say Cherry Grove -- where visitors are greeted by oversize American and gay liberation flags fluttering in the wind -- is more than ever seen as a comfortable place for gays and straights to visit for the day, a weekend or all summer long.
"I don't think we're getting as many young people as we used to," Romano said. "Now you can be gay almost anywhere."
Troy Files, who has been coming to Cherry Grove for about seven years, said people will always be attracted to what he called "a gay and lesbian Mayberry RFD."
"You can be gay in the middle of Pennsylvania and be safe now," Files said. "But for us, it's a hidden jewel. We're all here to have fun. The theme of Cherry Grove is `unity in the community,' and it truly shows."
Esther Newton, a University of Michigan women's studies professor who wrote "Cherry Grove, Fire Island," predicted that despite social changes, the Fire Island community will remain a gay enclave long into the future.
"In the next 50, 75, 100 years, there will be gay people and lesbians who will want to go to a place like the Grove," she said. "There's nothing else like it."