By 10 AM on Sunday, Hollywood Beach is already filling up with people. The volleyball games start at noon, the picnics soon after. Everywhere you look--on the grass, in the water, on the sand--there are bodies, male bodies, a sea of beefcake. Single men, couples, groups of five, gangs of twenty or more. Against a backdrop of high-rises, the beach looks like Miami or Honolulu. It's gay Elysium.
"You have never seen a more densely packed beach in the world," says one man. "Not an open inch of sand anywhere. I look at it and think, 'My god! This is incredible! Does anyone go to the Belmont Rocks anymore?'"
The beach was deserted when Gerry Marcoccia, a 33-year-old government employee, moved to Edgewater in 1990. He would jog or ride his bike along the lake and see maybe 50 people, mostly families, spread across a vast ocean of sparkling-clear sand from Ardmore Avenue to past Bryn Mawr. Marcoccia's friends Bob and Joe would come in from the suburbs on weekends, and he'd take them out to the beach. They'd often mention getting a game of volleyball together.
Then one Sunday afternoon in July 1991, Joe and Bob brought a net and strung it between two poles at the south end of the beach. Ten people played that first day. Marcoccia had so much fun he went out and bought his own net. He called some more friends and had another pickup game the next Sunday.
"The first year," he says, "people would call and say, 'Are you going to be out there?' I finally just said, 'Assume I'm gonna be out there and come join us.' Growing up, I was an outsider. Like in a Charlie Chaplin movie, watching the party, never part of it. So by this I created my own party, and I was in the middle of it. I'd been feeling lonely. I thought everybody was out dating or hanging out in bars. I thought I'd create my own little world. Obviously, everyone else was feeling the same way I was."
Marcoccia didn't know anything about volleyball, and he encouraged reckless abandon in others. They played "Jungle Ball," without rules and scoring; everyone was invited, regardless of ability or experience. "We just hit the ball over the net," Marcoccia says. "We'd play nine on nine. We'd have music and the Supremes would come on and we'd start singing, 'Stop, in the name of love.'"
Jungle Ball proved so popular that soon the players became a small but steady club. Mentions of their activities began appearing in the gay gossip magazine Babble: "Come out to Hollywood Beach and watch the boys play with their balls." In the summer of 1993, the third season of volleyball, Marcoccia bought a multicolored gay-pride flag and tied it to a tree. He says he felt emboldened by the election of Bill Clinton.
"I wanted to say this is our territory. I put the flag out to indicate this is our space, not in a negative way, just to let people know we're here. We're here, we're queer, get over it, whatever that cliche is. I just knew that I was here and that people were welcome to come play. I never dreamed what was gonna happen next. One woman came up to us and said, 'That's a beautiful flag. Where'd you get it?' I said, 'Gay Mart.' She said, 'Kmart?' I said, 'No, GAY Mart. G-A-Y...' And she took off."
Back before Lake Shore Drive came this far north, the only beaches here were a few strips of sand with some boat docks. These were often used by residents of the three art deco buildings that made up the Edgewater Beach Hotel and Apartments. After Lake Shore Drive was extended in the early 1950s, Hollywood Beach was laid over the resulting landfill.
The Edgewater Beach complex always had a sizable gay population, but they weren't really beachgoers. They preferred hanging out on the grass in the shadow of the hotel. When the two hotel buildings were torn down in 1970, leaving only the apartment complex, the small gay scene moved down to the park near the beach.
But Edgewater was not the place to be if you were a gay Chicagoan in the 70s. New Town was booming, and in the summer the Belmont Rocks--that array of boulders on the water's edge--became the hot scene. In those days, one of the primary beach activities was anonymous sex, which drew criticism from both outside and within the community. In a GayLife article, the late columnist Jon-Henri Damski had this to say about the Belmont Rocks and its environs: "The common line is that people who do sex in the park are sick animals, seized by lust. They just go there to get their rocks off. But I have also seen guys share a kind of new intimacy with strangers, where they reach a sensitivity point and get a satisfaction within the confines of their regular relationships."
Up in Edgewater, the scene was calmer. The park bathhouse was quietly used as a "tea room," but that wasn't the point of Hollywood Beach. "It was too busy, too crowded up at the Rocks," says one Hollywood regular. "Everyone who used to come here cruised, but they also brought their books and read in quiet. It was almost a gay getaway from the Rocks."
In the summer of 1994, Gerry Marcoccia noticed that small groups of sunbathers had started to show up on Sundays while he and his friends played volleyball, maybe 50 extra people on a good day. He bought additional nets and balls, and asked Alderman Mary Ann Smith for more net posts. He tried, in vain, to get the Park District to install a water fountain and additional bike racks. He also wanted a concession stand, but had to settle for the posts. Still, the beach continued to grow in popularity. Every Sunday from April to November, and then Saturdays as well, Marcoccia was on the beach at noon, setting up nets and greeting people. He inevitably came to be known as the Mayor of Hollywood Beach.
Early in the summer of 1995, Mike Brown was sitting on the concrete wall next to the courts, he says, "longingly watching people play volleyball." He was frail and skinny and had never played the game before, but it sure looked like fun.
"Jump in anytime you want," Marcoccia called out.
Brown did, and he was hooked. Most of these guys were as bad at volleyball as he was. That was the point, Marcoccia told him.
"I didn't want people to relive their worst childhood memories," Marcoccia says. "I was cross-eyed growing up. I was laughed at. I wasn't a jock in school. I went to college, but I wasn't smart enough to be a real smart guy. I wasn't a freak, wasn't into drugs, so I never fit in anyplace. I just wanted people to feel welcome and to fit in."
Brown became Marcoccia's vice-mayor, or "mayor of vice," as Brown likes to say. They made an odd pair. By day, Marcoccia is a program analyst for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an old-line Democrat who lives alone with three dogs. Brown, on the other hand, is a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and a $250-an-hour transvestite dominatrix who works under the name Mistress Raven. At this year's Gay Pride Parade, Brown rode on the float of a leather organization, wearing a platinum blond Marilyn Monroe wig, a cat-o'-nine-tails around his neck, and thigh-high boots with six-inch heels. He was carrying paddles, whips, handcuffs, and other implements of pain and pleasure. "I was dripping with leather and chains," he says. At the beach, Brown skips the wig and spangles and instead goes with a blue-and-white-striped pair of bathing trunks.
"People want to make appointments with me," he says, "but Sundays are my day on the beach. I lose 500 bucks, but I'd rather be out here."
Every year the crowd grew exponentially, and by 1997 Hollywood Beach was where the boys were. People brought their own nets and volleyballs and started demanding to play under official rules, complete with setting and spiking. Brown and Marcoccia were forced to actually learn the basics of the game. The sunbathers now outnumbered players ten-to-one. At times, Marcoccia became despondent and refused to come down to the beach, except in spring and fall when it was less crowded and people still needed him. Brown took over the curatorial duties and hung the pride flag when Marcoccia didn't show.
"I was worried that it would get so big it would explode," Marcoccia says. "In fact, there are people I know who won't come here anymore because it's gotten so popular and impersonal. I still do stuff behind the scenes, but I'm like a speck now. I was a big fish in a small pond, and now I'm a big fish in the ocean."
Hollywood Beach had developed a new identity. One fellow calling himself Video Michael had taken to taping the buffest bodies, "The Best of Hollywood Beach," and showing the videos at places like Big Chicks and Little Jim's, as well as at bars in Atlanta and New York City. Video Michael also claimed to have a tape of a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary, but the bars were less interested in that one.
An official social club popped up, driven forward by a group of friends who had grown tired of calling around on Sunday mornings to find out who was bringing the hot dogs. They referred to themselves as "the poets," mostly because one of their favorite activities was reading from a book of dirty limericks while drinking punch that contained every conceivable alcohol except schnapps. For no particular reason, they decided that their name stood for "Pissing on Everything, Tomorrow, Saturday, and Sunday." To accommodate the extra day, the acronym took on another "s." Now POETSS has a central committee and a newsletter. Its members are planning to field a team for the AIDS Walk and have scheduled a canoe trip on the Fox River.
"But mostly," says one member, "it's a bunch of queens hanging out at the beach."
"Isn't that the truth?" says another. "Thank you. No cars. No coolers, no families, no beer bellies. Just washboard stomachs as far as the eye can see. Well, except for mine. They're even bringing their boats over from Belmont Harbor. My lover, he's got a boat, and last week he hit a rock or something and was stranded out there. Three gay guys pulled up in a boat and said, 'Don't worry. We'll pull you out.' I swear, it's better than Key West!"
Mike Brown and I walked down Hollywood Beach on a recent Saturday afternoon. As usual it was crowded with bodies, overwhelmingly male. Brown told me that none of this would have been possible without Gerry Marcoccia. "Gerry made this beach happen," he said. "He is the mayor."
Brown said he considered Marcoccia one of his best friends. He loved being his assistant at the beach. Volleyball had turned his life around, made him feel athletic for the first time. He even had a T-shirt made for Marcoccia in appreciation. "Hollywood Beach Volleyball," it reads. "Gerry Marcoccia, Founder."
The next day, with Brown present, Marcoccia talked to me about how he sees Hollywood Beach as an "economic engine" for Edgewater.
"A lot of people are going to get rich on this, but not me," he says. "I work for the federal government. I just want a nice, safe neighborhood. A couple of weeks ago, this guy came up to me and said, 'You know, my lover sells real estate and asked me to ask you if you sell real estate.' I said 'Why?' He said, 'Because you turned around Edgewater.'"
Marcoccia gazed up and down the beach at the hundreds of guys wading in the water. They weren't swimming, just talking. It looked very much like the kind of gay bar he avoids, except everyone was wearing a Speedo.
"I have a love-hate relationship with the beach. I'm proud of it, but I hate the impersonalness of it. It's like you go to a party and everybody's in the kitchen. There are some things that have been lost that I mourn, but at the same time it's like, 'Look at this! This is amazing!' I come up here every day and say, 'Oh my god! Would you believe I created all this!'"
"Yeah, Gerry," Brown says. "And on the seventh day you rested."
A few days later, Marcoccia called me in a panic. He'd just found out that I expected him and Brown to be photographed together for this article. He wanted me to know that, though he appreciates Brown's help with the volleyball, he isn't associated with Brown in a "professional capacity" and doesn't endorse what he does for a living. He added that he has an excellent relationship with the local chamber of commerce and the alderman's office, and he didn't want to do anything to jeopardize that.
He called Brown that same night and told him basically the same thing. Marcoccia was trying to make the neighborhood a nice place to live. He didn't think they should be photographed together.
Brown was hurt. He told Marcoccia so, and Marcoccia said he was overreacting. Brown said Marcoccia was being petty and insecure. Marcoccia said he was going to bed. "I've been his best supporter. I've been his best advocate," Brown said after a sleepless night.
"If anybody asks me, I tell them that this is Gerry's beach. But I need to distance myself. If he can't accept who I am, then he can't accept me. If this community cannot be inclusive, it's to our detriment. Power is in numbers. I don't want to not be included because I'm transgendered, because I like men and women. I am a man and a woman. People say I'm fence-sitting. I'm not fence-sitting. I don't lack for a date on Saturday night, because I love both. So what? Include everybody. Everybody gets treated equally.
"Gerry says that volleyball is all we have in common. Well, I guess that's true after all. It looks like there's going to be a split at Hollywood Beach."
Brown now plans to have a T-shirt printed up for himself. On the front it will say, "I'm a transgendered escort and a dominatrix." The back will read: "Hollywood Beach. Come fuck with me." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photographs by Jason Smith.