Tommy Finnegan was a Broadway gypsy in the 1960's and 1970's. It was after a long tour in Hello Dolly that Tommy called it quits. It wasn't that his legs gave out, but he was one of the first to be stricken with the plague. He owned a cottage in Cherry Grove on Fire Island. It was located just beyond the Bridge of Size, and this is where he spent his summers. Tommy was also a costume designer. He found that that trade kept him more occupied than dancing.
The doctors told Tommy to cut out the booze, take the medication prescribed and he might exit this world painlessly, however Tommy Finnegan would have none of that. He told his doctor, "hell, I'm goin' out like Elsie!", referring to a Sally Bowles line in a song. So, he never gave up the booze or the fun times. His mind was razor sharp and when he was around people, he was the center of attention with his insane sense of humor. The game of life dealt Tommy many blows, the latest at the time, was that he was confined to a wheelchair
Billy, Mark, and Tony boarded the Long Island Railroad at Penn Station for the trip to Sayville where they would catch the ferry to the Grove. They were to be the guests of Tommy Finnegan for the weekend. The three of them were in their early twenties and they all worked in the theatre at various jobs. Billy was a struggling actor, Mark worked box office for the Shuberts, and Tony was a scenic designer. Mark and Tony were known as Squint and Squat, but only behind their backs. Mark wore coca-cola bottle thick eyeglasses, and Tony was very much overweight and he always wore a red caftan to disguise his obesity. They were an unusual pair, to say the least.
The three of them walked the boardwalk to Tommy's cottage where a cocktail party was already in progress. Billy heard one of the guests say, "Oh! Here comes Billy with the Pretty One and Pocketbook face!" Tommy would always retort, "Oh? Which one is the Pretty One?" It was a standard joke; such was the camp of the time. Squint and Squat knew of this joke and it always got a round of laughter.
Billy carried just a gym bag with some essentials. On noticing this Tommy said, "Billy, where's your clothes? You know, we're all invited to the ball tonight." Billy replied, "oh, I'll just find something in the closet to wear." Billy knew that any respectable home on the island had a closet full of dresses for the unexpected drag ball.
The drag ball was being held in the next community to the east, The Pines, in an infamous beach home. It was 2 miles away and one could get there by watertaxi, walking the beach or the sand dunes, but in heels, it was a killer of a walk. So, it was decided that they would travel by watertaxi.
Now, the whole drag business was all tongue in cheek, and usually it was considered outrageous drag, the funnier the better. Tommy decided he was going to go as Joan Crawford, and Squat just changed caftans to a beige one, cinched it at the waist, put on a cheap dynel blonde wig, smeared some mascara and lipstick on, and presto! Baby Jane Hudson! Squint dressed as Mame, so he said, in a tight white satin dress and a matching turban. Billy went to the closet and chose the blue and white checked cotton dress. He didn't have a pair of ruby slippers Instead he donned a pair of jackboots to match his hairy legs. To complete his ensemble, he picked a wicker picnic basket, but instead of carrying Toto, he slipped in a bottle of Scotch and some tumblers for the journey to the Pines.
The four of them gathered out in front of the cottage with Squat pushing Tommy in the wheelchair. When they reached the wooden Bridge of Size, Tommy let out a scream.
Squat asked him where it was in the cottage and that he would run back. Tommy told him it was in the dining room, in the cupboard in a tupperware container. As Squat waddled back to the cottage Tommy said, "you know how it is with this salt air and jewels."
They sat on the Bridge of Size as Billy made drinks. He handed Tommy a fresh tumbler.
"And one for Toto, too!"
Tommy corrected Billy. "You mean Mahler, dear, Mahler. And one for Mahler! You never could get your lyrics straight, Billy."
"There's nothing straight about her," chimed in Squint.
"You're simply no friend of Dorothy," Billy shot back. They all laughed as Squat returned and placed the gaudy rhinestone tiara on Finnegans royal tresses.
"I crown thee Queen for A Day."
The four of them merrily continued down the boardwalk to the pier where they would wait for the watertaxi to the Pines. Billy decided to go ahead of them, so he skipped down the boardwalk, one side to the other while singing, "we're off to see the wizard."
Fortunately the tide was high so it wouldn't be a problem getting the wheelchair into the boat. The watertaxi was coming round the bend and they all eyed the young fellow driving the boat. Tan and trim with tight jeans. Squint, with the worst eyesight whispered, "be still my heart!" Tommy said, " seafood!" Billy admonished all of them to be quiet, "hush, you trollops!"
Mame Dennis stood on the pier and waved his hand, "oh yoo-hoo! Mr. Taxi, oh taxi!" Billy just rolled his eyes and shook his head.
The boat pulled up to the dock and the driver just looked at the foursome and said with a half smirk on his face, "where to?" Tommy pleaded, "Tara, I wanna go back to Tara, as god is my witness, Tara."
"The Pines," said Billy as Squint and Squat lifted the wheel chair with the assistance of sailorboy. The bay was choppy so the boat was rocking a bit. The two on the wheelchair almost lost balance, but the driver helped them but not before Tommy reached out to gain balance by putting his arms around the drivers waist.
"My captain, my captain!," he gleefully screamed.
Even his captain laughed at the shenanigans of the wacky passengers.
By now, Billy was a little tipsy and when he got in the boat his one leg was on the side of the vessel and the other on the dock and the distance between the two was getting greater. Instead of helping him. Squint picked up the hem of Billy's dress trying to take a peak. Billy leaped and landed safely in the boat. As he sat down, he stuck his tongue out and shot the finger at Squint.
"To the Pines, Captain, my Captain!," Tommy laughingly roared over the sound of the engines. The ride takes less than five minutes to the Pines, but it was time enough to freshen drinks. The four of them traded barbs all along the way and the captain seemed to enjoy this dishfest.
Getting out of the boat was another matter. Billy and the captain steadied the boat as Squint and Squat got Tommy and chair safely on the pier. Billy was last and the stern of the boat was falling away. He jumped for the pier. Tommy grabbed the picnic basket just as Billy Finn's foot missed the dock and Billy did a bellyflop in the Great South Bay. The captain threw a life jacket to Billy who really didn't need one for he could swim like a fish. It was just the weight of his jackboots that was giving him trouble. They all helped him up on the dock.
Squat paid the driver and said, "oh don't worry captain, she does this all the time. She has this terrible Esther Williams fixation."
"Jesus, look at that dress. Now, what are we going to do?" said Squint.
Tommy retorted, "oh, thank god it's wash and wear!"
"And drip-dry too," added Squat.
They walked and rolled the short distance to their destination enjoying the hello's and laughs from the locals. The ball was held at a famous Broadway personalities home at pool side. The foursome rang the doorbell and immediately the door swung open and they were greeted by the smiling owner who eyed Billy and said to Tommy, "what the hell happened to her?" As Tommy rolled himself in he simply said, "oh nothing, she just spilled a little scotch on herself in some choppy seas."
It was a lavish affair with seventy-five or so in attendance. One outfit was more outrageous than the next. The party was a resounding success. After the sun set, many went indoors and gathered around the piano and san g show tunes. The night wore on and it was getting toward midnight and there were no more watertaxis at that hour so the foursome bid goodbyes to all and headed for the beach.
Pushing the wheelchair along the beach was not an easy chore so it was decided to head as close to the water as they could get where the sand was more likely to be firm. Halfway along the mile or so journey they rested. The moon was full and the waves tumbled to the beach as the four of them sat on the sand enjoying the scenic beauty of Fire Island.
Billy looked at the Hudson sisters, one in a wheelchair, the other sitting just to the right. He whispered to Mark, "aren't they characters? They look like they came right off the screen, y'know at the end of Baby Jane where they're on the beach?" "Yeah, only the police have left." Tommy asked Squat for another drink. "I think we're on empty" came the reply. "Oh Jane, you wouldn't treat me this way...." "Oh hush! Here, have mine" said Squint. They moved on after ten minutes and were glad to see the beginnings of the boardwalks of the Grove.
Clumpety-clump from the wheel chair was the only sound in the quiet air. Squat was on the helm of the chair. Tommy was three sheets to the wind and still held a tumbler in his hand. When they got to the Bridge of Size the left wheel of the chair jammed causing the chair to spin and stop abruptly. The passenger couldn't counter the inertia, so there went Tommy Finnegan flying through the air right over The Bridge of Size. He landed on his head with the tiara hanging barely by a bobbypin. He had a Joan Crawford grin on his face, and still his fist clutched the now empty tumbler.
The autopsy report indicated the cause of death was due to his immune system and the amount of alcohol in his blood. The fall probably didn't help much either. So, Tommy did go out like Elsie, just the way he would have wanted it.
Attention had to be paid to the memory of Tommy Finnegan. As a tribute to him, for the rest of that summer, the locals renamed The Bridge of Size to Finnegan's Leap!
Upon hearing the news of Tommy's demise coupled with the Pines incident, the watertaxi captain started drinking heavily. A few weeks later he drove his boat at high speed into the meatrack from the shallow in the bay. He nearly killed an entire orgy of old queens, and he left Fire Island for good.
The tiara was never recovered, and there is a rumor that it lies somewhere beneath The Bridge of Size in the ivy of the Bosque dell.
Ah, but that was many years ago and I will always remember that crazy bunch of guys from my youth. Sometimes, I take the boat out to the island and reminisce. I walk to the Bridge or the cottage and say hello to Tommy.
Today's generation just knows it simply as a bridge over a small gorge of ivy, but to me, it is the bridge that links my past with the present.
I'll go into Cherry's for a beer and sit at the bar and stare out at the bay thinking of Mark and Tony, perhaps whispering the names Squint and Squat. And I long for their jokes, but I realize it can't be. Oh, Squint and Squat are still in show business in a way. They are touring America, their names forever etched on a quilt.
Each spring, when cleaning out the closets, I check all the articles of clothing and shoes that I will throw out. I see them, there, in the far corner, covered with cobwebs, an old pair of jackboots.
Yes, we were the boys of summer and life was a cabaret back then until this disease called AIDS came along and turned most of my friends into red ribbons.
So, each Spring, I will go to Cherry's and lift a glass to all and loudly proclaim:
And, I will hear a response, for I am certain I will hear his voice echoing throughout the Grove:
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