A.C. is a hit in debut as host of gay beach party

Carlos Flores (left) and Tom Wermuth, of Northeast Philadelphia, relax at Harrah's Resort. They were among attendees at Sand Blast's first year in Atlantic City after 13 in Asbury Park.
Carlos Flores (left) and Tom Wermuth, of Northeast Philadelphia, relax at Harrah's Resort. They were among attendees at Sand Blast's first year in Atlantic City after 13 in Asbury Park. (AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer)
Posted: July 22, 2014

The question that hung in the overcast sky over Atlantic City was counterintuitive.

Could this part-glitz, part-seedy, all-camp metropolis measure up to its tiny seashore neighbor Asbury Park? (In terms, that is, as host to one of the biggest gay beach parties on the East Coast.)

Judging from the fierce crowd of men who gathered Saturday on the sand outside the Claridge Hotel - where the sunglasses were mirrored, the pectorals sculpted, and the bathing suits practically dermatological - and partied on through Sunday, the answer was, "Yes, girl!"


"It's a new challenge for the party," said Carlos Flores, 45, a senior manager for Payless ShoeSource. "I think this will open doors for hotels to join in the celebration and offer more programs. Next year will be better."

Flores and his husband, Tom Wermuth, 54, an optician, drove down Friday night from Philadelphia's Bridesburg section, excited but apprehensive about the change of venue. For 13 years, Sand Blast, a beach party held on the third weekend in July, had reigned in Asbury Park.

According to the event's promoters, the move was a matter of happy necessity. The event had gotten so successful that it outgrew the relatively small burg, overwhelming hotels and the community.

And while the whole truth is more complicated, involving disputes with the town's major hotel and convention center, the underlying reality was that Sand Blast had been bursting at Asbury Park's seams.

"People loved it for its intimacy and privacy," said David Jefferys, marketing manager for the three-day event. But the yearly pilgrimage of 1,200 men was ready for a city with more rooms, more restaurants, and a bigger indoor pool.

"It was a big gamble," said Jefferys. "There is nothing gay here."

Mayor Don Guardian, who is gay, is trying hard to change that. He recently designated the sands at Park Place and Boardwalk gay beaches.

But in general, the resort has not been nearly the popular destination for gays as it was in the early 1970s - before casinos took over the beachfront, Jefferys said.

"Once the casinos were built, there were no places to buy ice cream or where we were welcome in flip-flops."

With casino revenue waning and a new push to lure gay tourism, the Sand Blast move made sense, he said.

"We knew we were welcome. We knew there was marriage in New Jersey. We knew the mayor is gay," Jefferys said.

Since a party's success depends on the size of its crowds, organizers had their fingers crossed for a big turnout at Saturday's dance party outside the Claridge. Jefferys estimated that at least 1,000 men came to dance, drink, and commune and, in the process, shell out close to half a million dollars. Estimates were unavailable Sunday afternoon about the number of women who attended a parallel three-day event in Atlantic City.

One of the problems with the move to the sprawling resort town was that despite special package offers in several hotels that hosted parties, people had to travel by jitney, taxi, or car to attend the events.

Kris Fisher, 38, a personal trainer, said he wished there was better public transportation. He had high praise for the free shuttle. But on Sunday morning, he and Colby Walsh, 28, a physician's assistant from New York City, said they had to take a $15 taxi from the Claridge, where they were staying, to get to Harrah's Resort for an all-day pool party.

Despite the go-go dancers taking 20-minute shifts on platforms along the water, the multiple bars, and seismic-bass thumping music, that playground was relatively tame, compared to the previous night's skinny dipping party at the Claridge.

Some of the hotels were more welcoming than others.

At Resorts Casino on Saturday night, some men danced in nothing more than strategically positioned fanny packs. Sunday afternoon, however, go-go dancers dressed in tight-fitting bathing suits were stopped in the halls of Harrah's and told to cover themselves up.

The event drew a broad enough cross-section of the gay community that the edgy and the sedate both felt completely comfortable, said Andy Bukowski, 52, who manages a high-tech company and lives in Washington. "I was afraid it would be all crazy, drugged-out teenyboppers. But there were lots of people from their late 20s to older than me."

Sitting at a poolside bar Sunday morning, taking his time with a Bloody Mary and a fruit plate, he said, "I was a good boy last night. I was back in my room at 1:30 a.m. - alone."

Stretched out on a lounge chair, Wermuth was taking the morning to recover, while his husband stood nearby, still grooving to the music in a state of exhausted bliss.

"I'm impressed," Wermuth said. "The view from the Chelsea Hotel rooftop last night was stunning. Looking out over the city, it felt regal."




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