Sandy Beach on the merry-go-round of life

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Sandy Beach on stage
Sandy Beach on stage

Sandy Beach is the epitome of “Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty, and meet me tonight in Atlantic City.” Talking to the legendary and iconic drag queen, Sandy Beach (Robert Hitchen), was a privilege, he is a fascinating historian eager to take you on a journey of his life spanning decades in Atlantic City.

Sandy was born in Atlantic City to a family deeply embedded in the city’s history. His great-grandfather, Anthony Ruffu, was mayor from 1927-1930. During the Boardwalk Empire days of speakeasies, bootleggers, and flappers, Sandy’s great-uncles owned hidden bars during the Prohibition.

Sandy Beach laughing as always
Sandy Beach laughing as always

Sandy’s dad worked in the grand old hotels that dotted the boardwalk. At a young age, he was influenced by the stars who visited Atlantic City such as Frank Sinatra. He said he was always around performers with his dad being in the business. His godmother Marie McCullough, known as the “First Lady of Atlantic City,” started the McCullough Modeling Agency in 1946. Sandy said she took him under her wing and he was modelling at age four. There is a plaque with her name on the second-floor balcony at the Boardwalk Hotel.

In 1958, when teenagers were dancing to rock and roll, radio personality, Ed Hurst was broadcasting his show Summertime from the Marine Ballroom on the Steel Pier. Teenagers were invited to come up and dance and Sandy became a dancer on Steel Pier and spun records for the show.

He was also a dolphin trainer on Steel Pier, and his co-workers began calling him “Sandy” from the character in the 1960’s TV show featuring Flipper the dolphin. He later attached “Beach” to it, thus creating his drag name.

Sandy Beach in Philadelphia performing live at an LGBT event
Sandy Beach in Philadelphia performing live at an LGBT event

Always the performer, Sandy studied acting in high school and college. He says it’s “a fluke” how he got started in drag. At the age of 18, he went to the roller derby to see the legendary roller queen Judy Arnold, of the Philadelphia Warriors. He won a contest dressed in drag, launching his iconic fame. Sandy’s uncle was a female impersonator, so Sandy began to play with female impersonator groups doing acts like the Supremes and the Charelles. Sandy says drag is just “being a male actress.”

Sandy reminisced about Atlantic City being the gay mecca in the 1970’s. On New York Ave, there were eleven gay bars, including the famous Val’s. He said people came to Atlantic City from New York City and Philadelphia, and that Rehoboth Beach was not a gay destination yet, and Fire Island was too far and hard to travel to. Bartenders would come and work from Thursdays to Sundays and business was booming.

During Atlantic City’s heyday, Sandy worked at the Chester Lounge from 1976 through1981 and at Resorts Casino in 1978. Decades later, Resorts became the first Atlantic City casino to market themselves to the LGBT community, opening the city’s first gay casino nightclub.

Sandy said he bought a pair of dice glasses and someone snapped a picture of him standing in front of Resorts. That picture became part of a slideshow promoting the anniversary of Boardwalk Hall. In true Sandy humor, he said it “didn’t go over well” when his family saw it.

During the early 80’s, Sandy was also performing in New York City. He took his show to the Ice Place in 1981. He talked about the AIDS epidemic, “At that time, people would say they had hepatitis they would be dead three weeks later.” He lost so many people from Baltimore to Atlantic City, when AIDS funding was cut off he said “My name is crap anyway, I may as well step up.” He continues to fundraise for many AIDS charities today.

It was during the 1980’s that the casinos started tearing down the gay clubs and rooming houses on New York Avenue replacing them with giant parking lots. It was also the end of an era for drag in the gay clubs in Atlantic City.

Sandy started working for the Golden Nugget casino in 1981 in the show room as a cashier, working his way up to assistant showroom manager. He joined a straight improv group called Organized Crime that played at the Tropicana, he said he would occasionally do a drag character, such as Annie or a Latin spitfire he named Sinsuela La Steam.

Atlantic City is famous for the Miss America pageant which began in 1921 on the boardwalk. As years went by, members of the LGBT community worked behind the scenes of the pageant and never had the opportunity to watch the pageant. So Sandy Beach came up with the idea to do a spoof on the Miss America pageant and created the Miss’d America Pageant in the 1990’s. He wrote, directed, and hosted the pageant which was first held the day after the Miss America Pageant. Sandy raised over $300,000 a year for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance from hosting the pageant. He also started the Red Ribbon Bingo for AIDS which was held in the Sands, Taj Mahal and later Showboat casinos. He also hosted Gay Games Weekend at the Taj Mahal.

When the Miss America pageant left for Las Vegas, the Miss’d America pageant took a hiatus. In 2010, it came back to Boardwalk Hall and Sandy created a theme for the pageant, based on the television series Boardwalk Empire. He named the show Boardwalk Empress, which was the name of a speakeasy.

Sandy’s experience with his pageant was bittersweet in 2012 when promotor, the Shultz-Hill Foundation called Sandy and said they didn’t need him anymore. The press covered the controversy on the front page in Atlantic City, but Sandy made no comment. Against the advice of his friends, Sandy graciously stepped aside. He has since gone back to judge the pageant and he won a Lifetime Achievement Award for his dedication. He said he received a “long standing ovation.”

Besides Sandy’s involvement in Atlantic City, he has fond memories of New Hope, Pa. He hitchhiked to New Hope from Atlantic City during the 70’s, and slept in the basement of the old Bucks County Playhouse, and was there the day they took out the massive chandelier. Sandy knew New Hope’s Mother Cavaluucci and the infamous Tinsel Garland.

Sandy now spends his time between Atlantic City and Philadelphia. He hosted a Bear cruise and talked for three hours about the history of Atlantic City, from the rum runners, to Frank Sinatra, and the other legends he met as a child. He hopes that Atlantic City will make a complete comeback as he has many family members who have lost their jobs.

His favorite thing was being a dancer. He danced on Broadway in A Chorus Line and performed in Hairspray. He remembers being gay on Broadway and having to hide his sexuality. He would bring a girl on an audition. He said that during the AIDS crisis, Broadway was afraid to hire a gay person. “It was a dark time,” said Sandy.

Sandy has performed in local theatre companies, such as the South Jersey Regional Theatre, and the Gateway Playhouse. He was named Best Male Actress in Philadelphia.

Sandy said the transgender community has been ignored for so long. His Miss’d America pageant was one of the first to allow transgender girls, whether they were transitioning or not. Sandy fought for equality for all members of the LGBT community. He is involved with many festivals including Outfest in Philadelphia in the fall.

Sandy is currently working at the Wilma Theater in Philadelphia, and mixing drinks on the weekend at the Stir Lounge. He is also the Director of the Philadelphia Rainbow Awards. Sandy knows all too well about not having the freedom to be yourself and is politically active. The Stir Lounge has posted a sign that says, “We support Muslims.” Sandy has always been an advocate for civil rights. “I Hope we keep stepping forward and not back. Life is not a cha-cha, you may hit the same road blocks, but [you must] keep going.”

His advice to aspiring young performers is to “just be yourself and know that not everyone is going to like you. Don’t watch RuPaul and think that’s going to happen.” Sandy discovered the art of comedy by watching Johnny Carson and David Letterman and says he loves Tommy Tune and Linda Lavin. “Don’t take no for an answer,” said sandy, “Be original and true to yourself and learn to re-invent yourself. Learn to recover from a bad joke and embrace that.”

The big secret to staying young is to just hang out with young people. During the interview he was out on a walk playing Pokémon Go, “I’m only 14 years old at heart,” He said.

Many friends have told him to write his biography, but for now he is working on a new one man show. His life has been blessed and he is grateful for the support he has had. He said, “Get on the merry-go-round every day of your life. Grab the gold rings since they don’t tarnish.”

No doubt about it, Sandy Beach will have many more rides on the carousel!