Riis Beach, known for its history as a gay destination for sunbathing, swimming, and community, is a short walk from my apartment on the Rockaway peninsula, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, in Queens, New York. For this issue of Social Forms of Art Journal, I interviewed Ralph Hopkins, who they call The Mayor at Riis Beach. Ralph is a 73 year old native New Yorker, former chef, gold medalist for the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug, and a US army veteran. An elegant man filled with pizzazz, he described the beach parties and interactive fashion shows that he threw at Riis Beach in the ’90s, as well as his personal history marked by six decades immersed in the scene at Riis. We discussed art making at the beach, creativity with the queer community, and fashion shows as a socially engaged form of art.
While living in Rockaway, I have been on a quest to learn more about my dwelling place. As a native New Yorker, my connection to Rockaway dates back to my ancestry, with visits by my grandmother, Gilda Selby, in the early twentieth century. As a queer artist and herbalist, I have been researching queer ecologies and geographies, focusing on beaches. I have been engaging the intersections of nature, play, stories, and sensory experiences to explore queer possibilities.
Ralph, his work, and the history that his life expresses has been a great gift.
The following conversation took place on November 2, 2021.
Gilian Rappaport: Will you tell me a little about yourself? Where are you from?
Ralph Hopkins: I grew up in Greenwich Village in Manhattan… A lot of my friends don’t know, but I went to art schools in Newark [New Jersey]. When I was younger, I thought I was going to be a commercial artist. Come to find out, my mother and I end up having a little restaurant in Newark. It was called Bernice’s Snack Bar. So I worked there as a cook.
Gilian: Was your family in the restaurant business?
Ralph: No. Prior to [opening the restaurant], my mother was a beautician. My grandmother was a beautician, my cousin was a beautician. The beauty parlor was in my grandmother’s house that she owned, on the ground floor. My mother got tired of it, so she decided to open up a restaurant.
Gilian: When did you start throwing parties at Riis Beach?
Ralph: In about 1994, I was on Riis Beach with my friends, and we were saying maybe we should have a little party or something. Just as friends— everybody brings a drink, food, or something like that. Everybody will come in white. That would be pretty on the beach. So I thought, Okay, let me get to work. From then on, it was always the third Sunday in August.
Gilian: Will you tell me about the decorations? Did you do them yourself?
Ralph: Yes. I said, I have to do something to make it nice for everybody. I’d like to make the party look as nice as possible. I knew this area [in Manhattan] where they sell these discount toys, things like that, down the street from Macy’s. I went there and I bought like two dozen hula hoops. Then I looked up a balloon rental place on the East Side of Manhattan. I rented the balloons with the machine that blows them up. So the day of the party, I brought the hula hoops [and] I buried them halfway in the sand, so only half would stick out. And I tied the white balloons to each hula hoop so they would float in the air. To make it look pretty. And we brought food, and I cooked a little food. My friends bought drinks and food also, it was a little small table. And I brought my little boombox, and we had some music. We had a nice time, and everybody said, Wow… Other friends around saw and wanted to join. They said, Oh, well next year we’ve got to do another one. We had so much fun.
The next year was a white party again. Only I did it much bigger. The second party was at least, I would say 75 people. Then beach people started to notice. At the beach, they said, “What kind of party is this here?” To make it sound nice, I said, “This is my birthday,” so they would be more lenient. Any drinks, we kind of hid in the cooler. A couple of friends started to put my parties on the internet. I said, Oh my god. I was getting a little nervous. I said, I didn’t know it would get big like this. So I said, I got to up my game with the decorations.
So I had to get into my art mood… I went to the lumber place, and I picked up six 10-foot poles. They could barely get in my living room, so I tilted them in [there]. And I went to the fabric store and I got yards of fabric. It was only a dollar a yard at that time. I would have the fabric from the top of the poles come all the way down right into the sand as decorations. And I also had this ribbon that I got at this warehouse that a friend of mine worked at, luckily. Everything was like falling into place. And this warehouse, as I walked in, I felt like I was walking into a wonderland. All these treasures, everything is in this place. He said, Go take what you need, what do you want? It was stuff that companies would donate, they didn’t use anymore– restaurants, and whatever.
So I found my runway, it was a mylar fabric that coiled. It looked like you’re walking on water. Which I still have, the runway. I found this glitter ribbon, which shined like diamonds in the sun, like real diamonds. You could see it from across the bridge coming to the beach, that’s how they shine. So I added those to the top of the poles as decorations. Then I had to rent some tents. For the first party, we made our own tents. Through the years, it got bigger and bigger. I had to get three more tents– real tents– for the models to change. And I had to get a permit, because I had a DJ– music, the DJ, and I had a generator, everything.
Gilian: So the parties would happen once a summer?
Ralph: Always the third Sunday in August.
Gilian: And did you have a name for them?
Ralph: Well, it was “Ralph’s Beach Party.” And then every time I had to get the permit, they said I had to give a company name. I can’t remember what I said at the time. And they said, “Okay your name.” I paid them, it was $50 for the permit to have these big tents on Riis. They told me “If you have music, speakers, or a DJ, you have to have a permit.” Luckily, I was really friendly with the guy who was the head of the permits. He said, “Okay, Ralph.” Every other year.
Gilian: Did you have any fears when making these parties?
Ralph: The main thing that made me nervous was the weather— I couldn’t cancel the party and reschedule if it rained because I was working! And the food was already cooked, and I couldn’t do that again. Luckily it never rained at any of my parties!
Gilian: Where did the clothes come from?
Ralph: I found friends of mine who were students at FIT [Fashion Institute of Technology]. So I said, “Would you like to be one of my models?” And they said, “It’s fine, sure.” One friend of mine worked at FIT, and he said, “I can get more models for you if you need,” and he’d bring me the clothes. I said, “You never know if somebody will buy your things, you never know who’s in the crowd.” So they donated their time and knew other students that had their own clothing lines, so they donated their time too. I had like four or five different designers. Through the years, it got bigger and bigger. The main designer was my friend Everett Clarke. There were other friends of his, students at FIT. They would design outfits you had never seen before.
Another designer was named Wa Renee. That was the name everyone knew him as. He died years ago. Like a male Grace Jones. Very out there, very futuristic clothes he used to wear. Very famous in the community.
Gilian: Would you say it was mostly the same community who was hanging out at Riis Beach at that time? Or was it other people from the city who were coming there?
Ralph: Basically, people would come out to Riis, every week, every day of the week. But then after the word got out on the internet, they were coming from DC, upstate New York, and other places that are out of New York. And the Bronx. People were bringing me gifts because they thought it was my birthday party. People were coming up to me and saying, “Oh, happy birthday Ralph, happy birthday.” I said, “It’s not my birthday, my birthday is in May.” Memorial Day, May 30th. But I would tell them, I’d say, “Okay, nobody can say I can’t have my birthday party months later. So this is my birthday party.” So that’s what I did. I never even met these people that would bring me… I mean really nice gifts and stuff: bracelets, vases– which I still have. And some gave me some money, which shocked me.
Gilian: Because they wanted to thank you for throwing the party?
Ralph: They would come up to me and say, “Thank you so much.” Even up to this day they would say, “You know, I met my girlfriend, I met my boyfriend at your party.” “Your parties were so good, I had so much fun.” Everybody was nice. I never had any fights. Everybody was really nice.
Gilian: What was a typical run-of-show like on the day of a party?
Ralph: My DJ would come, the show started at three o’clock. Sometimes he would come a little late, like 3:30 or 4:00. When he came and set the music, he started playing as we’re putting down the runway. The models were in the tents getting ready, I’m getting ready too, because I opened. At the first parties I would close the fashion show too, with a show that I would do.
Gilian: What was your show? Were you dancing, or walking?
Ralph: I walked. I did Goldfinger by Shirley Bassey. She’s one of my favorite singers and I’m a James Bond fanatic, and I love Goldfinger. So I came out in all gold. Complete sequin gold. I was in a sequin gold bikini, my body was gold dust all over me, gold mask. I had six guys that I wrapped in gold mesh. They came out before me, like as the music started. And they would have in the fist of their hands, gold dust, which I still have some of that. And I told them, “Hold it in your fist to the very end. You will spray the gold dust all over everybody in the crowd.” I would come out in the middle of them, and I would touch each one of my dancers, while the music’s playing Goldfinger, because I’m Goldfinger. Another one, I came out as a… I was like a pimp. And that was to the music, “Money, Money, Money.” [singing] Money, money, money, money. And it was a coat with a long train. And I had a pimp hat on. And I had a fist full of fake money and real money. And I would throw the money into the crowd. And they were scrambling for the money, you know. It’s for fun. And I had six other dancers in that one. They would come out before me and I wrapped them in green mesh. And connected to the mesh was dollar bills all over the body. They would go out and I told them to face the crowd. They would just hand out the fake money, the fake dollar bills to the people in the crowd until I came out.
Gilian: Why was this at the beach, as opposed to somewhere else?
Ralph: Like I said, the first party, I just said to myself, You know, I want to have a party out here. And I wanted to have it in August, the end of the summer. At the end of the summer everybody will have their deepest tans. And your body will look really pretty. So I said, “Everybody come in white.” With your nice golden tan on your body, with the white bathing suits, and the girls bathing suits, the guys will look really pretty. White balloons and everything. And when they said, “Do you want to have another one?” I said, “Okay, one more, we’ve got to change the color.” That’s why we moved to red, blue, and neon.
Gilian: But always one color?
Ralph: That was the thing. I called it the color code. If the color code was blue, it was shades of blue. And we had another that was called Circus by the Sea. I had my friend, he’s a very good designer. I would say, “I need a ringmaster’s hat.” So he knew how to make that, he made the hat. He made a big ringmaster’s red coat. We had to make that in my hallway because it’s so big. With a long train.
At a fashion show you want to see really exotic, beautiful things that you’ve never seen before. I wanted you to know that I knew you were coming. I wanted something for you to see that you hadn’t seen before. And to have a good time, and feel that you’re part of it.
Gilian: Why is that important?
Ralph: It makes people want to come back for more, they want to see more. See something you have never seen before. You know? I’ve always liked dressing up, even when I was small. I love fashion. People who know me now, the clothes that I wear, you don’t see that with regular guys. The way I put it together. I don’t do it to show off. This is me, that’s just how I am. I like different things. People see me and ask me how old I am. No one can ever believe I’m 73.
Gilian: Did you realize that we are both wearing fleece today?
Ralph: Oh! I didn’t even notice that we matched.
Gilian: It seems like you were born with a sort of innately radiant sense of style. WIll you talk a little about style in your everyday life?
Ralph: When I sit on the beach, they walk up to me, [and they] notice my necklaces, my stones. I get a lot of compliments there. I wear it because it makes me feel good and has good energy. I’ve been doing this for many years with stones. People know me for my stones.(1)
Gilian: What is your setup like at the beach on a regular day?
Ralph: I only have my king-sized white sheets. I’m the only one. Been doing it for years.
Gilian: The beauty of a simple white sheet.
Ralph: I feel confined in a chair. I like to stretch out, and I can have guests come. I have room, I have a king-size sheet. For my friends I say, “No, sit down. I got room.” I’ve always been like this. I know so many people on the beach. They call me The Mayor at Riis Beach.
Gilian: And where on the beach do you usually sit?
Ralph: It’s the end of the beach where most of the gays sit. Mixed people sit, which I call “the Village.” Years ago, they used to be numbered back then. That was bay one. Back in the late ’60s. That was mostly African Americans, Latinos, and a few whites. Through the years it started changing, different people started coming to that area. And you had a mixed group of people who would start coming here. But it has always been nice, no fights.
Gilian: Tell me about the younger Ralph. Did you ever feel threatened in any way when you first started going to Riis?
Ralph: You know, when I started to experience tension— or even have any conflict that was highlighted— it was mostly when the beach was nude. It was nude twice over the years. The first time it was nude was the mid ’60s. One girl I knew saw a guy had a camera hidden inside of a boombox. She went up to him. She pulled out a knife, she’s like, “Give me that film.” Everybody was watching. He got nervous and he opened up the boombox and the camera was in there. He had to pull out the film. She took the film and she stretched it out. And everybody started clapping! But now, most people are half nude anyway. You know, g-strings, the girls are topless. Nobody’s bothering anybody. For me, it comes down to fun.
Gilian: How does it feel for you now to be there? We’re going through this pandemic, and more disconnected in a way from each other. How does the community at Riis feel now – compared with how it felt then in the ’60s?
Ralph: Well comparing the beach now with the way it used to be back then, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s: it was a more “up” feeling, and more fun. The different outfits, people would just come out with robes on. And different girls who had different fabulous bikinis that you would see in Bergdorf Goodman or Saks Fifth Avenue. Stuff like that. Some models used to come out there back then. You would catch a famous model sitting in the area. It was just more fun back then. The atmosphere was more fun.
Gilian: More playful?
Ralph: Yeah. And on the boardwalk area there were more places where you could eat restaurant seafood. Game rooms. It was just more fun back then. Things to do. And you didn’t feel threatened with all of it, you could go to the boardwalk, nobody would bother me. Things like that. Today, now you have a younger crowd coming in the Village area. The new kids are now there. They’re nice, they’re really nice. They’re in their own little groups. It’s just different. But it’s still very nice. Now we are getting a lot of people from Manhattan coming here now. A lot of the people from Staten Island are coming in here now, because now they have ferry boats that come from Manhattan, Lower Manhattan. The crowd at Riis, you don’t see at Fire Island or Coney Island. With the kind of clothes and dresses… it’s just more fun at Riis.
I just recently had a girl tell me that the big building… I call it The Big House, it’s a big brick building on the boardwalk.(2) They’re going to make it a hotel.
Gilian: Oh yea. I heard that too. What do you think of that?
Ralph: Personally, I think it could make the beach look nicer. Hopefully it could bring Riis back to where it should be: more glamorous, more fun, fix up the roads [and] the boardwalk. I don’t think it will necessarily make us move the Village area. How could they do that? Well, it’s public, but it’s a federal beach. They have their own rules.
Gilian: That’s an interesting perspective. Some organizers I know believe it could displace the Village area.
Ralph: I don’t think so.
Gilian: Would you like to get back to the parties? What made the shows feel so different than what you would see in an average fashion show?
Ralph: People would ask me, they would [say they’d] like to help me with things. I said, “No, I didn’t need the help. I know what to do in my mind.” They didn’t realize, where I come from— my background in design, fashion, and stuff like that— that I knew how to do all this by myself. I know exactly how… I know how I want the tents; what direction I want the speakers to angle the water, so the sound goes over the water— not down the beach to bother anybody, things like that; where to put my tables for the food. I want the poles lined up around the host area, so everybody will be inside the ten foot poles, because everybody will sit along the runway. My designers would design outfits you believe you had never seen before. Things like something Grace Jones would come out with, stuff like that.
Gilian: How about the participatory aspect of the shows?
Ralph: I would snatch people out of the crowd. If the design needed another model, I would go out of the tent and I’d say, I need a girl size 10, or whatever size, and I would just grab any person in the crowd that’d like to come in, because the fashion show was for anybody who wanted to be in it. I mean my friends who wanted to be models, I’d tell them, Go in the tent, put on the clothes and walk the runway! So it involved people in the crowd also to make them more part of it. And then, they had more fun.”(3)
Gilian: Were there other parties like that going on at Riis, besides yours?
Ralph: While I was having mine, another group of black guys who called themselves The Black Pride started to have a dance party out there. Their party was three weeks before mine. There were four or five of them, and they put a little money together. They had big tents, a dance floor, and a performance later. They had more connections than I did. The main thing, after their party was finished, they would leave garbage and trash– dirty– all over the beach. A real mess. The beach people hired a cleanup crew to clean up their mess, and they tried to present the bill to them. I heard that The Black Pride guys said, “We’re not going to pay that.” So the beach people said, “Oh, you’re not going to pay for it!? Okay, no more parties for nobody on the beach anymore.” So that one messed me up. That’s why my parties stopped. That’s why I couldn’t have mine. And I had nothing to do with them. I didn’t even know them, these people. So since then, up to now, that’s why I haven’t had my parties. Maybe now, I probably could get a permit.
Gilian: Did it matter that your fashion shows happened around so much nature, close to the ocean, with the sun coming through, and all the dunes there? I’m thinking about the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, the rose bushes, dolphins swimming…
Ralph: Having this kind of fashion show on the beach made it a little more exotic. The audience felt relaxed in the hot sun; being basically half naked, with no clothes on, watching the show. Seeing the people come with beautiful colors— in all red against the white sand, or all blue. The outfits everybody would come in. All because I would say the color for that year. I said, Let’s have a neon party. Could you imagine the neon colors that came on that beach? Over 200 people in neon colors, and overhead, neon fabric comes from ten foot poles. That was the most pretty, out of all the parties.
Gilian: Did you ever feel like the stories you wanted to tell through the parties were about the ocean, or about the dunes, or the dolphins that are sometimes out there?
Ralph: Occasionally we saw dolphins out there, which is very surprising. I think the first time I started seeing dolphins out there was the early ’70s. We saw them jumping, we couldn’t believe it in this water. Everything was just so beautiful at the time. Even now, it still has this magic to it.
Gilian: Did you know that jumping is sometimes a way they communicate with a mate or another pod?
Ralph: Jumping has this magic to it, it’s beautiful!
Gilian: They’re pushing off the water and meeting the air on all sides! It’s so open and light, and also so present. Communities want to fly, windmilling around, and also want to feel at home. Right here, but also free completely.
Ralph: Even now a lot of people still don’t know where Riis Beach is. In Manhattan, they ask, “What beach do you go to?” I say, “Riis.” They say “So where is that?” I’m not surprised that people still don’t know. It is kind of nice, because it kind of makes it a more private beach for us. I’ve been a beach person all my life. Riis Beach, from day one, I loved it right away… I used to go every weekend by train or by bus. It was just, you felt more at ease at Riis. It fits my personality, I would say. It’s more fun.
(1) That day, he was wearing a beautiful black fleece and an onyx necklace from Brazil.
(2) The abandoned Neponsit Beach Hospital, known as the Neponsit Children’s Hospital. It once served as a tuberculosis sanatorium and operated from 1915 to 1955. Neponsit Beach Hospital mostly treated children, but by World War II, began to also treat military veterans until the hospital’s closure. The hospital was later converted into a Home for the Aged, a city-run nursing home that closed in 1998.
(3) I was reminded of Vogue’s article “2016 Was the Year Real People Took Over the Runways”, which cited luminaries like Hood By Air, Eckhaus Latta, and Chromat as pioneering this tactic of placing real people on runways.
Gilian Rappaport (she/they) is a transdisciplinary artist, writer, and herbalist based in Rockaway Beach, Queens. She was born and raised in New York between the Hudson and Delaware Rivers. A descendant of Russian and Polish migrants, she is a gatherer, and seeks to engage the intersections of nature, play, stories, and sensory experience to explore queer possibilities. She is also known for her design and research work, supporting the vision for regenerative projects that are renewing, restoring, and nurturing our world. For updates on upcoming projects, sign up for her newsletter and follow @gilnotjill.
Ralph Hopkins (he/him) is a 73 year old native New Yorker residing in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Known as The Mayor at Riis Beach, he threw participatory beach parties there in the ‘90s involving fashion shows, DJs, and food, and has been a consistent presence for the past six decades. He is also a former chef, and in the ‘70s, became a five-time gold medalist — and one bronze — at the Madison Square Garden Harvest Moon Ball for the Lindy Hop and Jitterbug. He is also a US army veteran. To get in touch, contact Ralph on Facebook.
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