The bus ride from Minneapolis to Breezy Point Lodge was less than three hours. Most of the passengers had debussed in Brainerd about 30 minutes earlier.
Two bellmen met the bus at the main lodge entrance. “Are you the waterfront guy?” one asked reaching for my duffle.
“That’s me I think,” I replied waving away his offer to carry my bag.
“I’m Harry,” said the fella who made the offer “and this is Duke and are we glad to see you!”
“Yes,” added Duke. “You got here just in time.”
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“The problem,” said Harry “is that there are two hundred hungry sorority women here for the week and they outnumber our guys here about ten to one. We’ve had to bring in reinforcements from Brainerd.”
“Do you fellas play this game with every new staff member?” I asked.
“We’re not joking,” one replied “you’ll see what we mean. Come on in, Walsh is expecting you.”
The bellman led me into the lobby and across to the office of “Sanford A. Walsh Manager” which the sign on the door confirmed. To my knowledge no one ever called Sanford A. Walsh “Sandy”. To employees as well as guests he was Mr. Walsh.
Walsh looked like anything but a Resort Manager. He was wearing a suit and vest that would be appropriate at the Plaza in New York City. “Stuffy” would be my first impression of the man who was to be my boss for the next two months.
“Glad you’re here Nathanson. What held you up?”
“Final exams Mr. Walsh” I thought Coach Nordgren explained that.
“Right” said Walsh. “Well you’ve got a bit of catching up to do. We have a convention going on here right now. Two hundred women. They demand a lot of service, and we’re short-handed. Let me have Vera show you around and take you to your cabin.”
So much for my first meeting with my boss, at Breezy Point… short, fast, no small talk.
Vera Mack was Walsh’s assistant. She was a big woman but attractive in a Teutonic way. She took me on a 30 minute golf cart tour of Breezy Point. I was impressed. The property was quite large, actually over 200 acres with a mile of waterfront on Big Pelican Lake, one of Minnesota’s ‘10,000’ Lakes.
Not to digress, but the state is known for its many lakes left over, they say, from the ice age. I lived in Minnesota for 24 years but never found out how they came up with the 10,000 number which to this day appears on every Minnesota license plate. Someone, maybe it was Garrison Keelar, once said “if you find a pond in Minnesota that you can’t throw a stone across, it’s a lake.” Locals say that Paul Bunyan, Minnesota’s famous legendary lumberman and Babe his blue ox waded across Big Pelican every morning before breakfast.
Vera toured me around in a golf cart and filled me in on Breezy Point’s history. It was built by Wilford M. (Billy) Fawcett, a colorful World War I veteran who was the founder of Fawcett Publications, publisher of popular motion picture fan and romance magazines of the time. Billy Fawcett was born in Grandforks, North Dakota in 1982. He never finished high school, choosing instead to run away and join the army during the Spanish American War. Legend has it that he was wounded in the Philippines by a wild Maori tribesman.
After that war Billy’s first real job was as a copy boy with the Minneapolis Morning Tribune where he ultimately became a reporter. However, his journalism career was interrupted by World War I where he served in France as a gunnery officer. He became skilled in the use of firearms, a talent that was later to earn him a Gold Medal at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
It was shortly after World War I where he rose to the rank of Captain that Billy got the idea to send out a monthly newsletter for the purpose of cheering up wounded war veterans. He named it WhizBang which was, as he remembered, the sound enemy shells made passing over the allied trenches. What started out as a little book of racy stories, jokes and sexy drawings caught on and by the early 1920s Captain Billy was selling as many as 500,000 copies a month on newsstands all over the U.S.
Fawcett publications was in business. Billy opened an office in Minneapolis. He brought in his brother Roscoe and began building what was to become a major publishing house offering such popular magazines as True Confessions, Mechanics Illustrated, Screen Play, Motion Picture and True to name a few. Fawcett also went on to publish books and newspapers. From a little off color humor bulletin, the editor of Captain Billy’s Whizbang had built a publishing empire.
Captain Billy loved the outdoors. He was an avid hunter and fisherman. He bought 80 acres on Big Pelican Lake on a peninsula called Breezy Point where he built a summer cottage for his family. He later built several more cottages for his friends.
Where he got the idea of taking paying guests is not clear. However, as the demand increased he built a big log lodge and bought and developed another 200 adjacent acres. He used his magazines to publicize his resort, and in a short time it became a popular summer destination for the rich and famous.
His movie magazines enabled Captain Billy to lure such stars of the time as Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Gene Autry, and heavy weight champion Jack Dempsey. Big name bands like Benny Goodman and Tommy Dorsey played dance music for Breezy guests.
Of course those were the roaring 20s, and prohibition was very much in effect at that time. It was illegal to sell liquor, and Minnesota state law outlawed gambling. Though there was an active temperance society in Brainerd at the time and certainly a state police presence in Crow Wing county, Captain Billy’s Breezy Point, and its celebrity clientele were conveniently overlooked.
BREEZY POINT LODGE SUMMER 1949
Guests at Breezy Point stayed either in the main lodge or in separate cabins. The lodge rooms and cabins were very comfortable. The employees lived in separate, but not too separate, male and female dormitories. A senior staff member however, I was privileged to share a cabin with a nice guy named John Davis, who played the piano and entertained guests in the cocktail lounge.
“Johnny works nights” said Vera with a big grin during our initial tour, “so you will have the cabin to yourself in the evenings.” It didn’t take me long to appreciate that arrangement.
The cabin next door was occupied by the golf pro, Bob Crown. Bob and I were soon to become best buddies.
Vera next drove me down to the beach, my zone of responsibility for the next two months. The beach was fifty yards or more from the main lodge separated by a large grassy lawn. It was covered with women sun bathing, playing cards, socializing or just napping under an umbrella. “Later,” said Vera as the bellmen’s welcome greeting passed through my mind. “Most days buffet luncheons are served on that lawn.”
“Later,” she repeated to regain my attention, which wasn’t easy.
On the other side of the lawn next to the beach was the refreshment stand and two tennis courts. A long dock with a lifeguard tower and a guard boat extended out into the lake. Vera explained that the beach, the lawn, the dock, the refreshment stand and the tennis courts were my responsibility. At that particular moment all of the above seemed to be covered with partially clad women. “These are our guests for the week” said Vera waving her arm around 180 degrees. “It’s a sorority convention.” In fact, the only males I saw that first afternoon on the beach and for most of that week were the waiters and beach boys going from group to group of sorority sisters.
“The waiters work for the dining room” said Vera. “The beach guys and the lifeguards work for you… and by the way the ‘Snack Shack’ and all the lawn and beach equipment are yours. Your guys set ‘em up every morning and put ‘em away every night.”
“That’s a lot of responsibility for only $200 a month!” I thought to myself.
As if reading my mind Vera said, “I know what you’re thinking… there are tips of course and you can charge personally for private swimming lessons. C’mon, let me introduce you to Doc. He’s the head beach boy. Doc has the best job at Breezy Point.”
Doc, whose real name was Sylvester Sorenson was a tall blonde well-tanned Nordic-god-type who was in his 5th year at Breezy Point. They say that Doc also worked winters in Miami Beach. Rumor had it that Doc earned over $50,000 a year in tips. After a few days watching Doc at work, I could believe it.
Doc was right out of a Hollywood movie. He grabbed my hand, shaking it vigorously. “Welcome aboard Boss, let me introduce you to the rest of your guys.”
“Not right now Doc” said Vera, “let me get him all settled in.”
“Hey, whenever,” said Doc as I thought to myself… ‘and that guy’s working for me?’ As a matter of fact Doc and I got along great. I may have been the ‘Boss’ but Doc really managed that beach, and believe me I appreciated it.
The rest of the tour included the canoe and boat harbor in a small bay on the other side of the point. There, the guests could take out sailboats, canoes and row boats. Fishing gear and bait were also provided. Boating guests were urged to confine their activities to a designated part of the lake. My waterfront and beach were supposed to be off-limits, a rule that was laxly enforced.
“Let me take you to your cabin” said Vera, “They will be starting to get things ready for dinner back at the lodge. You can see the golf course, the stables and the rest of the place tomorrow. I’m sure you want to unpack and unwind. I’ll see you later at The Grill. That’s where the staff takes its meals. It’s the single story log building next to the lodge. Staff dinner is 5:30-7:00. The food’s ok, you won’t be disappointed.” Once more reading my mind, as she dropped me at my cabin, Vera added “You haven’t seen anything yet.”
My cabin was actually very nice. Most important it had its own toilet and shower and separate closets. I checked out my roommate’s side of the cabin. It was apparent that he was a bit of a neat freak. His bed was made with square corners and everything was in its place. That was ok with me. I had spent the previous two summers as a boy’s camp counselor, preparing for daily inspections.
I took a shower and a short nap before I was awakened by the arrival and first meeting with my new roommate. Johnny, as everyone called him was wearing jeans, a work shirt and a red bandanna.
“I was up at the stables with a guest” he said extending his hand, “Let me shower off some of this dirt and sweat, and then we can get acquainted. By the way, everything around here after work hours is very casual; slacks, shorts or jeans and even a t-shirt works.”
Johnny and I had a chance to get acquainted on our walk over to The Grill. He was an assistant professor at the University of Northwestern School of Music. He met Breezy Point owner, Jack Beringer at a Chicago tavern where he played at the piano bar for tips. This was his second summer at Breezy Point. We discussed each other’s jobs and our proposed protocol. It was relatively simple; if he was entertaining a ‘guest’ he would hang a blue towel on the rail outside the door and visa versa. It made sense to me. The fact that I worked days and he worked nights turned out to be a perfect arrangement.
The Grill was actually a late breakfast and snack alternative for the guests if they didn’t mind sharing the facility with the staff. It was connected to a large hall with a stage where Breezy’s Catskills-type comedians and other entertainers put on a show six nights a week.
Dinner and dancing were held in the lodge dining room. The “Breezy Orchestra” as they called themselves spent their winters in Miami where they were featured under another name at one of the big hotels. I got to know a couple of those guys who hung out on the beach, smoked sweet smelling roll-your-own cigarettes and made passes at the coed waitresses.
Most of the staff were, like myself, young college kids. I saw my new bellhop friends, Harvey and Duke who introduced me to about 20 other people whose jobs ranged from waitresses and maids to bus boys, beach boys, wranglers, and the crew that worked at the boat harbor.
I was particularly impressed by the girls who worked in the dining room. They must have been hired for their good looks. In addition to my school, the University of Minnesota, there were a dozen college campuses in the state to choose from and another half dozen schools in Wisconsin next door. They all looked like Homecoming Queens to me. I thought to myself… “And I’m getting paid for this job?”
“Next week Buddy” said a voice from behind me. It was Harvey, my friend the bellman. “Our local ladies can wait. You are booked for the next six evenings. Let me introduce you to your social director for the week,” said Harvey gesturing toward a group of women who had just walked into the Grill. Taking my arm he guided me towards a tall athletic looking woman who was obviously someone important.
“Doris, let me introduce you to our new waterfront director. Nate, this is Doris, she is the National President of Tri Gamma Delta and the lady honcho who runs this convention.”
“What’s with the “Nate”? I thought to myself.
Doris Hall was a 40ish woman from East St. Louis, Illinois. She offered her hand which had a grip like a linebacker. “Nice to meet you Nate,” she said. “Do you dance? We’re all going over to Bar Harbor later; Percy Hughes is playing.”
“How about it, Nate?” said Harvey. “We’re meeting in front of the main lodge. You’ll ride over with me.”
Bar Harbor was located on Gull Lake about 20 minutes from Breezy. It was one of those famous Minnesota roadhouses, except that it was located on a lake and also catered to the motorboat crowd. It was really a big dance hall featuring a popular (by Minnesota standards) band, vocalists and all. Percy Hughes and his all-black orchestra were the hottest band in the state, and Bar Harbor was their summer gig.
The place was jumpin’, and the boys steered me straight away to a table full of Breezy guests, Doris Hall and her sorority sisters to be specific. Well… with the exception of a couple of attractive younger undergrad types, the “sisters” at Doris’s table were in their 30s and 40s and well into three or four schooners of “Pabst Blue Ribbon” and a couple of bottles of Seagram’s Seven.
I don’t remember any of their names, except one of the younger ones, wearing a Texas t-shirt, who smiled at me through the cigarette smoke that engulfed their table. She was a very cute little brunette with bangs and a beautiful welcoming smile.
Percy Hughes and his orchestra were just starting to warm up. “Do you Mambo?” said Doris who had observed the flash of interest between me and the girl in the Texas t-shirt. “No? If not let Helen Sue show you how it’s done. It’s easy, like the Rumba, just move with the music.” And that was it, my introduction to the Mambo, Bar Harbor, Tri Gamma Delta and a week that sorely tested my sobriety and most certainly challenged my manhood.
I lost track of Harvey, who like the rest of the “Breezy” guys had been swallowed up by the Tri Gamma ladies and their sheer weight in numbers. It was about 10:00 and Helen Sue and I were just returning to the table when the band played a drum roll and Percy announced the entrance of a guy who would soon become my golf buddy and drinking partner for the rest of the season.
Bob Crown was a big fellow in his late twenties with a ruddy face and a prematurely receding hairline. He had a blonde on either arm and, waving to Percy, headed straight for our table, that is Doris’s table. Hugs all round and Doris pointed to me. “This is your new waterfront guy Bob. Meet Nate. Nate, meet Breezy’s Club Pro.” I stood up as Bob reached out a big hand to mine.
“Welcome aboard Nate. I hope you’re as healthy as you look. Every one of these ladies” he said waving his arm around the place at the Tri Gammas, “is an Olympic contender. Why don’t you and ‘Texas’ here come over to our table and let’s all get acquainted.”
The rest of the evening is sort of a blur. I had my first taste of scotch, the only “real whisky” according to the Pro. I don’t think I learned to Mambo, at least not that evening. Between the scotch and the music and my ride back to Breezy Point snuggled up with Texas in the rumble seat of Bob’s ‘39 Ford convertible, my first day at Breezy Point was a night to remember.
My neighbor, Bob Crown really was the club pro. Much as the beach was my responsibility, the Breezy Point golf course was where Bob held forth. He wasn’t really a PGA pro at that time, but he was a hell of a golfer. I was a pretty fair amateur in those days, we played nine holes after work every day it didn’t rain. We had a routine; golf, beers, showers, steak dinners and back to Bar Harbor in Bob’s convertible with Chivas Regal, Percy Hughes and the Mambo.
As for my job, thanks to Doc I was able to ease into the beach routine. The Tri Gamma convention proved to be a perfect introduction to one of the great summers of my life. Between Texas and a couple of her sorority sisters I had plenty of Mambo lessons that week. Most important however, it was the first time I was ever asked to manage anything. I surprised myself. I guess I just sorta got into it.