Family Portrait: Sandy Beach

At 6-foot-3 with steely blue eyes, he looks like he could be a bouncer or WWF wrestler, but mere minutes into our interview, I realized that Sandy Beach is an old softy.

The former child model, singer/dancer and drag impresario is taking a little time off, but will reemerge April 5 to celebrate the 10th anniversary of “In Bed with Butch.”

PGN: From where do you hail? SB: I’m from Atlantic City, but over the years I’ve lived in Margate, Chicago, Florida, New York City and back to Atlantic City. I moved to Philadelphia 14 years ago and have been here ever since. But I spent most of my time in A.C. As a kid, I always worked at the Steel Pier. Ed Hurst, who ran the Steel Pier show, famous for the diving horses, also had a popular television dance show named “Summertime on the Pier.” As a featured dancer on the show, I was a little teen idol kicking up my heels and spinning the records on the turntable. One day I saw a sign asking for “Person to work with trained animals.” I just thought I’d be feeding and caring for the dolphins and sea lions, but three weeks into it, the girl that was doing the show got hurt. It was my “All About Eve” moment. I told them I knew the show and could do it and, the next thing you knew, there were advertisements all over town featuring me. At the time, the show “Flipper” was really popular. Because I was young and had blond hair, they promoted me as the real “Sandy” [Flipper’s human pal on the show]. It was the best job of my life, except that it was grueling. Eight shows a day, 16 on Saturdays. They didn’t want a lot of people handling the dolphins, so there were only two of us to cover all the shows. We were on for a half-hour then off for a half. We had several dolphins, so they didn’t get overworked — just the trainers!

PGN: Who was a favorite star? SB: There were so many. I think two of the nicest were Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra. Dean Martin was another one who was very kind. I’ll tell you a story: My mother was a singer/dancer and her best friend was Bettyjane D’Amato, who was married to Paul “Skinny” D’Amato. He owned the notorious 500 Club, the place in Atlantic City where Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis became a team and where Sammy Davis Jr. got his start. Frank Sinatra played there all the time, too, and he knew who my mom was. She had developed cancer and I sent his secretary a note, saying that she couldn’t come to see his show, could he possibly send her an autographed picture. [Tearing up.] I’m sorry, I get emotional. He remembered that her nickname was Nancy and sent her a beautiful note and framed picture. In the picture, he was wearing a suit with an orange handkerchief in the pocket and in the package with the note, he included the same handkerchief. It was such a sweet gesture.

PGN: And the worst? SB: Diana Ross! What a nightmare. I was in her video for the song “Chain Reaction.” It was freezing out and she kept us waiting and waiting. It was about 30 degrees out and we weren’t wearing coats so that we’d be ready when she showed. When she finally was ready, she would only consent to do two takes for the director, so we had to scramble to get it done. If you look closely in the video, you’ll see my ass stuck in the air. I had to climb a fence and I got stuck and there were no retakes.

PGN: Tell me about your family. SB: My dad ran hotels. He ran the Ambassador, the Traymore and, eventually, was the vice president of sales and marketing for Resorts Hotel and Casino. My mother was a dancer. It was one of those “love at first sight, I’ll love you forever” marriages. I had five brothers and sisters. We’ve been through some rough times. As I mentioned, my mother had cancer that eventually took her life. She died while I was on stage at the Golden Nugget. They told me as I was coming off stage and I went straight to the hospital. [Laughs.] My sister looked at me in my glitter tuxedo and said, “You could have changed.” Later my sister Cathy lost her husband. He was a bartender and he was murdered, shot. Then my dad died of pancreatic cancer. Three weeks after my dad died, Cathy was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with liver failure and she died within 24 hours, leaving behind her 7-year-old son, Robbie. The poor kid lost a father, then lost his pop-pop and then his mother and he was a wreck. Luckily we were able to step in. My sister Donna would take him during the school year and I would have him for the summers. That was pretty exciting for a kid. He’s now 20-something years old and just had a son named Rocco. He’s the new love of our lives. Robbie and Rocco.

PGN: So he’s all grown up, but I understand that you’re a new father too. SB: Yes, eight times over. I have a Corgie down at my shore house. I was walking her down in Margate and I saw a little black lab huddled in a baseball dugout in the park. I put up signs around town but no one claimed him. So I named him Kia, after my brother’s car, and kept him. Apparently, my Corgie took a shine to him too, because just last week she gave me a litter of little Corgidors!

PGN: What did you do here in Philly? SB: I’d done stand-up comedy before. In A.C., I worked with an improv group called Eddie and the Enemas. We later were renamed Unorganized Crime and we appeared at Comedy Stop at the Trop, and did a 30-city college tour as the opening act for Robert Hazzard and the Heroes and for the Hooters. When I came to Philadelphia, I started creating “Sandy Beach” as a drag character and toured all over the area. The Sandy Beach U.S.O. Show was Philly’s longest-running cabaret show. I also had a monthly show in A.C. at the Sands. As the host of Red Ribbon Bingo, and director/writer of the annual Miss’d America Show for 13 years, we raised over $300,000 for the South Jersey AIDS Alliance. I decided to take a break from show biz for a quick breather, but I’m proud to say I won the 2007 Rainbow Award Cabaret Performer of the Year and the 2008 Rainbow Award as Entertainer of the Year. And I’ve appeared onstage at Philly Pride on Penn’s Landing 10 times!

PGN: So how did you get started? SB: When I was 4 years old, I had severe pigeon toes. I had to wear orthopedic shoes, so my mother put me in dance class to help straighten my feet. I really took to entertaining. My aunt owned a modeling agency and I think my first gig was as a model for children’s clothing. They had a line of kids’ clothes based on the Western TV show “Bat Masterson” starring Gene Barry. I was one of the runway models for the line. And then, oh I hate to admit it, but I was also “Speedy Alka Seltzer.” They’d dress me up in this costume and I’d walk around the Convention Center greeting people. My mother would drop me off and say, “I’ll meet you later at the end of aisle C” and I’d just toddle around dressed as a giant antacid tablet!

PGN: Craziest stunt? SB: My grandfather, whom I’ve never met, was a trapeze artist. So when I was at Steel Pier, I would work with the family that did the trapeze act. I would hang from the high wire on the bottom of a motorcycle. It actually was very safe: It looks scary, but everything was bolted so that if anything happened, you were still safe.

PGN: Any stage disasters? SB: Not really. I usually am pretty ritualistic about knocking wood and blessing myself and doing that sort of thing to ward off bad luck. I’m also a stickler for being prepared, so I don’t have too many disasters, but there was one bad incident. I was doing a show called “The Hunchdrag of Not’a’dame” and, in the opening scene, I was ringing the bell about 15 feet in the air. As I was coming down, the ladder broke and I fell. The show was prerecorded so I kept going and just lip-synched. My hand was swelling and as soon as I could get off stage I had someone get me ice. When it came time to go back onstage, I tossed it aside and went back in. Unfortunately when I came off for the next costume change, I slipped on the melted ice and fell again.

PGN: Give me a taste of your acting career. SB: Oh my, I’ve done quite a bit, especially musicals. I’ve been Tony in “West Side Story,” Paul in “Company,” Smokey in “Damn Yankees,” Tom in “The Glass Menagerie,” Abner in “Little Abner,” even the lion in “The Wizard of Oz.” I played a recurring character in the television series “ Big Shamus Little Shamus” on CBS, which sadly was cancelled after three episodes. I’ve been Andrew in “Beyond Therapy,” ZaZa in “La Cage aux Folles,” Captain Hook in “Peter Pan.” And had the male lead in the “Roaring in the 20s” cruise ship revue. I’ve been a featured solo performer and stand-up singer/comedian at a number of places including Bally’s Grand Casino. As I mentioned, I’ve done a lot of work with various comedy troupes.

PGN: Do you do any arts and crafts? SB: I wear about 12-15 costumes in my act and I make them all myself, a lot of fun, flashy stuff.

PGN: So did you play with or make clothes for your G.I. Joes? SB: Actually, I’d blow them up! I didn’t have G.I. Joes, but I had those little green plastic army men and I’d put them in an old Maxwell House coffee can with a bunch of firecrackers. Until I set the field behind our house on fire and the fire department had to be called to put it out. It, unfortunately, wasn’t the first time I set the lot on fire. Previously, I had seen someone on TV twirling flaming batons and thought I’d give it a try. I was trying out for “The Music Man” so I thought it would be useful. I took a baton and wrapped it in gauze, which I then dipped in gasoline. It was going all right until I threw it into the air and the gauze went flying off. It hit the ground and set the grass aflame.

PGN: And how did you come out? SB: Well, I remember doing swimsuit ads when I was a kid and checking out the men changing into their suits. My first kiss was during an audition. It was for “Boys in the Band” and they wanted to see if actors could handle kissing a man. It was scary at first but then I got into it! I sort of came out to my family at Thanksgiving. I’d told my sister and when we were gathered at the table she kept saying, “Don’t you have something to tell everyone?” It was my birthday, too, and I told her that it wasn’t the time for it. She kept pushing me and I finally shouted, “All right, I’m gay!” My father was carving the turkey with an electric knife that stopped in mid-air and he stated, “Can’t we have just one peaceful Thanksgiving dinner?” My grandmother asked someone what I’d said and when they told her she replied, “Oh, I’m happy too, I love Thanksgiving!” We all just started laughing and that was the end of it.

PGN: And what’s up with you these days? SB: I’ve been having a ball bartending at Camac, Philly’s newest hot spot. I love being around the people and the folks I work with are great. I’ve also been talking to some of the entertainers that I used to do comedy with in A.C. and we’re starting to think about getting the troupe back together.

You can catch up with Sandy most happy hours at Camac, 1305 Locust St.; (215) 545-2040.

To suggest a community member for “Family Portraits,” write to: Family Portraits, 505 S. Fourth St., Philadelphia, PA 19147 or [email protected].