Friday, March 19, 2010

Recent History Lesson

In my quest to bring more interesting Cape May tidbits to you, the audience, below you'll find THIS NY TIMES ARTICLE about what of Cape May's recent heroes -- Bruce Minnix.

Dr. Frankenstein of Cape May
Published: May 25, 1997

BRUCE M. MINNIX formed the word as if it were an epithet, a vile obscenity that would have shocked the refined sensibilities of Cape May a century ago.

Standing all of his 6 feet 4 inches, he folded his arms, frowned and, in a burst of curmudgeonly bravura, darkly said, ''Cutsey-poo.''

Thus did Mr. Minnix, 74, a Cape May innkeeper, television director and one-term mayor of Cape May, dismiss much of busy, pricey, gaily painted Victorian theme park he helped create.

''Please don't get me wrong,'' he said from the porch of the Holly House, his five-room inn on Jackson Street. ''My wife and I love this town, and we've loved it for almost 40 years. But Cape May has become so chic, so successful -- the development pressures are just incredible now -- that we have considered buying an apartment in New York, then renting a place here in the summer. And then we remembered that day in February when we went for a walk on the promenade that was so spectacular, and so we've remained.''

He paused wistfully. ''But it's hard not to think about how things were: tacky, shabby, slightly run down, shamelessly inexpensive, extraordinary in an peaceful, otherwordly kind of way, and underneath that peace and other-worldliness, an energetic community that was passionately concerned about its future. When Corinne and I arrived, I could wear long hair, a beard and bell bottoms and tell people I was a kook. Of course, I wasn't, but I could always pretend. Now, I'm known as Dr. Frankenstein, whether I like it or not.''

The sobriquet is not quite apt: Mr. Minnix is only one among many personalities who helped transform a faded, unfashionable coastal town into one of the state's toniest resort destinations. But the role he played in inventing Cape May's revival was crucial, in part because he arrived at a crucial time.

He arrived by a roundabout route. Born in North Carolina, Mr. Minnix came to New Jersey when his father, a dance-hall impresario turned traveling salesman, decided to put down roots in Rio Grande, a hamlet on the mainland west of Wildwood. Mr. Minnix recalled that his Southern accent so embarrassed him when he was enrolled in the Cape May County public school system at age 6 that he ''hitched to Wildwood on a daily basis, where I spent every afternoon in the movie theaters, learning how to talk from Cary Grant, Fred Astaire and Katharine Hepburn.''

At 12, during a summer in which Mr. Minnix worked as a barker on the Wildwood boardwalk, he and his mother went to New York City so he could audition for the role of Tom Sawyer in a film. Finalists read portions of the script on radio, with the audience voting for the favorite. Mr. Minnix won the audition but failed to get the part when he was judged too tall to play opposite a much shorter Huck Finn.

He continued to work summers as a barker in Wildwood and Atlantic City. When he was 18, he returned to New York and auditioned for theatrical roles. ''I was almost cast as Pulver in 'Mr. Roberts,' '' he said. ''But I was to play opposite Jackie Cooper, so once again I was deemed too tall to play a normal guy. After a while, I decided that if I ever went into show business, I would direct, where being tall makes it easier to make oneself heard.''

In 1948, after wartime service in the Navy and a degree in communications at Northwestern University, Mr. Minnix accompanied friends to New York to attend a party that ''lasted seven weeks,'' he said. After too many nights spent sleeping in the hall outside friends' apartments (including that of his future wife, Corinne, who was supervising tour guides at Radio City Music Hall), Mr. Minnix eventually found a job as a messenger boy at the CBS television studios. In 1949 he and other friends in the television and theatrical industries decided to spend a long weekend in Cape May, a town he ''hated because I grew up near it and it was a dumb town,'' he said. ''There was no roller coaster, no knock-the-bottles down, no girls like you had in Wildwood.''

But in 1949 renting an entire house for a weekend cost less in Cape May than in Wildwood. ''And we found to our surprise that it was much easier to just be ourselves,'' he said. ''If we wanted to carry on, we could go to Wildwood, but if we wanted peaceful walks by the ocean or just to be lazy on a porch, Cape May was absolute perfection. There was no feeling of having to see anything or do anything, or be anywhere at any specific time. It was a perfect escape from New York.''

After he and Corinne married in 1950, they came to Cape May every summer, eventually buying the Holly House inn on Jackson Street ''for a disgracefully low price'' in 1962. ''We had never intended to rent it out,'' he said, ''but one day there was a knock at the door, and the people who had stayed there last year wanted to give us money to stay there this year. We gracefully accepted their money and left them alone.''

By then Mr. Minnix had worked his way up from messenger boy to television director at CBS. Until 1990, when ''just about everybody who had heard of me had died of old age,'' Mr. Minnix directed daytime dramas including ''All My Children,'' ''Another World,'' ''The Guiding Light'' and ''As the World Turns.'' He also directed comedy shows starring Red Skelton and Jackie Gleason, an Off Off Broadway production of ''Never Too Late,'' and television specials and commercials. He made his Cape May house his official residence and commuted by bus to New York, spending two to four nights a week in a Manhattan pied-a-terre. Mrs. Minnix remained in Cape May to handle guests and raise their daughter, Tracey.

As a resident, Mr. Minnix found a community of innkeepers and householders whose interest in preserving the town's Victorian architecture clashed with real-estate agents and developers who wanted to tear down century-old neighborhoods to erect 6- and 10-story motels similar to Wildwood's.

IN 1968, when a developer wanted to tear down the Emlen Physick Estate, a Stick-style cottage at 1048 Washington Street designed by the Philadelphia architect Frank Furness, Mr. Minnix rallied the opposition. Told that the only way to save the building was to buy it, Mr. Minnix suggested raising money by offering walking tours of Cape May architecture similar to those he and other local residents were giving their out-of-town guests. Leading the first tours himself, Mr. Minnix channeled proceeds into a non-profit corporation, the Mid-Atlantic Center for the Arts, which not only bought and restored the Physick Estate but also sponsored arts and preservation activities.

Mr. Minnix then rallied preservationists to create a season-extender, like the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City each September, that would bring tourists to Cape May in October. Victorian Week, now a full two weeks of cultural and educational relating to American Victorian antiques and architecture, is the city's most famous seasonal event.

By the early 1970's, he had became the champion of the city's preservationists and reluctantly agreed to run for City Council. ''I told everyone I was an outsider, a kook with a beard and bell bottoms,'' he said. ''I was one of three reform candidates and I ended up with the most votes, which automatically made me mayor. As mayor I suddenly discovered I had to marry people because Cape May County has no justices of the peace. I think I married 200 people in four years. My weekends became quite busy.''

The high point of his political career occurred when he cleared away bureaucratic obstructions to placing Cape May's historic district on the National Register of Historic Places, halting the demolition of Victorian architecture in the central business district. Mr. Minnix removed restrictions that forbade restaurants to serve food outdoors, sparking the city's cafe-style restaurant renaissance. He also helped the Chalfonte Hotel, the ornate landmark on Howard Street, raise enough money to finance its preservation by fighting to get it a liquor license.

Mr. Minnix's outspoken, shoot-from-the-hip political style made more enemies than friends. ''I was miscast,'' he admitted. ''Because I had an outside source of income from television, I was beholden to no one, which made me slightly less eager to compromise. I believed, and maintained, that instead of tearing down what we had, to bring in something that developers thought tourists wanted -- which was the sort of thing that was going on just about everywhere else on the shore -- we should work with what we had and create something that was more pleasing to ourselves, with the hope that the tourists would also enjoy.

''My wife and I have always liked modern minimalism. We had no way of knowing that the old, heavy, tacky Victorian furniture that our generation hated would become the prized possessions of the next generation.''

Mr. Minnix was not elected to a second term. He retired from political life and stopped leading walking tours. ''I felt that I had started an avalanche of cutsey-poo,'' he said. ''This was not what I had intended.''

Michael Zukerman, the current director of the Mid-Atlantic Center of the Arts, acknowledged that ''one person's cutesy-poo is another person's stretch for authenticity.''

''It's true that in many ways what we're trying to do with the Mid-Atlantic Center is to recreate as much of the Victorian experience as possible for our visitors,'' Mr. Zukerman said. ''But we see ourselves as the storyteller of this area. We do 35 different kinds of tours, including tours of 50's-style motel architecture in Wildwood, and we've preserved the Cape May Lighthouse. We want to tell as many different stories as we can find.''

Fortunately for Cape May's Dr. Frankenstein, the invention has yet to overwhelm the inventor, who, like other innkeepers, has benefited financially from Cape May's current ten-month tourist season, as well as rents from a small outdoor mall of snack and beachwear shops that he owns on Beach Drive.

''We just don't have the same kind of fun that we used to have,'' Mr. Minnix said with a sigh. ''We used to have silly Halloween parties in the Physick House. That house is now a museum, and a very good one, but somewhat cold.

''Many of the people who are running the bed-and-breakfasts now have their noses so close to the grindstone that there's no time to just drop in, sit on the porch and catch the breeze. There was more time for that sort of thing 20 years ago, when we could sit around and dream up crazy things that would be fun and good for the town. I don't begrudge Cape May's popularity. I just find that it has come at a price that I'm grateful I haven't had to pay.''

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