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Lifestyle

Beach party

Unfortunately for this town, what happens in Dewey isn't staying in Dewey.

Every summer weekend, this mile-long beach town draws tens of thousands of visitors -- most of them single, most of them from Washington, most of them tightly wound young professionals in need of a good unwinding.

For generations, Dewey Beach served that purpose well, so well that its other attributes (sandy beaches, scenic bay, quaint shops and friendly, small-town feel) became almost parenthetical amid its growing renown as a place to party.

Despite the efforts of some elected town officials to promote Dewey's less raucous side, despite, even, some success in drawing more family-oriented vacationers, the image of Dewey as a party town -- a perception fed by its packed nightclubs and overflowing, sometimes rowdy, group houses -- kept growing.

In 2001, Dewey was featured in a USA Today article that described it as "spring break for adults." In 2003, it was featured on Wild On, an E Entertainment Television program that features attractive people in revealing clothes partying wildly in, usually, exotic locales.

Since then, the Delaware town's image as the place to "cut loose," "kick back" or "hook up" has been further cemented by travel brochures, singles publications, rental agencies and, perhaps most vividly, in the accounts of revelry that appear on some group house Web sites.

"Some of them make it sound like what's going on is one big orgy," complained one town commissioner.

So when a Washington-area filmmaker appeared before the commissioners earlier this year, describing plans to film and nationally distribute a documentary about the Dewey Beach group house experience, the reception was lukewarm at best, maybe even a little chilly.

"We're not just a drunk town," said Dell Tush, a town commissioner who, while some other officials and business owners have warmed up to the movie-makers, still fears the worst -- yet another portrayal of Dewey debauchery.

Dewey Beach, she fears, has been typecast.

Family-friendly "We've very much become a family-oriented town, but nobody shows that side," Tush said. Even the travel industry has bought in on it. "It's always Rehoboth, with its boardwalk and shops; and Bethany, the jewel of the coast; then Dewey, a town for people who want to party and carouse half the night."

To which some Dewey group house regulars might respond -- those, anyway, who are not among the majority of respectful and responsible ones -- "What does she mean half the night?"

The movie's producer, Greg Godbout, co-owner of the Arlington Cinema and Drafthouse in northern Virginia, says the movie won't focus entirely on Dewey Beach as a place to party, and won't be the raunchy romp some officials and residents originally feared.

"We're not Girls Gone Wild. We met with the town and put those fears to rest," Godbout said. He hopes to show the movie at film festivals across the country this winter.

Tom Prather, a producer/director for The Blue Wave, a Washington-based film and TV production company that is making the documentary, says it will have a theatrical flavor, not unlike the MTV reality series Laguna Beach.

It will follow four Washington-area professionals who are spending their summer weekends at three different beach houses, filming them at work and play, said Godbout, a Dewey Beach regular who met his wife while staying at a group house here.

So too, he notes, did John G. Roberts Jr., chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Although according to an article in the trade publication Legal Times, "Roberts tended to avoid the wilder side of the beach nightlife ... [he] instead preferred to curl up on a beach chair with an Elmore Leonard paperback, hit a Saturday-night movie and make it to church the next day." )

"There are all these Washington-area professionals who go to Dewey Beach on the weekend, and it's one of the top singles beaches in the country," he said.

"We want to document the bonding that occurs and the uniqueness that is Dewey Beach. We're not out to portray Dewey in a bad light, or ruin anybody's reputation, just make a fun movie about a fun town."

Dewey Beach became an incorporated municipality 25 years ago. But, in a way, it's the beach town that didn't grow up.

And on summer weekends it fills up with people, however straight-laced and responsible they might appear during the workweek, of whom the same might be said.

There's a certain charm in that -- unless, of course, you're the one who is awakened at 3 a.m. by a group of revelers singing an off-key rendition of "Margaritaville," as they stumble back to their beach house, pausing to urinate on your petunias.

That sort of thing, though, is part and parcel of being a beach town, the price one pays for living and working there, usually in a job dependent on summer visitors.

Rules, rules What results is a sort of schizophrenia. Beach towns love crowds. Beach towns hate crowds. They lure them in -- the more the better -- then struggle to contain the chaos that inevitably results with the only tool they have: the rule.

Dewey Beach certainly has its share.

Your group house or bar can't emit more than 60 decibels of noise. There's an ordinance against stinkiness as well, though it's unclear what level an odor must reach to be a violation, or how it is measured. It's aimed at businesses, particularly those which deal with fish, crabs and chicken, which make Dumpsters smell bad.

Your child must be off the streets by 11 p.m. on weeknights, midnight on weekends. Your dog can only go on the beach before 9 a.m. and after 5:30 p.m., and only on a leash and only if he has a town dog license (actually, a far more liberal dog policy than most).

Signs at the entrance to most residential streets warn, "Quiet! Residential area. Loud noise and disorderly behavior prohibited." Speed limits are conscientiously enforced, as are parking violations. Commissioners are considering use of the boot on chronic parking violators, though some fear it might send the wrong message to tourists. At one park, a sign reads, "Parking restricted to new and expectant mothers."

On a recent Friday night -- on the eve of a bit of stupid fun known as "The Running of the Bull," sponsored by the Starboard, a popular local nightspot -- Dewey police called upon their counterparts in at least five nearby towns to help set up an all-night-long sobriety checkpoint on busy Route 1 in the middle of town.

Thousands poured into town for the annual event, in which two guys in a bull costume "chased" hundreds of people, most dressed in white with red bandanas, down the roads of Dewey and across the beach. The concept was dreamed up 10 years ago by some summer regulars who had been to Pamplona, Spain.

"It's the silliest thing in the world," said Steve Montgomery, owner of the Starboard, a bar that could easily hold the entire off-season population (around 400) of Dewey.

Montgomery was originally opposed to cooperating with the moviemakers, feeling the cameras might make customers uncomfortable, but because he knew those involved, he came around.

"The guys doing the movie are all regulars here," he said. "I would never let someone from the outside come in and do this." He expects the film, while focusing on nightlife, will make an effort to show all of Dewey's charms.

Dewey's party tradition dates back to the 1940s and the opening of the Bottle & Cork. Perched between Rehoboth, which evolved from a religious camp, and Bethany, which billed itself as "The Quiet Resort," Dewey was an open frontier, and the place to go for less holy pursuits. From bikers to graduating high school seniors, college kids to lobbyists, they've flocked there for decades from Washington, Wilmington, Baltimore and Philadelphia.

"Pretty much anything went," Tush said.

Dewey incorporated in 1981, a step taken to control "the free-for-all that was going on," Tush said. It was one of the last municipalities to outlaw alcohol on the beach, doing so in 1985. Some regular visitors moved on then, seeking other beach towns in which to party. Others kept coming, and some even settled down here.

A large part of its permanent population today is made of people who, long ago, came here to stay in group houses and party -- "and some of them are the biggest complainers now about the noise, and the kids, and the group houses," said Tush, the commissioner.

Different people While concerns linger about how the Dewey Beach movie -- working title, Dewey Beach: The Movie -- might affect the town's reputation, the four central characters the cameras will follow seem to have no qualms about how it affects theirs.

One works in real estate, one in computers, one in radio. The fourth, Eric Myers, 37, of Bethesda, the veteran of the group, is a telephone company manager who hops on his Harley nearly every weekend to go to his beach house.

He says he isn't worried about embarrassing himself in front of people he works with. Even if they see the movie, he said, they might not even recognize him.

"I'm pretty uptight at work. I'm an ex-military guy. I've got a lot of responsibility." At the beach, he says, he becomes a different person.

"I don't think it's just losing inhibitions. I think people become the person they truly are at heart. The way our work lives affect us daily, the way we concentrate on the job all the time and are all programmed to be a certain way at the workplace, it's almost like we're acting there. The beach just brings out who you really are."

Myers, who began coming to Dewey with his father as a child, shares a beach house this summer with 13 others, including two lawyers, a plastic surgeon and one of the men who gets in the costume (front end) every year for the running of the bull.

Some make up a core group, others are strangers when the summer begins. Most are close friends by the time it ends.

"In Bethesda, people are on their guard, down at the beach they're a lot different," said Myers, who lives in Montgomery County. "It's almost like you can take the same person and put them in Dewey and they're two totally different people."

Lisa Tsimbidis, 25, another of the movie's central characters, is in her second summer at a group house. Tsimbidis, who lives in Georgetown and works as an account executive for a Washington radio station, has half a share in a group house, meaning she goes every other weekend.

She has gotten used to the cameras following her around at the beach, but she doubts they'll detect much difference between her personality at work and on the beach. But she does admit to feeling a great sense of relief, a burden lifted, on her way to the beach, about as soon as she gets off the Capital Beltway.

For Myers, it's the Bay Bridge. Once across it, work is left behind and the beach is ahead.

"My dad used to talk about how you drop your brain off at the Bay Bridge and pick it up on the way back," he said.

Revelers borrowed another catchphrase as well, from Las Vegas. But nothing that happens in Dewey Beach these days -- thanks to cell-phone cameras, the Internet and now a movie -- is really likely to stay there.

As much as Dewey Beach would like to play down the partying, many of the younger people doing it -- call them the Myspace generation -- have the opposite desire: To air their exploits to the fullest.

For the sake of Dewey, and possibly themselves, they might be wise to heed the advice of Mayor Courtney Riordan.

"We're not closing down the entertainment," he said upon the town's approval of a new noise ordinance aimed at lowering the volume in Dewey. "We're just saying, 'Keep it down.'"

john.woestendiek@baltsun.comFor previous installments in the series and to view a photo gallery, go to baltimoresun.com/shorestories.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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