End of an Era on Fire Island: CJ’s of Ocean Beach Closes its Doors
By Rachel Sunshine
Summer’s end became clear over the last few weeks. Every weekend a different restaurant closed their doors with anticipation of a peaceful off-season followed by an early spring. CJ’s also closed the last weekend in September, but with much more emotion then any other establishment on Fire Island has endured. On September 30th, 7pm the doors were closed with a definite sense of finality.
For over 30 years, CJ’s has often been the sole year-round bar and dining establishment on Fire Island, with very little change in atmosphere or clientele and been a treasured staple to the community of Ocean Beach. Known to many as “The Home of the Rocket Fuel,” an invention of frozen hard liquor concoction became synonymous with CJ’s and Fire Island in general. CJ’s was simple and that is why it was wonderful. It was a menu on the wall, bottles of beer on the bar kind of place. Whether just to shoot the breeze after work, indulge in a lobster meal with the family, or throw some late night darts with friends, you could always count on CJ’s for the drinks flowing, people laughing, and the music rocking.
John “Giovanni” Palermo opened CJ’s in 1971, named after his son, Christopher John. CJ’s was one of two restaurants he operated, the other being Giovanni’s just down the block. By 1979 Giovanni’s closed, but CJ’s remained. In the late 90’s the aging Gio was diagnosed with terminal cancer. The bar’s namesake Christopher John now a grown man was not interested in taking over his father’s business, so Gio bequeathed his bar as well as the traditions and memories it held to his loyal, employee, caretaker, and friend, Joseph Theodore “J.T.” Prolo.
J.T., was in his mid 30’s became the new owner of CJ’s. Giovanni did not will CJ’s to J.T. without thought. This young man was the one Giovanni saw fit to take on not just a bar, but also the responsibilities of community and tradition that came with CJ’s, and that he did. The place kept its rustic beach charm for well over a decade. One change J.T. did see fitting was to enlarge CJ’s space. Soon after he took over the bar in 1997, the East wall of the pub was taken out expanding the bar to a full horseshoe and creating a second front entrance. No matter how much bigger CJ’s became it was constantly packed to the brim.
J.T. was that classic, generous, good guy with a witty sense of humor. He loved his friends and most importantly his family. Though J.T. had a busy and successful bar to run all year he made time to visit his sisters and nieces across the country, as well as his mother and late father. J.T. was always to be caught with his younger cousins Phillip and Henry whom he was a role model too. The abundant and infinite love for this one man was most prominently though grievingly shown on April 2, 2011 at St. Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church for J.T. passed away on March 21st, shortly after undergoing treatments for pancreatic cancer and only in his early 50’s, leaving behind multitudes of mournful friends at CJ’s.
CJ’s remained open as always, kept up by his loyal friends and bartenders until J.T.’s mother, Lori Prolo set up shop in Ocean Beach, keeping the bar alive. Even in the shadow of loss and grief that lingered throughout Ocean Beach, the patrons of CJ’s carried on for Giovanni and J.T., and kept the good times going.
At summer’s end of 2011 Mother Lori planned to return to her winter residence and come back the following summer, which broached the question would CJ’s be open for the winter? Apart from two sets of brief winter months for minor renovations CJ’s had been open every winter since the 70’s. Jennifer Moritz, close life-long friend of J.T. and wife of Mathew Morano, owner of Mathew’s Seafood House, made the decision to stay in Ocean Beach for the winter and run the show. It proved a successful winter and with the following summer of 2012 being momentous for CJ’s and the community. Lori upheld her son’s legacy for two years, but with summer’s end made the decision to close the doors on her son’s behalf. The time for friends, family, and CJ’s to move on had come.
The space that was CJ’s has been leased to Rob Foggo and Ed Werblow, the bar will reopen again in the spring of 2013. Foggo has been a bartender of Bocce Beach for 23 years and Werblow a resident of Ocean Beach for over 20 years who met his wife over Rocket Fuels at CJ’s 12 years ago. These two friends and business partners appreciate the institution that CJ’s was and still can be. Both gentlemen have no other intentions other than to brighten the place up and keep that relaxed feeling it always had. This bar will forever be the “home of the Rocket Fuel” in Ocean Beach.
Note: Castaway Bar and Grill in Ocean Beach will be open for the 1012 / 2013 off-season. Hope to see you there!