Annual Marina del Rey vintage boat and car event is also a meet up for nostalgic New York transplants
By Michael Aushenker
Every year, the Classic Yacht Association and Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors join forces to hold Old Fashioned Day in the Park, a glorious excuse to show off vintage boats and cars — some dating back to the 1920s — in what has become a Marina del Rey tradition since 1976.
“We love getting the boats out for people to enjoy and enjoy each other’s company,” Christine Rhohde, the Classic Yacht Association’s international staff commodore, treasurer and historian, said of the day-long event, which returns to Burton Chace Park on Saturday. “We always have a contingent of classic cars. It’s our opportunity to share all of the hard work that we put into the boats.”
But what are all these transplants from the Bronx doing there?
As it turns out, the nostalgic event has also become the annual grounds for an L.A.-area reunion of former residents of the New York borough. This year’s Old Fashioned Day in the Park marks the 15th annual Bronx Reunion Picnic.
“New York growing up in the 1950s was a wonderful place,” picnic co-organizer Lew Aaronson, a graduate of the Bronx’s DeWitt Clinton High School, said. “There were no personal pressures. You went to school. You had your clique of friends, you played basketball. It was a kinder, gentler time.”
Hard-core comic book collectors may recognize DeWitt Clinton as the hub of creativity it was, attended by Batman creator Bob Kane and Will Eisner, “The Spirit” cartoonist and father of the modern graphic novel. Aaronson adds he attended alongside Ralph Lifshitz, aka fashion designer Ralph Lauren.
“We get alums from Columbus, Taft, Evander, Bronx Science, Morris, Monroe, Roosevelt and Walton [high schools],” Aaronson said. “From time to time, we even see Bronxites from the parochial schools.”
A New York alumni group organized by Lou Zigman at Beverly Hills High School inspired Aaronson and Palm Desert resident Doris Perlmutter (Columbus High, Class of ’61) to use Old Fashioned Day, with its nostalgic parade of vintage boats, ships, cars and motorcycles, as the vessel for their reflective reunion picnic.
The annual Bronx gathering comes together by email and through a Facebook page called “Bronxites Now Residing in Southern California” (currently at 426 people) that has become an online rendezvous for these culturally displaced Angelinos.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Rhohde, who chairs the event, said of the annual Bronx assembly.
Based on previous attendance, Rhohde expects 500 people to attend Old Fashioned Day. Moreover, water taxis, at $1 a ride, heighten the day’s excitement.
“People from east of the 405 need to come down and enjoy Marina del Rey and know you don’t need to own a boat to do that,” she said.
As for dressing the part, “We encourage it,” said Rhohde, who sets sail in her classic 48-foot Crisscraft Catalina. “My boat is a 1950, so I’ll be dressing in what was yachting attire of the period.”
Over the years, the Bronx picnic’s attendees have skewed white and Jewish-American, reflecting the borough’s population during the 1940s through 1960s. However, “we’re beginning to see graduates from the 1980s through 2000s [of varying ethnicities]. As the neighborhood changed, they’re beginning to take part, but they’re just not enough. Most of us who show up are in our 70s,” Aaronson said.
Bob Gramacy, a retired school teacher, returns to Chace Park this weekend for his fourth consecutive Bronx Reunion Picnic.
“I’m still a New Yorker at heart,” said Gramacy, a resident of Granada Hills. He originally attended “out of curiosity to see if I would run into someone I knew.” He did, reconnecting with Neal Adkins, a childhood neighbor at Grand Avenue and 108th Street whom he had not seen in decades.
“It was very surprising,” Gramacy said. “I had not thought about him for years. We weren’t close friends but we played stickball on the streets.”
Seven years ago, Gramacy also befriended a fellow former Clinton DeWitt graduate 10 years his senior: Gary Marshall, creator of TV shows “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” and director of such feature films as “Pretty Woman.” They now play softball together.
During the picnic, attendees, dressed in apparel boasting their high school logos, look at vintage photos and New York neighborhood and subway maps.
“We talk about the various things we used to do in the streets of New York,” Gramacy said.
Sadly, there is no emphasis on New York food because the park would not allow for food trucks, according to Aaronson, who “wanted to serve egg creams.”
Much has changed since Aaronson left the Bronx.
“DeWitt Clinton High School is called the DeWitt Clinton Learning Center now. They’re not called public schools anymore,” said Aaronson, a University of Arizona graduate and former Air Force pilot who moved to Los Angeles in 1966 and flew Continental commercial airliners for 35 years.
Aaronson returned to the real Bronx last week to catch a Yankees game with his grandsons, and Gramacy revisits the borough next week to celebrate his older brother’s 80th birthday.
Despite his longtime L.A. residency, said Aaronson, “You can take the boy out of New York but not New York out of the boy.”
Old Fashioned Day in the Park and the Bronx Reunion Picnic run from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday at Burton Chace Park, 13650 Mindanao Way, Marina del Rey. Call (310) 305-9595 or visit visitmarinadelrey.com.