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His Life Was A Beach

New London -- For Tony Pero and Ocean Beach Park, the surf — as the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson might say — is always up.

In appreciation of them both, a gala celebrating the beach attraction's 65th anniversary and Pero's 42-year career there will take place 6-11 p.m. tonight in the park's Port 'N Starboard. The event also commemorates Veterans Day.

Known as “Mr. Ocean Beach,” the 84-year-old Pero said, “The beach has always been a part of my life. Sometimes I think folks have taken it for granted, but it's a wonderful place — a family place — and, along with the Coast Guard Academy, one of two things I think New London can always be proud of.”

Pero reminisced about his years at the beach earlier this week, from behind the counter at Birch Plain Golf Course in Groton, where he works as manager. He's still active on tourism boards and also served in the past as a New London city councilor, as well as in many civic organizations and charities.

But he's mostly associated with the beach, which he managed for almost 19 years before retiring in 1989.

“I never felt the beach was — I don't know how to put it — a job,” said Pero. “It was a pleasure and a privilege. I like being around people and meeting people, and what better or happier place to do so than Ocean Beach Park?”

The idea for the beach came in 1881, when common council member Harry F. Savage suggested the city buy up all the waterfront land up to Ocean Avenue for a public beach. But it wasn't until 1893 that a group, led by former Gov. Thomas M. Waller, bought and developed the property. Eventually, private investors began to open operations, and Ocean Beach was born.

By 1904, 75 residential cottages had cropped up in Ocean Beach colony, and the beach was becoming a destination of note.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Ocean Beach was the pulsing heart of the city. It had a 75-foot strip of sand with a boardwalk, pavilion and boating pier jutting out into Long Island Sound. Three competitive purveyors held culinary court: P.J. Clifford's, Leverone and DeBarbieri's and Izzy's.

The beach had become a regular stop for residents at the end of the New London trolley line.

During the '30s, even more businesses sprang up to accommodate crowds, and Ocean Beach had effectively been transformed from a modest beach for city residents into a premiere tourist destination. In addition to numerous restaurants, there was the Danceland, with world-class entertainment, as well as a penny arcade, rifle range, a duck pond and merry-go-round.

Then the hurricane of '38 hit.

“No one knew the storm was coming,” Pero said. “I woke up when my house was shaking, and I kept hoping the pier and the boardwalk would still be there. Of course, they were gone.”

More than half of the 200 structures at the beach were destroyed. The pavilion was one of them.

In 1939, the city took control of the area and began rebuilding under the direction of the new Ocean Beach Park Board. On July 1, 1940 — 65 years ago — Ocean Beach Park was dedicated. Over time, a miniature golf course, a swimming pool, an arcade, bowling alley, picnic area and amusement park were integrated into the attraction.

•••Pero became captain of lifeguards in 1946 and was named park manager in 1970. He was integral in developments there, and much of the vision and hard work that established the park as a prime New England tourist spot were his.

Wayne McCary, president of Big East Expositions and the man who runs the Big E — the ninth-largest state fair in the country — worked for Pero at Ocean Beach when he was a high school and college student. Later, he brokered beach entertainment to Pero.

“I consider Tony a mentor and a friend and a perfect gentleman,” McCary said in a recent interview. “What also stands out in my mind about Tony is that, long before it was in vogue, it was his idea to have a quality, clean, safe facility. And he viewed people who came to the beach as family. These are the sort of values Disney took up and that I've tried to reflect at the Big E — and he was way ahead of his time.”

McCary has a photograph of the first act he ever booked for Pero at Ocean Beach.

“It was the original Flying Wallendas, and the picture is of all of us standing on the boardwalk.” It reminds me of how much time Tony took to help younger people starting out. He and the park fired my imagination.”

Like many who grew up in New London, Dave Sugrue has indelible memories of Ocean Beach Park and of Pero. His father was a concessionaire at the park, and Pero was a family friend.

“I spent so much time there as a kid,” said Sugrue, who now manages the park for Boston Culinary Group, “that I can't think of it without thinking of Tony. Even when he was superintendent — I think that's what his title was — I just remember him constantly stopping to talk to guests or picking up every straw wrapper or cigarette butt he came across. It's a wonder he ever made it the length of the park.”

Pero agrees that he spent a lot of time and energy at the park. “I tried to make visitors feel like family,” he said. “I thought that was important. Thank God my own family understood that.”

Pero's wife, Mary, died last year. They have six children and numerous grandchildren.

“When I was growing up, obviously, dad spent a lot of time at the beach,” said Pero's son Rob, just re-elected to a New London City Council seat. “He was committed to it the way he was to our family. He loved his job, and he taught us that it could be part of the family. I think you see that sense of giving back to the community in me and all my brothers and sisters.”

Today, between spending time with his family and his work in tourism and at the golf course, Pero doesn't get to visit Ocean Beach Park very often. Nonetheless, he has his memories.

He describes a late-night crowd in the beach parking lot that he went to investigate — only to find Louis Prima, who'd entertained that evening with Keely Smith, sitting on his instrument case, telling stories to fans.

He recalls a bus full of nuns pulling into the park. When they got off the bus, he said, they raced across the sand to the ocean, because none of them had ever seen salt water.

But most of all he remembers families just enjoying themselves.

“You had families working here — seniors and school kids from the same family. And at the same time three generations of another family would be coming to spend the day at the beach,” Pero said. “That's what Ocean Beach Park means. I hope it will always mean that.”

The 65th Anniversary of the New Ocean Beach Park honoring Tony Pero and Veterans Day takes place from 6-11 p.m. tonight in the Port 'N Starboard at Ocean Beach Park. The evening is hosted by Save Our Beach Inc. and the Dick Campo Big Band will entertain. Tickets are $20 per person and are available at the door. Proceeds benefit environmental and children's projects. Call 442-1502 or 447-1983.
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