August 12, 2008

Deserted Island’s Past Nearly Forgotten


At the turn of the 20th century, it was home to a fine-dining restaurant with a beer garden. During Prohibition, it was one of the Silk City's swankiest speakeasies. In May, it became a refuge for a wayward black bear.

The small island in the Passaic River north of the Glover Avenue Bridge between Paterson and Totowa has had a variety of owners and names. But with most of its illustrious history faded, it is known today only as Block 5012, Lot 1 on the city's tax rolls a place so forgotten many local officials don't know it has belonged to the county for nearly half a century.

The county bought the 300-foot-by-60-foot island in 1962 from John J. Watters and his wife, Jessie. The couple owned a tavern on the slip that was accessible only by the Lincoln Bridge that spanned the river between Paterson and Totowa.

The bridge's deteriorating condition forced the freeholders to condemn it. A few months before the sale, the Paterson Morning Call reported the freeholders, led by Director Robert A. Roe, agreed to pay the Watters $32,000 for the land.

What its value is today is a question that hasn't been entertained at all by county freeholders.

County officials have been taking inventory of under-utilized properties, such as small houses in Paterson and Wayne that were formerly used by the Prosecutor's Office, and putting them on the market to raise cash. Meanwhile, Paterson's mayor and council have been pushing the county to shed some of its non-taxable plots from the city to lighten the tax burden on residents.

"I don't know if selling it is feasible," said Freeholder Terry Duffy, chair of the Planning and Economic Development committee. Perhaps the less than half an acre of land could be cleared of its overgrown trees and brush to create a park, he said.

Although the island has been as unnoticeable to local officials as it is to the daily commuters that roll past it, it once enjoyed prominence and notoriety.

"It really is one of the last vestiges of the 'Roaring '20s,' " said Passaic County Historian Ed Smyk. "It was a place where people could enjoy gondola rides and illicit booze and ogle chorus girls."

These were the features of the Lido Venice, a flamboyant nightclub run by three brothers, Nicholas, Joseph, and Michael Durandy, who bought the venue from their brother, William, in 1927.

Anthony Verga, a Paterson Evening News reporter, recalled the club in 1961 as being the Silk City's celebrity hangout. Comedian Henny Youngman, a regular performer, disparaged the club's posh luxury as nothing but "an upholstered sewer," Verga wrote.

Famed stripper Gypsy Rose Lee dropped by to christen the first gondola, and Ginger Rogers, Milton Berle and Bert Lahr (the cowardly lion in "The Wizard of Oz") were among the Hollywood icons who made regular appearances. Jackie Gleason and Lou Costello were young guys honing their acts there in the 1930s.

Many of the shows could be heard on Paterson radio station WODA, which produced a weekly three-hour broadcast from the club.

The Great Depression had ended the Lido Venice's glamorous era by 1936, when the price of dinner fell from $2.50 to $1.

"People still went, but money was in really short supply," Smyk said, "like now."


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