He has witnessed Newport's revival. The main downtown drag, Thames Street (pronounced un-London-like, as it reads, to rhyme with "names"), was once known as Blood Alley for what the drunken sailors left of one another on the street—local color. Back then the wharves were filthy, filled with dives, warehouses, sheds. There was even an ancient blacksmith shop. But Warburton took over one joint and renamed it after his boat. "It was just a saloon then," he says. "Besides the booze, just chowder and sandwiches. And we added a parrot for character."
But The Black Pearl restaurant was the harbinger of revival even before most of Newport understood it needed reviving. That knowledge came to the town when, just like that, the Navy pulled the fleet out in '73. Newport—as ever, the big-eyed baby doll—felt lost and betrayed. Even now, some oldtimers still ask each other, "Think the torpedo station will come back soon?" The Navy phased that out in '46. Now in '73, the whole fleet...gone. How could the town survive without the federal dole? The Newport Daily News agonized over the island's economy as "this quagmire." Incredible as it seems now, despite the town's recreational splendor and its unique historical presence, tourism was then officially "nonexistent."
But the fleet's departure was a blessing in disguise. The town had to save itself. One group, led by Doris Duke, the heiress, restored nearly 400 Colonial structures. Old Navy apartments were made over into pleasant dwellings and condominiums for vacationers or the retired. Goat Island, site of the old torpedo station out in the harbor, was spruced up with a seven-story hotel and marina. Blood Alley and its environs were gutted and a spanking new America's Cup Avenue was created to run along the waterfront. Wharves were turned into Boutiqueland, crystallized cutesy-poo, surrounding The Black Pearl and The Candy Store. Here, for posterity, are the names of a few shops in the tourist area: Goodies, Splash, The Fragrance Factory, Fancy Pantry, Sweet Sensations, Honey Chrome, Forest Flame, The Cookie Jar, Pete's A' Place, Leather Feat, Kitchen Pot Pourri, Cloud 9, Confetti, The Bear Necessities, The Irish Dandelion, The Chocolate Soldier, Flashback, The Rocking Horse, The Nostalgia Factory, The Whimsical Unicorn.
Jim McGrath is a musician whose group, The Reprobates, specializes in sea chanteys and drinking songs. He and The Reprobates left Newport recently to ply their trade in another old seaport, Baltimore. McGrath discovered that in Newport none of the swinging singles who crowd the wharf wanted to hear that kind of indigenous music anymore. "The interest in a local band with local traditions seems to have disappeared," McGrath says. "Newport used to be filled with real people. But now everyone looks alike, dresses alike, talks alike. It's all too cute for words."
A few weeks ago Ted Turner, who is, of course, the skipper of the 1977 Cup defender, Courageous, and is out there sparring with Freedom and Clipper for the right to defend yet again next month, went to one of the Vanderbilt mansions, Marble House, to discuss America's Cup race scheduling and procedures with the other helmsmen and officials. Everybody except Turner and his lieutenants were in unpressed blue blazers. Turner and his men were in unpressed green blazers. He said, "When I first came here, this was a real rough-and-tumble sailor's town. I liked it more in the old days. You can't move around the damn place now." He turned to an older fellow in unpressed red pants next to him. "Whadd'ya say, Commodore, wasn't the old Newport better than this one, with the condominiums and boutiques and all that crap?"
The Commodore wasn't going out on a limb this day. "I just like Newport," he said. "I like Newport." Of course, the Commodore actually gets to see the America's Cup boats. But there will be three million other tourists visiting this year, and even if they don't get to see the boats, that is nearly three million more than used to come a decade ago, before there was a single Cinzano umbrella or whimsical unicorn on all the island.
Because sport is leisure and because, not so long ago, leisure belonged to the leisure class, of which Newport enjoyed an abundance, the town boasts an impressive sporting heritage. The first public roller-skating rink was established in Newport in 1866, and the first major international polo match in the U.S. was played there in 1886—inspired by that combustible communications magnate and sportsman, that original Ted Turner: James Gordon Bennett.
The first U.S. Open golf championship was played in Newport in 1895. The first bicycle society was formed there, too, and, it seems, automobile racing was established in 1899 when a most fascinating obstacle race was held at Belcourt, the mansion that belonged to O.H.P. Belmont. The lead horseless carriage was driven by Mr. Belmont himself, who, accompanied by an intrepid grande dame, Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish, steered his noisy automobile around a series of dummies dressed up as policemen, butlers, nursemaids, etc. It was a diverting way to while away a summer's afternoon. Years later Mrs. Fish recalled, "Nobody dreamed that automobiles would come into general use."
Tennis, though, was the activity for which Newport was most renowned. It was at the Newport Casino on Bellevue Avenue in 1881 that a Newporter named Richard Sears won the first U.S. Nationals, and the championships were played at that site for the next 34 years. The Casino was built in 1880 after Bennett induced his British pal, Captain "Sugar" Candy, to ride into the Newport Reading Room astride his horse. This did not amuse the gentlemen taking their ease in the Reading Room, an exclusive private club. Bennett was so aggrieved at their lack of humor that he decided to build his own club. He commissioned Stanford White to design the Casino.
In the intervening century, "casino" has come to mean gambling emporium, but at the time its literal meaning—"little house"—had some currency. The Newport Casino was not, of course, little, but such understatements were quite the fashion in a place where great mansions passed as "cottages." The Casino is a magnificent rambling affair, assuredly the grandest old sporting structure in the nation. A complete 500-seat theater (needing $125,000 to be restored) is tucked away in one corner largely forgotten; the whole damn Newport Jazz Festival began in 1954 on the Horseshoe Piazza; and the International Tennis Hall of Fame is out front.