Town of Newburgh History

The Villa El Nilo

By Ish Martinez
Posted 9/22/22

As usual, Alan has provided a very well researched and meticulously detailed account of the evolution of The Kat’s Meow/Club El Ray nightclub in the Town of Plattekill. So, to pick up on where …

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Town of Newburgh History

The Villa El Nilo

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As usual, Alan has provided a very well researched and meticulously detailed account of the evolution of The Kat’s Meow/Club El Ray nightclub in the Town of Plattekill. So, to pick up on where he left off, let me begin with the incarnation of the inception of El Nilo as a villa, catering to a Latino clientele.

Although the Kat’s Meow/Club El Ray did have what was most likely the largest swimming pool in the town, it was primarily a nightclub with adult themed dancers and shows. The patrons tended to be mostly of Irish descent and other Anglo heritages. But the Kat’s Meow/Club El Ray was also operating alongside the early Spanish immigrant resorts, like Villa Rodriguez, Villa Garcia, Villa Madrid and the Villa Victoria which fostered more of a family-oriented retreat destination, with activities during the day and a nightclub atmosphere at night. Those operations were all started as early as the 1920’s. So these Spanish speaking residents happened to be one of the other cultural groups that had a presence in the town. The Italians were yet a third group that had also established some villa resorts in the area.

By the 1950’s a number of new villas, owned by Puerto Rican families, like Villa Guardarramas, Villa Vieques, Toto’s, Villa Borinquen and my own parents’, Sunny Acres Hotel, had evolved and added to the influx of Spanish speaking visitors to the area. The town was receiving thousands of Hispanic visitors every summer weekend from New York City and the Metropolitan area. By this time, Ray Shea Jr had taken over the operation of Club El Ray from his father. Being an astute and guileful businessman like his father, Ray realized that his usual customer base, especially the Irish, were now going to resorts in the Catskills in East Durham, NY. So in order for his business to thrive, Ray knew that he had to modify his business in order to attract this new Latino customer base that was now visiting the area in droves during the busy summer season.

Ray gave the business a new Spanish name and called it El Nilo, which in English translates to, The Nile. The reason he had for choosing that name is unknown, but I doubt that it had anything to do with the small Quassaick Creek that happened to run through his property. It was just to the right of the main building and probably provided water for the swimming pool, although by this time the swimming pool was no longer in use since according to Ray Shea’s daughter, Dianne Holder, there was a near drowning in that pool. He also hired Puerto Rican cooks and staff to serve up the food he now served to customers who often came up for daytime excursions in as many as 20 to 30 buses, which were referred to as jiras (phonetically hiras). He cooked the pork in a very traditional way, using as many as 6 to 10 rotisserie sheds with pits where the whole pig was skewered on a spit and roasted for hours. The tangy aroma of the cooked meat spiced with generous portions of garlic could easily be smelled by passing motorists. Some people would say that the open-air cooking was just another ploy by Ray to draw in prospective customers. Instead of Martinis, Gin Gimlets and Irish Whiskey, he was now serving large volumes of Puerto Rican rum in an endless flow of Cuba Libres and Daiquiris and of course the ever-popular Schaefer and Rheingold beers. He also arranged to have some of the most popular Latin bands of the day perform in his dance hall. Purportedly, based on people I have spoken to over the years, Mongo Santamaria, Tito Puente, Celia Cruz, El Gran Combo and Willie Colon all played at El Nilo at one time or another.

Unfortunately, El Nilo was also one of a few villas that had a somewhat infamous reputation for periodic altercations or should I say, fights. As you might expect, serving liquor to people at all hours of the day or, night will quite frequently lead to this type of behavior. In one particularly unique and tragic incident during the 4th of July weekend in 1965, a car was stopped on Route 32 in front of the villa and was rear ended by another car causing the death of a 15-month-old boy in the stopped car. Tempers flared and a near-riot broke out as a crowd of 500 tourists argued about who was responsible for the tragedy. They overwhelmed the roadway and blocked traffic in both directions. The fire department used their fire hoses to push back the crowd, who responded by throwing beer bottles and rocks at firefighters and police. Fortunately, no injuries were reported and the outnumbered police, including one of Puerto Rican descent, were able to get things under control.

The demise of El Nilo began with the loss in popularity of the villa industry as a whole. The business was completely closed down by the mid 1980’s. Ray Shea, Jr passed away in 1994 and the abandoned property was left in the hands of Ray’s older sister, Helene Goodwin, according to Ray’s daughter, Dianne Holder.

Ismael “Ish” Martinez Jr is the author of Las Villas of Plattekill and Ulster County.

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