Updated 2:50 pm
Betsy Larsen was genuinely surprised Monday morning when scores of well-wishers gathered in front of her landmark fish market, Larsen’s, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the business. In the bed of his 1951 Ford pickup truck, Ken Iscol, beside Betsy and her sister, Kristine Larsen, said he learned from Betsy a month earlier T shirts were about the extent of the celebration Betsy had planned for the anniversary.
“This will not last,” he said. “All of you are deserving of our gratitude, help, and love for what you’ve done here.”
Iscol credited Tricia Bennett, who worked for Betsy from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, and Patty Rossi, who has known her since they were teenagers, and still works at the market part-time, for gathering a crowd to celebrate Larsen’s without tipping off Betsy or Kristine.
Dubbed a “Flash Mob” on secret emailed invitations, the event saw more than 100 people gather before 7 am next to the Menemsha Texaco and march parade-style along Basin Road to the doorstep of Larsen’s, with Ellen and Taurus Biskis of the Missis Biskis Band and the Ukuladies leading the way in the pickup. Among those in attendance were Seth Meyers, Vernon Jordan, Caroline Kennedy, and Linda Fairstein.
Kate Taylor, spokeswoman for the Ukuladies, said, “I’m a longtime admirer of all things Larsen’s. Wonderful family, great people.”
The parade was led by Sarah Gardner, wearing a bright red lobster suit. She explained, “I’m a friend and also employee, and she wouldn’t know I’m here because I’m from New Hampshire. So I’m trying to surprise her even more by being disguised.” The musicians had led the crowd wearing party hats, and holding up signs saying 20+, 30+, and 50+ years, up to Betsy and Kristine in the truck singing, “You Are My Sunshine” and then a rousing chorus sung to the tune of Happy Birthday:
“Happy 50th anniversary to you
Happy 50th anniversary to you
We love this little market
And we love you all too!”
Iscol told the crowd 50 years ago, Louis Larsen, Betsy and Kristine’s dad, decided to open a fish market in the shadow of Everett Poole’s powerhouse Menemsha seafood operation, which he described as a virtual monopoly. The market took root and flourished, becoming a landmark establishment. Iscol said, like a U.S. Marine, a former employee of Larsen’s is always an employee of Larsen’s. He added that his son Zach worked at Larsen’s when he was in middle school and high school under Betsy, and fondly credits his years working for her in preparing him for the U.S. Marines, in which he became a decorated officer.
“Zach always said he never met a drill sergeant that was tougher than Betsy,” Iscol said.
Not only was Betsy surprised at the gathering, her sister was too. She’d slipped back into the market amid the revelry. With chowder burbling behind her, she said from the kitchen she needed to check to make sure nothing was burning. They went outside abruptly without turning off the burners.
With a small sea of people tooting toy horns and cheering, poet John Maloney climbed into the pickup bed and read a poem he’d composed of the occasion, “Ode to Larsen’s for Betsy.”
“You might ask, What goes with white wine and beers?
And Larsen’s has had the answer for 50 years.
For actors and Crickers, moms and mobsters,
Once-harpooned swordfish and chicken lobsters.
Hose down the floor and dump on the ice,
We have hungry guests and just tabouli and rice.
You body-surfed all day. Your arms went limp.
They’ll suggest lemon sole and cocktail shrimp.
Your every desire inside a chilled glass case.
As you drift outside casting for a parking space.
It’s part meeting house, part free concert passes,
Halibut steaks for the huddled masses.
It’s our victory lap, our Tour de Menemsha,
For revival, deliverance, sustenance, Redemsha,
And there is Betsy, all smiles and white boots,
Making us feel like we’ve all been in cahoots.
We marvel at her warmth and devotion.
Overseeing cutting salmon in all that commotion.
For willing kids, a summer job they could crack,
Where they’re measured, weighed, cut out or thrown back.
And end up wrapping cod in treated paper.
Hoping they’ll see Denzel or Don Draper.
But they earn their grade taking military orders.
They become shuck-privates in a town without borders.
The bluefin tuna red, the little galley pristine,
A dynamic duo of Karsten and Kristine.
And Betsy never falters or swims away.
We’re hooked, right through Labor Day.
Larsen’s 50 years, end the war, no nukes, free Tibet.
And with every dinner, they include a sunset.
Up on the truck herself, Bennett wanted to make sure to add, “We all think that the ‘magic happens’ at Larsen’s. Once it’s in your heart, it’s there to stay.” She added, “We hope that Betsy, Kristine, Isaiah, Jeremy, and Scott Larsen feel the love and appreciation that we all feel for them … and the entire Larsen family. Including Louis and Beth Larsen in Vineyard Haven and Dan, Marie, and Dan Jr. Larsen in Edgartown.”
After the formal remarks, the group was treated to champagne and doughnuts as folks shared lots of memories and swapped stories.
And if you missed the action, soon you’ll be able to see it in its entirety on Instagram at @larsensfishmarket, having been shot from a drone from start to finish.
Amid the hugs and smiles, Betsy reflected, “Oh my gosh, what a surprise. I had no idea. I saw that Menemsha was getting a little bit busier, but I didn’t see it coming. I feel really blessed.”
Updated to include more details. Abby Remer contributed to this report.