So, What’s the Oldest Gay Bar in Philadelphia?

by ilcorago

Let’s face it. Philadelphia, being perhaps the most historically minded city in the country, boasts a mile-long long list of “firsts” and “oldests.”  The obvious questions to ask are “What was the first gay bar here?” and “Which is the oldest existing gay bar in Philly today?”

Rittenhouse Square, 1953. John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives

The answer to the first question is simply that we don’t know. George Chauncey has done a wonderful job of documenting gay culture in New York back to the 19th century in his book Gay New York, and Marc Stein has done the same for Philadelphia from WWII through the early 1970s in his City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves.  Without a doubt, we had the same 19th century underground cultures here as New York did, but conservative Philadelphia seems to have discreetly avoided discussing or documenting them as much. Much of the story of pre-WWII Philadelphia queer history still needs to be researched and written. (Yes, I’m working on it!)

For the answer to our second question, though, we’ll probably have to look in the heart of the modern Gayborhood on quiet, tree-lined Camac Street.

THE LITTLE STREET OF CLUBS

Many of the tiny two story houses on Camac Street date from the early 19th century, when the narrow thoroughfare was  called Dean Street. Its intimate scale and old fashioned feeling  gave it a special appeal to the many literary, advertising and art clubs that made the street their home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By 1915, the Stragglers’ Club, the Poor Richard Club, the Franklin Inn, the Sketch Club and the Plastic Club had all settled there, (see the sketch by Frank Taylor, left). Soon the “Little Street of Clubs,” as it was called, had the reputation of being Philadelphia’s own bohemian district. During the 1920s, under national Prohibition, in addition to the clubs, Camac Street was home to odd little restaurants, quaint tea rooms and of course, speakeasies.

JUST TELL ‘EM “JOE SENT ME!”

From 1920, when it took effect, until 1932, when it was repealed, Philadelphia pretty much dealt with Prohibition by ignoring it. Some estimated that there were over 12,000 speakeasies in the city. Whenever I’m asked if there is a place I could point out that was a former Philadelphia speakeasy, I always say it would be harder to find a place in the city that wasn’t one. It was during this brash and lawless period that we first have documentation of the existence of a speakeasy called Maxine’s owned by Ed King at 243 S Camac St. Now, speakeasies were operating beyond the law, in dark alleys and hidden cellars, beyond respectable society. They were places where, for almost the first time, men and women and blacks and whites could drink and socialize together. They also created semi-public spaces where a  new emerging minority would be welcomed, or at least tolerated: those “long haired-men and short haired women,”  that we would label gay today. This also helped give rise to  a new nickname for the Camac strip in the 20s: “Philadelphia’s Greenwich Village” (see matchbook, above).

Camac 1930 copy

Camac St. in 1930. Someone is visible in the doorway
of Maxine’s speakeasy, just to the left of the lamppost.

After Prohibition, Maxine’s continued to operate, now more overtly, as a “gentlemen’s bar.”  Here’s a photo, right, from a 1937 WPA guide to Philadelphia showing a small sign on the building saying simply “Maxine’s Bar.” (Click on it, or any other image here, for a larger image.)

Sailors on leave, City Hall courtyard, 1942

During World War II, Maxine’s was very popular not only with local gay men, but also with sailors and GI’s on leave. Periodically, MP’s would sweep through, looking for men in uniform consorting with the “deviates.” There was a rumor that Maxine’s was under serveillance by the new wartime Office of Strategic Services! By the 1950s, still under the ownership of Ed King, the bar sported dancing, entertainers and the Cobra Room upstairs. Maxine’s at this time was sophisticated and elegant; men were expected to wear ties and jackets. Below is a photo of Camac St. from 1950, with Maxine’s in its heyday:

In August of 2016, the William Way Center’s LGBT Archives received the donation from Bill “Woody” Wood of a guestbook from Maxine’s. Included were some phots. Among thems were a few that included Eddie King and his wife, Eileen. Up until then, there were no identifiable photos of Eddie. Here are Eddie and Eileen in the early 1950s in the Cobra Room:

Eddie and Mrs king

 Here’s a sample menu from Maxine’s dining room in that period. It’s pretty standard mid-century highbrow steakhouse fare, straight through from onion soup to Sanka:

RAFFLES

Toward the end of the 70s, the bar and restaurant declined a bit, getting the reputation for being a seedy, second-rate place; it was time for Ed to retire. He had been running the bar for over 40 years and had been employed in it for 10 years before that. In 1982, Maxine’s was bought out by a gay male couple: Ed Klarin, (below, left in photo), who had been a vice-president of Adolfo clothing and a regular at Maxine’s and his lover Louis Rodrigues, who managed a chain of beauty salons. They re-opened the space as Raffles. They refurbished the entire interior space, which now had four bars, a piano played by Kay Klarin, a dance floor and pub dining in the basement. (See photo, above,right, of the opening of Raffles in April of 1982). Raffles would gain a reputation as a party bar,  Klarin and Rodrigues gave endless theme parties. 1983, for instance,  featured a different color theme every week and once a year they gave a “Bartenders’ Ball” for all the workers at gay bars in the city.

GOD BLESS MARY THE HAT

The most infamous character at Maxine’s/Raffles was Mary Estelle Shepard, left, much better known as  Mary the Hat to her friends, from the outlandish hats she wore every night. She had worked at various bars around town in the 70s and 80s, including Maxine’s. Mary claimed that when she began at Maxine’s, she didn’t know it was a gay bar, but the truth was that she had begun working for Barney Zeeman at the Forrest many years before. When she died in 1984, no one had any idea how old she was. She eventually moved into an apartment directly across tiny Camac Street from Maxine’s. She’d drink all night, and when it came time to go home, if it were raining she would call a cab. When the cab arrived, barely squeezing down narrow Camac, the driver, who was a regular, would help her down the steps and into the cab. She’d then slide across the back seat, the driver would open the other door and help her into her apartment. She’d always pay him two dollars which he would give to the Maxine’s doorman to return to her the next day. I’ve heard this wonderful story from several people and even if it’s just a story, it’s a great one!

TAVERN ON CAMAC

When Raffles was sold in 1999 to Joey Guidotti, who had been a bartender at the Westbury for many years, it was reborn as Tavern on Camac.  Steve Carlino and Dennis Fee bought the club from Guidotti in 2004. In the past 8 years they’ve brought new life to TOC, from the dance lounge Ascend at the top, to the cozy restaurant Terra in the basement. Oh,  and don’t worry, the traditional TOC piano bar is still there in the middle!  As a bonus, they are tremendous supporters of Philadelphia’s LGBTQ community. Last year, the Inquirer featured Carlino in a great article here. Luckily for the Gayborhood,  they’ve now expanded their business ventures to include Uncles on Locust St., which they’ve just remodelled, and invested in Tabu on 12th  – where I can be seen about once a week having  lunch, notebook and camera in hand.

So what’s the oldest gay bar in Philadelphia? With a 90 year history of being a queer-identified space and a well-deserved reputation for being as lively and popular today, my vote would have to go to . . . Tavern on Camac.  Cheers, TOC!

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