Last time, I began the story of the building site at 254-6 S 12th St., home to Icandy today. I ended with the death of chef Francesco Basta, who had opened an Italian restaurant there called “The Leoncavallo” in 1912.
* * *
According to Frank Basta’s great-great granddaughter, Valerie, who lives in New Jersey, it was Frank’s daughter, Adelina Basta Caporale, known as “Tootsie,” and her husband Adalberto Caporale, along with the children’s African-American nanny, Margaret, who carried on the operation after Frank’s death in 1917. In 1918, they purchased 254 S 12th next door and joined the two buildings together, see ad, below. The façade we see today dates from that 1918 renovation. Tootsie, who as a child had played the piano before Bonci and Caruso, lived into her 90s and worked hard at keeping the Leoncavallo going for another fifty years. None of Tootsie’s four children wanted to be in the restaurant business, so she closed it in the mid 1960s and retired. The photo, left, of a Leoncavallo menu from the 1940s, was generously sent to me by Valerie. Notice the Leoncavallo’s catchphrase, “Leader in Chefcraft Since 1897.”
THE MIDWAY & THE PEPPER BOX
From 1965 until 1973, gay travel guides list the bar at 254-56 S 12th St. as The Midway. The earliest listings describe it as: “Mixed: appears straight but sufficiently active to make it worthwhile.” It also seems to have only had a beer license in the ’60s. The Midway’s first owner was Hans Lang then, later, Joe Kalman who also owned the Hotel DeVille on Kentucky Ave. in Atlantic City.
In 1975, the club changed its name to The Pepper Box, above, perhaps after one of the partners, Jerry Pepper. Notice that the bar was only open Monday through Saturday; because of Pennsylvania’s strict Blue Laws, only private clubs could serve alcohol on Sunday through most of the ’70s. There was a deal for Kalman sell the business to Pete Hamilton in 1975, but the settlement fell through and the premises remained closed for a few months. For four months, from March to June of 1976, it was resurrected as a private membership club called the Cobbler Club. If anyone has any more information about The Midway or The Pepper Box, I’d love to hear from you!
In August of 1977, Alan Kachin, right, took over ownership and Equus was born. Initially, there was some objection on the part of the Washington Square West Committee to granting the bar a dance license. Neighbors said they were not against gays, but against “undesirables.” In a vote a week later, Equus got the license.
Equus’ upstairs cabaret showcased an amazing array of performers including Eartha Kitt, Julie London, Charles Pierce, Tammi Grimes, Estelle Parsons and Christine Jorgensen. The piano bar often featured Northeast Philly’s own Karen Young, who was launched to national fame in 1978 by her hit, Hot Shot, written by Andy Kahn and DCA dj Kurt Borusiewicz. Equus was a first class restaurant, bar, cabaret, piano lounge and disco all rolled into one. The disco featured great Philly dj’s like Michael Cavallone, who also spun at DCA and who can still be heard at the Top of the Stop at the Bike Stop. A 1983 gay guide sums it up nicely: “If there’s a gay bar here with a national reputation, Equus is it. That’s because of its renowned cabaret . . . and its sleek, deco-inspired dining room which carries a diverse menu of nouvelle cuisine.” Below is Alan’s lover and Equus bartender David Fuller ca 1980:
Alan sold Equus in the summer of 1983 and eventually moved to Florida where he ran South Beach’s Hombre and Ft. Lauderdale’s Eagle. I’ve had the pleasure of speaking to Alan, who still lives in the Sunshine State. He’s posted some of his Equus memories on his FaceBook page, here: http://www.facebook.com/alan.kachin
The club continued operating under the ownership of Mel Heifetz as Equus until 1989, when it reopened as Hepburn’s, a women’s bar, on October 6th. The refurbished bar was lavishly decorated with photos of Katharine Hepburn, left, in her famous cross dressing role of “Sylvia Scarlett.” Katharine, of course, was quite handsome in any gender. It was open seven nights a week, with a lounge, pool table and of course an upstairs dance floor where DJs Marsha and Cheryl spun.
A look at the Hepburn’s staff marching east on Pine Street at 10th Street in the early ’90s, below. Owner Mel Heifitz is in the red shirt, waving.
HARMONY ZONE & 12th AIR COMMAND
In 1995-6, 254-6 S 12th St. began its sixth and seventh commercial incarnations. Thanks to Bruce Yelk, who tended bar there and a reader named Tom, I discovered that the bar operated for a few months in late 1995 as Harmony Zone, (see an ad for the short-lived Zone above),then in January, 1996 it became 12th Air Command, left. Owner Richard McPeake, who bought Hepburn’s from its last owner Mel Heifetz, managed to create a very age-mixed tri-level bar with drink specials, drag shows and go-go boys. McPeake had worked at Steps, Gatsby’s in NJ and Philly, Key West and Hepburn’s. In the early 1980s, Richard had also written a Philadelphia bar and social news column for PGN called “The McPeake Report.” 12th Air featured “Jaded Lounge,” an event for Asian gay men and their friends the second Friday of every month. In 2007, he refurbished the club as well as the roof deck Sky Lounge. 12th Air also became the city’s first gay bar to advertise in Philadelphia Magazine.
In 2010, after running the bar for 15 years, McPeake decided it was time to retire.
In March of last year, 2011, ownership passed to Darryl DePiano, right. A Toms River, NJ native, McPeake had previously run The Nile in Wildwood. He named his new club Icandy. With its newly painted façade boasting two American flags and four rainbow flags, below, it packs the most visual punch of any bar in the Gayborhood. DePiano works at keeping it fresh and new. Each level of Icandy, “a unique nightlife experience,” is different, from the first floor, the Tuscan Tavern, which DePiano calls the “gay Chickie and Pete’s,” to the top floor, which is home to the “Cobalt Arena,” the dance floor.
After seven incarnations, 254-6 S 12th St., like the Gayborhood itself, is still going strong.
According to Philadelphia Real Estate blogger Sandy Smith, iCandy is undergoing another renovation. Below is a photo that Sandy took and posted on March 9, 2013, of a fragment of what seems to be an original Leoncavallo wall tile:
I’ll have to drop by and see what else they’ve unearthed. Thanks, Sandy!
OCTOBER 1, 2014:
The damage that the façade sustained from the heavy rains this summer has been repaired, but the iconic “LEONCAVALLO” above the entrance is now gone. We’ll miss it.