The Philadelphia Gayborhood Guru

Stories of how Philadelphia's Gayborhood came to be, featuring photos, artifacts and documents from the John J. Wilcox Jr. LGBT Archives.

Month: August, 2012

Straight Snapshot: The Chancellor Apartments

There are many locations within Philly’s Gayborhood that are not particularly LGBT identified spaces, but which have great stories of their own and are part of the historical fabric of the neighborhood. I’ll cover some of these stories in short “Straight Snapshots.” The first of these snapshots is about the Chancellor, at 204-206 S 13th Street, next to Woody’s.

THE CHANCELLOR HALL HOTEL

If you’ve walk by the Chancellor Apartments during the day, you’ve seen the busy stylists at work in Cut Hair Salon on the street level. The 24 story building, which towers over the rest of that block of 13th Street, is the 86th tallest in the city. The Classical Revival structure was built in 1928 as the Chancellor Hall Hotel, left,  by architect Arthur W. Hall, who designed several other apartment and office buildings in Center City. Early newspaper ads described it as  an “ideal location in the center of the Philadelphia Business District.”

After World War II, there was a popular restaurant called “The Forge Room,” above, in the space that Cut now occupies. The Forge featured live entertainment – pianists, vocalists and even an acrobatic dancer or two. Some of the floors above were leased out as office space, and this is where the fun part of the story begins.

ROCK & ROLL, PHILLY STYLE

In 1957, a new record company that featured local Philadelphia talent rented office space in the building. That company, Chancellor Records, took its name from the hotel, but its logo from the Scottish Chancellor family. Chancellor Records, owned by Bob Marcucci, had its first hit on Billboard’s “Hot 100” chart in “With All My Heart,” sung by Jodie Sands. However, the label really became famous for its two major artists, South Philly teen idols Frankie Avalon, right, and Fabian Forte, below, left. Both were hired for their looks as much as for thier talent. Marcucci was able to get  the young artists a lot of exposure on the influential local TV show, “American Bandstand,” hosted by Dick Clark. Frankie Avalon recorded the hits “De De Dinah,” “You Excite Me,” “A Perfect Love” and “Venus” for Chancellor. Fabian gave us “Tiger Rag,” “Hold Me,” “Lovesick,” “Just One More Time,” “Steady Date” and “Turn Me Loose,”  see record labels, below. Chancellor Records along with its stars, Fabian and Frankie Avalon, helped make Philadelphia a dominant force in the 1950s and 1960s pop music scene.


By the early 1960s, however, both Fabian and Frankie Avalon began recording less and less and concentrating more on making movies in Hollywood, and Chancellor Records faded from pop music prominence.

POST-TEEN SCENE

In the 1980s, when the All In the Family strip bar still lingered a few doors down in the building that family friendly Nest occupies today, many of the Chancellor apartments were used as housing for students from the Philadelphia College of Art, which would soon merge into the University of the Arts. They rented for from $275 to $500 a month then. In the 1990s, it housed the offices of the City Paper. Today, the Chancellor’s studios and one bedroom apartments are still home to a mix of Center City students, young professionals and elderly. I’d bet that among that mix are more than a few LGBT tenants.

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Icandy, Part II: The Swinging 60s and Beyond

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.
* * *
“TOOTSIE”

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!

EQUUS

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

HEPBURN’S

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.

Hepburn's Gay Pride 90s

HARMONY ZONE & 12th AIR COMMAND

In 1995-6, 254-6 S 12th St. began its sixth and seventh commercial incarnations. Thanks to Bruce Yelkwho 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.

ICANDY

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.

UPDATE:

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:

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.