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.

Category: Camac St.

. . . and what about the Venture Inn?

There are probably more stories about the history of the Venture Inn at 255 S Camac St. than about any other gay bar in Philadelphia. The stories run like this: “It was the stable of the house owned by the Barrymores,” “It was part of the Underground Railroad,”   “It was already a popular eating and drinking spot by the time of the 1876 Centennial.”

What’s the truth?

HAZEL ALLEY

For some reason, the two block length of Camac Street running from Walnut to Spruce was developed by about 1800, much earlier than the surrounding blocks. About 1813, the street appears in directories as Hazel Alley, then a bit later as Dean’s Alley and by the end of that decade as Dean Street. It would remain Dean Street for most of the 19th century, until about 1898, when the hodge podge of street names  in Philadelphia were regularized. It was then renamed Camac, because it was in a line with Camac Street which ran above Master Street in North Philadelphia. I cut down Camac St. whenever I’m walking in the area. It’s a lovely street; most of the row of houses on the north side of Camac between Locust and Spruce Streets date from the early 1820s. The Venture Inn, at 255 S Camac, was originally the stable to 217 Spruce Street and was built a bit later, in the 1830s. In the picture, left, from 1900, the Renaissance-inspired circular relief of the infant on the northern wall that we still see today is visible. It’s copied from decorations on the 1419 Ospedale degli Innocenti orphanage in Florence. I’d love to know why it’s there and when it was put on.

Let’s start with the Barrymore legend. The story seems date back to an article that appeared in the 1937 WPA Guide to Philadelphia. The Guide stated that John Barrymore’s grandparents, Louisa and John Drew, lived at 255 S Camac St. in the 1850s. There are problems with that. Not only was 255 definitely still a stable then, but city directories list the Drews as living further north, on Buttonwood Street, in that period. Perhaps the story had something to do with the nearby Barrymore Apartments at 238 Camac Street, which were built around the time the Guide was written. No Barrymores ever lived there, either.

• • •

CAMAC STREET UNDERGROUND

In the 1850s and early 1860s, when the Underground Railroad was most active, 1217 Spruce Street and the stable behind were owned by the Harrison family, who were well-to-do manufacturers of chemicals and the white lead used in paint, above. The grandfather Thomas Harrison, was indeed a Quaker and a member of the abolitionist society in Philadelphia. The photo, left, is of his grandson Thomas, who was living at 1217 Spruce St. in the late 1850s. Was he or the family involved with hiding fugitive slaves? Possibly; but there are several things to consider. First, although all Quakers were abolitionists, only a small minority of Quaker families were ever involved in the Underground Railroad. Second, despite the use of the term “underground,” the network usually did not involve actual tunnels like those that exist on Camac Street. There are many tunnels scattered throughout Center City. The fact is that most of them were used to hide illegal Prohibition hooch and not fugitive slaves. Lastly, by the 1850s, the Harrisons were two generations removed from their abolitionist grandfather. All of that being said, if there is a link between the Venture Inn building and the Underground Railroad network, the most likely one would be through the Harrison family.

A RECTORY

From 1889 to 1902, 1217 Spruce Street was the home of Civil War veteran Reverend Leverett Bradley. The Rev. Bradley, right, was the rector of St. Luke’s Church a block away on 13th St. In 1898, under his rectorship, the parish of St. Luke combined with the congregation of the Church of the Epiphany on Chestnut and 15th Streets to become the gay-friendly Church of St. Luke and the Epiphany that we know today.

After the ill Rev. Bradley moved out in 1902, the former Spruce St. rectory became home to Dr. Ernest Kelsey and his two daughters who entertained there regularly, giving afternoon teas and luncheons to other families listed in Philadelphia society’s “Blue Book.” From here on the story of the house and the stable diverge.

TEA ROOM, GARDENS & BOOKSTORE

By 1911, the stable behind the Spruce Street house had its own address: 255 S Camac St. Inquirer employment ads appear that year that read “Laundresses, housemaids waiters and cooks wanted. Miss Platz at the German Scandinavian Office at 255 S Camac, between 12th and 13th.” Miss Platz ran her employment service for white Protestants there until the fall of 1916.

In 1919, entrepreneur Blanche L. James opened 255 S Camac St. as the Venture Tea Room. This is the first time that the building houses any kind of restaurant. The postcard, below, from the Free Library’s collection,  shows the interior of the Venture Tea Room and Art Shop in the early 1920s.

It’s possible that the post card ended up in the Free Library collection because the Special Libraries Council of Philadelphia regularly dined there before their meetings. Tea rooms in the 1920s were places run by independent, short skirt wearing “new” women who could show off both their self-reliance and their Bohemian flair, selling handcrafted bric-a-brac, antiques and curiosities along with tea and dainty cucumber luncheon sandwiches. From 1925 on, Blanche partnered with Corinne Meyers and Rose Kessler, running the Venture Bookshop, Gardens and Tea Room a block north at 201 S Camac, (the building that later became the Camac Baths.) A 1928 tourist guide book called it “A Droll Little Building in White.”

THE VENTURE INN

In 1931, now owned by George and Helen Cappo, the restaurant was first advertised as the Venture Inn. After World War II it is run by Dick Nolan and, like so many other small restaurants and bars in the Washington West area, it was a “musical bar,” serving up food, drinks and live entertainment. The featured pianist there through the 1940s was Temple graduate Charles Swierleft, top row, second from the right, who sang with a vocal trio called “The Three Dandies,” wrote several musical comedies with Beaumont Breustle and had a show on KYW radio with vocalist Patti Marsh.

During the 1950s and ’60s, the Venture Inn became a Center City hangout for college age kids, see photo below, right from 1951. Interviews I’ve conducted with older gay men from the William Way Center’s “Silver Foxes” confirm that fact. In 1962, a Philadelphia Magazine article about Philadelphia’s gay subculture called “The Furtive Fraternity,”  listed the Venture Inn among the bars in the city which were places that homosexuals frequented. This was the first mention I’ve found of the Venture Inn as having any gay clientele.

THE INN COMES OUT

In 1973 the Venture Inn went from being a “gay friendly” bar to being a gay bar, when it was bought by Hans Lang, who had previously owned The Midway on 12th Street, which is iCandy today. See an early ad for the Venture Inn, above. Since 1973, the Venture Inn has been well known both as a gay bar and a restaurant.

In May of 1977, the business came under the ownership of Ted Wasserman, photo left, Ted’s in the center. Ted would operate the Inn for the next 30 years. By 2000 both the building and the clientele were beginning to show their age and the Venture got a reputation as attracting an “older crowd.” In 2004, rumors floated around that Ted was looking to sell. The business didn’t change hands until 2007, when Bob Berkowitz, the present owner, took over. Bob brought in a new kitchen staff and got the place and the business back on its feet – in 2008, the Venture Inn won the Philadelphia Rainbow Award for best Bar/Pub.

The stucco façade of the Venture Inn has just been totally refurbished and painted a medium gray with a new navy blue awning over the door. It really looks great; it’s worth a walk down charming Camac Street just to see.

• • •

So, what’s the truth?

The Venture Inn does have a long and unique history; not a Barrymore in sight, but, yes,  possibly an Underground Railroad connection. In any case, I doubt that any other U.S. city can boast a gay bar that’s tucked a way on a 200 year old side street and is housed in a building that had been a stable to Quaker abolitionists and a Prohibition era tea room.

• You can see the fifteenth century Andrea della Robbia terracotta tondi on the loggia of the Ospedale degli Innocenti here.

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

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!