Gay Old Times

Philadelphia may be one of the most gay-friendly cities in America, but it wasn’t always that way. Tracking down the gay pioneers who first settled in the blocks between Broad Street and Washington Square, Amy Korman hears tales of courage, crisis, community, drag queens and Frank Rizzo — and chronicles the making of the place we call the Gayborhood

“There was this electricity in the air.”

Ed Hermance, owner, Giovanni’s Room bookstore: There’s a book downstairs about Bill Tilden, the tennis player and Penn student, who got in trouble for liking the ball boys [in the 1920s and ’30s]. Then, the whole scene was on the west side of Broad. Jane Jacobs, the author of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, talks about Rittenhouse Square in the ’50s as one of the most successful parks in America, and pegged Washington Square as the center of homosexuals and degenerates. But at the time, Rittenhouse Square was the center of cruising! The Allegro on Spruce Street was the biggest bar — it was where the Kimmel Center is now.

Rick Piper, owner, 12th Street Gym: The Allegro was really very famous. It was a lot like Woody’s. It was a safe place. There were a lot of people, and that freedom. It was probably 98 percent men.

Henri David, jeweler and party-giver: We always joke when we’re at the Kimmel Center that we’re sitting in the Allegro. There were so many clubs, and it was so much fun. Center City is honeycombed with little streets like Drury Lane and Camac Street, and the gay bars were on those little tiny streets. The oldest gay bar in the country was Maxine’s, which is now Tavern on Camac.

Thom Nickels, author, Gay and Lesbian Philadelphia, and architecture columnist for the Bulletin and Icon magazine:
Maxine’s was really elegant. I went there once with two older lesbian friends of mine who were in evening gowns. It was like the gay bar for the Socially Registered.

Henri David: A lot of gentlemen told me that even before I was born, you’d know they were gay if they wore a red tie and a red handkerchief when they went to Drury Lane.

Thom Nickels: The Allegro was really the happening place, but the Drury was this charming piano bar; they had great manhattans. It was a great conversation bar, and without the pandemonium and thumping music of the Allegro. It was right next to McGillin’s, this rowdy college bar. I don’t know what happened there at 3 a.m. when the two groups interacted. At the Allegro, I can remember guys with tambourines on the dance floor, and the excitement — we kind of knew that the future was wide open, and there was this kind of pride and pleasure in being gay. There was this electricity in the air that was very strong, this feeling: We are persecuted, we will bond together.

Ed Hermance: Landlords would rent to us in back alleys, but nobody wanted to rent to us on the main avenues. So if the homophobes hadn’t thrown us out, we never would have been able to get this great location we’re in now [at 345 South 12th Street].