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

Thom Nickels: A lot of gay people would hang out during the Mummers Parade at Jimmy Neff’s, a steakhouse on Broad Street. There were drag queens, and in those days it had a real New Orleans, ultra-party atmosphere. You used to see some of the Mummers going into the gay peep shows after the parade — they were so drunk and in such a celebratory mood in their costumes.

Henri David: The area was a little dark and scary. Up at Broad and Lombard was the Bijou, a club with a balcony where you could look down on the stage. We saw Bette Midler, Barry Manilow, Billy Crystal there.

Ronni Rodriguez: Back then, a bar could be raided for being a gay bar, or you could get arrested for coming out of a gay bar. But people were so afraid of Rizzo that it made it kind of safer for us — the criminals were afraid, too.

Mark Segal: The city was evolving. Social issues were at the forefront, and ours was at the very front. We did whatever we could to ensure that. My plan was that every six weeks there had to be major news in the gay community. Sometimes it was a stunt: I began disrupting TV news. In December 1973, I disrupted the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite, and it was the first time a gay person had ever been on the national news. There were six blank minutes on-air. I also disrupted the Mike Douglas Show, the Tonight Show and the Today show. I used to call my mom and say, “Mom, I’m going to get arrested today, you might see it on the news.” And she’d say, “Okay.”

Larry Kane: It’s come a long way from when Mark Segal attacked me on television — out of nowhere, this hand comes around and grabs my tie, and he said, “Mr. Kane, we want to speak now.” I was before Walter Cronkite. This was in the early ’70s, and they wanted to make their point about gay rights. Mark and I have been friendly ever since.

Thom Nickels: You never knew if you’d be picked up in a paddy wagon. I found myself in the back of one twice, once because they were looking for a red-haired guy who’d committed a crime, and once just because they were doing a sweep through the Gayborhood, picking up anyone sitting out on a stoop. Though I interviewed Rizzo after he became mayor, and he was very charismatic. He’d put his arm around you and fairly seduce you with his good mood.

Frank Rizzo Jr., City Council member: My dad was very tough. I don’t mean physically, but my father knew where all the gay bars were, and he made sure that there was always a police officer outside the bars, in case someone would take advantage of or rob or hurt or humiliate people who were gay. My father wouldn’t stand for that.