iCandy Makeover Reveals Rich History

Executive Director of PhillyGayCalendar

The last time light streamed through the front windows at 254-56 S. 12th Street was in 1965. That was when the owners of the Midway removed them and sealed their openings in order to convert the building into one of Philadelphia’s earliest known gay bars.

Before that, the building had been known for decades as one of Philadelphia’s finest Italian restaurants – the Leoncavallo, founded in 1911 by legendary local Italian chef Francesco Basta and named for Ruggero Leoncavallo, the composer of “I Pagliacci,” one of the world’s most popular operas.

Legend has it that Leoncavallo himself suggested the name to Basta, and he was also one of the artistic stars who graced its tables over its more than 50 years in business. After it closed in the mid-1960s, the old Leoncavallo became a local gay landmark, housing a succession of sub rosa and openly gay clubs, beginning with the Midway.

It’s a rich history, and iCandy marketing director Scott McFerren has had a field day rediscovering it as renovations on the club’s first floor proceed.

“The Midway was the first unofficial gay club in the city,” he noted. Underground gay travel guides of the day described it as “Mixed: Appears straight but sufficiently active to make it worthwhile.”

The Midway closed its doors in 1973, after which two other clubs – the Pepper Box (1975) and the private Copper Club (1976) – followed in quick succession. Then Alan Kachin got his hands on the building and transformed it in 1977 into Equus. When your correspondent moved to Philadelphia in 1983, Equus was the place to see and be seen in gay Philadelphia, offering a cozy bar, an elegant restaurant, a dance floor, and a cabaret that featured such notable talent as Eartha Kitt, Estelle Parsons and Charles Pierce, as well as homegirl Karen Young, whose 1977 song “Hot Shot” became a huge dance hit.

The basic design of Equus remained intact through its subsequent incarnations as Hepburn’s, a lesbian club, and the gay male club 12th Air Command. When Darryl Depiano purchased the club three years ago, he spent the better part of a year giving it a total makeover from top to bottom, and the opening of iCandy two years ago drew huge crowds to marvel at the transformation.

Now, for its second birthday, Depiano is at it again, giving iCandy another extreme makeover, starting with the main floor bar. Already, one major change is visible on the outside: the long-covered front windows have been reinstalled.

“Darryl believes in keeping it fresh and putting the money spent by consumers here back into the building to give them something new,” McFerren said. “He felt the main bar was dark – not welcoming enough – and he wanted to bring some sunlight in.”

As construction workers stripped away years of decorations and modifications to the main floor, layers of history became visible again, and McFerren gleefully dived in to rescue bits of that history. Wallpaper from Equus, old cabaret flyers, light fixtures – all became objects for his growing historical collection. “We found some of the original tile from the Leoncavallo,” he said. “It was beautiful, but it wasn’t salvageable.”

A fragment of that tile, however, will join other artifacts in a historical display case to be installed on the remade main floor. “I begged Darryl to set one up,” he said. Along with a surviving etched-glass bas-relief sculpture from Equus, the display will be the main memorial to iCandy’s storied past. (Well, that and a state historical marker in front of the building, whose northern half was once the home of pioneering African-American sculptor, painter and poet Meta V.W. Fuller.)

What started as a relatively simple redo morphed into something bigger as a result. “He started with the windows, and he wanted six private bathrooms. Then it was like, the more layers he removed, the more he wanted to do.” In the end, the main floor makeover will be a quarter-million-dollar project.

The total transformation of iCandy’s main floor is on track for an opening in early spring. The upper floor spaces – Liquid, the Cobalt dance floor and the Lava Lounge on the third floor – will also get makeovers, but no timetable for those has been set as of now. The Tiki Bar roofdeck will stay as it is now – “the deck is good,” McFerren said.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.

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