Sunday, March 12, 2006

Springtime for Hitler: Swimming in de'Nile

When thinking about Philadelphia's nightclubs in the early 1980s, there are several that came and went without much attention. From Ray's Place on Locust to The Monster Inn on Quince Street across from The Bike Stop ... but one that was around for some time, always lived under the radar and provided some of the best, dark, sweaty house jams ... The Nile.

The Nile was a barely-legal dance club located at the corner of 13/Locust (where the "gentleman's club" is today). It was Philly's premier black dance bar and featured some of the deepest house tracks of the day. The decor wasn't much - but the sound system was. The place thrived during the week, when Catacombs was closed. Sadly many felt that it attracted the 'wrong' crowd and there was a constant push to close the space. Some felt it was owned by the mob. Others just felt that something else could be done with the space - of course, this was at a time when South 13th Street was no-man's land. Only those en route to a desitnation dare stroll down that strip.

Of course almost all the gay spots were on or near that strip, so it quickly became the main road for the community. Hence the attention to clean things up, I suppose.

I mentioned Ray's Place - it was owned by this poor sap but nice guy [Ray] who was a true nobody: middle age, overweight gay man (i.e. invisible to the crowd). Then one day he won the Pennsylvania Lottery and was rolling in money ... everyone wanted to be his friend and sadly the one most convincing was Jerry Vitelli.

Jerry was Philadelphia's Max Bialystock (of The Producers fame). This man got people to invest in the craziest projects and constantly drained the resources of others and quite often would avoid any bill as long as he could. It got to the point that we at Au Courant would not take any advertising from anything Jerry was involved with unless he payed cash in advance. He was just that slimy.

Well, once Ray was known as the lottery winner - Jerry became his friend and business partner. Quickly, an old building at 1305 Locust - was renovated and turned into Ray's Place - which probably holds the record for the 2nd fastest closing of a new gay bar ... to my knowledge, the fastest closing was another Ray/Jerry production on Walnut Street.

It was located where Nick's Roast Beef used to be on the 1300 block of Walnut. Its name escapes me, perhaps because I never had the time to actually learn it! The place was a male go-go bar and had a few fun parties but quickly died. I recall the story that one day Ray went in to open the joint and, upon turning the doorknob, walked into a stripped property. Not only was the cash register and liquor gone - but so was the bar itself. Overnight everything had vanished. Of course it wasn't a robbery - but either those items on rental or loan were reposessed thanks to Jerry never paying a bill or Jerry just gave it all away to pay off some debts.

Who knows.

Last I heard Jerry was finally caught with his financial wizardry and behind bars. Not sure if that is true - but it has been a quiet city since those days, 20 years ago.


Kenny said...

Your stories always fascinate me.
You have so much knowledge of "Gay Life" from back then. I love the fact that your sharing it with everyone.

Maidink said...

I agree. I love reading your blog and all the little unknown tidbits of history you have to offer.

Do you have any idea of whatever happened to poor Ray?

Robert Drake said...

first - thank you BOTH for such nice feedback. Sometimes I wonder if this is interesting to anyone besides me and the occasional historian. So, it means a lot to know that someone else is out there!

As for poor Ray, I haven't a clue. If he's still around, he's probably around 70 and I hope settled and enjoying life. I know that all his money was exhausted thanks to those unwise investments.

Liz said...

Robert you should write a book! Also the original Producers is one of the funniest movies ever.

Valorie Zimmerman said...

What a good thought! You truly do have the beginnings of a good book here. I hope some publisher stumbles across it, and makes you an offer you can't refuse!

TopDollar said...

After 10 years in the Big House Jerry is alive and well living in Philly
and rehabilitated.
Unfortunately I understand Ray died sometime ago penniless.
And the story isn't even half told.

bobby said...

funny you should mention jerry... he briefly opened a restaurant/bar on the north side of locust between 13th and broad just last spring, which closed before the end of the summer. It was called "Applause, Applause" and it hosted a few drag shows. I went in for a few drinks, and he insisted i not pay for anything. So i always wondered what his backstory was.
btw, your writing is great - so interesting!