Life Finds a Way On The Locust Strip

East on Locust Street from 13th Street, October 30, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

Bon Bon Club (formerly The Top Hat Cafe), looking East on Locust Street from 13th, October 30, 1959. (PhillyHistory.org)

The Top Hat Cafe opened at 1235 Locust in the early 50s, and almost immediately slid off the rails.

Outside the bar, on March 1, 1952, Nicholas Virgilio “was slapping around a 16-year old girl…when a sailor grabbed his hand to stop him.” Virgilio, 23, known as “Lothario of the taprooms” a/k/a “Nicky the Blade” “swung around, grabbed a switchblade from his pocket and plunged it into Glenn Long, 19, a sailor at the Navy Yard.” It would be the first of several murders by Virgilio, the most notorious of which would be the 1978 bar room execution of an ex-judge in Atlantic City.

The new captain of the police station at 12th and Pine, Frank L. Rizzo, knew a bad thing when he saw it. Rizzo chose the Top Hat for his very first raid.

The mayor-to-be showed up at the stationhouse at 3:30A.M. on Friday, May 30. He and three other officers walked two blocks north to The Top Hat Café. “Within minutes, Rizzo and his team had arrested the bartender, two waitresses, the owner, nine patrons” one of whom scuffled with Rizzo, ripping the captain’s new suit.

For Rizzo, that raid would be the first of hundreds targeting the Locust Strip.

Le Bon Bon Club replaced the Top Hat in the mid ’50s, with new neon, but otherwise the story was the same: strippers mixing with patrons, after hours service, under aged drinking, B-girls solicitation of drinks and other nefarious services. The naked city, literally and figuratively in all its gritty glory.

A decade later, Rizzo testified in Washington before the Senate Rackets Subcommittee about Philadelphia’s “‘exotic’dancers-turned-B-girls” of the Locust Strip. “These obscene and indecent shows will simply not be tolerated,” he told the Press. “They must clean up and run respectable places of business or get out…This is the beginning. We’re going to keep after them until they clean up.”

And Rizzo’s sustained campaign seemed to make a difference—for a while, anyway. “For the time being, the personality of Locust St. is being suppressed.,” wrote  Joseph Daughen in The Bulletin. “The awesome image of Rizzo’s Raiders has apparently thrown fear into the hearts of the stripperie operators, and the come hither hostesses are now thither.”

Le Bon Bon Club, 1235 Locust Street, October 6, 1955 (PhillyHistory.org)

Le Bon Bon Club, 1235 Locust Street, October 6, 1955 (PhillyHistory.org)

Cork Club, Continuous All-Girl Revue, Ber-Mar and Hotel, 1212-1215 Locust Street (PhillyHistory.org)

Cork Club, Continuous All-Girl Revue, Ber-Mar and Hotel, 1212-1215 Locust Street (PhillyHistory.org)

But as Jeff Goldblum (playing Dr. Ian Malcolm, a chaos theory expert in Jurassic Park) put itLife, uh… finds a way.”

Nine years later, the Locust Strip was “a collage of schlock on a one night stand,” wrote Fred Hamilton in The Bulletin. “The present Locust st. bust-out joint” lies “somewhere between the cult of the 33 RPM record and the era of Day-Glo paint. … “It has all the glamour of post nasal drip.”

“The Strip is not blaring music and flashing neon,” he wrote. “It is a handful of broken-down joints… It is busty girls and scratchy records played full volume and all the flat black painted walls you’ll ever want to see. The strip is a cliché…”

A year later, Sandy Grady noted yet another crackdown on “B-girls.” “Last week District Attorney Arlen Specter buried The Strip under a ton of padlocks.” Nine bars in all, were closed, including the Bag of Nails 1231 Locust, The HMS Pinafore, 1233 Locust and The Revolution, 1219 Locust.

“The Strip looks like the inside of Grant’s tomb,” wrote Grady.

He found an enraged cabbie: “Look mac, if you’re from out of town hunting action forget! Locust Street is dead. Go over to Jersey. Listen Mac, this is the fourth biggest town in the country and it’s a graveyard,” the cabbie fumed. “The do-gooders killed this town.”

“It’s just dirty” complained “a girl in a see-through blouse” to Bulletin reporter L. Stuart Ditzen, “Every city has its strip.”

“Yeah agreed a timid looking man in a brown suit who said he was a patron of the padlock bars. ‘Every city has its strip.’”

The Why Not Lounge at 1305 claimed to be the final holdout. In May 1974, the Why Not went away, too. The Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board had ended an era. Or so they thought.

Three years later, The Bulletin’s D. I. Strunk went in search of the Locust Strip and found it alive, if not very well. He visited the PGA Bunny Club, Salsa, Footlights Lounge and Bag of Nails. He encountered “girls… dressed in pasties and tiny bikinis.” He saw them “dance and gyrate against mirrors…so smeared that a ton of Windex couldn’t clean them.”

Strunk saw the “potpourri of racial and social and economic classes who come to drink and look…men with knit caps, sailors, businessman, customers, clerks, lawyers” all coming “to sit and drink and watch together under the same roof.”

“I come down here to think and forget about other things,” said one regular, lawyer named Tom.

“Everybody has their eyes on somebody else’s fancy,” philosophized another, Jerome, standing in the shadows outside All in the Family Lounge.

Life finds a way.

[Sources: “Two Girls, 16, Testify They Got Liquor in Cafe,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 31, 1952; “Fiery Hearing Climaxes Raid on Cafe by Rizzo,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, May 31, 1952; “Rizzo Vows Midcity Cleanup, Nabs 13 in Raids on 3 Clubs,” Philadelphia Daily News, July 25, 1961; “Center-City Booze Bistros Have Lost Their A-Peal,” by Joseph Daughen The Bulletin, June 14, 1962 ; “Locust Street Strip—a Collage of Schlock and Lots of Hard Sell,” by Fred Hamilton, The Bulletin, August 13, 1971; “Dancers and Barmaids Are Glum as 9 ‘Strip’ Bars Close,” by L. Stuart Ditzen, The Bulletin, June 10, 1972 ; “That Crackdown on B-Girls Ends All Our Worries,” by Sandy Grady, The Bulletin, June 13, 1972; “Era is Ending as Bars Close on Locust St.,” by Joseph D. McCaffrey, The Bulletin, May 15, 1974; “They Try to Keep Locust Lushland Sedately Sinful,” by D. I. Strunk, The Bulletin, October 16, 1977; S. A. Paolantonio, Frank Rizzo: The Last Big Man in Big City America (Camino Books, 1993); “‘The Blade’ is Cut Down: Killer Nicholas Virgilio dies in Prison,” by Kitty Caparella, The Philadelphia Daily News, March 18, 1995.]

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One Comment

  1. Posted December 29, 2016 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    Ken, excellent research and some woonderful details on what was going on on the “Locust Strip” in the 1960s and 70s. By the end of the 70s, they were tearing down much of that block. You really brought the era to life!

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