The ghosts are lining up to watch the wrecking ball. Harrisburg Whitey and the Knoxville Bear, Tuscaloosa Squirrel and Handsome Danny Jones. The big Brunswick tables will fall silent for a moment so the players can watch what’s happening to Allinger’s Billiard Academy.
Lesser-known characters, too. The thousands who stopped in at Linton’s for an apple pie smothered in warm vanilla sauce while waiting for the Market Street trolley, and those who preferred Singer’s next door with its nickel hot dogs and orange drinks.
Sailors who slept off their binges at the all-night Family Theater will
stir for a moment. Truly Warner Hats customers will tip their straw boaters.
The dachshund will be there one last time, too – that art deco dog with its nose pointed skyward, which was the trademark for Ingber handbags.
The whole place is turning to dust.
The Gibson Building, the grimy Beaux Arts tower in the shadow of City Hall, will die in a few days after a long illness. It is 97 years old.
The official cause of death of the building named for a 19th-century whiskey merchant will be listed as demolition by steel clamshell bucket. But the place had been going for years. Decades of neglect turned the once graceful, bustling building into a derelict and eyesore, a bum.
It is the centerpiece of a row of buildings put up between 1897 and 1900 on the north side of Market Street’s 1300 block, owned for the last two decades by Sam Rappaport, the real estate speculator who died this year.
All four – and one behind them on Commerce Street – will come down around Nov. 21 at the hands of The Finishing Co., leaving one building between City Hall and the new Convention Center Hotel on Market Street. Until a developer steps forward, the property will likely become a parking lot. Nothing there will again trip the memories of nearly a century of industry and commerce and sport carried on behind the Victorian facades.
The place on the first floor had been lousy for most of its life.
At least back to 1930, when the Exhibitor, a Philadelphia entertainment magazine, announced that the Family Theater had become one of the last Center City motion picture venues to be wired for sound.
“Family Theater, freak grind house, Market Street, is going positively sound,” the story began in breathless code. Freak meant its varied offerings of cheap, last-run movies, although it could have been a swipe at its habitues. Grind referred to its schedule, a 24-hour cycle of showing the movie, clearing the house, then showing the movie again.
The Family may have started as a legitimate operation in 1908 when it settled into a storefront in the gleaming white Gibson Building and started showing 5-cent films with an orchestra providing the sound. But it soon earned a reputation as the place where the sex and violence on the screen paled next to that in the aisles.
In 1958, soldiers and sailors were barred from the theater, described by military police as a haven for pickpockets and degenerates. After a 1969 stabbing of a retired merchant seaman in the bathroom, police stopped a showing of The Skull and swept the place for evidence and witnesses.
They found: 250 patrons, three of them fugitives; more than 30 empty beer cans; 25 empty wine and whiskey bottles; partly eaten sandwiches; chicken bones; soiled napkins; crumpled coffee cups; the upper plate of a set of dentures; 11 knives; three razors; a screwdriver; a container of unidentified pills; a bottle of elixir hydrate with codeine; and three sets of narcotics paraphernalia.
Theater aficionado Irvin R. Glazer remembers stepping into the dark, narrow place in the 1970s when compiling his history of Philadelphia movie houses. The way out was through a row of doors under the screen that said EXIT, EXIT, EXIT. “That was decoration in that dump,” he said.
“There were more than 100 people, and there were seven or nine people sound asleep. Also, one couple was on the floor, coupling. Then there were degenerates who went looking in there for other degenerates. It was known in the trade as that type of theater. It was a real low-class place.”
That was before it was called the Apollo and featured an even seamier menu. When it closed for good in 1986, after showings of Voyeur and Surrender in Paradise, and became a discount shoe store, a reporter surveyed the wreckage. A paint-chipped wooden platform in the basement was all that remained from the ”Live Nude Shows” that once were touted on the marquee. Several posters lay on the makeshift stage, with captions such as “Girls Changed Every Six Minutes.”
The Hewitt Brothers had designed the Bourse. The Bellevue Stratford would be a few years later. Henry C. Gibson kept the brothers busy enough with his own buildings. They built his Rittenhouse Square townhouse, at 222 S. 19th St., and Maybrook, his 1881 estate in the manner of a Scottish castle on 55 acres in Wynnewood.
George Thomas, an architectural historian at the University of Pennsylvania, has a story about the estate. Gibson wanted to call it Agincourt – a nice touch until his Main Line neighbors threatened to call it A Gin Court.
The Gibson millions had been built on whiskey and wine. His father had founded John Gibson & Son Co., a distillery and import business, in Pittsburgh. By 1886, when the Hewitts put up the first Gibson Building on that site, Henry had retired from the liquor business, and focused on his real estate holdings and his work on the boards of such institutions as Fairmount Park, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and Fidelity Philadelphia Trust Co.
Fire ravaged the first Gibson Building. The second rose in its place in 1897, a pristine and ornate rectangular monument to mercantilism. Gibson had died six years earlier, leaving an estate worth more than $7 million. The building was faced in white limestone, six stories high with classical pilasters, an ornate cornice and three sections of bay windows. Carved lions lorded over Market Street.
In 1897, City Hall, though occupied, was undergoing its 26th year of being under construction. John Wanamaker had built his six-story addition on 13th Street, dramatically enlarging the old Pennsylvania Railroad freight depot, which he transformed into his department store. The city was moving westward.
The building’s first major tenant was Hirsh & Bro., makers of umbrellas and parasols, and a photograph from about 1900 shows the streets clean and nearly empty, except for a few strollers and pushcarts. Six giant umbrellas hang from
windows on the building’s upper floors.
The upper floors of the building at 1307-11 Market Street housed many makers of ladies’ garments and handbags, school uniforms, belts and suspenders, bearing such names as Ingber; Eppsteiner; Lisberger & Wise; and Eisenberg & O’Hara.
Allinger’s was on the second floor, up narrow stairs. It had opened in 1889 in another building, but by 1911 was ensconced behind the wooden shutters that kept the light from breaching nine bay windows. This whole strip had upstairs pool halls and bowling alleys next to tiny offices for doctors and dentists.
When Allinger’s closed in 1971, the city’s newspaper columnists gave it a fitting burial. It was no longer the place where championship games were played in black tie behind a glass wall.
Names not heard in years were evoked: Minnesota Fats running with such regulars as Harrisburg Whitey, Abraham Sunshine, the Knoxville Bear, Tuscaloosa Squirrel, Handsome Danny Jones and old Daddy Warbucks.
Nightclub owner Henry Diamond told how he had hustled Jackie Gleason and Bojangles Robinson there, how Mickey Rooney and Milton Berle would play through.
“I dropped by Allinger’s one day last winter,” Diamond said in 1971. “I was in the neighborhood and I went up for old time’s sake, but I got sick. Today, Allinger’s is a garage, a dungeon. It’s a hangout for drunks and junkies. It’s disgraceful the way the proud name of Allinger’s slipped so low. . . . Thirty years ago, Allinger’s was all class. They ran it like the Union League. If you spoke above a whisper, you were asked to leave.”
Grimy steel bars shutter the storefronts. The last tenant, Fantasy Video, packed up last week and promises to relocate. The westernmost building is badly charred by a recent fire. It isn’t any more noticeable than the other insults on that block.
The best preserved piece may be the blue-paneled advertising “Independence Pictures Incorporated” with the company’s white-and-gold logo – an eagle with a curl of film stock in its talons and beak. The place never existed. It was made for the Brian DePalma thriller Blow Out, and Independence Pictures Inc. was where John Travolta’s character worked as a sound-effects man.
It’s been there for 14 years.
One more ghost haunts: this time, a voice.
The words are from 1970, when the general manager of the holding company that had bought the building, Variety Wholesale, talked about his big plans.
A million-dollar renovation would make the Gibson Building “a credit to Market Street,” said the general manager, Sam Rappaport. The theater, if it stayed, would be totally redesigned. The storefronts would be trimmed with a bronze-like metal, and the glass would be replaced. The work, he promised, would “remove the slum look of the building and make the building look wonderful.”