To the French, le 14 juillet means Paris, parades, and the "Marseillaise." Here in Philly, Bastille Day means wacky cabaret outside Fairmount's Eastern State Penitentiary and a 10,000-person block party where it rains butterscotch Krimpets.
For 23 years, London Grill co-owner and Bastille Day cocreator Terry Berch McNally has appeared in frock and wig, swigging pink champagne on the prison parapet in the event's historically irreverent portrayal of Marie Antoinette. To her, July 14, 2018, means the end of an era.
Eastern State Penitentiary decided this year to "get out of the Bastille Day business," said representative Sean Kelley, who also plays Antoinette's masked executioner in the event. The cheeky summer celebration no longer jibes with the historic site's mission statement, which is, he said, to "talk about criminal justice reform." (ESP will, however, continue its eight-week, revenue-generating Terror Behind the Walls.)
Kelley called the event's cancellation "bittersweet." McNally used different words. Here, the restaurateur recalls the tradition's champagne-fueled beginnings, quirk-filled evolution, and tragic ending — as if the holiday could end any other way.
Describe life before Bastille Day…
A few years after we [chef Michael McNally and I] took over London, there were projects I was helping on politically to get things done: a parking lot across the street, stopping the prison from being demolished …
The prison was a mess, but really beautiful back then. Trees were growing inside of it. Fairmount Avenue had no retail. My goal as a new restaurant was to make this neighborhood a destination, because nobody was crossing the [Benjamin Franklin] Parkway. We had this historical monument [the penitentiary]. We thought: It will connect us to the cultural highway.
We paid to have the Trolley Works trolley make the turn up 20th Street. We started a Halloween tour of Eastern State, $100 a person. It was nothing like it is now, just a ticket to take a historical tour with some actors acting like guards, then you'd come to one of the restaurants for dinner.
And then, Bastille Day?
One July night, Michel Notredame — may he rest in peace, he owned Bridgid's [ed note: and later, Cuvée Notredame] — was at my bar. We were having champagne and he said, 'Let's storm the Bastille.' We grabbed baguettes, walked over to the prison wall, and realized: This is an event. We need to do this.
In summer, nobody's around. Business is slow. The homeowner situation up here in Fairmount — they all have houses in Maine. So, I got all the restaurants together. We put on a street festival in Eastern State's empty lot, under a tent.
How did it get so big?
Eastern State took over around 1999, and the event shot from 2,000 to 10,000 people. All the bars were full. The restaurants were busy for the whole weekend. People were coming from other places, other states, staying overnight. French students would come from Swarthmore.
And you were always Marie Antoinette?
Yes. At first, I would rent a lavish dress from Pierre's, when they were on Walnut Street. One year, it got stolen out of the back of my car. Some kids broke my window, took it out. We offered a reward; it was all over the news. It came back to us, unharmed.
Now, the costume person from the Bearded Ladies takes care of my dress. She made it, and tweaks it every year. It's bright pink. She's really going to tweak it this year, because it's the farewell tour.
Can you describe the show?
The Bearded Ladies, John Jarboe's group, run the show. It's very Monty Python-ish and Benny Hill. It's a circus, and I'm queen over the universe. Edith Piaf (Jarboe) emcees.
It's kind of like a Renaissance fair. The entire thing comes down to [breasts] and free cake. They talk about my big bonbons throughout, and I shout, 'Let them eat Tastykakes,' and we use snow shovels to toss 2,000 butterscotch Krimpets to the crowd. Kids come with butterfly nets to catch them.
After, we stop to take pictures. It takes about an hour and a half before I can get to my own party [at London Grill].
That's when the street party starts?
Every bar has something going on: French Champagne, bottomless mimosas. Jack's [Firehouse] is busy … . Urban Saloon does a big party. The Belgian Cafe and Bishop's Collar fill up. So do Fare, Hickory Lane, Bar Hygge.
At London, we serve boudin sandwiches, pâté, cream puffs, Paris-Brests, and Kronenbourg — lots of Kronenbourg. We close the street and hire the West Philadelphia Orchestra, which costs a million dollars, but everybody loves them. The street party ends at midnight.
How do you feel about being Marie for the last time?
I'm very sad. It's my baby. I hate to see it go. One more year would have been good. It could even go on without me, because it's not about me, it's about the restaurants, the coffeehouses, the community. We're all losing that income in the middle of July.
Some of us neighbors have been saying, 'How dare [Eastern State Penitentiary] put us through Halloween for two months, and cancel Bastille Day.'
Any plans for next July 14?
We'll do something else. We'll really storm the Bastille. I'll still be the oldest Marie Antoinette around.