Last hurrah for Eastern State Penitentiary’s Bastille Day blowout

Eastern State Penitentiary, the historic prison museum in Philadelphia that's long hosted a neighborhood Bastille Day event, will no longer produce the celebration.

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At the conclusion of the Bastille Day performance, 'Marie Antoinette' and 'Edith Piaf' make amends, sparing Antoinette the guillotine.

At the conclusion of the Bastille Day performance, 'Marie Antoinette' and 'Edith Piaf' make amends, sparing Antoinette the guillotine. (Jonathan Wilson for WHYY)

For 24 years, Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood has celebrated Bastille Day by storming the walls of its own prison, the Eastern State Penitentiary. While historically inaccurate on levels too numerous to count, the re-enactment attracts several thousand revelers to take part in its goofy antics, political theater, and Tastykakes.

Alas, no more. Eastern State Penitentiary announced Thursday it would no longer produce the neighborhood celebration, citing the burden of costs to put on the event. It will stage Bastille Day once more — on July 14 — then give it the guillotine.

Restaurateur Terry McNally, co-owner of London Grill, started the tradition. July is typically a slow time, and McNally was looking for a way to drum up business for her restaurant just a block from the giant stone walls of the historic prison.

“One night, we were sitting in my restaurant, it was me and Michel Notredame — he’s now dead, he used to own a restaurant called Brigid’s,” said McNally. “He was quite infamous. He was a good drinker. We were drinking and he said, ‘Let’s go storm the Bastille!’ ”

“We grabbed baguettes and went to the wall. We’re sitting there smoking cigarettes and drinking Champagne, and I realized it was like an event,” she said. “I could finally beat Judy Wicks [former owner of the White Dog Cafe] over in West Philly on her Bastille Day celebration, because we had a real Bastille!”

McNally forged a partnership with Eastern State Penitentiary to stage the event on top of the prison walls, with a script, costumes, a sound system, and street closures.

The storming of the Paris Bastille in 1789, essentially, was about people versus power. That makes it a perfect launch pad for political theater. Every year McNally and ESP’s Sean Kelley — now senior vice president — wrote a skit together, usually over drinks.

McNally always played Marie Antoinette, very broadly. Every script featured coarse humor skewering political figures, leading up to the same line, the event’s anthem:

“If the people have no bread, let them eat Tastykake!”

Thousands of Tastykakes would then rain down from the top of the prison walls, onto the crowd below.

It should be noted that Marie Antoinette never actually said, “Let them eat cake,” and certainly never mentioned Tastykake, the landmark local snack that dates back to 1914. It should also be noted that Tastykake never sponsored the event, nor provided cakes. Eastern State buys about 2,000 cakes every year.

Eventually, Eastern State Penitentiary hired a local drag cabaret troupe, the Bearded Ladies, to handle the theatrics. Amping up the historical inaccuracies, they introduced a handful of singing Edith Piaf impersonators into the mix.

With their live music and theater chops, the Bearded Ladies turned the ragtag neighborhood goof-off into a much more professional goof-off.

“We have said, several times, that if the Bearded Ladies weren’t in it, we would stop it,” said McNally. “They came on board, and it’s like a real show. Without them, we would not want to do it.”

All this comes at a cost. But as a free public event, it generates no revenue.

Setting up a neighborhood festival takes planning, marketing, equipment rentals, and permits, all of which fell onto the shoulders of Eastern State Penitentiary. It also paid the Bearded Ladies.

“It’s the most joyful, ridiculous, stupid, fantastic, improvisational thing. We love it. It’s beloved among the staff, beloved among our neighbors and business partners,” said Kelley. “But it takes a ton of resources that we have to focus on other things.”

Eastern State decided to start acting like a grown up. It recently created a strategic plan with a goal of leading the national discussion regarding criminal justice reform. It has created exhibitions — both temporary and permanent — to outline the history, politics, ethics, and social costs of incarceration in America.

Last year, the Eastern State’s “Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration” won the American Alliance of Museum’s top award for excellence in exhibitions.

Bastille Day, with its giddy humor and attendant nuttiness around snack cakes, doesn’t fit anymore. Kelley said it eats up too many resources.

“We don’t want to lose our sense of humor about what we do here. But it’s hard to appreciate, unless you’re inside the planning, how long it takes to plan this event,” said Kelley, who noted that his marketing team spends one quarter of its time every year promoting an event that lasts one hour.

ESP also produces Terror Behind the Walls, an annual haunted Halloween attraction that, like Bastille Day, has nothing to do with its central mission of criminal justice reform.

Terror Behind the Walls, however, brings in money. Lots of money. More than half of the museum’s annual operating budget comes from Terror’s ticket revenue, a financial model that sets ESP apart from most nonprofit museums.

“For Eastern State Penitentiary to fulfill its potential to be the American museum that addresses contemporary issues, we need the revenue from Terror Behind the Walls,” said Kelley. “Terror Behind the Walls is actually critical because of the revenue.”

While Bastille Day brought in no money for ESP, it was good for the neighborhood. What it lacked in direct revenue for the museum, it made up with social capital: Surrounding businesses liked it and planned their summer around the street festival.

“It really did work,” said McNally. “It made people stay in the neighborhood instead of going to the beach. Everyone looked forward to it. We all made some money. That was the point.”

McNally said she is “absolutely” going to organize some kind of Bastille Day celebration in the future, but it likely will not have the kind of institutional support it enjoyed with Eastern State Penitentiary.

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