Film And LGBT Fun In Philadelphia!

Philadelphia is one of my favorite cities but one which I’m ashamed to say I don’t visit nearly as often as I’d like. I’m happy to report that I remedied that lack this past week, attending the Philadelphia Film Festival (running through this Sunday) and sampling the city’s bustling LGBT attractions.

Hotel: Philly is a highly walkable city but I was pleased to be staying so near to my intended attractions at The Independent Hotel, at 13th and Locust. The Independent sits in the heart of the Gayborhood, which runs from 11th Street to Broad Street and from Chestnut Street to Pine Street. All the main bars were within what a hearty, bibulous English friend of mine calls “staggering distance.”

Getting Started: I arrived on Friday afternoon, just as Woody’s, one of the jewels of the neighborhood, was un-shuttering for business. I stopped in for a beverage to inaugurate my weekend, and scoped out the venue’s first-floor bar, second-floor coffee room, and dance floor. There are very clear reasons why Out magazine, of which I was once the editor, named Woody’s “one of the 50 Greatest Gay Bars in the World.” Among them: friendly, attractive bartenders.

Film Festival: I spent a half-hour at my hotel, enjoying the truly giant TV screen and spacious bathroom with its plentiful amenities, before heading out to a screening of the Philadelphia Film Festival. Now in its 27th edition, the PFF presents, on average, more than 100 films and draws industry guests and panelists, as well as fostering an interactive community of film professionals and supporters. The festival is presented by the Philadelphia Film Society, whose major news right now has been transitioning the Prince Theater into the Philadelphia Film Center.

I was fortunate to have as my first film-festival movie “Green Book.” Fortunate because it was one of the festival’s “centerpieces,” which are always extremely popular. I’d heard from a few people that “Green Book,” a 1962 story of the African-American musician Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver Tony Lipp, was a little too old-fashioned and that it would appeal primarily to fuddie duddies whose idea of a masterpiece is “Driving Miss Daisy” or “The Help.” Well, as someone who, political correctness be damned, enjoyed both those pictures, I was certainly not put off.

In the event, “Green Book” turned out to be both moving and diverting, notable especially for the wonderful byplay between its lead actors, Mahershala Ali (as Shirley) and Viggo Mortensen (as Lip). I expect it to be a big hit upon its November 21st release and compete for multiple Academy Awards.

LGBT Nightlife: After the screening, I went in search of additional libations. I’m pleased to see the gay-sportsbar chain Boxers now has an outpost in Philly, but as I’ve been to their NYC branches I went instead to Tabu, which is Philly’s original gay sports bar. It has recently upgraded to a huge three-level affair. I was impressed, though I don’t understand why gay sports bars seem to play “Drag Race” on TV monitors more often than NFL and NBA games. (I love drag but I don’t – and I realize this is heretical — consider it a sport.) Next it was off to The Bike Stop, partly because I’m an avid cyclist and had, in fact, that afternoon, used the city’s bike-sharing system, Indego.

The Bike Stop has been open since 1982 and caters to the leather crowd. I watched a game of pool on the top floor, but didn’t stick around late enough to check out the basement “dungeon.” The bartenders were friendly. From an LGBT stalwart I traveled to the latest addition to the city’s LGBTQ scene: BarX. It’s a neighborhood hangout with a generous happy hour. I’d missed the happy hour but not the happy patrons. One giggly young man assured me that all the coolest gay boys were now shunning NYC and Chicago and San Francisco in favor of Philly. I nodded my head but kept thinking: why is this a contest? These are all great cities with something to offer.

More Art-ing Around: The next morning I again used Philly’s bike-share system to go to see a new Berthe Morisot exhibit at the Barnes Collection. (An exhibition which Peter Schjeldahl in The New Yorker calls “breathtaking.”) From all the dreamy colors of this “Woman Impressionist” I was brought back to reality via another Film Festival offering: “Shoplifters,” from the Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-Eda. The movie, which won the top prize this year at Cannes, lived up to its program description: “A powerful tale of a ragtag, loving family surviving by any means necessary after taking in an abandoned child.”

Hotel Luxury: I headed back to my hotel for a pre-dinner nap. My room had a luxurious king-size bed and I was happy to loll there and watch HBO on the giant screen. I had dinner at Nomad Roman, an intimate spot in the Gayborhood. I had a delicious organic salad and an oven-fired pizza, which I couldn’t finish.

HistoryI spent my Sunday morning in Philadelphia walking around this beautiful city and taking note of both the American history (Liberty Bell, Constitution Hall) and LGBT history. Philly was the location of the first major LGBT rights demonstration, on July 4, 1965. And Philly was the first city in the U.S. to launch a major marketing campaign (“Get Your history Straight and Your Nightlife Gay”) to welcome LGBT tourism. These efforts have paid off/been well, um, fruitful: Philadelphia remains in all ways welcoming to any person LGBT.

Coda: A few days after my Philly weekend, I had the unplanned chance to spend another day in the city. I took in another film festival centerpiece: “If Beale Street Could Talk,” directed by Barry (“Moonlight”) Jenkins, and based on a novel by James Baldwin. Baldwin has been one of my heroes since I read his 1956 novel, “Giovanni’s Room,” when I was in high school. And “Beale Street” was a reminder of Baldwin’s genius at creating characters and telling stories. The “Beale Street” movie provided a different aesthetic take on take on American racism “Green Book.” But the differences in artistry only pointed up the tremendous diversity that characterizes both the Philadelphia Film Festival, LGBT Philly, and Philadelphia itself.

Practical Information: The Independent Hotel is located at 1234 Locust Street, Philadelphia PA, 19107. (215) 772-1440. Information here.

For a very helpful list of Bars and Nightlife Spots in Philadelphia’s Gayborhood, click here. The website is an excellent resource for making your trip to Philadelphia memorable.

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