The late Philadelphia Inquirer columnist Acel Moore wrote about his memories of Philly’s Easter Promenade during his 1950s childhood. He and his brother, dressed in the pink shirts and wool-worsted suits their mother would buy for them once each year, “couldn’t wait to walk from our neighborhood in South Philadelphia to Center City” and join in the annual fashion show.
“You would have to beat me with a stick to tell me that I wasn’t the best-dressed in the city,” Moore wrote, “even when we got downtown and saw hundreds of other boys and men wearing suits of the same design.”
Strutting around in finery on Easter Sunday became common long before Philadelphia had a coordinated Promenade. In East Coast metropolises of the late 19th century, Easter was considered even more of a major shopping holiday than Christmas, so newly well-dressed families were eager to show off their new duds.
The pre-church procession down Fifth Avenue in New York City was one of the biggest gatherings of the day, though it wasn’t formally hosted by any one group. As word of its success spread, other cities started to organize their own fashionable walks. In 1876, timed to coincide with Philadelphia’s Centennial Exposition, Atlantic City hosted what many consider to be the country’s first official Easter Parade.
In Philadelphia, the parade was first formalized in 1931, when it was held around Rittenhouse Square.
After World War II, the Center City Residents Association assumed control of the event, and turned it into a sartorial competition, with prizes for best outfit, best bonnet, “fashion excellence” and other categories. The contest drew participants from all walks of life.
An accidental prize-winner
By the 1970s, however, the Easter event was starting to lose its luster. The parade part dropped off, and the streets surrounding the Square were no longer closed to traffic. Fewer people showed up for the fashion show — one year, a prize was even awarded to two people who didn’t even plan to enter the contest, they were just passing through.
Serendipitously, one of those impromptu winners was Henri David. The jeweler and costume aficionado had already launched his long-running Halloween Ball in 1968, but he wasn’t yet well-known.
“My ladyfriend and I were dressed up to go to an event, and they stopped us to say they wanted to give us a prize,” David said. “but they didn’t know what to call us.” (He was in a flamboyantly gorgeous drag get-up.) “They ended up deciding on ‘Best Lifestyle Expression.'”
David’s picture made the front page of the Philadelphia Tribune that year. The next year, when city administrators were brainstorming about how to revive the flagging Promenade, they remembered David. He’d been in the contest and he knew a thing or two about throwing a party. Perhaps he’d be the right person to restore it to its former glory?
“They came to me, people from Mayor Goode’s administration, and said, ‘Here’s a budget, here’s what we have to do,'” David remembered, pinpointing the date to some time in the early ’80s. He accepted the challenge, and then pulled no punches.
“I told them, ‘You’ve gotta close the street, you have to build a stage, we need police, we need barricades, we need a judges panel and a runway.’ So they did it.”
The first Henri David-led Easter Promenade was a smashing success.
Though his budget was small, he found ways to make the scene festive. For the trees in Rittenhouse Square, which hadn’t yet bloomed, he got a bunch of crepe and paper donated and took it to the senior center at Broad and Lombard. “I’m going to teach you how to make paper flowers,” he told the residents, and then took their creations and spread them through all the bare branches. He had friends dress up as Alice in Wonderland characters in donated costumes and walk around the grounds.
Even his fashion contest added levity. Because of space constraints, the judges (including Mayor Goode and his wife) had to sit all the way across Walnut Street, separated from the stage where David was emceeing by the crowd. When it was time to turn in a verdict for a category, David would hoist a giant carrot across via a pulley system he had rigged, and the judges would tuck in a note with their decision and send it flying back.
A stop in the Gallery
In 1984, just after David had brought it back from the dead, the city ran out of money to host the event. David’s jewelry shop was on South Street at the time (it’s now at Juniper and Pine), and when the South Street business association got word of the budget shortfall, they cobbled together some funds.
The Promenade didn’t go directly to South Street, however. For three years, it was hosted in the indoor Market Street mall known as the Gallery.
“I was nervous about holding it there,” David said. “I told them I wanted a police escort.” Notwithstanding, he didn’t shirk from his role as officiator, and the event attracted huge crowds, even though, as David remembers, “it wasn’t very well organized.”
Eventually, the South Street Headhouse District folks decided the best way to gain full control of the parade and really do it right was to move it to South Street itself.
“Dick Ostrander was executive director of the district, and he was a genius,” David said. “He really helped get the parade going again.” Throughout the ’90s, organizers added as many cool things to the event as they could — groups of strutting Mummers, a procession of antique cars, a fashion contest prize for the “Best South Street Razzle-Dazzle” and even a prize for best-dressed pet. One year, a woman won for her red wagon full of turtles, each sporting a pastel-colored bow.
Mayor Rendell was a good friend of David’s, and they would often walk at the front of the Promenade together. “Every year, I would turn to him and say, ‘Ed, what’s wrong with this picture? Two nice Jewish boys leading the Easter parade.'”
But Easter in the sense of the parade and celebration has never really been about religion, David believes. “It’s an American holiday, just like Christmas — and really it’s all about fun. Dressing up is fun! It makes you feel good about yourself. And anyone can do it.”
The mayor is back
In the ’00s, South Street went through a slight decline. David continued on as mascot and parade leader, but it was always all volunteer — he wasn’t in charge of production. He remembers arriving at the fashion contest stage one year in a costume with 15-inch heels, and finding the stage hadn’t even been built. (He fell off the makeshift dias they quickly threw together.)
At the start of this decade, new managers at the South Street Headhouse District began give the the Promenade some attention again. In 2014, sick of being asked to go to planning meetings (“cookie conventions,” he called them), David convinced the district to hire his good friend Franny Price to run the show.
Price was already responsible for pulling off the annual Philly Pride Parade, which draws close to 50,000 people, as well as Philly’s nationally-recognized OutFest block party. The Easter Promenade is about a tenth the size of those happenings, but Price is fiercely proud of her involvement.
“It’s something I grew up with, and I’m helping keep it going,” she said. “I love helping 50,000 people celebrate their pride, but this is different. It’s history. My mom would be proud that I am what I am, but she’d be especially proud of me for doing this.”
Under her purview, things have snapped into place. The stage set up in the Headhouse Shambles is always done on time, and nicely, too. There’s a band that plays music as the Promenade heads up South Street, and a youth group that follows doing the bunny hop. There’s a new parade section for bicycles. And, in a return to tradition, the mayor is back.
“I’m very proud that this year Mayor Kenney is going to kick off the Promenade,” Price said. “I don’t know why Mayor Nutter never came — maybe he had a lot of churches to visit — but mayors always used to do it; Rendell and Street never missed it.
Mayor Kenney, for his part, is equally excited. “There was never a question,” as to whether he would show up, he said via a spokesperson. His favorite part about the event? “Getting to interact with Philadelphia’s families.”
That’s the same thing that keeps Henri David on his toes.
“Some families come dressed in coordinated costumes,” he said, gushing over one woman who actually makes all the clothes her family wears. “There’s a big Easter egg hunt at the end this year,” he continues, “which is just wonderful. Anything that makes the kids smile is just the best.”