THE BLOG
10/30/2013 06:48 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

A Chat With Philadelphia's Mr. Halloween

It's Halloween, and I'm sitting in Henri David's living room in Philadelphia on a small Victorian sofa. On the mantelpiece in front of me are two bronze dragons perched on globe-like foundations. Dragons are never pictured as happy creatures, and these monsters are no exceptions. On the floor a bust of Nefertiti catches my eye, while directly above the mantle is an oil painting of Henri in a Salvador Dalí-like setting.

The house has the air of ruined aristocracy. In fact, you expect Madame Blavatsky and her crystal ball to walk in at any moment and take a seat.

Forty-five years ago Henri David, or Mr. Halloween, was a bearded, long-haired hippie who liked to hang out with female impersonators. The impersonators took him under their wing and brought him to New York City, where they showed him auditorium-sized drag balls. There were no large-scale drag balls like this in Philadelphia. (Of course, Henri would later change that.) Worse, when Halloween came around, there were only private Philadelphia house parties and bars to frequent, but no glamorous Halloween balls.

In 1968, Henri, all dressed up for Halloween and with no place to go except to those isolated, private house parties and bars, decided that it was time to do something big on his own.

He knew right away that he had to start his own Halloween ball tradition, so he went to the Philadelphia Hotel at Broad and Race Streets and initiated the first big city ball. Preparation for the first event was tough. He printed flyers and pasted them himself to poles all over the city, in stark contrast to then-popular counterculture posters calling for an end to the war in Vietnam.

He had no money but still managed to pull it off.

The next year the Halloween ball went to The Drake on Spruce Street, and to Town Hall at Broad and Race after that.

"When it all started," Henri tells me, "the Rittenhouse Square society ladies decided, 'Ah, this is wonderful! This is like a masked ball, like the old days!'" The society ladies (who frequented teas at the Barclay Hotel) liked Henri, and he was soon getting invites to their fancy cocktail parties, where he says he met the likes of Fernanda Wanamaker and Hope Montgomery Scott (who lost the vision in one of her eyes when she tried uncorking a champagne bottle). Hobnobbing with the social register set didn't stop him from posting flyers about the Miss Gay Philadelphia contest, a drag ball that he organized and that no doubt helped him refine his Halloween skills.

"For the Halloween ball, I would always get the most glorious building I could afford with chandeliers and velvet curtains," he says.

Hotel managers, benevolently suspicious, saddled him with questions: "Why do you need a runway? Why don't you want this set up like a wedding?"

"'Think of it as fashion show,'" Henri says he told them. ""I want everyone to be seen. This is a show. There's got to be room for dancing, so I don't want big tables all over the floor.'

"Philly used to be a drag town in those days," he reminds me. "People would come from New York because we had such beauties here. That changed in the 1980s, when gay men started wearing 501s and desert boots and flannel shirts. They all went to that extreme to the point where you wanted to say, 'Ease up a little bit.' In those days it was politically incorrect to do drag."

The new, macho, "construction worker" drag, Henri says, "changed everything."

"I got fewer and fewer impersonators at the party, but the costumes got better and better. It forced guys to say, 'I can come as an emperor now without putting on a dress.'"

Today, of course, the impersonators are back in force, but people come to the ball dressed any way they want. You can find Roman soldiers, zombie cowboys, bishops in towering miters, '50s girls, biker-chic, mermaids, nuns in neon habits, vampire seductresses, hobo werewolves, or people dressed as pizzas or boxes of Franzia and macaroni and cheese.

"The 1970s were the 'take-a-fag-to-lunch' decade," Henri says, smiling, recalling how one time Philly celebrities like Harry Jay Katz and Sam Rappaport would invite him to accompany them all over town.

"Katz would make sure I went to every event that he did. Their attitude was, 'Oh, Henri's a little naughty. He'll do it with style. He won't bare his full bottom. He'll bring well-dressed freaks and elegant freaks who would not grab your husband!'"

When the ball was held at the Warwick Hotel in 1973, the same year that Philadelphia Magazine did a feature on the event, the area around the hotel exploded with taxis, limos, streaming paparazzi, horse-drawn carriages and even hearses that delivered famous guests at the door. Henri recalls how Frank Rizzo, who was mayor then, "very graciously" sent mounted police officers to direct traffic.

"I met with Mayor Rizzo once or twice face-to-face. He was from the old school of Italian mentality where you don't raid gay bars, you don't bother gay events, because you know where they are. If you raid them, gays scatter, and you're going to have to find them again."

"Today at the ball there's a whole generational change," Henri says. "Whether people passed away, moved, or have gotten too conservative, my army is no longer around. The people I grew up and came up with just don't go out. Or they'll come to the party at 9 and leave at 10."

But it's the art students, he says, who are his new fans.

"So many of them think I'm the bomb," he says. "They've figured it out, even if most of them might not be aware of the history of the ball and how it used to be mainly a drag affair." But this cross-pollination of sexual orientations is something that Henri relishes. "I've always wanted that," he says, despite the number of young female fans today who don't recognize him and approach him on the night of the ball and remark, "Oh, that's a fabulous costume. I hope you win something."

Perhaps it takes some maturity to put a "face" on history, but Henri is always there to teach the "newly" hip. He's even "there" for his jewelry customers who come up to him in his shop and say, "Oh, did you know that there's another Henri David who puts on the Halloween ball?"

Then there are the people in the city who get Henri confused with John DeBella, the radio celebrity who throws his own, albeit smaller, Halloween party in Northern Liberties.

"We'll cross paths, and he'll tell me, 'I don't look like you!' and I'll say, 'I don't look like you either!'"

Of course, the ball always attracts major celebrities who are performing at the casinos or at local theaters. They'll come up to Henri, masked, lean over and whisper, "Guess who I am."

Could it be Brad Pitt? Johnny Depp? Richard Gere? Nicole Kidman?

As for the art of costuming, Henri suggests that if you want to come to the ball, don't fret, just go to your closet and take out something you never wear, something old or exotic, and then build on that. "Get yourself out of your normal mode. Our door people are very lenient as to what constitutes a costume."

His worst fear, he says, confiding to me as we leave the rustic Victorian setting, is staying too long at the fair. He does not want to become one of those tired old hacks who keep putting out a product when they should walk away and give it a rest. "If I reach that point, tell me," he says. "Just tell me."

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