Eastern State Penitentiary will end its annual Bastille Day celebration

Mary Tuomanen (left), playing Napolean, and John Jarboe, in the character of Edih Piaf, of The Bearded Ladies Cabaret Company, perform on stage to during the 20th anniversary event commemorating Bastille Day at Eastern State Penitentiary July 13, 2014.

It’s been more than 20 years since the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site began celebrating Bastille Day, and this year, the annual, Tastykake-laden party will come to a close for good.

To mark the end of the tradition, Eastern State plans to hold what it called a “monumental farewell tour” of the event on its usual date, July 14. The Bearded Ladies will perform a drag cabaret version of the French Revolution, and about 2,000 Butterscotch Krimpets will rain down on revelers. London Grill’s Terry Berch McNally will return as Marie Antoinette and will utter her famous phrase — “Let them eat Tastykake!” — for the final time.

Eastern State noted in a release that Bastille Day, while popular, is “extremely resource-intensive,” and with the organization operating on a “new vision” with a focus on criminal justice reform, some “tough sacrifices” are required. A revised mission statement indicates that Eastern State will focus on “infrastructure and visitor amenities” in the future.

Some of those amenities, Eastern State senior vice president Sean Kelley said, include exhibits, tours led by guides who have served time, and a new project focusing on animated films created by incarcerated artists to be projected on the facade of Eastern State in the late summer or early fall of 2019. As Kelley said, that project, which will draw attention to criminal justice reform, is a “more complex” project than Bastille Day, and requires additional resources and attention.

“Many Americans believe criminal justice reform is the civil rights issue of our time,” Kelley said, “and Eastern State Penitentiary is already the site that is grappling with these issues in the most substantial way.”

Initially launched at Eastern State in 1995, the Bastille Day celebration has long commemorated the Storming of the Bastille, and began as a small event held under a tent in an abandoned lot at the penitentiary, according to a release. Since then, it has evolved from a theatrical performance into a massive event, though Eastern State does not keep numbers regarding number of attendees each year. Plans to end its more than two-decade-long run began about two months ago, Kelley said.

“We have firmly established a reputation as a destination for Philadelphians, leisure tourists, school students and their teachers to discover stories of the men and women who lived and worked behind the prison walls, and to reflect on some of the most critical issues facing our nation today,” a release notes. However, as Kelley noted, the organization wants to maintain a “sense of humor” and not give itself over completely to criminal justice reform.

As always, the Bastille Day celebration is free and open to the public. So, if you’ve been meaning to go, this is your last chance.