At Philly's LGBT community center, it's that `70s show

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An exhibit at the William Way LGBT Community Center celebrates the Gay Coffeehouse.

Whenever Anthony Louis gets onstage to sing — which is not often anymore — he likes to tell a story.

“Once upon a time,” he begins, “there was a coffeehouse at 3rd and Arch.”

It was called the Gay Coffeehouse, and it was at 3rd and Arch because the building there was owned by a Quaker congregation, and Quakers were among the only landlords in the city who would rent to gay people in 1974. In a Philadelphia where the police still raided gay establishments, it was a haven. The coffeehouse held cabaret nights and poetry readings. It offered health services and hosted political activism roundtables. It was unlike anywhere Louis had ever been.

He was a young singer then, with a few original songs to his name, making tentative forays into the New York City music scene when he first performed at the new coffeehouse in Old City.

I walked in, and I said, ‘Oh my god, this is beautiful,” Louis said. “The spirit, the strength, the sense of unity -- all of us standing beside one another because we were different and we knew we were different.”

The coffeehouse, with its cable spool tables and trash-picked chairs, is long gone now. But a new exhibit at the William Way LGBT Community Center — which traces its own roots to Philly’s gay coffeehouse culture — aims to recreate it, with recordings, photos, fliers, manifestos and poetry chapbooks from the coffeehouse’s heyday.

“It was a space for people to gather and meet each other,” said John Anderies, the center’s archivist. “And for young people, finding out about the coffeehouse, and working up the nerve to go — that was, in many cases, their first introduction to other gay people.”

Anderies was inspired to create the exhibit after finding hundreds of cassette tapes in the center’s archives — homemade recordings of performances at 3rd and Arch and other gay coffeehouses across the city.

There was Tom Wilson Weinberg, singing a ditty about the cruising scene on Philadelphia’s streets: “South Street only wants / you to think there’s a renaissance / Broad Street is only fun / when the Flyers have won.”

There was John “Saj” Powell in the late 1970s, singing about “good friends,” smooth and clear on the cassette tape, with someone laughing in the background. He had only a few years to live. Anderies couldn’t find Powell's  obituary, but the few friends he managed to track down said the performer was one of the first people they knew to die of AIDS.

Alongside fliers advertising cabaret nights and photos of friends smiling in the coffeehouse are artifacts of a more ominous nature -- reminders of just how dangerous it could be to be out and proud in 1970s America. “How To Greet Your Friendly Neighborhood FBI Agent,” the headline of one newsletter read.

Weinberg said the coffeehouse scene was a safe space for gay Philadelphians -- but, just as importantly, it was a “low-key space” — a place to hang out that wasn’t a bar, where you didn’t need to spend more than 25 cents for a cup of coffee. At the exhibit’s opening last week, he was surprised to see an enormous photo of himself and his husband on the wall, listening to a folk singer at 3rd and Arch some 40 years ago. (They married in 2013, after a “39-year engagement,” he said, laughing.)

Susan Daily, who regularly read poems at 3rd and Arch, said seeing her poems displayed at William Way is “a huge gift.”

“The poems that [Anderies] had were from my 20s, and I’m in my 60s now,” she said. “This really called back a whole different person — it was astonishing, like an archeological find of myself.”

The final incarnation of the coffeehouse — a community center at Camac and Locust Streets — closed in the mid 1980s, Anderies said. Times had changed.

“There were gay churches and synagogues and there were LGBT organizations, and all the activist groups — there were a lot more places for people to go,” Weinberg said.

But for people like Louis, it all started at the coffeehouse.

“Going there and spending a few hours singing and then getting off stage and talking with my friends — I felt stronger,” he said. “That was the spirit of 3rd and Arch. That was the beginning of liberation.”