At the end of 1997, before opening his 700 Club with bartending pal Chris Sey and Mel’s Rockpile bassist Tracy Stanton, Kurt Wunder spoke with me about his then newly purchased butcher shop turned corner saloon.
Situated on the corner of 2nd and Fairmount long before Northern Liberties became whatever the hell one would call it today (ask Sey and he readily refers to the then battered-and-sparsely lived in neighborhood as “not tainted”), Wunder, who lived in Old City at the time, explained the direction for his bar-playhouse, which he referred to as “kitsch without being hokey.”
In a former life, Wunder was a bartender at Khyber and played a fish while shirtless in an earlier incarnation of Mel’s Rockpile. He also served a stint as the suave DJ and host of Rat Pack nights at Silk City. To top it off, he became a bar owner and scene explorer.
All of this made him a revolutionary.
The opening of his corner bar was in an area not yet touched, but it was destined to explode due Wunder’s long time in the biz, his hard work and his hard-earned success.
Of the 700 Club’s intended audience, Wunder said at the time, “We want rich alcoholics standing next to bell-bottomed types — just like the Khyber’s old happy hour.”
What Wunder got in life and in droves for 21-plus years at the 700 Club — a bar sold in late May to old Philly friends Gina and Sean Butler-Galliera — he also got in death, with a second line memorial parade on Aug. 18 that walked the walk from the home he shared with wife Margo and their children, Georgia, 18, and Spencer, 16, to the Mummers Museum.
Wunder died at home on Aug. 10 of glioblastoma and leptomeningeal disease.
He was 53.
“Upon realizing that his medications would never involve tequila, Kurt William Wunder acquiesced and peacefully surrendered his battle,” Margo wrote in a loving death notice at the Baldi’s-Pennsylvania Burial Co.’s website.
On Sunday afternoon, I rolled out of my door and ran behind the crew of fellow Mummers to catch the New Orleans’ style funeral parade at its start. It was one last time to remember Kurt, who was my neighbor in both South Philadelphia and Old City. He routinely talked to my greyhound, Django, on the corner while he sipped a heady libation… Wunder, that is. Not my dog.
The soundtrack of this celebration from the Mummers was an exquisite choice as the crew played homage to Wunder, who himself was a trumpeting Mummer with the Rabble Rousers comic brigade. Together with a crew of musician-members of the Big Mess Orchestra, they filled Wharton Street, playing what sounded like a mix of “Angel Eyes” and “St. James’ Infirmary,” and met the Wunder family on the corner. Together, a throng of people walked procession-like but joyful up the street to Wharton Park.
Dozens of umbrellas bounced and old friends cried, laughed and clapped while “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” played on. After promenading up Two Street, some 700 (no joke) marchers stood before the Mummers Museum with the Wunder family, played more music, then entered the museum where speeches were made. Drinks were drunk, food was eaten and loving vibes were shared. Fellow band members, South Philly neighbors, hockey players, artists, actors and rich alcoholics all stood in thousand degree humidity to honor Wunder.
The only thing that was missing from the most fun and emotional funeral walk ever — as surmised by Live Nation’s Jim Sutcliffe — was “big name tags,” so to remember exactly who was among the countless faces that recognized each other but perhaps had difficulty placing names.
Sean Butler-Galliera confirmed on Sunday that he and his wife Gina had purchased The 700 Club and would leave it pretty much the same as they found it once they both resettled in Philly from their current home in Los Angeles.
But that’s a conversation for another time.
Lionizing Kurt Wunder is the issue at hand. Like the recently deceased punk rock venue Firestarter David Carroll, Wunder found literal and figurative unclaimed territory, and he put a freak flag in it.
Few could have believed the swagger of Sinatra’s Rat Pack and the dressed-to-the-nines nature of silken Sy Devore — AKA the bachelor pad suave of the late 1950s and Kennedy-era 1960s — could be a thing in the grunge-listenin’, flannel-clad ‘90s. Yet Wunder rolled about in a roll lapel tux, spinning “Fly Me to the Moon” and “Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” to men in similar sartorial gear and cocktail dress-wearing women with dark red lipstick at Silk City, a spot that would soon become a mecca for adventurous hip hop with Back to Basics.
Even fewer could have guessed that N. 2nd Street, home to nothing at all, could become a mecca of millennial money-spending, pre-craft beer and designer distiller tipplers and louche loungers that was 700 Club at its start and at its heart.
Wunder brought both and in his wake created a wave of casual cool and casual hangs in handsome clothes and theatrically-designed settings tailored for maximum fun, frolic and ease.
If he wasn’t creating Sinatra-filled atmospheres or comfortable nights out, Kurt Wunder was an IMDB-credited special effects guy on Philly-filmed flicks such as “Creed” and “Creed II,” the upcoming Chadwick Boseman-led “21 Bridges,” and, not surprisingly, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” He was also an avid hockey aficionado who attempted to make all around him puck heads.
Maybe most importantly, he was a lover of his wife, his kids and life itself.
For all of the above, Kurt Wunder will be missed and never forgotten.
In lieu of flowers, the Wunder family requests donations to the Rizzo Rink and Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation.