Any other year, a late October, early Saturday morning would find Henri David walking calmly through the towering, old-world expanse of his Pine Street jewelry salon Halloween, with reams of fabric, lengths of metal wire and spools of rhinestones, feathers, crystal plastics and other colorful bedazzlings trailing behind him.
Satin, chiffon, rubber, crinoline, wings, jewels, high heels and higher hats will line his long hallways. Though no one in his employ could ever know the full extent of what David was thinking and planning moving forward, or exactly what the end result would be, each member of his team would be readying different unique elements of several costume changes – one more garish than the last, and at the least three, but, very possibly 12 or 13 as his whim dictates – that Henri will utilize for his always live and lively Oct. 31 party epic, the Henri David Halloween Ball.
With fun, love and communal vibes as his collective North Star, the Halloween Balls – 52 years old as of 2020, held at every grand ballroom in Philadelphia in its time – find David jumping in and out of multiple, elaborate outfits for his lobby greetings, his staged grand entrance and several, incrementally more complex changes during the lengthy, multi-tiered costume contest. David’s Oct. 31 bash is this city’s most-attended, always-packed (about 3,000 attendees strong) Halloween soiree; an interactive event where his devoted crowds do their best to out-glam David.
Some come dressed up. Some come not at all dressed up – nude, or near nude. There’s less nudity and sexuality than there was in the ‘70s and ‘80s as crowds, paraders and voyeurs alike are humdrum prudes. No one dares to go with a costume, pre-made and store-bought from a box. Henri would be too kind to call out the box costumed reveler, but David’s dedicatedly dressier folks would not stand for that.
Some attendees come close, very close, in their garrulous approximation of David’s delirious costume grandeur. But, seriously, you really can never beat a man such as he, who’ll walk tall on 20-foot high wooden stilts for an hour at a time, or stand atop a massive, wiggly, inflatable pumpkin with puppet strings and pulley systems moving his tentacles (I’ll tell you below), or fly atop a crane in long, intricately designed flowing gown-like outfits, or plugged in, electrically lit-up and motor-controlled affairs, or high-hatted outfits where he needs to be braced in metal from the waist up – all in the name of dark holiday beauty (by the way, David has never dressed as, or will ever dress as a superhero or a monster, as all of the ideas are singular, iconic and of his own creation. “It really is a secret until the big reveal,” he says. “Hell, sometimes even I don’t know what I am until I am it”).
Point is, Henri David lives for Halloween. Henri David is to Halloween what Santa Claus is to Christmas or the Bunny is to Easter (don’t even start with Henri and the annual Easter Sunday Parade). Henri Davis IS Halloween, and Halloween IS Henri David.
Currently though, there is a pandemic brewing with no mass gatherings in sight, which means that the Philadelphia 201 Hotel at 17th and Race will be empty on Oct. 31, devoid of David and his spooky holiday throng.
So, on that same early Saturday morning in mid-October, rather than do his usual bustling, pre-Halloween hustle, the far-less frenzied David isn’t sewing costumes and fastening metal objects – he’s waiting. “I have this plan, that is not quite thwarted – it actually looks good – but I have to wait for all my permits with the city to go through,” said David with extreme measured patience in every breath. “Everyone at the city level – the Department of Licenses and Inspection and at the Streets Department – is being very helpful, even though there is some feet-dragging. Everyone wants to make sure that everything fits, and suits all of the COVID laws.”
Even down to the horse that he’ll ride in on.
Because, if you think a little old COVID is going to stop the indefatigable party thrower from bringing Halloween thrills to the Philadelphia masses, you don’t know Henri David.
“There will be glitter,” said David with a huff on Saturday morning, recalling something he once said, during a contract negotiation with a Philly union boss, at the Pennsylvania Convention Center in 1995 (look for more on that auspicious occasion below).
“Look, A.D., October 31, 2020, is a Saturday night. A full moon. I will be damned if I am going to sit home and cry. I’m going to go out and do something.”
Let’s go beyond October 2020’s full moons, however, as to how David and Halloween met and became lovers and friends in the first place.
It’s 1968, and David, then a Philadelphia theater maven, musician (“I played piano, glockenspiel in the marching band and sang; the bass-baritone voice in All-City Choir at Central-Olney-Germantown-Southern High”) and Rittenhouse Square dancer (“That’s how I got on American Bandstand and met Dick Clark who became one of Halloween’s best customers”) wanted to throw a big party for his favorite scary, sexy holiday.
David then was simply reacting to the fact that nothing else was really going on anywhere else for Halloween; nothing that was proactive, provocative and adventurous for a self-proclaimed “costume nut” such as he.
“What were you going to do?” asked the David of 1968. “Spend all this time, money and energy planning your costume, only to go to – what – just a bar with cigarettes or somebody’s rec room? As a younger person, I had been to New York City and witnessed elaborate drag balls held in ballrooms in hotels. Very complex and dressed-up gatherings. Now, there was an idea I could get behind.”
Without Philadelphia’s black or white drag queens having a real ballroom scene in the Philadelphia of 1968, David summoned up the necessary courage, rented one of two ballrooms at the decadent, now-gone Philadelphia Hotel at Broad and Vine for 300 of his friends, and partied.
“I lost my shirt, and I didn’t care,” David said laughing. “The hotel was gloriously old and falling down then, but, grand. My friends had a blast and so did I. So we did it again, the next year at Town Hall on Broad & Race – another paradise torn down for a parking lot like the Joni Mitchell song goes – and I just kept going.”
What shirt did David lose that first year of 1968?
“My costume was that of a very large bat with wings that spread out like 15 feet across, and I wasn’t wearing much below that as was my want – and everybody’s, really – in the 1960s and ‘70s. Nobody wore clothing. We didn’t have proper staging or lighting so I remember that I raised myself out of the back of the drum set of one of the two bands that we had playing that night. Actually, the one band was Woody’s Truck Stop,” said David of Philly’s premier psychedelic blues ensemble noted for being the first group formed by legendary blue-eyed-soul singer and producer Todd Rundgren. “Swear to God it was him. There were no such things like DJs back then, and I believed very much in live bands playing my parties as I was a musician. We had one long live music dance party until the costume contest started.”
“…October 31, 2020, is a Saturday night. A full moon. I will be damned if I am going to sit home and cry. I’m going to go out and do something.”– Legendary Halloween planner and nightlife historian Henri David
David wasn’t a jewelry-maker or designer in 1968. That was something that came later under the decade-long tutelage of the legendarily self-taught, late Wesley Eammons in his gallery shop. (“Jewelry actually didn’t start getting GOOD for me until the 1980s,” said Henri of making a living) In 1968, David was fairly certain that he would end up in showbusiness (“I wanted to entertain and make things that made people smile – STILL DO”) and that the Halloween Ball was the best way to express his costuming concepts and execution, as well as his vision of extreme pageantry and socialization.
“In the early days, the Halloween Balls never had a small entrance. There was always a chorus line with big singing and dancing from over 100 singers and dancers strong. I had time on my hands to create something immense – to put on a show – and friends around me, in theater, music and dance, to help express that. Way back then, when none of us had a nickel, I never had to pay for entertainment or anything. Everybody just wanted to be a part of the Ball. I and my friends struggled the rest of the year. This was the one night to let it all hang out, go big, and just do it. So we did it. That’s so very different from now. Now, everything costs.”
After the Philadelphia Hotel and Town Hall, there were ballrooms at hotels such as The Drake, then The Warwick, with the Philadelphia Convention Center – in 1993 – bringing him his highest number of people, a crowd of 3.500, he ever had. “We were a hit,” he exclaimed. “When I found out the Wyndham Franklin Plaza (now Philadelphia 201) had the same amount of space as the Convention Center without having to deal with the unions, we went there.”
David remembered his first year of doing the Halloween Balls at the Convention Center with humor.
“What I can tell you about the Convention Center without getting my knuckles broken is that there was this one year when (District Attorney-turned-Mayor-turned-Governor) Ed Rendell was one of my contest judges. Before the show started, I’m running around, getting ready, and we’re walking together. Madness to countdown stuff, and there’s all of these union guys just sitting around when they’re supposed to be lifting props – the year I jumped out of a giant pumpkin and onto a waiting trampoline. Ed looked at me, and said, ‘Let me guess – union?’”
The end of the story is that the year previous, David had to sign a “disgusting” 32-page contract with the PA Convention Center’s union bosses, with David pointing out to them the holes in the contract where he was being either over-charged or charged for things that never would be worked on by union crews. “We got to line 37-A, page 15, and I said, ‘Gentlemen – God forbid they should have a woman there – there is a line that states that no glitter will be allowed to be used in the hall. Gentlemen, It is Halloween. There will be glitter.’”
Considering David’s longtime Halloween Ball motto, “Don’t come as you are, but, as you want to be,” is a credo for his crowds to come out – a blossoming, “not just for gay people, but for straights” to be what they want to be – in a safe space, the party-planner too has grown exponentially grander with each soiree. “The most elaborate costume of mine had to be one year at the Wyndham where I rented a 15-foot-high blow-up pumpkin. I was the spider inside of it, with eight, 18-feet long, purple hairy arms which I worked like puppets with strings, with each tentacle having a size 13 patent leather woman’s high heel shoe at the end of it. I would touch the shoulders of unexpected guests with those shoes – all for like two hours standing on a ladder that I had to balance myself on.”
Now, for the bad part.
“This year has been weird, to put it mildly,” said David with a resigned sigh. “Because of what I do for a living in jewelry, I’m looking in the face of customers and seeing confusion. Everyone is confused. Even walking down the street, the faces I’m seeing – what little you can see past the masks – have confused looks.”
“This year has been weird, to put it mildly…I’m looking in the face of [my jewelry] customers and seeing confusion. Everyone is confused. Even walking down the street, the faces I’m seeing – what little you can see past the masks – have confused looks.”– Henri David
Henri, like the rest of the world, began to see the effects of what COVID-19 would be starting in March. Yes, he had long ago put down his annual deposit for the Halloween Ball at Philadelphia 201 (“Don’t worry. The good people who run the ballroom operations there are very human, very nice and not horribly corporate”), and was still going forward with the party, its fliers and his costuming. “As the months ticked by, though, not so much.”
His living beyond throwing Halloween balls and leading Easter and Pride Day Parades (also cut out of 2020’s Philly public event schedule due to the pandemic) is selling handmade jewelry and treasured tchotkes he has found on his yearly travels around the globe. At first, when the pandemic struck, fiances who needed their wedding bands were in tears, crying as they met David outside of his Pine Street shop, in quarantine and unable then to allow people into his store. “It was so crazy and sad.”
David admits that from April on to the present, that sales at his store have been dynamic, highly profitable and positive.
“My business is great, and I can say this without it being an actual ad: it is because we produce a great product, and that we’re reasonable to afford. We don’t advertise – any good word we get is word of mouth – so people come in to the store, already with a trust factor” (David also famously has never been on, or used, any form of social media, and only started using a computer for fleetingly sporadic emails last year).
Business also happens to be good at David’s jewelry salon, because, at times of tragedy, people spend like the bourgeoisie crowds of Evelyn Waugh’s “Vile Bodies” – living, carousing and cashing-out as if there’s no tomorrow.
“The busiest week of sales that I ever had in the shop’s life was the week after 9-11. We were mobbed with all kinds-of people of all-ages and all-ethnicities. People didn’t know what state the world was in, and whether it might end the next day. With that, they wanted something that they always wanted. It didn’t mean that the items had to be expensive. The items just had to last. They had to be real. And that is the same feeling that I am having now.”
Back to Halloween – the Ball and not his shop/salon – from April on, David also received call after call about his annual party. “By June, I knew the truth – that the Ball would not happen live, the first time that this would ever occur,” said David.
You can ask him about the possibility of a live-streamed Halloween Ball, but he’ll all but laugh at you. “Virtual reality is not my reality.”
Talking about Philadelphia’s political landscape, past and present, and the mayors and their admins he has been through during his five decades-plus of planning and putting on elaborate public parties, I wondered aloud about his relations to the likes of Jim Kenney and even Frank Rizzo – the first mayor David came up with.
“I wasn’t close to Rizzo, but he was extremely good to me,” said David, frankly. “He never had any problems with me. He was very kind. He came from a different school. His feelings were, in the ‘60s don’t start closing gay bars and think that would have any effect. He knew that gay people would just find someplace else to go. He was old school. ‘I like knowing exactly where they are – let them be’ must have been his thought process. In my experience, he never raided anywhere I was or bothered us. He was simply firm. This is how it is. My best memory of Rizzo was at the Warwick. Our parties won the reputation of being THE place to be, and crowds came to gawk, from outside the hotel, at the limos pulling up with everyone dressed to the nines making their entrance. Rizzo sent officers on horseback – not to make trouble, but to keep an orderly crowd, and for traffic to go by. That was great.”
Horses coming to the rescue are a big part of saving Henri David’s present reality. Read on.
And what of Jim Kenney? David believes that the current mayor is a victim of circumstances beyond his control. “I love that man, know that he’s been dumped on, repeatedly, and think that he is doing the best that he can.”
Kenney better be doing the best that he can for David’s sake as the Ball-thrower’s solution to saving Halloween, saving its face, his own, and his sanity in the process goes back to the old horse and buggy routine.
“When COVID first struck, I didn’t get depressed,” said David. “I just sat quietly, in limbo, listened to friends, and thought long and hard about what I was going to do. I certainly wasn’t going to sit home for Halloween. I encouraged people, as I always do, and do for myself, to stay safe – that goes for sex as it does breathing during a pandemic – and disregard anything being said by the Orange Man. Just keep going. Have fun, love and shit.”
What could be more fun, loving and grand for Henri David than running around the streets of Philadelphia in a majestic horse and carriage tossing out candy and treats to the costumed holiday minions, while decked out and pompaded himself?
Originally planning to walk around town on stilts – especially through downtown’s outdoor dining districts – handing out candy and save-the-date placeholding cards for Halloween 2022, David worried that such a stroll could lead to it becoming either a parade, or, God forbid, a protest. “It’s not as if I could literally fit indoors anywhere with the height and width of any of my costumes, anyway, so it had to be outdoors,” said David who also looked at the sorry condition of the streets, and realized that a Halloween walkabout on stilts was out of the question.
A horse he could get behind – maybe not literally, but.
“The people at Philadelphia Trolley Works/76 Carriage Company Horse Drawn Tours were totally accommodating and behind me, and have told me at every juncture that they would do what they could, that I could pick out my own pretty pony, that I could decorate the carriage to my liking, Apparently even the drivers are fighting with each other as to who would drive me. We’re working on a plan for a total picture of what to expect, as I will have friends and associates following me, quietly hidden in cars, to replenish my candy supply and keep me safe.”
Everything was moving forward, starting one month ago, with the fun of Henri David doing a horse and carriage Halloween, by himself, Ichabod Crane-like (but with a head) giving out candy to young and old on the streets of Philadelphia from Rittenhouse Square down to South Street and Old City. That is, until David got handed an insult onto the injury of having his Ball yanked out from under him.
“JUST ONE MORE THING: We needed a special permit,” said an exasperated David, who bounced back quickly, and stated how “my wonderful Councilperson Mark Squilla” has been getting my paperwork over to the Streets Department and L&I. Everyone is getting ready to sign off. Get the right piece of paper to the right person, and then, over to the police so that they don’t stop me.”
“Everyone at the City level – the Department of Licenses and Inspection and at the Streets Department – is being very cautious. They’re dragging their feet. That’s fine. They want to make sure everything is safe. For instance, they want to make sure that the horse and carriage follows all of the COVID guidelines and adheres to all of the laws and regulations. OhhhhhhhhhhK.”
Perhaps, the horse could wear a mask, I put forth.
“I’m prepared for almost anything. I have my fabrics ready and the plans finished, but, I don’t want to actually build anything based on the horse and carriage until I have the permit in my hands. I may have to go to Plan B. I’m allowed, legally, to be on the back of a pickup truck, be silly and run around with that. But that is an entirely different set-up with its own special brand of housing, fabrics and costumes. I can’t produce my posters and fliers for the event until I get the permit.”
So, yes, it is absolutely weird for David to be this late for the game of Halloween. But, he’s ready to play either way.
As always, he gives no clues or hints as to what the look, theme or feel of his costume changes may be. That said, David’s wardrobe changes will be fewer and somewhat less elaborate than usual, owing to the fact that a strong wind might carry a high-hatted Henri away. “You know that actually happened one year during the Pride Parade. When I do something really towering, I build a brace for my hat that I wear under my costume from the waist up. Funnily, I was in a six-foot tall hat that year, I was on the float, everything was fine, Until I hit the 700 block of Locust and my hat got caught in a tree. I got pulled up and airlifted. Hilarious.”
To be carried off into the air just like Mary Poppins – how exquisite.
“Oh, if that ever happened, they would just say that he died the way he lived,” David laughed at my suggestion.
Having lost the opportunity to do this year’s Pride Parade and the Easter Parade as he has for 20 years (“Losing Easter really broke my heart,” said David of his second-favorite holiday. “The kids, oh my God, are always so excited for me to bunny-up”), Henri will not lose Halloween. No matter what. Especially in such a messed-up year.”
“I really want to be a positive sign that we are going to beat this and give them even one minute of a smile. Halloween is the only way I can do that. I’m not going on social media and banging any drums. This is the only physical way of letting people know that we are all going to be OK, that I am here and alive. You know, when it was my 50th anniversary, a rumor went around that it was my final party. NOOOO. A milestone, maybe, but never a farewell. When I’m ready to go, you’ll know it – it’ll be big. The hell with a pandemic. Year after year, my Balls just keep getting bigger and bigger: PUN INTENDED. Halloween 2020 is not my last, so let’s look forward to 2021 with the biggest balls ever.”