Stu Bykofsky: Recalling the Vesper Club's 'Mad Men' days

"Occupying space in the Racquet Club offered a better opportunity for us," says treasurer Ed Rhodes.
"Occupying space in the Racquet Club offered a better opportunity for us," says treasurer Ed Rhodes. (DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: September 21, 2012

"WE WERE 'Mad Men,' " recalls George Futak, the Vesper Club's maitre d' since 1990, talking about a much earlier era. "More business deals were done in the Vesper Club than anywhere in the state."

The 1950s and early '60s were an era of private dining clubs, male privilege, smoking at your desk and gas-guzzlers with sky-high fins. Now, the century-old Vesper Club has just completed a move from its intimate two-story Sydenham Street hideaway to the massive Racquet Club of Philadelphia on 16th Street. It's breaking in its new quarters like a cowboy breaks in new boots - a little pain at first, but comfort in the future.

"Occupying space in the Racquet Club offered a better opportunity for us than staying in the current building," says Vesper treasurer Ed Rhodes.

Chartered as a private Mummers club at the turn of the 20th century to skirt the Quaker City's blue laws prohibiting alcohol service on Sundays, Vesper became a private dining club in 1941, building a fabled clientele that included Eagles owner Leonard Tose, Mayor Frank Rizzo, mob boss Angelo Bruno, GOP boss Billy Meehan and DJ Jerry Blavat. It is hoped that the move, made necessary in part by a membership that dwindled to 850 from its "Mad Men" high of 7,000, will secure its future.

Over the past few decades, a number of old-line private clubs have died: the Locust Club, the Engineers Club, the Downtown Club, the Commerce Club, the Alpha Club, among others.

They had thrived by offering a clubby place to enjoy a quality meal when the city's list of great restaurants was basically Helen Sigel Wilson's on Walnut. Today, you can't swing a cat without hitting a good restaurant, so why pay for private privileges?

Vesper's website answers that: "We strive to know all of our members by name and remember the likes and dislikes of each." Members are greeted by name by Futak and two-decade bartender Matt Gallagher. That makes members feel special.

"Belonging to a club was as much about the fellowship - and exclusivity - as the food," says Maria Gallagher, former restaurant critic for the Daily News and Philadelphia magazine. "They were the urban equivalent of the suburban country clubs, without the golf."

The clubs began to wither when the business culture changed, driving tax-code rewrites that cracked down on extravagant expense-account lunches, Rhodes says. "We went from the three-cocktail lunch to the no-cocktail lunch."

Earlier, in the '60s and '70s, the social climate had changed, moving away from private bastions to the egalitarianism that the free- love, free-speech, free-everything generation cherished. Growing informality made the clubs' dress codes seem old-fashioned. Men needed jackets, and "pantsuits and slacks were no-nos for women," Matt Gallagher notes.

The core of Vesper's membership was business professionals with an icing of politicians.

Unlike the crusty Union League, in the "Mad Men" days Vesper admitted blacks, Catholics and Jews and had a low annual membership fee, currently $310. Founded by what had to be puckish Irish Catholics, "Vesper" means a late-afternoon or evening worship service. Most members came in to "worship" during those hours.

Over the years the Union League slowly shed its discriminatory policies, culminating in a 1986 vote to admit women. Vesper followed suit the next day.

Matt Gallagher remembers that Tose would sit at the bar before dinner, order a Dewars scotch with a glass of water and mix the two himself. When he left the bar for dinner, he left behind a $100 bill as a tip.

When Bruno came in, he always got the first banquette in the bar. The reputed godfather was always a gentleman, but occasionally there were "guys who would mix it up in the bar," Gallagher says.

Fistfights?

"This is not holy water," Gallagher says, gesturing to bottles behind the bar.

Vesper always assigned the same waiter, Angelo Calero, to serve Rizzo, who dined there every Friday night at the big round table in the Skyline room. He was surrounded by cronies and city employees - sometimes in the same person, such as Philadelphia Managing Director Hillel Levinson, a Vesper member since the late '60s.

Despite the dress code, "I feel relaxed in the atmosphere," Gallagher says. "People are always friendly; they smile and say hello, not like other clubs that feel cliquish."

Another member of the "Vesper Cabinet" was Deputy Mayor Mike Wallace.

"One time the famous or infamous Marine bartender Daddy Wags came in," Wallace says, referring to James Wagner, who owned Cookies Bar on Oregon Avenue. "Wags walked through and handed every employee in the place a half a $50 bill. 'Make sure we have a good time and you'll get the other half,' he said. Which we did."

Wallace joined in 1971 and was there for its last night on Sydenham. He hasn't returned. " My Vesper has closed," Wallace says. He's not going to the Racquet Club, the back door of which is across Sydenham from Vesper's now-locked front door.

Vesper's new quarters, one flight down from an imposing entry hall, is spacious, with a woody, rathskeller atmosphere. Think Lawrence Welk. Its former home felt like a 1940s nightclub. Think Frank Sinatra.

While praising the Racquet Club for its sincere welcome, Levinson says, "It's going to take a period of adjustment to feel the same comfort level."

Like a cowboy's new boots.


Contact Stu Bykofsky at stubyko@phillynews.com or 215-854-5977. Join Stu on Facebook. For recent columns, go to philly.com/Byko.

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