What's old is - still old at new Boot & Saddle

"We did very little to Boot & Saddle, outside of cleaning things up . . . and putting up stuff we found in the attic," says Mark Fichera, a proprietor.
"We did very little to Boot & Saddle, outside of cleaning things up . . . and putting up stuff we found in the attic," says Mark Fichera, a proprietor. (ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 28, 2013

By now, local hipsters and nightlife aficionados know that the Boot & Saddle - once Philly's shrine to country music - reopened this month on South Broad Street after sitting empty and lonesome as a two-timed cowpoke for 17 years.

In this incarnation, the landmark saloon has come back as a bar and restaurant, a roomy 60-seater, as well as a concert venue for all genres of rock, capacity 150-plus.

But the spirit of the beloved old B&S is all around. It lives in every bit of Wild West kitsch that the new managers dutifully preserved, from the vintage stamped-tin ceilings and walls, to the horseshoes and steer horns, to the big, beat-up, boot-shaped sign beckoning out front. Lassoed, drunken cowboys, barkeeps, and gunfightin' babes in bikinis raise hell on murals sepia-toned from decades of cigarette smoke.

"We did very little to Boot & Saddle, outside of cleaning things up, taking a few things down, and putting up stuff we found in the attic," says Mark Fichera, who with Avram Hornik runs Four Corners Management and has leased the property just south of Washington Avenue from owner Frank Del Borrello.

When the B&S closed in the mid-'90s, "Frank kept everything," says Hornik, who has proven his love of vintage Philly in other venues he manages, including the Dolphin Tavern, an old go-go bar on Broad, and Northern Liberties' Ortlieb's Lounge. "It's a bygone era - and look - just now coming into its own again."

Dating to the turn of the 20th century, the building has been many things to many people. The Knights of Columbus and the Knights of Pythias met there. As a bar, it was said to have been the ninth to open in the city after Prohibition's repeal.

In 1969, the property at 1131 S. Broad was bought by Pete Del Borrello, a former chief petty officer in the Navy who owned Bambi Cleaners and a check-cashing business. He set about turning it into a cowpoke parlor, with such additions as rusty chains, sawdust, wagon wheels, steer heads, and deep-woodsy paneling.

Out front, the enormous neon boot appeared - the creation of Colonial Signs, whose work lit up major retailers such as Two Guys and Korvettes.

Del Borrello filled his saloon with knickknacks, curios, and collectibles that he thought would appeal to not only country music fans, but also to fellow sailors away from home. He lined the wall behind the 40-foot circular bar with caps from U.S. Navy ships that visited Philadelphia, plus medals and flags.

Rowdy Western murals were painted by the less-than-well-known artist Abdula Ahmad.

"See how that girl's head is cut off?" says son Frank, pointing to the pistol-packing mama inside the B&S' door. "My dad didn't want too much cleavage, so the guy painted over it."

In the back room, Pete Del Borrello covered the floor with sawdust for the line-dancers drawn there on weekends by the live acts (whose names no one seems to recall).

"I really didn't care for the sailors, the music, or the look of the place when I was a kid in Catholic school," says Karen Dougherty, Pete's daughter. "But once I started working there - bartending, booking bands, doing whatever needed to be done - I got used to it. The place was a hangout for lonely sailors who liked good old-fashioned country music - not today's new country."

By the early 1980s, Philly's cheap-drink-loving punk rock crowd also was frequenting the B&S.

The first half of the '90s, though, saw its fortunes dwindle. Broad Street north of Washington rebranded itself the Avenue of the Arts and left its construction residue on the blocks below. When Pete Del Borrello died in 1996, his son looked for buyers or renters to meet his price and his desire to see its Western motif and accoutrements preserved.

That same year, he closed it - and kept it closed until last year, when he decided to lease the B&S to Hornik and Fichera. "These guys seem to know what they're doing," the younger Del Borrello says. "Plus, they have a love of old Philadelphia, and keeping what once was there is part of what they're doing now."

A new bar has replaced the old, battered circular one, but all the wood was saved. The paint had peeled on some of Ahmad's murals, which required reframing. The big wagon wheel will need a few spokes. And the neon boot is still waiting for repairs, at a cost, they say, of "several new cars."

When crews began removing the paneling, everyone was shocked to see valuable vintage tin beneath it, in its original condition, and ready for service in the name of craft beers, goofball cool, and mostly alterna-rock - although the occasional country act will be on the B&S schedule. The booking is by R5 Productions and Bowery Presents.

"I was worried it would sound a bit tinny at first - you know, because of all of the tin - but once the crowd filed in, it sounded as warm as it looked," says Wesley Stace, the British singer-songwriter previously known as John Wesley Harding, and the first act on the new stage.

Hornik likes to think the B&S' new lease on yet another life bodes well for its environs.

"These guys in this neighborhood kept things as-is, untouched, because in some cases they couldn't afford it and in other cases, the properties stayed in the family," he says. But "this original architecture and design is cool again."

The Broad Street corridor below Washington "never went through the development that so much of Philly has been through. Now, it's this neighborhood's turn."

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