A favorite institution in Philadelphia is celebrating a birthday May 27. The 12th Street Gym has been a place where people from all walks of life, gay and straight, have gone to transform their lives and bodies, meet friends old and new. Not just a gym, it is part of the Camac Center, which boasts a hair salon, holistic services, massage (our favorite) and the children’s gym, where you can send the little ones before, after and during school hours. They even have a psychic reader. For the 25th anniversary, we spoke with owner Rick Piper.
PGN: Where are you originally from? RP: I’m a born-and-raised Trentonian. When I grew up, the big city for people in my area was New York. We rarely went to Philadelphia except to go to the Franklin Institute to see the giant heart. Then I went to Georgetown for college and fell in love with a wonderful man from Philadelphia. I would come here to visit him and I fell in love again, this time with the city of Philadelphia. It’s roughly 40 years later and I’m still in love with this city.
PGN: Tell me about your family. RP: My dad worked for the Chrysler Corp., so we moved to Detroit for a while, until my mother contracted leukemia. Back in the ’50s, it was a quick and certain death sentence and she died six weeks after her diagnosis. So we moved to Brooklyn to be with my maternal grandparents. My grandfather, Frank Schroth, was a famous journalist who owned a newspaper called the Brooklyn Eagle. Eventually we moved in with my father’s sister in Trenton. Her husband was a pilot for Eastern Airlines and, one day, when his family was at the airport to meet him coming in, the plane crashed. They were without a father and I was without a mother, so the families combined.
PGN: What was your grandfather like? RP: He was a sardonic, very serious journalist who used to hang with the likes of Winston Churchill. He won a Pulitzer Prize and, shortly after that, went blind, which was a terrible thing for someone whose whole life was reading. As a child, it was ritual that when we visited his farm in Brooklyn, I would take him his newspaper. In those days the ink would rub off so he kept a towel in his lap to keep from getting stained.
PGN: What were you like as a kid? RP: Probably because of my mother’s death, I was always a little behind socially. I ran through two prep schools, one in Devon and one in Bristol, until they found one that fit, at a local Catholic high school in Trenton. I caught up with my peers and even became a bit of a hellraiser and the belle of the ball, so to speak. PGN: How old were you when your mom died? RP: I was about 5. I was at her side when she died.
PGN: How did that affect you as a person? RP: Oh, I spent many years in therapy trying to figure that out. I always said it had no effect and my brother, who is a therapist, tried to tell me that it had a profound effect on all of us. I now know he was right. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a perfectionist and a striver, ambitious. I want to do things the right way and I hope that reflects in the way I’ve run the gym. Perhaps I felt a bit left out, not having a mom. My aunt and stepmother — my father remarried in 1958 — stepped up and took great care of me, but mom is mom and you can never replace it, so perhaps I filled the void by trying hard to be the best at everything: the best kid, the best corporate citizen, hopefully the best gym owner. I work very hard to do things well and, at times, I’ve sacrificed other things to do that. Sometimes I can be a little obsessive about it.
PGN: Who became your nurturer? RP: My aunt. She was affluent, highly educated, cultured — a grande dame with great style. She was the Mary Astor of Trenton and, since her children were older, she took me under her wing. I was like Patrick Dennis in Auntie Mame: She’d rent a limousine and we’d go to fine restaurants in New York and to the theater. She was very influential. She would make me learn one new word a day and I’m so grateful for everything she did. To this day, eating well and being involved in the arts, especially theater, are important parts of my life.
PGN: Do you have any siblings? RP: My older sister passed away from cancer about eight years ago; she was a Sacred Heart nun. And I have a brother who is three years younger and also gay.
PGN: Coming forward a little, where did you go to college? RP: I studied management and economic theory at Georgetown.
PGN: What made you pick that? RP: Well, I was a very, very smart kid, but I was not a very good student. So I had good SAT and IQ scores, but terrible grades. Before she married my father, my stepmom — I call her my second mom — used to go to church every day at a little parish outside of Trenton. The priest there went on to become the president of Georgetown University. I’d been rejected by 19 colleges so she put in a call to him and asked him to help out. The only opening spot he had was in the school of business administration, so I took it. It turned out my dorm room was the room where they filmed “The Exorcist.” Remember the scene where the priest is thrown down the steps? That was my room at the top of the steps. When I got there, I stood outside and said to myself, “You can be a screw-up academically or you can buckle down and do well.” I graduated top of my class.
PGN: When did you come out? RP: While I was in school, I realized that it was for real and not just recreational sex in the woods. That’s when I found my identity as a gay man.
PGN: And when did you come to Philly? RP: I had a job doing what you would now call personal resources at a bank in Trenton. But I always had the goal of working in Philadelphia, and managed to get a job here. I eventually bought a house in the Wash West area.
PGN: And who was that first love? RP: His name was Larry Crowell and he was the head designer for Dorothy Lerner, who had a famous home-goods shop at 17th and Walnut. I was 18 and he was 28 and I was completely smitten with him. I couldn’t move left or right without him. I was probably trying to replace my distant father, but I think to him I was just a cute young boy up for the weekends. I later met David, who was my partner for many years, at Judy Garland Park [Schuylkill River Park]. We just casually fooled around until one night, and I can’t explain what happened, but we looked at each other and fell in love. We were in love in every way, yet total opposites. He was very artistic and laidback, the type to never make plans; I was very corporate driven and ambitious, up at the crack of dawn with a 10-year plan to succeed. One summer. he had a little shop in Maine and I would go up on weekends to see him. Until the night when we were out at the movie theater, I’ll never forget it, seeing “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” at the only theater in town, and he told me he wasn’t feeling well. I told him he was probably coming down with a cold. We went to the doctor and, 72 hours later, we were on a plane back to Philly because he’d been diagnosed with advanced AIDS. We went to a doctor in Philadelphia and the doctor asked if he was a homosexual. It was a different time, so David asked me what he should say and I responded, “The truth would be good right now.” He said yes, and I told the doctor that I was his lover, which was the term you used in those days. He lasted another two years. Lost his eyesight, lost one eye ... it was terrible. I was at his bedside when he died in October 1990. And that’s that ... I still miss him. [Tears up.] I’m sorry.
PGN: Not at all; it’s important for people to know the impact that AIDS had — and still has — on us. RP: Yes, it was a true epidemic. And we had no support. Our president was saying it wasn’t a problem while I was burying a friend a week. Every week, we lost someone or braced to find out that someone else was infected, and never sure if it was going to be me or a good friend. By shear luck, I remained negative. It was a seminal time for us: The positive that came out of it was that it took the issue of gay rights to a new level. It was like on “Star Trek,” when they go to warp speed. When your partner is dying, you don’t have time for any more euphemisms — he’s my “friend” or “roommate.” You don’t have time or energy for hiding, you just say, “That’s my lover and I need him taken care of, if you won’t put the IV in, I’ll do it.” And I did, I learned to do all that, I changed his diapers, changed his IV, anything that needed to be done. I was no longer interested in doing anything other than being true to myself and honest about who I was. I was gay and my partner was dying; if you didn’t like it, tough shit. We were in Maine when he died and I brought that imprint back with me. When I returned to Philadelphia, I was a very different person. I couldn’t be bought off anymore, meaning, if someone told me, you can have a great corporate job, but you’re going to have to change pronouns when you speak, my answer was, “Fuck you.” And you can print that. I had a different ... I won’t say attitude, it was more than that, it was a changed belief system that I had every right to be who I was. That was shortly before I came to the gym.
PGN: And how did you end up here? RP: I lived in an apartment building that had a free membership included with our rent. I was here on opening day and I remember it was exciting: The staff were all in tuxedos and they had a band. In about 1995, I was working doing freelance corporate recruiting and staffing, and the gym owners asked if I would help them find a new manager. I found someone they liked and they asked if I would help at the gym. I was openly gay and they wanted help marketing to the gay community. I was asked to get more involved in the gym and agreed only if I could get equity in the gym to work toward ownership. At the time, the place was a mess: When they first opened, they were the only game in town. There were no other facilities like this. Just a few Ys and what we call meathead gyms. There was a big gay clientele, but a lot of straight people too because there was no place else that was comparable for working out. They took it for granted and hadn’t done any improvements for years. But now we had competition from Ballys and the Sporting Club, etc., so my mission was to bring us back up to speed. They’d also taken the gay community for granted and I didn’t stand for that. So I put a lot of money that was going out back into the gym. We got new equipment, carpeting, got uniforms with name tags, improved the service, trained the trainers and got the gym competitive again. As you may know, we had some controversy here in about 2006, but what people don’t know was that I was given a pretty free rein. They would say, we have a large gay clientele already, why would we need to advertise in a gay paper, and I’d say, to send a message that we’re honoring that community. Show your commitment to the community by taking an ad in the PGN and sponsoring a whole range of gay charities. I was still raw from my experience with David, so I was pretty adamant about it. We went from 1,400 members to 4,300.
PGN: What was your biggest blunder? RP: It’s funny for me to say this. People think I’m tough. I am demanding, but my biggest mistake is keeping people here too long. I tend to reward loyalty and that has resulted in me letting people stay when I should have cut them right away. Believe it or not — and you can print that — I’m sometimes too patient with my people: Once someone’s here, it’s hard for me to not give them a second and third chance. Which is not to say that I’m not demanding, but I can get caught up in the minutia instead of the bigger things.
PGN: I noticed that your staff seemed to know everyone’s names. You must get close to people. RP: Oh yeah, for some people, it’s just a place where they come and go. But for a lot of people, this is a very important place. It’s not just another gym; it’s a part of their lives. We purposely get ourselves very involved in the community. We are involved with practically every major theater in the city. Every single Broadway show that has been here in the last two years has used our gym to work out. We work with a lot of charities, from gay and progressive groups to organizations like the Morris Animal shelter, where I met the other love of my life, my cat Bailey. Speaking of blunders, I accidentally put him in the dryer this morning. Thankfully, it only spun twice before I noticed him and he was fine. The William Way [LGBT Community] Center is also a place very important to us. I helped Mark Segal find the building where it is now. I played a small role, but I’m very proud of being involved.
PGN: Who was one client that moved you? RP: We had a transgender member who joined the gym. The gym is such a body-oriented environment, it took great courage to do that. Gay people are not always welcoming to “different” people. Just because we’re under the same acronym doesn’t always mean that we’re tolerant. It was a person transitioning from female to male and he was so courageous and dedicated to doing what he needed to do, it was inspiring. We did everything we could to be supportive and make things easier and of course follow the law. When I first took over, I created a membership contract; the basics of it are specified by law, but I can go beyond the basics so I added certain things about conduct. No verbal insults about race or sexual orientation, etc. I’ve had straight men complain that someone gay was looking at them and I usually respond, “You should be flattered. If you don’t like it, don’t come lifting weights in shorts.” If I hear the f-word used against gay men, I’ll throw someone out and when I’ve heard gay men use the n-word, I’ve kicked people out for that as well. I have zero tolerance for that kind of ugliness. I’ve had a few trans people come to the gym and on occasion someone will complain, “Don’t you have a private room that can be used?” and I’ve said, “Yes, I do and if you want to use it, feel free, but that person is using the locker room of their choice.”
PGN: That’s great. What’s your favorite celebrity encounter? RP: Well, I have to say that we’ve been truly honored to have Mayor Nutter and his family use the gym. In fact, he’s going to be doing a special unveiling for our anniversary. We’ve had a number of celebrities, including Kathleen Turner, who was here just a few months ago, but my favorite is an actress named Christine Andreas. She’s a dear woman with a magical voice. She was here in the production of “Pal Joey” about seven or eight years ago. She’s currently on Broadway with Harvey Fierstein in “La Cage aux Folles.” The staff got a kick out of the professional wrestler Rowdy Roddy Piper: They swore he was a distant cousin of mine.
PGN: Final thoughts about your big anniversary? RP: I never talk or reflect about this, but you have me thinking maybe I should more often. This is a dream come true for me. I think maybe people look at me, or someone in my position, and think, he’s living it up, an openly gay owner of a successful business. But I actually lead a pretty quiet life — well, other than putting my cat in the dryer. But when I step back and look at everything, to be able to make a buck while doing something that I think is important to the gay community and the straight community is amazing. It’s a great accomplishment, to have people of all walks of life, together here at the gym for 25 years. The world has changed and hopefully we were a little part of it. Not that there aren’t still fights to fight and discrimination on many fronts, but we’ve come a long way. It’s great to have a successful business, but I hope — I really hope — that this place has had a social impact on people as well.