Bastille Day at Eastern State Penitentiary has become a Philadelphia summertime staple in its 24-year history. However, the much-loved event will not continue after this year, making its 2018 iteration the final one.
Held annually on July 14, Bastille Day at Eastern State Penitentiary reenacts the French Revolution, with a few modern twists, including a drag cabaret and Marie Antoinette showering the crowd in Tastykakes.
Eastern State Penitentiary released a statement earlier this month about its decision to discontinue its celebration of Bastille Day, citing a “new vision for the future” and the “rewriting of their mission statement.”
For more explanation, we reached out to the woman who’s been playing Marie Antoinette since the beginning — Terry Berch. In addition to co-owning the London Grill, which is located a block away from Eastern Penitentiary, it’s also important to note that Berch started the whole Bastille Day celebration in the first place.
“The Bastille Day Block Party started as a bit of fun at London Grill and just kept growing,” Berch says. “Several years ago, Eastern State Penitentiary came on board to help us produce the event, which had grown from a few dozen revelers to thousands.”
So how does Berch feel about Eastern State Penitentiary’s decision to end their involvement in the Bastille Day celebration?
“This event is my baby, something I started more than two decades ago, and it has become so much more than just a party,” she says. “When we set out, it was a way to make our then newly historically-certified prison a neighborhood destination. It became a way to bring business to all of us during the slower summer season and bring a spirit of fun and camaraderie to the neighborhood.”
Berch says that she was a natural pick for the role of Marie Antoinette because she was the only female restaurant owner in the neighborhood at the time.
“After the first time, I was hooked, and there was no taking it away from me,” she says. “These days, Marie’s more of a sidekick, anyway – to the magnificent John Jarboe, who plays Edith Piaf, and his troupe of Bearded Ladies.”
So what makes this particular Bastille Day celebration so special?
“Well, we have a real Bastille,” Berch says. “And of course, boobs and free cake! It’s a very free-wheeling, liberating summer block party.”
For the final rendition of the Bastille Day celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary, Berch says to look forward to free theatrical performances, flying Tastykakes, political commentary, dancing in the street and lots of champagne.
“I can’t say enough about what fun it was been to welcome people from all walks of life to Fairmount every summer,” Berch says. “And as I’m getting older now, this will be the last time you see me schlepping up to the roof in that gown!”
As far as keeping the tradition going without Eastern State Penitentiary’s participation, Berch still has hope for the future.
“They had the resources to launch our gathering into a large-scale, professional event, and we’re grateful for their partnership over the years. But just because it’s changing doesn’t mean it’s going away entirely. We’ll see what next year brings.”
The final Bastille Day Celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary will take place on Saturday, July 14.