On Sunday, October 3 at 11 a.m., a very special sneak preview of a musical in development will take place at the Union League in Philadelphia. Excerpts of the musical “Bordello,” written by Barbara Bellman and Emiliano Messiez, will be performed by a small cast of singers and musicians. “Bordello” is inspired by the life of an Argentine hero, Raquel Liberman. It is the story of the thousands of shtetl girls who were were deceived into prostitution and the efforts of Liberman to bring the traffickers to trial. The musical pulls audiences into the colorful world of Buenos Aires of the 1920’s. The event is a benefit brunch for Hadassah, the largest Jewish women’s organization in the United States.
One of the committee members of the event, Herb Tapper is a fellow with a colorful history of his own. An accomplished interior designer with over fifty years of experience, Tapper graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art and founded his own design company, H.H. Tapper Associates Inc. in 1969. Twice awarded with the Silver MIRM Award by the National Association of Home builders, he also received the SAM Award from the New Jersey Builders Association. Tapper has been seen on Good Morning America, HGTV, Interiors by Design, and has made regular appearances on WPVI TV. He was a featured designer in Interior Design Magazine. In addition to running his own company, Herb contributes to the community, using his talents on projects like the newest Ronald McDonald house and Lounge/Game Room setting sponsored by the Jewish War Veterans for soldiers who have come back from the war at Fort Dix.
This looks like it’s going to be a great program.
It is. But I have to tell you the funniest thing, I was at the Flower Show when it was outside last year. I was at the booth of one of the vendors that I fell in love with. In the back I saw a beautiful painting and immediately thought it would be perfect for the show we’re previewing, “Bordello.” I had to have it, so I spoke to the artist and asked if it was for sale. She said no, so I asked if we could use it for the brunch. She gave me her card to get in touch and her name was very familiar. When I called her I asked her about it and it turned out that she was a cousin! And now her artwork is on the cover of the program.
That is cool.
Yeah, I’m an interior designer so I’m always on the lookout for interesting things. I wasn’t even going to go to the flower show, so I think it was a calling for me to be there. I believe in that kind of thing.
Are you originally from Philly?
I’m originally from Camden. I originally wanted to be a dancer; it was my first passion. I studied dance at Carnegie Hall in New York. When I came home I auditioned for what was then Theater in the Round here in Philly and got the part and was ecstatic until they decided I was too short. I did not handle rejection well at all, so I decided that I was in the wrong business to be so sensitive! I stopped dancing and went to work at Wanamaker’s Dept. store. I was about 18 and I was doing interior store displays, the Christmas walk and all that stuff. I really loved it. My father had a stationary and office supply business in Camden and he said to me, “Well, how much are you getting paid there?” The store said, “We can give you $85 a week, that’s it.” My father said, “No, you’re going to work for me.” So I started working for him. I had no interest in stationary and office supplies, but my father opened up a furniture department for me. At the time RCA was big and there were lots of lawyers and other firms all around. People would come in and I’d have these beautiful little workplace vignettes set up and people would ask if I could decorate their offices. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but I said sure, and I started designing all these beautiful offices. As a matter of fact, in my late 20’s I went back to NY and did an office for RCA in Rockefeller Center. I was very lucky, and I guess maybe I had some talent…
Looking around your home, I’d say so!
Thank you. So I did that, a lot of offices and then people would say, “You did such a good job on the office, could you do our home?” Well, offices are easy. I’d never done a house, but I said sure to that too. That was in 1969 and I’ve been designing ever since. At one point, I thought, why shouldn’t people who couldn’t afford to have a designer redo their homes have an opportunity to have a beautiful home too. So about 30 years ago, I started doing consultations by the hour. I’d go into a person’s home, look at everything they owned and I’d take what they had and make the room beautiful and they didn’t have to spend anything other than my hourly rate. That went over pretty big and I still do it to this day. From that I got other jobs, but I loved helping people who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
As far as the gay community is concerned, I’ve been very lucky in that I’ve always been in relationships but as I got older there was a period of time when I was single. I saw a group in NY called the Men’s 50 Plus club and I decided to bring it to Philadelphia. So I started the 40 Plus Club for Men with 6 other people and we’d do luncheons once a month at different places and we’d have guest speakers and then, after 4 years, my partner Frank walked in. We were together for 21 years and he helped me run the events. It was a wonderful program, and by the time it ended we had over 400 members. On Valentine’s Day, we’d take the upstairs of Woody’s and have a huge party. I’d have cute strippers in little bowties inside and say, when the older gentlemen walk in, give each one a kiss on the cheek. For many of them, that might be the only affection they’ve had in years. It was a wonderful thing, I even got a proclamation from the city which Mark Segal presented to me!
Let’s jump back a bit and tell me about growing up in Camden. What was it like back then?
Camden was a wonderful, safe place to grow up. You didn’t have to lock your doors back then. And it was a wonderful mix, you had black people and white people, Asian people, I’m Jewish and there was a big Jewish community and we all got along. My mother was very religious so we had to walk to synagogue and we’d see all sorts of people and we were all neighbors. I drive over there every once in a while just to see it and it’s starting to come back.
Yes, I have a brother and sister. My brother is the studious one; he went to Rutgers and Cornell University where he’s now a professor in the veterinarian school. His wife is a professor at Ithaca. My sister loved the supply business and stayed with that.
And you were the creative one.
Yes, I was lucky to meet a mentor on a school visit. Her name was Rian Taggart, and she used to be a model for Vogue, but hated having her picture taken so she opened up a fabric shop. I was a cocky little thing and told her, “You have a nice place here, I’m going to bring you a lot of business someday.” She graciously said, “That would be lovely” and took a puff of the cigarette that she smoked out of a long cigarette holder. She was so elegant, and kindly she took me under her wing. She taught me how to mix patterns and be bold. And later I did give her hundreds of thousands of dollars in business. In my 50 years in the business I tried to use her shop exclusively. Mentors are so important, they teach you things you don’t learn in school. How to handle a difficult client, how to learn your worth. It’s priceless.
Speaking of priceless, tell me about coming out.
I was very young, I had an older boyfriend when I was still in high school. I was only 17 1/2 years old and I met him at this club called Snug Harbor. It was down at the shore in the middle of the woods in a huge barn. You’d walk in and there were hundreds of gay people and I remember that the bartenders were women. I don’t remember who took me there or how I heard out about it, but the place was phenomenal. I met this guy there and he looked like a movie star. We were together for a minute, but it was mostly a physical thing, and then after a year he called it quits and I was devastated. I did a lot of therapy on that one! But I kept in touch and later used to visit him in California where he was working in the film industry. Through him I met Jim Bailey, you know the impersonator and performer? He played in Atlantic City a lot. We became friends and would hang out, he took me to visit, what was her name in the big rocking chair?
Yes, we went to her house and it was fun. During that time I met Frank at the 40 Plus Club and as I said, we were together for 21 years. Unfortunately, he died 5 years ago. But back to your question, my family never acknowledged my being gay. But they knew it, I was with a guy who was my mother’s hairdresser for 12 years. And then I got married to a woman. In those days, you were so restricted as a gay person, you couldn’t hold hands. It was suffocating and I met a nice woman and we got married, and after a year I found out that she was a lesbian! So after that, I was like “Okay, I’ve had this time with a woman, now I’m ready to move on.” And I had several monogamous relationships until I met Frank. He was the most wonderful. He was someone I could trust and he was, and this is my favorite word, he was transparent. You always knew where you stood with him. Oh, and… you’ll love this. When my mother found out I was getting married to a woman, she was thrilled. After I got divorced, her famous words were, “Are you doing that again?”
I guess you were.
I was, but I’ll tell you something funny, all the time, I thought no one ever, ever had any inkling that I was gay and it turned out they all knew! My sister and my mother and father! My mother never talked about it, but of course knew.
That’s funny. What’s a favorite family tradition?
My mother was very traditional, and at Hanukkah she would set the table about a week in advance. There would be a present on the table for each person and as the week went on, each day, someone would add a present and by the time the end of the week came, the pile could be 2 feet high! Then we’d open gifts and have delicious food — of course the potato latkes were the best — and we’d just enjoy being together.
Who were some favorite clients or interesting projects?
Oh, I’ve done so many. Do you remember Jim O’Brien from the news? If you remember, he died in a parachuting accident. I did his house. When he died, there was a roll of wallpaper in the attic leftover from when I decorated. It had my name marked on it and the people who bought his house used it to track me down and hired me to do 3 houses for them. Since then we’ve become great friends. I did a home for Harold Katz from the 76ers. But an interesting project was when I was on Good Morning America. I took a little room and decorated it in 3 ways. I went to California with my business partner, Merryl Buttera. She had been a client and wanted to learn the business so I invited her to partner with me. We were on the Christopher Lowell show.
I loved his show, wow, I think it was one of the first Interior Design shows and one of the 1st openly gay people I remember on TV. And how did you get involved with the show coming up on Sunday?
One of my friends and clients, Elaine Grobman, asked me to get involved. I’ll be mostly helping out with the decor, the flower arrangements. I wanted to get involved because my mother was very active in Hadassah and so I have a kin to it. Of course I wasn’t involved directly because it was for the women, but I remember that Golda Meir, the Prime Minister of Israel, actually came to our house when my mother was the president of the local chapter. It was a big part of our lives.
The play sounds interesting; the write up says that the heroine of the story, Raquel Liberman, who became a prostitute to survive, serves as a contemporary reminder that one person, one woman, can stand up to oppression and make a difference.
Yes, and it will be a celebration with music that combines Latin American, Klezmer and Musical Theater influences. And of course, lots of good food!
And other than the brunch that you’re working with, what’s on your plate these days?
I saw this guy at CVS, and he was small but very fit and I realized that I wanted to get in shape, especially after this pandemic. I asked him if he knew of a good gym and he said, “Yes, I have a gym and ballet studio around the corner.” His name is Kip Martin and he does adult ballet classes and wellness. Last week I took my first dance class in ages and it was amazing. It took me back. It was as if I was 18 again. At one point he said, now look at yourself in the mirror. I did that and tears ran down my face. There’s nothing more spiritual and ethereal than dancing ballet. When you’re doing that, you’re in touch with heaven.