In Memory of Ralph Napolitano
I first met Ralph in 2008 after AS220 had purchased the Mercantile Block. He was the owner of Wheels Bar, which had been a tenant in the building for many years. As a part of our due diligence, I had gone into the bar a few times before and after we purchased the building and always left feeling somewhat depressed. It was dark and dreary, and I couldn’t imagine wanting to spend much time there. It later became clear that Ralph wanted to improve his space but his previous landlords had not been very supportive. But I am getting ahead of myself.
I made the woefully wrong assumption that Wheels would not want to stay in the building under AS220’s ownership because we would be doing an historic restoration of the space, including eliminating the spandrel glass in the storefronts which prevented people from looking in and removing the security grill that covered the storefronts. But Shawn Wallace [AS220’s former Managing Director], always a moral compass for me, said “ But Lucie, how do you know Wheels doesn’t want to stay?” “You’re right,” I said. So I rounded up a small group of my AS220 colleagues and we made an unannounced visit to the bar to have drinks and check it out. I talked with Ralph and discovered he was thrilled AS220 was the new owner and he wanted to fix his place up. So I returned later for a more lengthy conversation, and went into details about the improvements we would be making, especially to the facade, and what that would do to the “look” of his space. I didn’t want to sugar-coat the restoration work. He nodded in agreement, shared his ideas about what he would like in his space, and we reviewed build-out costs and rent terms. He was amenable to everything I presented, and I concurred with his plans.
I was thrilled and couldn’t wait to share the news with [AS220’s founder and former Artistic Director] Bert. Bert listened politely and then said: “Lucie, you have just told a gay bar that they have to come out”. I said “Absolutely not! I just wanted to be clear with them about our plans so there would be no surprises.” We continued to argue, both convinced we were right. As it turned, out we were both right. And the rest, as they say, is history.
In late 2008, Wheels shut down so we could restore the space as a part of the overall, top-to-bottom renovation of the Mercantile. When we discovered an assortment of wheels from many different vehicles in the basement (as in: car, truck, tractor, wagon, bicycle, and on and on), we learned that Ralph had originally suspended these from his ceiling as a part of what we would today call “branding”. He was required to remove them after the Station nightclub fire and so he stashed them in the basement. From the start, the idea was not to make Wheels into something it wasn’t. The idea was to make it an inviting place for anyone to hang out with simple, crisp lines that took advantage of a long rectangular space. All and more was achieved by Ralph’s vision and Kristi Gelnett of DBVW Architects’ design, which created a long bar that increased the number of bar seats by 50%, always a big plus for a bar! We were all excited about the creation of an outdoor sitting area at the back of the bar that would transform a former alley into a vibrant pedestrian way. AS220 hired The Steel Yard to create planters and trash containers for the area, and Ralph worked with us on the design and also helped to underwrite the costs. We created a very long planting strip that ran the length of the way and Ralph was a keen participant in helping install and maintain the plants. He was vigilant at watering and keeping the space clean, which was no small feat. He and I would trade stories about the detritus we would find after a brisk weekend!
But I have saved the best to last. In the midst of the demo of the old space, hidden behind an ancient piece of drywall, we came to a brick wall which had been an exterior wall in a previous era. It pointed you to a stable behind the building on former Martha Street, just off of Washington Street, to the west. The wording read: “LIVERY STABLE Boarding and Transient”. We preserved the inscription and bingo! Wheels had a new name: The Stable! Ralph became the owner/operator of a newly renovated gay bar in the heart of downtown Providence, and what a fun ride it has been.
The Stable punched above its weight in creative programming almost every night of the week. Personally, I will never forget the week in April 2011 when they featured a “Best Hat” competition in celebration of the marriage of Kate Middleton and Prince William … it was a hoot! The Stable went on to make a name for itself as one of the best gay bars in New England, winning all kinds of plaudits and awards. It excelled at Pride week and was a “go to” venue for thousands of all persuasions. Over the years, Ralph continued to be an ardent AS220 champion, supporting our annual street party, Foo Fest, as well as other fundraising initiatives.
As I look back, what strikes me most is something I did not see at the time: just how much AS220 — the unjuried, uncensored forum — was a perfect match for a gay bar that was ready to come out and take on the world. Thank you, Ralph. We will miss you.