It was Chestnut Hill’s own Studio 54 – Ex-employees and patrons of The Depot re-live history

Local Life April 19, 2013 3 Comments

Rich MacIlhenny, who was 18 at the time, arrives at the Depot in 1981 and gets out of his 1971 Buick Skylark, about to pick up his paycheck. Rich did not realize at the time that life would be all downhill from that point on.

by Rich McIlhenny

The Joseph Ambler Inn at 1005 Horsham Rd. in North Wales will be the site on Sunday, April 28, 3-7 p.m., of a reunion of former employees and patrons of the restaurant/nightclub that was THE place to be for many years from the mid ’70s to the early ’90s in Chestnut Hill.

The Depot was a two-floor establishment at 8515 Germantown Ave., where Starbucks and A Taste of Philly are currently located. Literally hundreds of area couples first met there, and thousands of local children were born as a result of their parents meeting there.

The reunion will feature a nostalgia stage, where musicians like Andy Maher, Cletus McBride and others who performed at The Depot will play, along with another stage where the amazing Mile High Club will perform hits of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s.

If you didn’t live on the Hill back in the late ’70s or ’80s you might not even know it ever existed. You may not realize why there is a big railroad station clock in between Starbucks and a Taste of Philly. You may not know that where you were standing in line this morning waiting to order a Mocha choca latte yaya existed one of the coolest nightspots in town.

The Depot was famous for the model train sets that ran around the inside of the upstairs and downstairs bars and underneath the floor of the upstairs, along with an actual caboose that patrons dined in, which was attached to the rear of the restaurant alongside Robertsons’ parking lot. The Depot was owned by Rich Allman, who now owns the Joseph Ambler Inn. His mom, Mary Fretz, who now lives at the Jersey shore, owned and operated 21 West, which was the most upscale restaurant in Chestnut Hill at the time.

If you were in the know when you walked into the Depot, you usually avoided the line for the steps going downstairs, where the bouncer waited to check your ID, and instead ventured into the other entrance which brought you through the first floor bar area. There you were greeted with a friendly hello by the late Sonny Sharpe or Bob Nolen behind the bar or hostess Marilyn Murphy.

After saying hi to the waiters and waitresses (Andy Maher, Patty Breen, Joanne Nolen, Neil Nolen and Ted Bahner, to name a few) who were buzzing around, ordering drinks for their tables, you would go left and step up into the dining room. The divider clicked under your feet as you paused to let Mr. or Mrs. Hathaway by you. You rarely saw them together. This 80 something-year-old-couple spent most nights looking for each other all over the restaurant.

Heading towards the salad bar, you’d sneak a couple of olives into your fist and take a right, stopping just in time to avoid getting hit by the swinging kitchen door as busboys David Kane or Chris Coyne came bursting through with buckets of ice for the bartenders. You peered in kitchen to see cooks, Jack Bucci or Ernie Evans, juggling several frying pans as they screamed out to the servers whose plates were waiting to be whisked away.

Passing the bathrooms, you started down the narrow carpeted staircase taking two lefts, stopping to lean against the wall to allow a couple of girls by on their way up, the thump-thump-thumping of your footsteps warning those below of a fresh face coming their way. As you entered the basement bar, “Super Freak” by Rick James barely covered up the wokka-wokka-wokka sound of Tim Nolen playing Pac-Man to your left. Your eyes scanned the booths to your right to see if any were occupied by friends or pretty girls you might want to try and get to know.

As you made your way past the dance floor on your left, looking around the crowded and cramped bar, you would see dozens and dozens of people you grew up with, played Little League with or went to school with in Mt. Airy or Chestnut Hill. Finding a spot at the bar to squeeze into, you would try and make eye contact with the notorious Billy Picarillo, who was the fastest bartender in the land. He’d greet you with a smile and ask what you were having. Not until he screamed out, “Folks, you don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here!” hours later, did you even think of leaving.

I bused tables there in high school, and I had more fun than at any of the other dozens of places I worked in all of my years. I made many friendships there that last to this day. I was with my best friend when he met his wife there. On a weekend night, there was nowhere else you wanted to be or needed to be. It was our Studio 54.

So the next time you wait for your coffee or soft pretzel, close your eyes for a moment and try to go back 25 or 30 years in time to a place and a moment that may be etched forever in many of our minds. Nothing like it has existed on the Hill since it closed down and became just another cookie-cutter Starbucks.

If you worked at the Depot or were a patron and would like to celebrate and reminisce with other former co-workers and customers, please join us. Admission is $60 and includes great food and an open bar. Tickets can be purchased online at www.depotreunion.com or by contacting committee members Rich McIlhenny, Bob Nolen, Ed Nolen, Joanne Winning, Ted Bahner, Marilyn Russell, Suzanne Leaming Bagwell, Dennis Jacoby, Patty Breen O’Hara and Roger Leonard. If you know any of these esteemed individuals, you should have their contact information.

Otherwise, contact Bob Nolen at 215-237-1281 or robert@cto.com

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  • http://www.facebook.com/jim.black.3348390 Jim Black

    You look great, Rich!

  • http://www.facebook.com/mountairyhead Carol Davis

    Was just telling a neighbor about this place, but had already forgotten the name, and where it was! It was so sad to see it go…My son was really into trains when he was little, and it was so much fun for us to have lunch in the caboose! I didn’t even know there was a downstairs w/live music! ‘Course, I was in Mom mode, at that time…Wish we could still go downstairs, and bring him along, now that he’s all growed!

  • Shirlee Sez

    Glad I found this write-up, Bob, cause I was trying to describe The Depot to a younger friend just now and even mentioned the station clock….so thanks for getting this write-up of The Depot into the WWW so my mind wasn’t taxed too much!