There is a scene in the film Mary Poppins in which the magical nanny clasps the hands of the young children in her charge and jumps with them out of the dirty streets of London and into a sidewalk chalk painting.
The group find themselves in a bucolic wonderland of wooden bridges, horse-drawn carriages and bubbling brooks. It is not unlike New Hope, a tiny anachronistic tourist hamlet an hour’s drive from the unsightly industrial suburbs of Philadelphia. A journey to the Pennsylvania town of 2,500, which the local Bucks County tourism bureau refers to as an “eclectic community,” is as intriguing (and gay) as any jolly holiday Mary has to offer.
My travelling companions and I called New Hope “unbearably cute” — not because it’s actually intolerable, but more due to the endearing charm that oozes from each of its historic attractions. At the top of this list is the Bucks County Playhouse, a celebrated theatre that dates back to the 1930s. That’s when a group of local artists teamed up to convert what was then a crumbling grist mill on the banks of the Delaware River into a functional playhouse. The theatre was soon a New England institution that over the years attracted dozens of Broadway stars, including Grace Kelly, Bea Arthur, Walter Matthau and Angela Lansbury.
It’s recently undergone a major renovation with the help of Tony Award–winning producer Jed Bernstein, who’s once again helping the theatre bring in big names. Its 2013 summer season saw Tyne Daly tread the boards in the world premiere of Terrence McNally’s Mothers and Sons.
New Hope has long been a destination for artsy types from surrounding cities, and tourism remains its bread and butter. We were there for the 10th installation of its annual Pride, New Hope Celebrates, an event that attracts gays from across the region, including from Lambertville, New Jersey, which is directly across the river from New Hope.
Each May, the denizens of what is surely the Keystone State’s most queer-friendly square mile line New Hope’s main drag for the parade and to catch a glimpse of Miss Pumpkin, arguably its star attraction. The stout drag queen is the putative leader of a motley group of queens who call New Hope home. After the parade, our group stumbled to the local homo hangout, The Raven, where a delightfully soused Miss Pumpkin and her posse executed the best drag ensemble performance of “Total Eclipse of the Heart” I’ve yet come across.
The Raven is everything a small-town gay bar and entertainment complex should be, and a trip there is a vacation within a vacation. It boasts an outdoor swimming pool, 10 furnished hotel rooms, a piano bar, an award-winning restaurant, cute barkeeps and, of course, a gaggle of lovable drag queens. All that’s missing is a gay sauna.
But if you’re looking to be horizontal after a long day exploring, don’t fret — New Hope has many options. Start with the Wedgwood Collection of Historic Inns, three quaint guesthouses run lovingly by Carl Glassman and Nadine Silnutzer. I lodged at the Victorian Aaron Burr House, a Dutch clapboard the couple revived in 1990. Ask Nadine (who’s a great resource for information about New Hope) to sample her homemade liqueur and peanut butter cookies while she regales you with stories about the ghost of the United States’ third vice-president, Aaron Burr, who is said to hang out on the home’s second floor. (I chose a room on the main floor just to be safe.)
Burr took refuge at the house after killing Alexander Hamilton, the country’s first treasury secretary, in a famous 1804 duel in nearby New Jersey. His is one of many ghosts you can track down on one of New Hope’s hair-raising evening ghost tours, on which you’ll also surely meet some of the town’s more colourful living characters.
Look out for Marsha Brown, the Southern-belle owner of the eponymous Creole kitchen and lounge, which was built into a 125-year-old converted stone church on New Hope’s Main Street. Marsha Brown’s pricey seafood dishes are worth every penny — especially the stuffed lobster — and its knowledgeable servers are eager to go “off menu” for those who want to experiment with their own Creole combinations. Don’t forget to also savour the church’s original stained-glass windows and other artwork, especially the striking Redemption, a 12-by-6-metre mural of St George hunting lions by Russian artist Valeriy Belenikin that would be equally at home in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
That’s the thing about when you’re in New Hope — just like when you’re with Mary Poppins — suddenly you’re in places you never dreamed of. A weekend in this quirky little town is a very jolly holiday indeed.
For more information on visiting New Hope and Bucks County go to visitbuckscounty.com.
For more on the annual Pride celebration, New Hope Celebrates, visit newhopecelebrates.com.