Mel Heifetz was born in Philadelphia on November 4, 1935, and raised in South Philadelphia. His parents could not afford to purchase property, and his family moved often. With the nickname “Firebug,” he frequently got into trouble as a child, but when he entered the Boy Scouts in his early teens, he excelled. By age 15, he got to serve as the honorary chief of police and had his sights set on becoming a pilot.
Unable to afford college, Mel enlisted in the army at 18 years old and worked as a radar operator communicating with Europe. While stationed in Germany, he walked past a boy scout troop meeting by chance and sat in on the meeting, where he was promptly invited to run the troop for the next year and a half. Throughout his time in the army, Mel remained closeted about his sexuality as a gay man.
Upon returning to Philadelphia with no job training, Mel purchased a coffee shop for $1,500, the Humoresque. The Humoresque had a gender neutral bathroom, and provided a rare safe haven for both gay and interracial young couples. As business improved, Mel started getting unexpected summonses to the police headquarters, where Captain of Police Frank Rizzo told Mel that he needed to “take better care of the police.” Out of the blue one weekend evening, the police raided the coffee shop and arrested Mel and his customers for “disorderly conduct.” They were all kept in jail overnight and then collectively fined the next morning. Volunteer attorneys with the ACLU tried to help Mel clear his criminal record to no avail. 20 years later, Mel found out from Rizzo’s personal driver that he was raided simply because Rizzo was angry to see interracial and gay couples regularly walk into the coffee shop.
Meanwhile, Mel refused to shy away from serving the LGBTQ+ community. He started leasing and refurbishing. Through the 1950s and 60s, Mel expanded his business to apartments and hotels. His businesses were openly gay-owned or gay-staffed, and quickly acquired a loyal stream of both gay and straight clientele.
Mel readily shared whatever wealth he earned with friends and family, and purchased a condo in Florida for his parents to own for the first time. He started making regular trips to visit his family and explore Key West, where he discovered a gay business community. He became inspired to start a bar in Philadelphia called Key West, a 3-story gay bar boasting a waterfall, seasonally rotated interior decoration, and cabaret and drag performances.
Alongside the flourishing of Key West, the HIV crisis mounted. Mel remained committed to supporting his employees, especially those diagnosed with HIV. While he received constant rejections from health insurance companies for his employees, he started handing out checks each month to help with expenses and medical bills.
Mel extended his philanthropy across LGBTQ+ causes, from helping local AIDS organization We the People pay rent, to funding political advertisements to preserve gay rights, to donating to the ACLU. He eventually established the GLBT Fund of America, a permanent fund of tens of millions to support LGBTQ+ organizations. He encourages others to practice generosity too — next time you’re at a bar and buying someone a drink, while you’re at it, “Buy a gay organization a drink, send them $10.”