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May 18th, 2005


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03:24 am - gaiety
I heard a ghost today in Chinatown. She was singing the last song she would sing, and she knew it. She didn't notice me and I don't think I was meant to hear her final performance but I heard it just the same. Anybody could have heard it, really, but they would have had to listen for it. I listened. She was a bit out of practice, as she had been silently entombed and left, undisturbed for decades, behind a brick facade surrounded by the dregs of Boston's Combat Zone. The wrecking ball and jackhammers had come, though. Her space was needed for a tower of bland, soulless, expensive Residential Solutions for bland, soulless people who can afford it, and the planners had come through and fudged a few zoning loopholes and probably broken a few more laws in the process to take what they wanted. I visited her grave, now nearly fully demolished, as their construction equipment continued apace on the first new block of buildings.

At first, of course, she was beautiful: ornate and bright in magenta and gold, grand and vaulted and cantilevered. She was designed without any columns so that every seat would have a good sight line. It was said her acoustics were unparalled in Boston -- in fact, you could probably have whispered that from the stage and heard it up in the mezzanine. And she was a Burlesque/Vaudeville theatre first and foremost, with a grand legacy just blocks nearby: the first Vaudeville theatre in America, the Vaudeville Saloon, had opened in 1840 at the corner of Washington and Boylston Streets, where the China Trade Center is today. She was built for burlesque, at a time where the term stood for comic opera and not, say, continuous striptease acts (the Old Howard in Scollay Square would fulfill that requirement ably a few decades later.) She was only one of two theaters in Boston's bustling theatre district that played integrated shows, showcasing top black acts from Harlem and bringing jazz to Boston. When film and television ultimately killed the variety artform, she took on new names such as the Victory and Publix and became a movie house, eventually ending up showing kung-fu films to attract the Chinatown crowd. This meant she never had to stoop to showing the adult films which kept afloat many of her neighboring Combat Zone theaters in their declining, sad last gaspy days.

And then she went dark. Silent. Shuttered. Willfully neglected. Water pooled around the sealed-off orchestra pit, the roof began to leak. The interior, by now painted completely white, began to deteriorate. This was her tomb for 20 years, until the building's owners, the Kensington Investment Company, hooked up with the city of Boston, now eager to get rid of any last remaining remnants of the old Combat Zone. Plans were made to demolish the theater, an innocent bystander in all of this, along with the building that houses the Glass Slipper stripclub. A battle began to save the theater. She could've been restored. The Landmark Commission did a study on the feasibility of landmark status for the theater and came back with an uncharacteristic "meh", so finally at the end of April demolition was allowed to begin.

So that's where I was today. Standing outside a chain-link fence, staring in at the exposed brick and steel construction, trying to make out any decorations or detail still standing.

And that's when the screaming began.

It started off low at first, burbling up from the ground, then rose in pitch, banshee-like, until it was a loud continuous shriek, a high-pitched, piercing, defiant scream, jagged and raw like the exposed steel structure, angry like the bricks left standing, desperate in its final days of life. It was a scream of pain, of being slashed open and left, exposed, to a world that had turned its backs and moved on to other things. It screamed of loss and neglect and death, final death, capital-T The capital-E End, the removal of every physical, corporeal construct, the willful and deliberate removal from existence. The scream flew through the holes, bounced off the remaining walls, and shamed the demolition equipment sent to finish the task. It rang in my ears, it clouded my vision, it made my fillings ache. And I was the only one who heard it.

The two mooks hanging out by the porta-potty didn't hear it. The bouncer at the Centerfolds strip club across the street was acting as if nothing untowards was going on (except for the longhair hanging out by the fence ovah theah.) The construction workers kept at their soulless building job across the way. And still the scream continued, settling on one impossibly high note which, as I squinted into the wreckage, inexplicably began to change. It turned sweeter, clearer, no longer a jagged grinding shriek. It took on a peaceful tone, still high but now singular in tone and round and soft. And as I scratched at my ear and tried to unhinge my jaw, the note began to descend gracefully on a modular scale and then into a soprano aria. For the next few minutes the sound was not that of desperation or pain but instead of beauty, a beautiful solo of rising and falling notes and burbles and a rich tone that echoed off the now non-existent vaulted ceiling.

The music filled in the holes in the theatre. It recreated the theatre from the empty space, ghostly notes intertwining and spiralling around each other on the proscenium arch, spreading out and filling in the seats, flittering up and down the richly-decorated drop curtain and alighting on the ears of each wisp of smoke that served as the theater's discorporeal patrons, who had all returned for the last show of the season. She stood center stage, hands clasped in front of her, having made peace with her own mortality. And she gave her last performance. She took over the world. She silenced the construction equipment, she hushed the traffic, she muted the bouncer's cellphone chatter. It was a song of farewell, going out to everybody and nobody, and she sang it anyway. I fell in love with her on her own stage, I did, but it was too late. She was leaving. The song wouldn't last forever. I would never get to see her again. She resolved the final phrase and sent the last notes out into the world, where they resonated off every window and every sign in the area. They reached my ears and stayed there, a small shadow of what had been. And then it was over.

Startled, I returned from the vacuum of the past, whipping my head around at the sounds of the now-world rushing back into my senses. The construction workers. The cellphone. The thumping bass of the cars passing by on the other street. I turned to look back at the ruins, but she was gone.

(15 comments | Leave a comment)

Comments:


[User Picture]
From:ivorjawa
Date:May 18th, 2005 10:42 am (UTC)
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So, did they get the Glass Slipper, too?
I'm glad I visited it while I was there in April. I was sad to see the Liberty II gone, along with so many other things that have disappeared.
[User Picture]
From:plumtreeblossom
Date:May 18th, 2005 11:07 am (UTC)
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Damn, that was some good writing, Rob.
[User Picture]
From:terras
Date:May 18th, 2005 12:31 pm (UTC)
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That's some damn good writing.

You might be interested in the ArchBoston.com forums, where they have a rather long thread detailing the machinations leading up to the demolition.

http://www.archboston.com/Forum/
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 18th, 2005 04:16 pm (UTC)

More about the Gaiety

(Link)
The ArchBoston.com forum on the Gaiety and Kensington is here:

http://www.archboston.com/Forum/viewtopic.php?t=60

It's actually a continuation of an earlier discussion on the (now mostly abandoned) SkyscraperGuy forum:

http://p217.ezboard.com/fskyscraperguyfrm0.showMessage?topicID=1107.topic

Also see the comments at CinemaTreasures:

http://www.cinematreasures.com/theater/6405/

and the Friends of the Gaiety web site (which will probably disappear soon):

http://www.GaietyBoston.org


The Glass Slipper is still standing and operating for the time being. The city wants to take it by eminent domain and hand it over to Kensington. That's of questionable legality, and likely to result in continued lawsuits unless all the parties can reach some agreement.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:May 18th, 2005 04:18 pm (UTC)

Re: More about the Gaiety

(Link)
I don't know why that posted as Anonymous instead of as me, Ron Newman.

Also, it should have turned all the URLs into live links, but it didn't.
[User Picture]
From:derspatchel
Date:May 18th, 2005 07:23 pm (UTC)

Re: More about the Gaiety

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Ron! I kinda figured you'd show up around theatre discussion. I'm guessing you don't have a LiveJournal account, which is most likely why your comments came thru as Anonymous. The Friends of the Gaiety website is indespensable; I used a bit of their PDF reports in the research as well as for the photos. I'll have to register at the architecture site now and say howdy.
[User Picture]
From:maren
Date:May 18th, 2005 12:45 pm (UTC)
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have you seen cinema paradiso?
[User Picture]
From:androidqueen
Date:May 18th, 2005 03:43 pm (UTC)
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*fabulous* film.
[User Picture]
From:plumtreeblossom
Date:May 18th, 2005 02:57 pm (UTC)
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Also, that closing photograph is so haunting it made me leap out of my seat when I clicked on it.
[User Picture]
From:cheezdanish
Date:May 18th, 2005 03:21 pm (UTC)
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Wow.

You are an artist, Rob.
[User Picture]
From:androidqueen
Date:May 18th, 2005 03:42 pm (UTC)
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i'm really glad i know you.
[User Picture]
From:nolly
Date:May 18th, 2005 06:43 pm (UTC)
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That is a beautiful piece of writing.
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From:reveritas
Date:May 18th, 2005 10:31 pm (UTC)
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*blink* i'll be damned.

very interesting!
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From:morgaine723
Date:May 19th, 2005 12:46 am (UTC)
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Rob, you have an absolute gift with words. Why do you still have a day job?
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From:pecosy
Date:May 19th, 2005 11:33 pm (UTC)
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Beautiful. Heartbreaking.

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