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May 11th, 2007

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10:23 am - 99 beautiful girls and 1 ugly one
I had an excursion to Lost Boston, city sites that are no longer with us.

A famous Boston Landmark was here. Looking out at the 'audience'

What possible importance could these unassuming benches, in the concrete plaza towards the north end of 1-2-3 Plaza and situated between the office and courthouse, have played in Boston's history? There's a plaque on the end bench. I bet it could shed some light on the subject but if you want to see it, folks, you'll have to see it on the inside, yes folks, come in, come right on in, good seats still available for the next show.

These benches mark the approximate location of the stage of the Old Howard Theater, Boston's most notorious burlesque theater and the centerpiece of now long-gone Scollay Square -- converted, inronically, from a church. Back then the stage may have featured comedian acts (such as Phil Silvers, below) and girls, girls, beautiful girls, all legs and smiles and kicks. The more notorious of the Howard stories involve Sally Rand performing her "fan dance" which she popularized in Chicago; Ann Corio was Boston's local sweetheart and has even written a book on her experiences dancing at the Old Howard.

Here's what that bleak view of benches used to look like.

But of course, the funny guys were funny, and the candy butchers who roamed the aisle between acts selling boxes of candy ("which may or may not have a ten-dollar bill hidden inside, ladies and gentlemen") but what the audience wanted to see -- that all the bald-headed men in the front row wanted to see -- were the dancing girls.

The Old Howard's motto was "Always Something Doing from 9 am to 11 pm" and indeed, the continuous program of acts never once let up. Harvard students considered a trip to the Old Howard a rite of passage (including a young John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was so smitten with one particular dancer that he might have proposed to her had his parents not intervened.)

In 1953 a Boston plainclothes police officer smuggled a camera in to the Old Howard and, after a few dances, had enough evidence to get the place shut down on indecency charges. There were attempts to repoen it but to no avail. In 1961 a committee was formed with the intent on saving the Old Howard and giving it protected landmark status, but one night a mysterious fire gutted the entire place.

What was more mysterious was the fact that a full demolition crew showed up bright and early the next morning, ready and eager to finish the job while the embers were still smoldering.

Make what you will of that.

It would have fallen, anyway, victim to the erasure of Scollay Square off the Boston maps and Government Center written on top instead. It offered a prurient form of entertainment that, with the exception of a few splinter groups around (some of whom are on my friends list, hiya!) has all but died out. But was the Old Howard skeevy? Not by a long shot. Pictures of the box office on a busy night show a 50-50 gender mix. It really did have something for everybody, and now its location is marked on a semi-circle of rough concrete benches with no back support which roast in the summer and freeze over in the winter. And one final plaque:

Plaque of the Old Howard Stage

(7 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2007 03:38 am (UTC)
"Why, Joseph! I had no idea!"
"Come on now, you were working here."

Thanks, Spatch! Always something doing.
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2007 07:15 pm (UTC)
"Why, Joseph! I had no idea!"
"Come on now, you were working here."

That is *exactly* what came to mind when I read that part of the story. Ha!
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2007 05:47 am (UTC)
Ah, the fun you miss out on without a time machine.
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2007 06:51 am (UTC)
Oh, I'm charmed! I love learning about burlesque history, everywhere. "Mrs. Henderson Presents" Boston style. And the Babydolls and others steppin' out to keep it alive...
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2007 05:27 pm (UTC)
I hear tell that my grandfather went there occasionally, but didn't like to admit it. You know, when the current City Hall was being built in the mid-60's, before it got its brick facings, it really was quite beautiful; it looked something like a Greek temple with columns and pediments. I haven't ever seen the inside, which is supposed to be pretty horrid, and the surrounding plaza has never been very inviting.
[User Picture]
Date:May 12th, 2007 07:15 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the history, Spatch. I'm always interested in local landmarks and what used to be in places.
[User Picture]
Date:May 13th, 2007 06:12 pm (UTC)
That's a beautiful post. Have you ever considered submitting your writing to the editors of Weird NJ? They have something in each magazine called "Weird NJ fringe tour" which highlights ineteresting historical sites, relics, or abandonments in other states. I think this wold be perfect!

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