No trailer, no dog, just us in the city on an exquisite September day. Boston is petite by big city standards, wonderfully walkable, brimming with history, and full of character.
We had a specific destination–a building that played an interesting part in George’s childhood. But first, when we arrived at South Station, we headed to Boston Common, a huge expanse of green in the center of the city.
We meandered around Beacon Hill.
Boston is proudly and colorfully political. True to that tradition, things were lively in front of the State House, on the edge of the Common.
We cut across the Common again to get to the Theater District and Chinatown. George has a history there–and it was our primary reason for coming into the city. For much of George’s youth, his father worked nights cleaning Boston’s Center Theater. From the time George was about five years old, he regularly accompanied his Dad to the theater, where he, his brothers and sister, and his Mom helped with the cleaning.
The theater, originally known as the Globe, was a vaudeville venue from the early 1900s to WWII, hosting famous acts such as WC Fields, Abbott & Costello, and Gypsy Rose Lee. It changed owners and was renamed the Center Theatre in the 40s, when it became a burlesque house. It was a beauty, with painted arched ceilings, elaborately ornamented box seats, several stories of backstage dressing rooms, and underground tunnels to neighboring theaters so the performers did not have to go outside as they went from one theater to another.
By the 1950s and 60s, when George’s father worked there, the Center Theater had become a second-run/art movie house in Boston’s infamous Combat Zone. At that time, the Combat Zone was Boston’s “adult entertainment district,” known for its crime, strip clubs, and prostitution. Not many children frequented it. But George did–receiving an early education on a side of city life that many people never see. And he’s grateful for it. For him, it was a valuable experience, wildly exciting for a kid, giving him street smarts and a unique perspective on Boston’s late night world. As a young child, he viewed the hookers as pretty ladies, some appearing mean and hard, while others’ faces melted at the sight of the kids. Less pleasant was his memory of turning off the lights at the end of the night’s cleaning. The light switches were far from the door and when he turned them off, he ran like hell to get to the door before the rats came out.
Fifty years later, the Combat Zone is gone. It’s cleaned up and part of Chinatown. The Center Theater now is a Chinese restaurant and that’s where we headed to meet one of George’s brothers for lunch. The theatre has been chopped up into several different uses now. The main seating area is a large Chinese grocery, with no hint that it was a theater, except for a slight incline to the floor where it formerly approached the stage. The backstage area has been converted into apartments.
The restaurant is above the grocery, with a floor where the mezzanine used to be. Dim sum is served in the incongruous setting of the ornate ceiling and gilded proscenium arch of the theatre. George had not been there in forty-five years, but the marble stair rails that he cleaned as a boy were still there. Even the carpet (memories of endless vacuuming) looked the same. I hope it’s not.
We sampled our dim sum while George and his brother talked about how things had looked in their day and their experiences there. It was a treat for me to be able to see this place that I had heard so much about. We were the only non-Chinese there and the owner, David Wong, came over to talk to us. An older gentleman, immaculately dressed in a suit and tie, he bought the theater in the 70s. He is part of a large, influential family and was delighted to talk about the theatre’s history. He didn’t mention the lawsuit brought against him five years ago when the ceiling collapsed on the tenants’ businesses below, allegedly raining rat carcasses, chicken bones, and mold. He was charming.
After lunch, we wandered down to the harbor area. It was a magical day in Boston.