On page 240 of Striptease (Oxford University Press, 2004) author Rachel Shteir wrote "Buddy Wade's tap shoes caught fire, the sparks igniting her costume, and she burned to death one night at the Old Howard in Boston." Ms. Shteir is unable to recall the source of this story, cannot find her notes of the interview, nor remember the date the fire is alleged to have occurred. I got curious if such a sequence of events was even possible, and have suggested the story to the Mythbusters with the hope that they will prove - or disprove - its viability. Meanwhile, if you have any knowledge of Buddy Wade or this fire, please email me today.
Old Howard article
A recent eBay purchase was this issue of Cavalier, a "men's magazine" that was a direct competitor to Playboy. Like Playboy, Cavalier featured articles from well-known writers and performers (this issue featured pieces from Mort Sahl and the late Ernie Kovacs) and, of course, "picture essays" featuring unclad beauties of the day. This issue, from November 1962, includes a lengthy article on the Old Howard, which is reprinted here, in its entirety:
For generations of not-so-staid Bostonians, Harvard students, and such visiting greats as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, there was "Always Something Doing from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m." at the Old Howard Burlesque.
By FRANKLIN L. THISTLE
Never again will the curtain rise at Boston's famed Old Howard Theatre. Renowned as America's oldest and best-loved playhouse where Nineteenth Century theatrical greats and Twentieth Century strip-tease stars once performed, the Howard exited not in a blaze of show business glory, but in an inglorious blaze of name.
The end came on June 20, 1961, when a fire of undetermined origin broke out inside the hallowed halls of the then silent Old Howard. As thousands watched, firemen brought the blaze under control within an hour. But by then the interior of the 116-year-old structure was a mass of charred timbers. The Old Howard was best known for its burlesque shows. Ever since 1928, when burlesque invaded the grimy edifice just a garter's toss from honky-tonk Scollay Square and turned it into a strip-tease Mecca, Burlesque was to the Old Howard what the bean and the cod are to Bostonians. The Brahmin side of Beacon Hill always felt somewhat uneasy that the Old Howard was located in the heart of their fair city.
But less proper Bostonians were delighted that such a "den of iniquity" should exist in their puritanical home town and took a secret pride in the infamous institution. The Old Howard was known through-out the world as America's liveliest palace of peel, the word being spread by thousands of WW II servicemen. But the Howard was more than just a home for servicemen away from home. It was a risqué refuge for the callow college boy; a place where Boston bums (or blue bloods) could sleep all day without fear of interruption; and a haven where businessmen and politicians could temporarily forget their worries.
The long lines waiting to gain admission often included touring United Nations delegates, government officials, civic leaders, college professors, and other distinguished individuals. And whether the patrons were important or unimportant, young or old, blueblood or red-blooded, they were seldom disappointed with the show.
Except on rare occasions the Old Howard always lived up to its motto of “Always Something Doing from 9 am to 11 pm. Six days a week, eleven months on the theater's creaky stage a succession of blondes, brunette, redheads performed arresting anatomical antics while stripping down to as little as the law would allow – and sometimes less. Sandwiched between the strip acts were the baggy pants comedians whose banter was usually fully as their pants.
To many it seemed paradoxical that the Old Howard could exist in the staid Hub of New England, where censors thought nothing of blue-penciling the scripts of movies and legitimate plays and banning books with the least provocation. But the city fathers didn’t see the paradox for many years. They reasoned that minors couldn't be corrupted because admission was denied youths under 18 and that everyone who attended the Old Howard knew in advance what he was going to see; whereas there was no minimum age for admission to legitimate theatres and movie houses.
While it was true that everyone knew in advance what he would see at the Howard (the only thing that changed at the Howard were the faces, the jokes and the strip routines remained monotonously the same) it wasn't true that youngsters under eighteen were denied admittance. As a rule the balcony was packed with self-conscious, fuzzy-cheeked students of nature.
Whether or not the entertainment at the Old Howard was damaging to public morals is debatable. But during its heyday in the '30s and '40s the opinion of those in authority, for the most part, was that it was not.
In 1947, Boston Mayor John B. Hynes told a Variety Club luncheon honoring Rufus "Al" Somerby, owner and operator tor of the Old Howard, for his 50 years in show business: "Boston is not puritanical town. We like real entertainment. And that's what Al Somerby has been giving us. Al has been a credit to our city for a great many years.” Other tributes paid Somerby at that lunch included congratulatory wires from the state’s two U. S. senators, Leverett Saltonstall and Henry Cabot Lodge.
Strangely enough the Old Howard in its heyday enjoyed more official sanction that it -did as a legitimate theatre presenting Shakespeare and other classics over a century ago. In those days Boston burghers considered any theatre an instrument of the devil. For that reason, the great gray Gothic edifice was purposely built to resemble a church. Many visitors to the theatre in later years came away, after seeing the three tall, stained-glass windows in front, with the impression that it had been a church.
Christened the Ho ward Athenaeum in the hope that it would be mistaken for an educational or cultural institution rather than a theatre, the building opened on October 13, 1845, with the showing of Sheridan's The School for Scandal.
For the next 30 years the best names of the theatre were hilled at the Howard Athenaeum. Junius Brutus-Booth played Hamlet there many times. His three sons, J. B., Jr., Edwin, and John Wilkes (the man who shot Lincoln) also appeared, as did Sarah Bernhardt, the most popular actress of- the era.
Interest in legitimate drama began to wane by 1870 and melodrama and variety shows became the Howard's main bill of fare. Crowds Hocked to see jugglers, acrobats magicians, and boxing and wrestling exhibitions. John L Sullivan, at the height of his career as heavyweight champion, was the first fighter to appear. He was followed by James J. Corbett, Jack Dempsey, Jack Johnson, Jim Jeffries and Bob Fitzsimmons.
With the advent of cheaper entertainment, profits rose. During this period the Howard Athenaeum became known simply as the Old Howard. Dr. G. E. Lothrop, one of Boston's greatest showmen, bought the theatre at the turn of the century. Under his management the theatre's burlesque era was ushered in.
Since before the turn of the century, the Howard had featured a bevy of pretty girls clad in tights who sang and danced. But it was not until 1928 that the strip tease as it is practiced today made its debut at the Howard and became the piece de resistance of the theatre's burlesque shows.
The all-time queen of Old Howard strippers was Ann Corio who played there on and off for over a decade before leaving` burlesque for the legitimate drama and the movies. She seldom failed to fill all the theatre's 1,360 seats.
Once Ann revealed the secret of her success: "Make yourself as feminine as possible. Go in for a lot of frills, furs, and Fumes and parasols, and don't take off your panties. It makes a girl's figure prettier to have them on."
Boston's blue nosed Watch and Ward Society, however, was of the opinion that even the Howard strippers who kept 'their panties on were capable of corrupting public morals. The society came to this conclusion after sending three members to the Howard in 1933 to investigate the wicked goings-on. The trio complained about the "sinuosity of dancing" at the Howard, the girls' "diaphanous" coverings, and of one stripper who "did not hesitate to display a mobile abdomen." They also alleged the comic skits were objectionable and demanded that the police take appropriate action.
Old Howard boss Al Somerby heatedly denied the charges as did Ann Corio. Declared Ann, "My work is art. If the public considers me beautiful enough to look at, I fail to see what is wrong.”
So controversial did the issue become that Mayor James Michael Curley himself paid a visit to the Howard "to acquaint myself with the type of amusement offered" Curley sat through an entire performance, `but refused public comment on the show other than to say, "They had a full house, but all, of the people there seemed to come from Maine, New Hampshire,' and Vermont."
Undoubtedly, Curley's reluctance to take a firm stand on the matter was because he didn't want to risk losing the good will of any of his constituents. Nevertheless, the Howard's license was revoked for 30 days.
About 10,000 tickets were sold at the Howard each week, with $1.10 top for evening shows and 60 cents for the matinees. For this price patrons not only got a long burlesque show, but also two feature motion pictures and several short films. An entire program usually ran over five hours.
Another "feature" at all the Howard shows was the hawking of soft drinks, ice cream, art magazines, and novelties during intermissions. But pitchmen at the Old Howard refrained from high pressure techniques employed at most burlesque houses and practiced a "softer sell."
"Mr. Somerby insisted that we talk for only six minutes at each appearance," recalls Lester Rosen, No. 1 pitchman at the Howard for years. "In the old days in Brooklyn, we used to pitch for twenty and thirty minutes. In Boston we carried no shoddy novelties, gave no worthless prizes, and we never resorted to such" old burlesque tricks as turning, up the heat to sell more drinks and ice cream on a slow night. Boston audiences were very high class. We didn't insult their intelligence.'
Comics at the Old Howard, however, loved to insult the intelligence of Bostonians as well as out-of-towners. Most of them got away with it and went on to greater glory. In fact, many of the' country's most successful comedians were launched into Broadway or Hollywood orbit from the Old Howard stage. Among Old Howard alumni are Phil Silvers, Bert Lahr, Abbott and CosteIIo, Harrigan and Hart, Gus Williams, Fanny Brice, Bobby Clark, Joe Penner, and Weber and Fields.
While serving their apprenticeships on the Howard stage all the aforementioned top comics had to take second billing. The G-string set always got top billing strippers like Margie Hart, Gypsy Rose Lee, Georgia Sothern, Hinda Wassau, Vickie Welles, Winnie Garrett, and Lin St. Cyr. The daring disrobing of these damsels lured just about every Boston male past puberty to the Old Howard at one time or another and made eyes pop as they paraded their charms. Many patrons preferred to catch the early show Monday before the censor had a chance to cut it.
College students invariably comprised a sizeable segment of Howard audiences with Harvard nun usually predominating. A popular quip around Harvard Yard was "that Harvard curriculum include Howard Athenaeum I, II, III, and IV," and it was attributed to virtually every good-natured Harvard professor, including the late Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, a self confessed Old Howard devotee. When a Howard comedian told an unusually vulgar joke during one of his visits, Holmes is reported to have observed "Thank God lam a man of low taste!"
Not infrequently did Harvard students spy professors at the Old Howard. Once a group of Harvard students spotted their Latin instructor sitting directly in front of them. As the horseplay on the stage became more and more uncouth, the instructor noted the presence of his students. Immediately he established a lasting reputation for savoir-faire. Waving a hand toward some particularly libidinous stage business, he remarked nonchalantly, "The whole thing is straight out of Plautus and Terence."
Much of the fact and fancy circulated about the Old Howard can be attributed to `the late Fred Doherty, the theatre's press agent for more than 30 years. A short, fat man, Doherty was best known as the writer of the Howard ads, which contained some of the quaintest prose Bostonians had ever read. So compelling were his ads that they were regularly read every week, even by persons who had no intention of visiting the Howard. The copy Doherty once prepared on Ann Corio furnishes a typical example of his unbridled style:
"When we slide you the heated vapor that Ann Corio trips here at the Old Howard, we've tooted something worthwhile to every regular scout. The most beautiful girl on the stage will give the wisenheimers a merry marathon. Here comes the peachiest peach in the ~game, and the babe with the perpetual smile will deliver the material that gathers the glances from pit to dome."
Ann did all that and more. She brought women customers to the Old Howard for the first time when she made her Howard debut in 1929. So many women came, accompanied by husbands or boyfriends, to give Ann the once-over that the management later held a special midnight show for ladies-with or without escort. The house was a sellout. In later years women often composed as much as a third of the audience at an evening show.
Ranking second to Ann Corio as the favorite Old Howard burlesque queen was Rose La Rose, known as the bad girl of burlesque because of her uninhibited behavior~ on stage. "There's no place like the Old Howard," Rose once said. "The building is old and it has some inconveniences, but I love it. In the winter it's drafty, and there's no running water in the dressing rooms. But I try out every new act there. The Old Howard's my barometer. If an act clicks here, it will go over big on the circuit."
As luck would have it, Rose's torrid torso-tossing was instrumental in the closing of the Old Howard. Rose and sister strippers Marion Russell and Irma "The Body" Mare were playing the Howard in 1953 when the authorities decided to crack down. During their performances, detectives filmed the over-exposed proceedings by using infrared film and shooting through the button holes in their topcoats.
The film, shown in court, plus transcriptions of dialogue, provided police with sufficient evidence to close the theatre forever. Many Bostonians protested the shutdown of the Old Howard. Among those who did was a Boston pastor. "The filth in burlesque is governed by the' minds of men," he declared. But the pleas were of no avail. The Old Howard was never reopened.
In all probability, if the police hadn't stepped in, the Howard would have closed anyway. The steady customers, who had once found the Howard shows entertaining, had generally ceased to patronize the place. There was no longer any wit in the shows; what had been amusing had degenerated into something despicable and dull.
To hold attention, the comics became bluer and bluer, dirtier and dirtier. During the late 19406, the Howard put on what was probably the dingiest show to be found outside the purlieus of Port Said or Havana. The decline of American burlesque from a family entertainment into sordid cavalcade of idiotic nudity and smutty jokes transpired on its proscenium.
After the Howard was closed, it stood practically forgotten until the city took over the property in 1989 and scheduled it for demolition to make way for a new government center. Soon afterwards the Howard National Theatre and Museum Committee was organized and began a campaign to save the theatre. The leader of the group was Dean Gitter, a Cambridge folksinger and actor. The most active member was Ann Corio, who many felt was more interested in personal publicity than the Howard's fate. Only the week before the fire Ann had inspected the shuttered house for publicity purposes.
The aim of the committee was to convert the Old Howard into a national theatre shrine where opera and plays-not burlesque could be presented. The shrine was envisaged as a civic center of the performing arts within the government center projected for the area. The committee was preparing to launch a nationwide fund-raising drive for $1,000,000 when the fire broke out.
Since only the interior was burned, the theatre could have been restored had `not a city wrecking crew broken down its granite walls several hours after the fire. This seemingly hasty action was sharply criticized by Dean Gitter. He charged it was "incredible" that the famed building should be swept by an "accidental" fire just when its restoration was nearly assured.
Although the committee took its aim seriously, many people laughed at the idea, and you couldn't blame them much. In its later days, the Old Howard had become a symbol of wickedness. The idea of saving and restoring it as a national shrine sounded a little silly-if you didn't know the whole story.
As Boston columnist Elliott Norton put it: "What Dean Gitter and others of his committee had in mind in their drive to save the Howard theatre was its remote past, which was-attractive, and its future, which might have been honorable. As the oldest standing playhouse in the United States, the Howard could have been made into a distinguished attraction for tourists. Its walls, which hasty city workers, rushed to knock down after the fire - for some unexplained reason – were of the same durable granite which is in the Bunker Hill monument. Although the interior was grimy, it was basically beautiful.
"To have restored it would have cost a comparatively small amount. As one of Boston's few remaining Nineteenth Century buildings of distinction, it would have given the new government center a special kind of appeal to visitors. It could have been fitted up handsomely for plays, opera, and ballet. Nobody had any intention of turning the theatre back to burlesque. The Gitter committee remembered that it was built as a playhouse and, in its day, had served with distinction as Boston's first opera house. Even after the fire, it might have been salvaged and reasonably restored. But the city's wreckers, who are not interested in theatre of any kind, put a final end to it. Why they should have done so is a mystery with political rather than theatrical overtones."
Probably the most poignant tribute paid the Old Howard upon its passing was written by Robert Taylor of the Boston Herald. Wrote Taylor: "The Old Howard departed from the life of Boston and entered America's theatrical past at noon Tuesday, June 20, 1961. It was not even 150 years old, barely past its centennial, in fact; and yet seemed much older because of active service. The exit was as spectacular as a Viking's funeral; a curtain in the grand manner. Something about The Howard always retained the grand manner, like a dowager actress who had experienced heights of glory as intoxicating as her later decline.
"Characteristically, in the three-alarm fire that destroyed The Old Howard, everyone was amused but hardly anyone was hurt. The blaze had the character of a gesture. Every gesture the playhouse ever contrived, held charm.
"Then, too, there was the loveliness of the building. The cigar smoke that frescoed the ceiling, the mottled paint, and spattered cuspidors did not conceal the intrinsic grace of The OM Howard's architecture.
"Ann Corio, one of the better performers to appear at the house during the twilight years, said after the fire that the theatre was "a valentine.' She was right, of course. It had the fragile and pastel style of a place dedicated to the essentials of the stage. Not a building designed to allow the ultimate in sight lines, to enable players to be heard better, to permit the manipulation of sets, but to create illusion. When you walked into The Old Howard, you were not substituting the environment of one part of prosaic everyday life for another; you were in a theatre with all its illusion and enchantment.
"That's why we wish, in a way, that the Howard might have been saved. The committee striving for its preservation comprised people of both taste and common sense. Yet who knows how, in spite of their enthusiasm, the enterprise may have tuned out? The theatre's daemon its spirit, may not have taken kindly to its existence as an inert, echoing museum.
"In any case, the theater of the Booths and of the clowns and the strippers has burned and it is never a happy occasion when a theater dies, even as a ghost of itself. The memories survive and they are as immortal as stage memories can be. We shall sing no sad songs, for, while it lasted, there was always something doing at The Howard Athenaeum from 9 am to 11 pm.”