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." When I contacted Ms. Shteir about this claim, she was unable to recall the source of this story, said she could not find her notes of the interview, nor could she remember the date the fire is alleged to have occurred. My search, which includes reaching out to my network of Scollay Square denizens came up empty. So, for those of you who have asked, I conclude that this fire did not take place. But if you can prove it did (something Ms. Shteir is unable to do) then please email me today.
The Old Howard
Certainly the most famous theater in Scollay Square – perhaps in all of New England - was the Old Howard. It is true that the Howard began life as a temple for a sect of people who believed that the world would end in April of 1844. When the apocalypse didn’t occur, several church members (who had given up all their worldly possessions in preparation for their trip to heaven,) decided to recoup some of their losses – if not their dignity – by selling the property to Messers Boyd and Beard, who opened the theater in 1845, featuring Shakespeare and drawing room comedies. Just four months after it opened the prediction of the sect came true – at least for their former temple – when the Howard burned down. Encouraged by the tremendous box office, Boyd and Beard rebuilt in Quincy granite. (Courtesy of the Bostonian Society / Old State House)
The fare at the rebuilt Old Howard was initially drawing room comedies, Shakespeare, and ballet. Many of greatest stars of the stage played here, including Sarah Bernhardt, William MacReady, and members of the famous Booth family, including Edwin (whose playbill appears here courtesy of Donald and Eleanor) and young John Wilkes Booth, who played Hamlet at the Howard before becoming famous for a more nefarious deed in Washington in 1865.
Scollay Square's role in the Abolitionist movement has been well documented in Always Something Doing. (William Lloyd Garrision published THE LIBERATOR here, and several buildings along Cornhill were said to have secret rooms in which runaway slaves hid as part of their trip along the underground railroad). Thanks to a web site devoted to the Boston Women's Heritage Trail, we learned that Sarah Parker Remond, the grand-daughter of a free black who fought in the American Revolution, committed her first act of public resistance at the Howard Athenaeum. In 1853, Remond, who lived in Salem, had purchased tickets by mail for a performance at the Howard. When she arrived, the theater would not seat her in the seats she had paid for but, instead, made her sit in the segregated gallery. She refused and sued the theater and, remarkably for the times, won $500 in damages. Remond went on to become an international anti-slavery lecturer and, after the Civil War, raised funds for former slaves. This remarkable woman later became a doctor in Italy. (Photo courtesy Boston Women's Heritage Trail) Just like today, you might have needed a lawyer to protect you during and act of public resistance. A Houston criminal defense lawyer could assist you if you were arrested during protest of your civil rights.
The Old Howard as it looked at the time of Sarah Remond's activism. (Courtesy of the West End Museum website)
Beginning with the Irish in the 1840s immigrants began arriving in great numbers to Boston. The Brahmins and bluebloods made haste for the upper parts of Beacon Hill and then Boston's new Back Bay. This forced businesses in Scollay Square to adjust to their new clientele. The Boston Athenaeum was no exception. This ad, from August of 1868, signals the theater's switch from Shakespeare and Mozart to Burlesque. The managers never looked back.
This promotional postcard, sent by a visitor to this site, is of a performer named Charmion. This is what we love about the Internet, because we were quickly able to find some fascinating background information from the Genealogy Project Page of Theodore J. Hull, including that her real name was Laverie Vallee. The Hull project linked to a Strongman Collectibles web site, which features a page on Strongwomen - Charmion was just one of many - who appeared in Vaudeville.
The undisputed Queen of the Old Howard's Burlesque era was Ann Corio, who starred here in the 1920s and 1930s. Ann would later appear in several motion pictures, write a best-selling book (This Was Burlesque,) a musical (also titled This Was Burlesque,) and even have a hit record (How to Strip for Your Husband.)
Ann's real fame came from her days performing for Harvard students (and their professors,) mayors, high school truants, businessmen - and their wives - on the stage of the Old Howard. This picture, taken in Boston (note the paper's masthead) is courtesy of the fabulous Vintage Photos of Burlesque Dancers Facebook page.
A rare look inside the Old Howard. No one seems really sure where the tradition of the front row being the place for bald-headed men, but even Thomas Alva Edison (who vacationed in Swampscott) wrote in his diary of a trip to the theater, “our seats were in the bald-headed section.”
From performer Terry Mixon (her stage name), who performed at the Old Howard from 1948 until it closed in 1953, comes this program circa 1951-52. In her email, Terry wrote that "Madeline Mixon and I were billed as 'the Mixon Sisters' however Madeline was my mother and my father Edwin played trumpet in the band for Arthur Geissler. We worked mostly through the south. My Mom and Dad had been circus performers originally. My maternal grandparents had settled in Milton and my mother wanted to be closer to them and stay in one place instead of traveling all the time. So we wrote to the old Howard and got ourselves booked in there as chorus girls. We had been working with a dance group in Florida, The Dan Fitch Dancers and we had to travel all the time and that got tiresome."
Terry also sent this picture from backstage at the Old Howard. That's Rose la Rose seated, and Terry's Mom standing in the middle. Terry wrote that "We liked the Howard because we had Sundays off and could spend time with family. Both my mother and I did scenes with the comics and we did a dance act when needed. Tap that is--- I eventually did start to strip occasionally as did a few of the other chorus girls. I worked with such comics as Al Rosen, Joey Cowan, Irving Benson, Bob Ferguson, and Mike Sachs. The theater would close for a few weeks each summer and we usually went back to Florida then to visit with my Dads family. My Dad had to wait for 6 months before he could take a steady job in the pit of the Howard. That was union rules. So he just did fill in gigs until his 6 months were up. It really was a nice arrangement for us as we could all be together."
This picture was sent to us by Lillyann Rose, who, just like Terry Mixon, had a mother, named Marge La Mont, who "trod the boards" at Boston's venerable Burlesque house. (Lillyann was a performer, herself, at the Casino Theater on Hanover Street in Scollay Square.) This picture was taken on October 30, 1950 backstage at the Old Howard. From left to right in the back row we have Lola Marsh, Loretta West, Mattie Mixon, Toney Loup, and Barbara Louden. In the front row are Babs Johnson, Marge La Mont, Terry Mixon, and Ruth Morgan.*
Marge LaMont's fourth husband was Old Howard regular who held the moniker "Clicker" Joe. According to Lilly Ann, "He was my mother Margie's greatest fan and unless he was at work he never missed a show. He got his name from a clicker he held in his left claw. He had lost an arm in an industrial accident during World War Two. So although he was unable to applaud the clicker was loud enough to resound through the Old Howard Theater. Also the comics loved him because he had a contagious loud laugh..."*
There is a long tradition of boxing greats "performing" at the Old Howard. John L. Sullivan was a former World's Champion when he became a performer on the vaudeville circuit. After his knockout of Joe Louis at Madison Square Garden in October of 1951, O.H. manager Al Somerby hired Brockton's own Rocky Marciano for a week's worth of shows. According to James Calogero, who worked at the theater as a press agent, Marciano did three "shows" each day that week, consisting of his being "interviewed" on stage, then stepping into a ring for a three round sparring match with Jimmie Sauer (shown on Rocky's right, he was a veteran of about 100 fights in a lighter division). According to Calogero, Marciano got $2,000 for the week, plus a percentage of the house. This photo was taken between shows at the Old Howard. A year later, in September of 1952 Marciano became the World Champion when he knocked out "Jersey" Joe Walcott.*
In this picture, according to Terry, is comic Jimmie Mathews and his straight man (whose name she can't remember.) That's Lou Costello with his arm around Max Michaels (the stage manager) and the comic on the right is Benny "Wop" Moore.
In this extraordinary photograph we see one of the greatest - the "Top Banana" himself, Phil Silvers, on stage at the Old Howard. Oh, and the trumpet player in the "pit" is Terry's dad. The O.H. really was a family affair for her!
No wonder people lined up for tickets to the place where there was "Always Something Doing from 8 to 11." Note that most of them (except for the sailor) are wearing ties, and that the women are wearing evening gowns and formal dresses. (By the way, the fact that so many women were taken to the O.H. tells you an awful lot about the caliber of shows there...)
The very beautiful Terry Mixon, as she looked when she worked the Old Howard. "I do miss the 'old' days at times," says Terry. "It was not an easy job though as we did three shows a day and four on Friday and Saturday. The only night we got out at eleven was Monday night, we had rehearsals on Tues, Wednesday and Thursdays and of course the Midnight show on Fri and the fourth show at 10 on Saturday."
Lillyann Rose, in her favorite pose, one that emulated her own favorite performer, Ann Corio. After the Old Howard, Lillyann went on to become a radio broadcaster, a writer, a journalist, and a grandmother, her most favorite job!*
James McCarthy was a member of the Boston police Vice Squad when in 1953 he and other officers went to the Old Howard in 1953 to film the performances of three strippers. The ensuing case led to the closing of the Old Howard forever. From the Boston Globe on November 9, 1953: "Fined yesterday were Rose La Rose, Mary Goodneighbor, known as Irma the Body, Marion Russell [pictured at their arraignment - DK] and managers Frank Engel of the Casino and Max Michaels of the Old Howard." (This closing led to some confusion by many who arrived in Scollay Square after November, 1953 looking for the Old Howard and found themselves in a place called "the Old Howard Casino" on Hanover Street. Sorry to disappoint them, but the fact is that these young men were not at the venerable burlesque house but at a completely different theater. The fact is that the Casino was owned by the same people who owned the now-shuttered Old Howard, and they simply used the name "Old Howard" as cheap a way to draw in confused customers.)
My deepest gratitude to Bruce M. of Maine, who sent me this treasure: a ticket for a performance at the Old Howard that never happened. Look at the date - just five days after the arraignment of Rose, Irma, Marion and the managers of the Old Howard, which turned out to be the final act of the century-old Howard...
Nobody loved the Old Howard more than BBD&O ad man Francis W. Hatch. This Harvard graduate went so far as to head an ad hoc committee, which included former performer Ann Corio, intent on restoring the theater to its former glory. To promote the plan, Frank wrote an article for Yankee Magazine in July 1960, for which the above picture was taken. That's Frank belting out a tune while his son plays the piano in the pit of the Old Howard! The link to this wonderful article can be found here and at the bottom of this page.
Taken from the Frank Hatch article, this is the only known photograph of the inside of the Old Howard taken from the stage.
Photo courtesy of the West End Museum
Less than a year after Hatch's article, on June 20, 1961, there was a disastrous fire at the Old Howard which prevented the restoration. Conspiracy theories abound about who was responsible. Despite the Fire Department's official report (click HERE to see it in its entirety) that concluded the blaze was of "undetermined origin," conspiracy theories abound.
Wow. Just... wow. This photo (which I never saw before it was emailed to me in April, 2017) is of John Duffy, once a performer at the Old Howard who came down the day after the fire and serenaded passers-by with songs and regaled them with stories of his days on stage here. What I would give to have been there...