By Leo Vanderpot
I’m at a September-point in my life where I sometimes cannot remember where my car keys are…but I can recall with rewarding accuracy scenes from the summer of 1947 when I took on my first real job…it’s August and I’m a teenager. I have just become an usher at the Boulevard Theater on Revere Beach.
There was a lockable side door to the theater, at the corner of Shirley and Ocean Avenues, and I can see Hank Price, our manager, sweating in the humid heat, coming in that door and entering the back of the lobby, golf-club bag in tow. It’s 1:30 and he’s just in time for the 2:00 o’clock Saturday matinee. He appears minutes later — fresh and pressed in tan gabardines. Both he and Hal O’Day, our assistant manager, had very adult, envy-producing wardrobes, Mr. O’Day full-shouldered in glen plaids.
In 1947, I was three years away from my high-school graduation. There had been part-time employment as the sexton, aka janitor, at my family’s church, the white-clapboarded Trinity Congregational in Beachmont.
There was also Park League baseball that summer. We had a good team, expertly coached by Pete Sarno, with strong players like Graham Cross, Bob Taylor and Norman Ragosta. In July, baseball season was ending, sophomore year at the high school was coming up within a few weeks, and something was buzzing in me to move on.
I answered a Help Wanted ad for an usher’s job in the Revere Journal. After I was hired, I learned that Hal O’Day was a friend of my brother Bob, and I also came to accept the fact that the one usher’s uniform available was for a tall person and I filled it, although the pants were never quite long enough.
After my interview, I was introduced to Joe Stahl the chief usher (who within a few weeks would be heading off for college) and I was allowed to stay and see the movie, “Seven Were Saved,” a 71-minute, co-feature, a lifeboat-saga starring Richard Denning. It can be seen now on Youtube, but I tried and, alas, I could not stay with it for more than two minutes.
I earned thirty-five cents an hour, paid every week in cash in a small brown envelope. What more could a teenager ask for? Well, in fact, there were side benefits: The Boulevard Theatre turned out to be not only a place of work, but also a social club, almost at times a teen-age drop-in center. And most important, by far — there were girls! There were also great globs of time when you were paid to just stand and watch the movies, and even more time when you could sit and watch when you went off duty.
As a bonus, each pay envelope contained two passes to the theatre, which you could give away or use as barter: when Eddie (Toe) Gallagher bought new hockey gloves one season, I bought his old gloves for two dollars cash plus two passes; the gloves lasted into the 1990s, when the leather finally crumbled into a dry powder.
The theatre occupied the lower half of a huge building known as Crescent Gardens. Above the theater, reached by an escalator, was The Beachview Ballroom — true to its name, with beautiful tall windows that opened to overlook the Atlantic and accept its cool breezes .
We high-school ushers, wearers of blue jeans and t-shirts when off duty, struggled to look cool in our usher’s uniforms: navy blue pants with a satin stripe down the legs, silver-gray double-breasted jackets with gold buttons, beneath which we wore, in winter, white glossy-cardboard dickies that simulated a shirt front. In summer, we could work without jackets, attach the clip-on black bow ties to real white shirts (from home, washed and ironed by our mothers). There was for some of us a certain sense of pride in wearing black shoes that were polished, not scuffed.
We laughed a lot. We went to Revere Beach after work and walked among the tourists from all over the world, the drunken sailors and the sober couples…we bought hot dogs at Lewis’ … nickel hamburgers at White Tower… and we smoked with impunity like almost everybody else. Saturday mornings found us playing baseball on the field abutting the (then) abandoned narrow-gauge railroad tracks, and the Garfield School. We set up a punching bag in the hallway outside the ushers’ room.
Our audience knew their way to their seats and for the most part had little need for our services, which on busy nights ( Wednesday, Friday and Sunday) included in the summer months two doormen (one on Ocean Avenue and one on the Boulevard), four ushers in the orchestra (1700 seats) and at least two ushers in the balcony (just under 500 seats), one of whom played the 78 rpm records that could be heard in the house between 7:30 and 8:00 when the show started — a pleasant way to fill that half hour time period, as opposed to the leaden local-business ads and screaming commercials we get in today’s movie houses.
Most nights at the Boulevard there was a special policeman present who, when the box offices closed, walked the cashiers to the office. Charlie Collela, the theatre’s maintenance man sometimes did this duty; his wife managed the candy counter with a firm hand and the beautiful assistance of Sally Foley and Dorothy Perotti.
The films arrived in the projection booth thanks to Eddie Tiernan, our “Juggler.” Without fail, Eddie carried two cans of film at a time from his car parked under the marquee, through the door and up the stairs, bringing the reels to the Boulevard that had been shown earlier at the Revere Theatre on Broadway a few miles away. Rent once; show in two theatres.
With Eddie’s countless trips, four reels in each can and each reel containing seventeen to twenty minutes of film, it was possible for the two theaters to show a couple of trailers (previews of coming attractions), a cartoon, a newsreel, a co-feature and a feature film — all between the hours of two and five every afternoon and eight to eleven every evening — without a hitch — except for those times when the film broke as it spun through the projector.
Make no mistake, the ushering staff was not concerned with the quality of the image. Our favorites were: the Bowery Boys with Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, any Doris Day film, and all the Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis comedies. We thought Ruth Roman was a major talent. War films, too, of course would get our attention — something like “Sands of Iwo Jima,” with the strength of John Wayne and the vulnerability of Richard Jaeckel. Only now do I see how good another of Jaeckel’s films from 1949 is, and I watch it again and again on Turner Classic Movies: “Battleground,” with George Murphy, John Hodiak, and Ricardo Montalban , all of whom seem to be better in this film than they are in some others. There are three outstanding performances: James Whitmore and Van Johnson in leading roles, and Leon Ames in a minor role, as a chaplain who holds services in the snow during the Battle of the Bulge.
Oscar winners during those years were not what interested us. For the record, we could have seen, but most likely were busy trying to amuse the young women at the candy counter, when the following “Best Picture” winners were on our screen: “Gentlemen’s Agreement,” 1947. “Hamlet,” with Olivier, 1948. “All the King’s Men,” 1949. “All About Eve,” 1950 (and now one of my favorite films.)
Maybe we were like the long-time residents of Manhattan who have never been to the top of The Empire State Building. Or perhaps there was just too much to absorb – during my tenure, from 1947 to 1950, six films each week X 52 weeks per year X 4 years = more than 1400 films, many of which are now lost, not only to memory but lost as in gone, destroyed or, if shot in color, simply faded. Wikipedia reports that, “Of American silent films, far more have been lost than have survived, and of American sound films made from 1927 to 1950, perhaps half have been lost….An improved 35 mm safety film was introduced in 1949. Since [it] is much more stable than nitrate film, there are comparatively few lost films after about 1950. However, color fading of certain color stocks … threaten the preservation of films made since this time.”
Luckily, happy thoughts of those days don’t fade. They pop up like forget-me-nots in the garden. For example, how one night, Lindy Doherty, a popular singer who worked at a club on the Boulevard came by as he often did to visit Mr. O’Day. Doherty took one look at the “Coming Soon” poster for “Golden Earrings,” a new Marlene Dietrich movie, and said with great show-biz savvy, “It wasn’t released, it escaped.” The empty seats at “Golden Earrings” proved him right, and the ushers borrowed his wit thereafter for all the bombs that came our way. Thoughts of Lindy Doherty sent me to Google. Yes! And although he only gets one citation it’s a good one — he was in “Top Banana,” a very successful Broadway musical starring Phil Silvers, and Lindy is on the original-cast recording.
We had a steady clientele. Our audience bought out the house for the first re-release of “Gone With The Wind” in 1947 and “Jolson Sings Again” in 1949. (“The vitality of the Jolson voice is suitably matched in the physical representation provided by Larry Parks, who by now comes close to perfection in aping the vigorous expression with which Jolson [attacks] a song.” — NY Times )
We wore satin ribbons on our jackets proclaiming “Movies Are Better Than Ever” and the small black-and-white television set above “Max’s” bar next door seemed to be a huge threat to our big screen. But television never delivered the knockout punch to movies that many thought it would. And, while it lasted, the Boulevard Theater provided an abundance of entertainment: matinees at 2:00 and evenings at 8:00, three double features every week ( Sunday and Monday — Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday– Friday and Saturday), six films in seven days, with really good popcorn for much, much less than today’s more affluent audiences pay.
Along the way, I became good friends with Paul Kelly our chief usher; when we had a night off we would sometimes go to a movie in Boston! There was also an unforgettable first love that shared long walks together from the theatre to her house, late at night, when, for the last time, until many, many years later, holding hands was an experience anticipated with a thrill.
All to soon, I was to join a more serious workforce. In the fall of 1950, after graduation in June, I took a job as an office boy at Brewer and Lord, an insurance firm in Boston, then became a stock clerk for American Airlines, served two years in the peacetime Army, enjoyed six priceless years getting a degree at Boston University, flunked out after a year as a teacher, and worked about 30 years as a writer and editor in the advertising business. I also, biggest deal of all, became the lucky father of six children.
Sadly, the Boulevard Theater did not survive. It was demolished after a fire on March 14, 1960. One report said that the building was completely destroyed by the fire, but I do not accept that image. In my mind, I can see, without any effort all the seats we varnished one summer thrown into dumpsters and hauled away, along with those one-inch white tiles in the men’s room, and the red leatherette-upholstered bench flanked by mirrors in the lobby. But I have no doubt that the black-iron staircases backstage and the letters for the marquee were saved, the popcorn machine maybe taken by a collector, along with some of the deco wall-lights, and the two cameras in the projection booth. Brass survives, and there was lots of brass hardware on the theater’s many doors.
Pure fantasy, those positive thoughts, of course, because in fact most likely the only things saved were not physical objects, but bare, priceless lasting images, some in our memories, and many more in the Hollywood films that survived and are shown and will be shown as long as art and craft are sought and enjoyed. These days, there is an increased personal sadness: within the past year my hand-holding friend, and Paul Kelley have died and both were an important part of my life that I carelessly avoided keeping in touch with over the years. These days, too, a park with grass and benches fills the space where the Crescent Gardens — the Boulevard Theater and the Beachview Ballroom above it – once sustained us so innocently, and “Time Marches On.”