The Troy Street Observer

May 27, 1963: Frazier Visits the Gilded Cage

Columnist George Frazier was writing for the Boston Herald in 1963, and he opened his May 27 column, a review of Wild Bill Davison’s club date, thusly: “What stirred the memory on this Saturday night was “Someday, Sweetheart.” Certain songs have a way of doing that, their implications and our own inferences suddenly taking us from time and place present and escorting us through the door to the past. In this case, it was “Someday, Sweetheart” that made a room redolent, changing this narrow, murky place called The Gilded Cage into a room with a view.” It was a perfect place for Frazier, a writer who revered the past.

Frazier discovered, quite by accident, that the view at the Gilded Cage was almost always of the past. It was in the Paramount Hotel building, at 11 Boylston Street, just off Washington. Louis Cohen opened the Gilded Cage in April 1958 to sell one thing: nostalgia. George Clarke wrote that the Gilded Cage “is to be a Gay Nineties rendezvous in decor and atmosphere… with a show staffed by handsome young people, each doing the songs and dances of the Mauve Decade, but with youthful verve and eclat.” Boston wasn’t interested. The club gave up on the nostalgia kick within a year.

Photo of Gilded Cage after explosion
When the music’s over: the Gilded Cage after the 1966 explosion

In August 1960 the place tried a different kind of backward glance by hiring Sally Keith, then 44, of Crawford House fame, who by this time had been twirling her tassels for 20 years. One can’t help but think that the act must have been very old for her by then. But she had a good band playing the show, that of Sabby Lewis, an elder statesman of Boston jazz even then. Keith and Lewis, both past their best days, were at the Gilded Cage until year’s end.

After the tassel twirler came the strippers, and in 1963, while the Gilded Cage had the likes of Sparkling Sheri Champagne bumping and grinding, it added a Dixieland band led by Dick Wetmore. That fall, they hired some over-the-hill New York Dixielanders, like Eddie Condon and Bill Davison, as guest artists. That’s when Frazier dropped by. But strippers meant sailors, and sailors meant hustlers, and the Gilded Cage ended up on the Licensing Board’s watch list. In July 1963 the club was closed down for repeated complaints of B-girl activity.

That September, the Gilded Cage had a new house band, anchored by saxophonist Bullmoose Jackson, whose credentials in jazz and R&B went back to the war years. Jackson was popular, and he was in residence for almost two years, into the spring of 1965, a fact missed by his biographers. In 1964, Hammond B-3 organist Hillary Rose was part of Jackson’s band.

The Gilded Cage’s end was abrupt. On the bitter cold evening of January 28, 1966, gas from a leaking main exploded in the basement of the Paramount Hotel, setting off a calamitous five-alarm fire. Although everyone made it out of the Gilded Cage, eleven people in the adjoining tavern and the hotel above it died. The Gilded Cage never reopened.

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  1. I remember that night very well albeit nearly 53 years ago. I lived an hour’s drive from “the combat zone” in Boston. It was a bitter cold night even by New England standards. The Gilded Cage was just a block or so from the area known to Bostonians as “The Windy Corner”. I was eighteen at the time so cold didn’t deter me. I wore a Navy “Reefer” that was heavy wool with brass buttons on the assumption that the casual observer might just mistake me for a police officer and not tell me to scram. Apparently it worked and I stayed well out of the way. Fire crews were mopping up as best they could. One of the most stunning observations was that the street had layers of frozen fire hoses that had apparently been laid in the roadway used for a while and then allowed to stand and evidently somehow managed to freeze. Fresh hoses apparently were laid on top of those from earlier. They were all entombed in a THICK layer of ice that to my eye seemed to be around six inches deep and remarkably clear. One hydrant was still spraying water and the area around it a bizarre ice sculpture. How things froze that fast baffles me even on a night such as that. I wish I had taken a camera but that would surely have blown my cover. Electrical crews were capping high voltage lead cables down in the manholes in the street so that power could be restored to the general area yet not the flooded basements on the block. A gas crew was trying to cut and cap a monstrous gas main (I recall as perhaps 14 to 16 inch diameter??) that they had uncovered using shovels and a jack hammer.

    I had asked the foreman of the electrical crew about the process. He had detailed all the safety aspects. I asked a similar question of the gas crew foreman who appeared to have given up on turning a huge pipe cutter and were attacking the main with a small jack hammer. That seemed risky at best. “How can you know for sure the pressure has been bled off that gas main?” His reply was “God! I sure hope so.” That was troubling. I figured I had seen enough and it was an excellent time to take my leave.

    • Edmund, many thanks for this eyewitness account of the sad end of the Gilded Cage. I think about that explosion every time I walk down that block of Boylston St. Thanks for dropping by.

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