Nov 23, 1979: Showtime Again at Dorchester’s Strand Theatre
Uphams Corner in Dorchester was historically a busy commercial area, located at the intersection of Columbia Ave and Dudley Street, and served by a half-dozen trolley lines. For entertainment, it boasted the 1400-seat Strand Theatre, in its early days a vaudeville house and later a movie palace.
The postwar years were not kind to Uphams Corner, as the trolleys stopped running, people moved out, and businesses closed. The Strand hung on until 1969. Then it went dark and became one more abandoned building in a neighborhood in decline.
In the mid-1970s, some Uphams Corner neighbors battled back, and organized to renovate and reopen the Strand—not as a movie house, but as a performing arts center. Supported almost entirely by government grants, the M. Harriet McCormack Center for the Arts achieved this goal and celebrated with a gala opening on November 23, 1979. The Count Basie Orchestra performed at the inaugural concert.
WHDH-AM’s Norm Nathan was emcee on that first night, with what the Globe called a “good, not great, turnout of 900” in the house. Champagne flowed before the show and during intermission. Although there was no curtain to formally raise (it hadn’t been installed yet), the night was a happy one.
As for the concert, Basie’s band, although plagued from the outset by poor sound, turned in a crowd-pleasing show. Ernie Santosuosso’s Globe review praised Danny Turner’s alto on “Easy Living,” Sonny Cohn’s trumpet on “April in Paris,” and Pete Minger’s flugelhorn on “There Will Never Be Another You.” It was a homecoming for Turner, a fixture in Boston from his time with Sabby Lewis in the late 1940s until 1959.
There were high hopes for that first season at the Strand. The McCormack Center had booked an ambitious schedule that ranged from Dizzy Gillespie to the Martha Graham Dance Company to the Tommy Dorsey ghost band. I don’t know how successful they were, but the Center demonstrated enough potential to keep the concerts and shows, from across the spectrum of the performing arts, continuing into the 1990s.
The McCormack Center’s 25-year agreement with the city to manage the Strand ended in 2004. At that time a city task force recommended the theater commit itself to supporting local arts and education, and that is what the theater, today managed by the Mayor’s Office of Arts, Tourism & Special Events, has done. Results, though, have been mixed and the theater is often dark. The Strand celebrated its 95th birthday on November 11.
There hasn’t been any jazz programming at the Strand for some time, and there’s no telling what the future holds. Well, we’ll always have “April in Paris.”
Speaking of which, here’s Basie’s orchestra playing it in 1979, at the Northsea Festival, a few months before their concert at the Strand.