The Troy Street Observer

Dec 25, 1978: Sun Ra Reopens the Modern Theatre

If you weren’t satisfied by the seasonal lights of Christmas trees and innumerable illuminated Rudolphs and Frostys, the Modern Theatre had just the thing to boost your spirits on Christmas night, 1978. It was a new lighting machine, and it was creating wild visual effects for Sun Ra’s Arkestra.

Photo of Sun Ra
Sun Ra: I doubt he played “Frosty” or “Rudolph”

The Modern, at 523 Washington Street, was where Bostonians saw the first talking picture shown in the city, Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer, in 1928. That was then, and by the 1970s, the Modern had fallen on hard times. Like its neighbors the Paramount and the Savoy, the Modern was in desperate need of rehabilitation. In 1976 David Archer purchased the building through a non-profit venture and set about the task.

Archer envisioned an arts district on Lower Washington Street that would link the restaurants around Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market with the Tremont Street Theatre District. He wasn’t alone in this idea, either, as the Opera Company of Boston bought the Savoy Theatre in 1978.

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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.

Photo of Strand Theatre
The Strand Theatre in Uphams Corner. It now has a new marquee.

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.

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May 17, 1947: Big Bands Out at the RKO Boston Theatre

On May 17, 1947, the RKO Boston Theatre announced it would discontinue stage shows for the summer, virtually ending the big band era in Boston.

The economics of the entertainment business were changing fast in postwar America, and the most visible sign of that change in Boston was at the RKO Boston Theatre at 614 Washington Street.

The RKO chain owned of a pair of theaters on Washington Street, a block apart. The Keith (now the Opera House) showed mainly movies after the Boston, a big theater seating about 3,200, opened in 1925. The formula at the Boston was “stage-and-screen.” The A movies ran at the Keith, while B movies played at the Boston, along with the live entertainment. Sometimes that was vaudeville, sometimes a big-cast stage show like Cab Calloway’s Cotton Club Revue, and when swing became the thing, shows headlined by big bands. These became the norm a bit later than you might expect, finally dominating the schedule in late 1941, and they continued to dominate until early 1947.

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April 10, 1910: The Voice Behind the Curtain

Peg LaCentra CD Cover
Cover of Peg LaCentra, the Complete Recordings

Band singer and movie dubber Margherita Maria Francesca LaCentra—“Peg”— was born in Boston April 10, 1910. LaCentra had only a minor role in the jazz and nightlife story, but it was certainly a notable one nonetheless.

Peg LaCentra studied piano at the New England Conservatory of Music and acting at the long-defunct Fenway Academy of Dramatic Art, and worked as a staff singer and radio actor at WNAC in Boston just as the Depression was taking hold. In 1931, she moved to New York and a series of jobs in network radio. In 1934, she recorded for the first time, a song titled ”The Fortune Teller,” with the Johnny Green Orchestra.
LaCentra kept at it in the New York studios, and in 1936 was a singer on “The Mell-O-Roll Ice Cream Show.” The band was that of guitarist Dick McDonough. One of the sidemen in McDonough’s group was Artie Shaw, who was about to start his own orchestra, and he wanted LaCentra to sing with it. She joined Shaw’s orchestra in summer 1936. The band wasn’t successful and Shaw disbanded, but LaCentra recorded 13 sides with Shaw in her time there.

Next came singing Benny Goodman, for all of two weeks. LaCentra didn’t like him. She quit and returned to Shaw, who was organizing his 1937 band in Boston. She stayed with Shaw for about two months and recorded four more sides, and then returned to radio work in New York. In 1938 she recorded  six sides under her own name on Bluebird, backed by the studio orchestra of Jerry Sears, and in 1939 NBC gave her her own “Peg LaCentra Show,” but it is unclear how long it ran.

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April 5, 1976: Berklee Performance Center Opens

Berklee concert advert Apr 28 1957
Before the BPC, Berklee used the John Hancock Hall

The Berklee College of Music opened its new Berklee Performance Center on April 5, 1976.

From its first days as Schillinger House, at 284 Newbury Street, the absence of a large performance space hampered Berklee. It could only cast its eyes covetously toward the New England Conservatory and its spectacular Jordan Hall. Berklee had to make do with rental space. Sometimes that was the New England Mutual Hall, but more often than not it was the John Hancock Hall, in the John Hancock Building (the one topped by the weather beacon), at Berkeley and Stuart Streets.

Berklee staged some memorable events at John Hancock Hall, such as Joe Viola’s Musical History of the Saxophone in October 1956, and the first Jazz International Concert in November 1958, showcasing Berklee’s foreign students: Toshiko Akiyoshi, Gabor Szabo, and Arif Mardin. And Berklee used the hall for commencements, speaking engagements, and other functions that attracted a crowd.

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Ain’t Misbehavin’ Comes to Boston

Ain’t Misbehavin,’ the revue based on the music of Fats Waller, opened at the Wilbur Theatre on February 28, 1979. Ain’t Misbehavin’ ran for over 1,600 performances on Broadway, winning the Tony award for Best Musical in 1978. Within weeks of its closing, the touring company, with Yvette Freeman leading the cast, set off to its first stop in Boston. The show included more than 25 tunes Waller wrote or played, including “The Jitterbug Waltz,” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “The Joint Is Jumpin’,” and “Keepin’ Out of Mischief Now.”

Ain't Misbehavin' Poster
1979 Ain’t Misbehavin’ Poster

There was a fine local band on hand to play Wallers music:  trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, Andy McGhee and Dick Johnson on reeds, trombonist Kenny Wenzel, bassist John Neves, and drummer Rudy Collins. The show’s pianist and musical director was J. Leonard Oxley.

Waller was a frequent visitor to Boston, at nightclubs of the late thirties and early forties like the Tic Toc and Southland. He also starred in stage shows at the RKO-Boston that were the inspiration for Ain’t Misbehavin,’ such as the Connie’s Inn Revue and the Hot From Harlem Revue, both from 1936. It was during the run of the latter show that Waller made the momentous appearance at the Theatrical Club that I described in The Boston Jazz Chronicles.

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Feb 11, 1960: World Premiere! Jazz on a Summer’s Day

Aram Avakian and Bert Stern’s Newport Jazz Fest film, Jazz on a Summer’s Day, had its world premiere at the Beacon Hill Theater on Feb 11, 1960. Boston has had its share of debut performances on the stage, especially back when the Hub was an important Broadway tryout town, but a film premiere was a rare thing. Stern’s camera was everywhere: on the stage, behind the scenes, in the crowd. So this documentary, all shot on the Saturday of the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival, received much scrutiny in the local press.

All the Boston papers covered the opening in their February 12 editions Most of the reporters liked it, even if they weren’t quite sure what they were seeing. Said the Traveler’s Alta Maloney: “This is a most unusual film, a treat for the eyes and ears.” The Globe’s Marjory Adams called it a “sure-fire pleasure,” with musical numbers that “offer emotional thrill and beauty to even a jazz ignoramous like myself.” The Record’s Elliot Norton didn’t like it, equating the fervent fan or player to an unrestrained barbarian, attempting “to blow or shake or shout his way back to a Neanderthal freedom, on a level close to that of the animals.” Finally on the 16th John McLellan, one of the emcees that day at Newport, wrote in his “Jazz Scene” column in the Traveler that “Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a film currently at the Beacon Hill, is a remarkably accurate picture of the Newport Jazz Festival.” Good enough for me, and besides the film has Louis and Mulligan and Monk and Mahalia Jackson and many more doing what they did best.

The film’s been lovingly restored, and I recommend it highly. And come on, weren’t you just gassed by Anita O’Day when you first saw this film?

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