Nov. 16, 2021

Boston's Combat Zone: The History of Adult Entertainment in Beantown.

Ep: 002 The Combat Zone, Boston's adult entertainment district, was given its moniker by the Boston Daily Record. "An adult Disneyland" is how it was described by the Wall Street Journal. In this episode you'll learn how an elegant neighborhood near a shopping district called Scollay Square turned into one of the most popular districts of the city, with burlesque shows and vaudeville acts.  While scandalous at the time, they were nothing compared to the strip shoes, adult bookstores, peep shows, and pornographic movie theaters that popped up in the Combat Zone as Scollay Square was coming down.  And it all happened with the support of the leaders of the city of Boston.

Anthony Sammarco joins Brad and shares a seedy side of Boston many citizens wish to forget.

You can get "The Other Red Line, Washington Street from Scollay Square to the Combat Zone" and many of his other books about the Boston area on his Amazon Author Page

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[00:00:00] Brad Shreve:  

[00:00:00] This is History Briefs, where you’ll hear bits of history you may know little or nothing about. All in 20 minutes or less. I’m Brad Shreve… 

[00:00:10] The world is divided in three groups. In the first group are people who have no idea what Boston’s Combat Zone was. The second are people who know of the Combat Zone through conversations, the news, or lived nearby at the time. And the third group is made up of those of you who know of it very well.  

[00:00:34] Shame on you group #3. 

[00:00:36] The Combat Zone was a designated area in Boston specifically for adult entertainment, such as X-Rated movies and strip clubs. I’ll give you a tour starting back in time well before the Combat Zone got its name. About 200 years before.  

[00:00:52] In 1795, Revolutionary War veteran, druggist, and real estate developer, William Scollay bought a two-story brick building plus surrounding [00:01:00] structures. Scollay moved into the brick building, gave it the unoriginal name Scollay’s Building and rented out the others. The area was near homes of Boston’s elite who kept specialty shops and law offices in business.  

[00:01:14] The area was becoming a busy commercial district and a bustling transportation hub of stage coaches bringing in citizens from communities outside the city. Since the stop had no name, the locals and drivers called the area Scolly’s Square, and city officials made the name official in 1838. 

[00:01:33] For a little insight, I talked with Anthony Sammarco, author of over 60 books on the Boston area, including The Other Red Line, Washington Street from Scollay Square to the Combat Zone.  

 Anthony Sammarco: In the period of the 17th and 18th century, I mean, Boston was a small town, but by the early part of the 19th century, when it embraced a municipal form of government in [00:02:00] 1822, all of a sudden Scollay square was the center. Um, transportation for all of Boston. And we saw not only people coming by stage coach and later on the bus, but even streetcars that were almost drawn from the surrounding cities and towns. 

[00:02:17] So it was a thriving bustling area of not really shops specialty shops to Garrett typists, but it was also adjacent to the very elegant west end, 

Brad Shreve: Growth of traffic in the area brought in ballrooms, grand dining rooms, and The Boston Museum, keeping it popular amongst the elite. Then a couple of horrible things happened. Well, horrible for the well-to-do living there.  

[00:02:42] There was an influx of immigrants, most notably Irish, who made Boston their home, and rail tracks were laid throughout the city. Horse drawn trolleys made it easier for the working class, immigrants, and oh my God, even sailors get around town.  

 [00:03:00] the Civil War, Boston’s well-to-do left Scollay Square as Burlesque and Vaudeville moved in. By the 1880s, Scollay Square was the commercial and entertainment center in Boston. On September 1st, 1897, 100,000 Bostonian’s flocked to ride the nation’s first subway on its inaugural day. Scollay Square was one of the 5 stops on the 3 ½ mile track, making it busier than ever. 

[00:03:25] Scollay Square was Boston’s equivalent to New York’s Time Square until the depression hit - Theaters became too expensive, and cheaper burlesque shows increased. The area struggled until something big happened – World War two. Scollay Square bounced back as Soldiers and sailors on leave, and others, flocked to the Square in mass numbers.  

[00:03:46] Missing from most historical recounts is the LGBTQ community. Being queer was kept underground, but many found burlesque shows and raunchy comedians enticing. The only (quote) gay bar (end quote) in Scollay Square was Playland [00:04:00] Café which opened in 1937. It wasn’t a designated a gay bar, but during the 1940s, it’s where locals met sailors, and was convenient to hotels that rented by the hour.  

[00:04:12] When the war ended, the district began its final downward spiral. Revenue decreased, and crime increased. Religious groups, such as The Boston Watch and Ward Society, gained political power and fought to end the moral decay. Mass exodus of the middle class from the cities to the suburbs also took its toll.  

[00:04:33] In 1953, the Boston vice squad raided the Howard Theater and filmed the indecency inside, including a performance by a striptease artist known as Irma the Tease. Irma dared to bare her breasts and was charged with “open and gross lewdness.” The 90-year-old theater and other businesses closed, and the area went into decay.  

[00:04:54] In the early 1960s, ten years after the Howard Theater was put out [00:05:00] of business. An effort began to wipe the filth from Scollay Square. City councilman Frederick Freddie Langone said, “We will be better off without these incubators of homo-sexuality and indecency and a bohemian way of life…we will uproot this cancer in one area of the city” 

[00:05:18] Langone and others got their way. In 1962 a new government center was approved and over 1,000 building were leveled. 20,000 residents were displaced. Little was left to show there ever was a Scollay Square. It was replaced by a seven-acre plaza of red brick and concrete. Of the 256 entries the city received in a contest to design a city hall, the judges selected what many residents refer to as the ugliest building in the world.  

[00:05:49] The pursuit to end immorality from the streets in a city of 800,000 people seems overly ambitious – and it was. As the Square was leveled, some of [00:06:00] the so-called filthy and indecent businesses moved only a half-mile away. The New Watch and Ward Society and other religious groups were about to see their worst nightmare. The new area was called “a sexual Disneyland” by the Wall Street Journal, was dubbed the Combat Zone by the Boston Daily Record. 

 Anthony Sammarco: The combat zone, which was within what we basically know in Boston has. The theater or entertainment district was something that was really only four blocks square. The combat zone, which was within what we basically know in Boston has. The theater or entertainment district was something that was really only four blocks square. 

[00:06:42] Between those four blocks that went the gamut from what, at one. First rate movie houses to adult player land. It had not only movies that were adult rated. It had striptease that had burlesque, but it also had, in some ways, things that by [00:07:00] the 1970s were thought to be raunchy  

[00:07:02] well in the 1950s. So the 1980s, early 1990s, well, the combat zone was a entertainments, but there was a sense of titillation and many people that went there thought, of course it was going to be the most wonderful evening of their life. 

 Brad Shreve: The Combat Zone also became popular within the gay community. In 1973, a Boston Globe reporter wrote, Now it is almost 3 a.m. and the gay bars have closed and the fags and hookers and pimps and pushers roam the streets. 

[00:07:36] In the mix with the Combat Zones X-rated movie theaters, strip clubs, and peep shows, some controlled by the mafia - there was crime, not just prostitution, of which there was plenty of, but dangerous, even deadly, crime. So, it may surprise you to learn the Combat Zone had the backing of the city of Boston. Not that the [00:08:00] city was in full support of salacious behavior and lewd businesses. They were forced to surrender.  

[00:08:06] In 1974, Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the state’s obscenity laws unconstitutional. The decision held sex business could operate in the Combat Zone…and anywhere else in Boston.  

[00:08:17] For years neighborhoods around the Combat Zone claimed pornographic businesses were bleeding into their communities. Now, the fear was the entire city could become a den of sin. 

[00:08:28]  The Boston Redevelopment Authority’s first thought was to use eminent domain to condemn and destroy the Combat Zone but abandoned the idea. Doing so would disperse the sex business around the city, where at least in the Combat Zone it was self-contained. Instead, they came up with a novel idea. While they couldn’t outlaw businesses they deemed obscene, they could implement zoning restrictions. So, in 1974, the city of Boston made a bold move and became America’s first city [00:09:00] to officially create a zone for adult entertainment.  

[00:09:03] While some Bostonians were outrage, the idea had diverse supporters including both conservatives and liberals. Containing adult entertainment proved to have positive and negative results. The positive is it kept the businesses in the Combat Zone within the Combat Zone. The negative was unexpected, crime got worse. Murder and felony cases increased. 

[00:09:24] Some people were injured. Some people died. And some had their careers destroyed.  

Anthony Sammarco: Wilbur mills, who was a Congressman from Arkansas. Was somebody who had been married for many years, he was thought to be highly regarded upstanding, man, and a human had once been a minor contender for the democratic nomination for the United States presidency. 

[00:09:46] I think that was a 1970s. But he was living in a complex in Washington when he was in session at Congress and he met a woman by the name of Fannie Fox. [00:10:00] Now her real name was Anabel best of best at tele. And she was an exotic dancer. 

Brad Shreve: In October 1974, Mills and Fox left a Washington DC burlesque house and the driver of the car they were in was pulled over near the Jefferson Memorial by the United States Park Police. The vehicle had been swerving and there were no lights on. In a state of panic, Fannie Foxe ran from the car screaming in English and Spanish and jumped into the tidal basin. The reason is still a guess. 

[00:10:36] Despite great scandal by a man some called the most powerful man in Washington, a forgiving public re-elected him the next month by a comfortable margin, and Fannie went back to being an exotic dancer, earning $3,000 a week because of the publicity. The Representative had been given a pass but then he blew it all when he followed Fannie [00:11:00] into the Pilgrim Theater. Where was the theater? You guessed it. In Boston’s Combat Zone. 

[00:11:06] Drunk and in the wings during Fannie’s performance, the Congressman catcalled and started toward the stage. The exotic dancer announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have a visitor for you, and he wants to say hello. Mr. Mills, where are you?” Mills responded, “Here I am,” took the mic and rambled incoherently, followed by a kiss on the cheek by Fannie.  

Anthony Sammarco: Sometimes the combat zone could be an alluring titillating place to go, but it also could destroy one's life will be wills was probably one of many people, both men and women whose lives were destroyed by this salacious red-light district. 

Brad Shreve: Others suffered a more tragic fate. 21-year-old Andy Puopolo was a Harvard senior and cornerback for the football team. One night in 1976, the players had a celebration dinner at the Harvard Club. Afterward [00:12:00] Andy and some fellow teammates went to the Naked-I Lounge in the Combat Zone. They were leaving the bar at closing time when a prostitute approached a member of the group and pulled a common trick. She distracted the young man by fondling him while taking his wallet. Andy Puopolo and a few others pursued the prostitute but were stopped by three men, which some reports dubbed as pimps. Andy and another young man were stabbed. Andy died in a coma 31 days later.  

[00:12:33] The story hit news outlets throughout the country, and the Boston Globe sold papers by keeping it going for some time. The Puopolo story led to a police crackdown on illegal activities. Bars were raided, liquor licenses revoked, and prostitutes moved on to other areas.  

[00:12:51] With time real estate values increased and adult businesses were squeezed out by high rise condominiums, hotels, and trendy cafes. Much [00:13:00] of it benefited from the growth of Chinatown, which was adjacent to the notorious zone.  

 Anthony Sammarco: In the period, roughly of the 1970s and 1980s, it really did become dangerous. And that in some ways it wasn't just pornography. It wasn't just videos. It wasn't just burlesque or the adult rated movies. But it was that aspect of crime and violence. Something really did entail a great deal of problems. So in some ways I think the whole idea was that by the early 1990s, as these new high rises were actually being built and attracting people to move into the downtown district that was called the combat zone. It was something that truly was the death knell and the nail on the coffin that actually ended. 

Brad Shreve: Today there are only two (ahem) gentleman’s clubs left in the area.  

[00:13:55] History Briefs is about history and not my opinions, but I am [00:14:00] going to speak out here. I’m sad the Combat Zone is gone. Not the crime, murders, drug dealers, prostitutes, or pimps. But the idea was fantastic. These vices will always exist, so why not keep them where they can be monitored? I was only in the combat zone once. I was using a shortcut to go to a tourist attraction.  

[00:14:24] I can only speak theoretically, but I believe tighter controls would have kept it going in a safer, less crime infested way, but I’ll never know if that’s true in Boston. Perhaps another major city will give it a try some day.  

[00:14:40] As for the adult entertainment district. It may no longer be the Combat Zone anymore, but the zoning was never changed and is still in the books.  

[00:14:51] Thank you, Anthony Sammarco for your insights. In the show notes I put a link to Anthony’s Amazon page where you’ll [00:15:00] find The Other Red Line, Washington Street from Scollay Square to the Combat Zone, and many of his other books.  

[00:15:08] If you enjoy History Briefs, get my newsletter. It will include addition information from episodes, and what’s coming up. You can subscribe on the website HISTORYBRIEFS.Com or click the link right there in the show notes.