Combat Zone, Boston

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The State Theatre, 1967
by Nick DeWolf

Combat Zone was the name given to the adult entertainment district in downtown Boston, Massachusetts in the 1960s. It was centered on Washington Street between Boylston Street and Kneeland Street.[1]


The name "Combat Zone" was popularized through a series of exposé articles written by Jean Cole on the area published in the 1960s in the Boston Daily Record newspaper.[2] The name had a double meaning in that it was an area known for crime and violence, but also in that many soldiers and sailors on shore leave from the Boston Navy Yard would frequent the many strip clubs and brothels in uniform giving the streets an appearance of a war zone.[3]


The Combat Zone began to form in the early 1960s, when city officials razed the West End and former red light district at Scollay Square, near Faneuil Hall, to build the Government Center urban renewal project. Displaced Scollay Square denizens relocated to the area because it was only half a mile away, the rents were low,[4] and the residents of nearby Chinatown lacked the political power to keep them out.[5]

Lower Washington Street was already part of Boston's entertainment district with a number of movie theaters, bars, delicatessens and restaurants that catered to night life. It was located between the classic, studio-built movie palaces such as the RKO-Keith and Paramount theaters and the stage theaters such as the Colonial on Boylston Street.[6] With the closing of the burlesque theaters in Scollay Square many of the bars began to feature go-go dancers and later nude dancers. During the 1970s, when laws against obscenity were relaxed,[7] many of the smaller movie theaters then running second-run films switched to showing adult movies.

Peak years: Mid-1960s – Late 1970s[edit]

The Naked i
by Peter Vanderwarker.

During the Combat Zone's heyday, some of the larger strip clubs were the Teddy Bare Lounge, the Two O'Clock Club, Club 66 and the Naked i Cabaret. (The Naked i was known for its iconic animated neon sign which superimposed an eye over a woman's crotch.)[8] Besides the strip clubs and X-rated movie theaters, numerous peep shows and adult bookstores lined most of Washington Street between Boylston Street and Kneeland Street. In 1976, the Wall Street Journal called the area "a sexual Disneyland."[9]

The prevailing attitude towards homosexuality at the time was one of intolerance. The Combat Zone's more open atmosphere attracted many LGBT people, some of whom moved to the neighboring South End to be near it.[10] Part of lower Washington Street became known as the "Gay Times Square."[11] Popular gathering spots included the Playland Café on Essex Street, "known for its sketchy clientele, banged-up piano, and year-round Christmas lights"[12] and popular among drag queens;[13] the Stuart Theater on Washington Street;[10] and many others. Nearby Park Square and Bay Village were home to several gay and drag bars, such as the Punch Bowl and Jacques' Cabaret.[14]

The Combat Zone's detractors often grouped homosexuals, transvestites, prostitutes, strippers, purveyors of adult books and films, and drug dealers together under an umbrella of perceived immorality. Jeremiah Murphy wrote in a 1973 Boston Globe article about the Combat Zone, "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."[15] In a 1974 Boston Herald article, representatives of the Sack Theater Chain called the Combat Zone "Satan's playground" and "a malignancy comprised of pimps, prostitutes, erotica, and merchants of immorality" whose growth had to be removed.[16] As late as 1984 the Globe was referring to certain theaters in the Zone as "notorious gathering places for homosexuals."[17]

The Combat Zone was also racially diverse at a time when other Boston neighborhoods were relatively segregated.[18] In his memoir, Jonathan Tudan recalls the tension in his Tremont Street building over news of an impending police raid in 1969. Along with the drug dealers and prostitutes, he writes, "mixed-race couples shacking up have begun to nervously doubt their freedom."[19]


The Pilgrim Theatre, 1960s.
City Censor, City of Boston

LaGrange Street, a small one-way street which runs between Washington and Tremont Streets, was the principal gathering spot for street prostitutes. Most congregated near "Good Time Charlie's" at 25 LaGrange Street.[20] The Pilgrim Theater, one of the last old time burlesque houses, was the site of a political scandal when in December 1974 the then Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Wilbur Mills, seemingly inebriated, appeared on stage with stripper Fanne Foxe, "The Argentine Firecracker".[9] The Pilgrim then ceased to feature live shows, instead focusing on X-rated movies, and became a cruising site for men to have (paid or unpaid) sex with men.[21]

State Representative Barney Frank made a name for himself in the mid-1970s as a political defender of the Combat Zone. Frank's district contained neighborhoods bordering the Zone. Frank took a libertarian view on vice, bucking the consensus that the area needed to be "cleaned up." At the same time he wanted to prevent the Zone's adult businesses from spreading into the affluent Beacon Hill and Back Bay neighborhoods where they might disturb his constituents.[9] In 1975, with the support of Boston Police Commissioner Robert DiGrazia,[22] Frank introduced a bill that would have legalized the sex-for-hire business but kept it quarantined in a red light district, which would be moved to Boston's Financial District. The Financial District was not populated at night, unlike the areas abutting the Combat Zone.[23][24]

The Combat Zone had other supporters. Boston Mayor Kevin White was in favor of allowing adult businesses to operate within defined boundaries,[25] as was conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr.[26] In 1975 White made headlines when he made an unannounced tour of the Combat Zone, visiting several establishments where he went largely unrecognized.[27] When approached by a prostitute on LaGrange Street, White replied, "Thank you, I'm too old."[9]

Many Combat Zone prostitutes, both male and female, were minors.[28] In 1975, 97 girls under the age of 17 were arrested in the Combat Zone for prostitution. A spokesperson for the Boston Police Department called that "the tip of the iceberg," explaining that minors were more often charged with being a Child in Need of Services.[29] Audrey Morrissey, a former underage Combat Zone prostitute who went on to become the associate director of a victims' service agency, recalled that in her day, underage prostitutes were held responsible for what would now be considered a crime against them, while johns were rarely arrested.[30]

Drink solicitation[edit]

Another controversial practice that was common in the Combat Zone was drink solicitation. In violation of Boston's "mingling" regulations, dancers and hostesses at some bars were paid to socialize with customers and encourage them to buy drinks.[31] Bars were occasionally raided and shut down for "B-girl activity."[32]


1974 zoning map of Boston's adult entertainment district.
Boston Redevelopment Authority

In 1974, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court declared the state's obscenity laws unconstitutional, city officials feared that Boston was about to become a "mecca of pornography."[33] The Boston Redevelopment Authority tried to contain the spread of adult businesses by designating the Combat Zone as the official adult entertainment district.[34] This district was exempted from the usual ban on flashing neon signs.[35] At the same time, the BRA made ambitious plans to improve the area's aesthetics. That year, funding was approved for Liberty Tree Park, a small park near the site of the historic Liberty Tree, as "the first step in improving the Combat Zone."[36]

Boston was the first American city to establish a specific zone for adult entertainment.[34] Most cities, such as Detroit, used zoning regulations to disperse adult businesses and prevent them from forming a district.[37]


The Combat Zone's demise can be attributed to a number of factors. Among them are the rising property values that made the downtown locations more attractive to real estate developers,[38] the closure of the Boston Navy Yard,[39] and the introduction of home video and the Internet, which made it possible to view adult movies and other erotica at home without going to a red light district.[40]

Another factor was the city's own ambivalence towards the area. Despite the BRA's plans to improve the Combat Zone, the area suffered from municipal neglect. Throughout the mid-1970s, the city neglected the Zone's streetlights, policing, and garbage pickup, fostering an atmosphere of urban blight and criminality.[41][42][24] Street prostitutes became bolder, often picking pockets and robbing passersby. Other types of crime such as drug trafficking and illegal gun sales proliferated, and violent crime increased. In 1976, just before leaving office, Police Commissioner Robert DiGrazia released a 572-page Special Investigations Unit report to the press documenting widespread police corruption, neglect, and brutality in the Zone, and alleging police involvement with the Angiulo crime family.[43][42][24] Just two weeks later, the highly publicized murder of Harvard football player Andrew Puopolo focused attention on crime in the area.[44]

Years of grassroots activism by neighboring Chinatown residents, aggressive police work, use of bureaucratic procedures to discourage adult businesses,[41] and massive urban renewal projects instigated by the Boston Redevelopment Authority have helped to stem crime and close most of the adult businesses.[45] All that remains of the former Combat Zone are two small strip clubs, Centerfolds and The Glass Slipper, along LaGrange Street, and a few adult book and video stores on Washington and Kneeland streets.[24] Street prostitution has moved to other parts of town, such as Blue Hill Avenue in Dorchester.[46]

A new Emerson College dormitory (and eventual relocation of the entire campus),[47] Suffolk University administrative offices, a relocated branch of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles, a new $300 million development which includes a Ritz-Carlton Hotel and a Loews cinema, and a renovated Boston Opera House all opened in the area in the late 1990s and early 2000s.[45] In 2006 a luxury apartment tower, the Archstone Boston Common, was erected at the corner of Washington and Beach streets.[48] The historic Hayden Building on Washington Street, once home to an adult movie theater and a gay bathhouse, was renovated in 2013 and now houses luxury apartments and retail space.[49]

Notable performers[edit]

Chesty Morgan, an exotic dancer known for her 73-inch bust, regularly performed at the Pilgrim Theater. In August 1974, the theater's owner claimed, "She was like a god out of the heavens for us. She saved the theater and I hope she can do it again."[50][51]

Princess Cheyenne, another celebrated exotic dancer, performed at the Naked i in the 1970s and 1980s.[52]

Sylvia Sidney, "Boston's most (in)famous drag queen"[53] regularly performed at clubs in the Combat Zone. Sidney was named for the actress Sylvia Sidney.[10]

Comedian Jay Leno got his start doing stand-up in the Two O'Clock Club and the Teddy Bare Lounge in the Combat Zone.[54]

Jazz musicians Sabby Lewis, Dick Wetmore, and Bullmoose Jackson played regularly at the Gilded Cage on Boylston Street in the 1960s. The Gilded Cage was destroyed in 1966 when a leaking gas main exploded in the nearby Paramount Hotel, causing a five-alarm fire that killed 11 people.[55][56]

Before the demolition of Scollay Square, there was already at least one strip bar in what would later become known as the Combat Zone: Izzy Ort's Bar & Grille at 25 Essex Street. Many notable jazz musicians played there in the 1940s and early 1950s, including Quincy Jones, Ruby Braff, Sam Rivers, Herb Pomeroy, and others.[57] Entertainer Sammy Davis, Jr. sang and danced there when he lived in Boston.[58]

The Silver Dollar Bar, which later became the Two O'Clock, was Frank O'Hara's favorite bar when he studied at Harvard.[59] Like Izzy Ort's, it was a live music venue as well as a popular hangout for sailors. Among others, George Wein, Nat Pierce, Ray Perry, and Fat Man Robinson played there.[60]

In art and popular culture[edit]

The Combat Zone is briefly mentioned in Stephen King's 2011 novel 11/22/63.[61]

In 2010 the Howard Yezerski Gallery in Boston (now the Miller Yezerski Gallery) hosted an exhibit titled "Boston Combat Zone: 1969-1978," featuring black-and-white photographs by Roswell Angier, Jerry Berndt, and John Goodman.[40] After attending the exhibit, several former Combat Zone entertainers remarked on its grim tone, saying it showed only the downside and none of the liveliness of the area.[62]

In Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996), the characters Pemulis and Struck are alleged patrons of the Combat Zone after the district's relocation to "east of the Common."[63]

Part 3 of Lynda Hull's seven-part poem, "Suite for Emily" (1993), describes the Combat Zone. Hull, an award-winning poet, lived for a time in Boston's Chinatown.[64]

A 1983 episode of the Boston-set television series Cheers ("Showdown, Part 1") includes a moment when Ernie Pantusso invites Sam Malone to the Combat Zone, to see "a girlie show." In a subsequent episode ("How Do I Love Thee?... Let Me Call You Back" (8 Dec. 1983)"), the gang returns to the bar after a night at the Combat Zone led by Carla.[65]

"Lightning Strikes" by Aerosmith (1982) mentions the Combat Zone.[66]

See also[edit]

Image gallery[edit]


  1. ^ Giorlandino, Salvatore S. (1986). "The Origin, Development, and Decline of Boston's Adult Entertainment District: The Combat Zone". Massachusetts Institute of Technology. p. 14. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  2. ^ Vrabel, Jim (2004). When in Boston: A Time Line & Almanac. Northeastern University Press. p. 327. ISBN 9781555536206. 
  3. ^ Giorlandino. p. 10
  4. ^ Giorlandino, pp. 12-14.
  5. ^ Berson, Jessica. "Dancing in the Combat Zone: Striptease, Nostalgia, and Urban Renewal". Oxford University Press (forthcoming). Retrieved 18 December 2014. 
  6. ^ "Paramount Theatre Study Report". City of Boston. Boston Landmarks Commission. 1983. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Giorlandino, pp. 19-20. Miller vs. California (1973) and Commonwealth vs. Horton (1974).
  8. ^ Cook, Greg (February 16, 2010). "A walk on the wild side". The Phoenix. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  9. ^ a b c d Ashbrook, Tom (Aug 2, 1988). "The Zone Going the Way of All Flesh". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  10. ^ a b c "Boston Combat Zone". UMass Boston LGBT History Wiki. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  11. ^ History Project (1999). Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland. Beacon Press. p. 164. ISBN 9780807079492. 
  12. ^ Sullivan, Robert David (December 2, 2007). "Last Call". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  13. ^ "Historical Dives". Boston Online. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  14. ^ Blanding, Michael (July 2003). "The Bay Village Drag Bar War". Boston Magazine. Retrieved 20 December 2014. 
  15. ^ Murphy, Jeremiah (February 23, 1973). "Boston at night: The excitement turns to fright". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 20 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Giorlandino, p. 26
  17. ^ Farrell, David (December 23, 1984). "Ray Flynn's War on Combat Zone". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 20 December 2014. 
  18. ^ Smith, Ron (March 7, 1976). "Beautiful, bustling Boston". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 16 December 2014. The Italians of the North End, the Brahmins of Beacon Hill, the blacks of Mission Hill, the super-rich of Chestnut Hill, the blue-collar workers of East Cambridge, and the Irish of South Boston all live in enclaves of clannishness.  Note that the article touts the Combat Zone as one of the city's modern tourist attractions.
  19. ^ Tudan, Jonathan (2008). Lovers, Muggers & Thieves: A Boston Memoir. Hawk Nest Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-1-60702-396-8. 
  20. ^ Allis, Sam (March 7, 2010). "This was where hookers, johns, and trouble met". Retrieved 30 January 2015. 
  21. ^ Matza, Michael (September 12, 1994). "Bostonians Clash Over The Sites Of Adult Businesses - Preservationists Want To Save The 19th-century Buildings.". Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  22. ^ Weisberg, Stewart E. (2009). Barney Frank: The Story of America's only Left-handed, Gay, Jewish Congressman. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press. p. 125. ISBN 1-55849-721-8. 
  23. ^ "A Frank Suggestion: Hookers in the Financial District", Boston Herald-American, November 25, 1976
  24. ^ a b c d Fischer, Anne Gray (September 29, 2009). "Anne Gray Fischer Presents a History of 'The Combat Zone'". Vernacular. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  25. ^ Farrell, David (March 2, 1975). "Combat Zone headed for trouble". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 15 December 2014. The mayor's recent tour of the strip joints in the Combat Zone and Park Square and his generous comments about these establishments left no doubt that he supports Boston Redevelopment Authority plans to glorify the area. 
  26. ^ Buckley, Jr., William F. (June 21, 1974). "Boston's newest arrangement with sin". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 16 December 2014. The Boston experiment should be indulged. 
  27. ^ AP (February 8, 1975). "'Combat Zone' tour eyeful for mayor". The Saturday Citizen. p. 149. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  28. ^ McNaught, Sarah (October 27, 1997). "The lost boys". The Boston Phoenix. 
  29. ^ Negri, Gloria (November 16, 1976). "New views on juvenile prostitution". The Boston Globe. 
  30. ^ Botelho, Alyssa (August 19, 2013). "AG takes steps against human trafficking". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 31 January 2015. 
  31. ^ "597 F. 2d 295 - Olitsky v. O'Malley". 1979. Retrieved 29 January 2015. 
  32. ^ "Combat Zone Hit by Fire, Raids". The Boston Globe. April 2, 1967. Four men and five women were booked after the raids involving B-girl operations. They were arraigned in Boston Municipal Court charged with larceny by means of false pretenses. 
  33. ^ Giorlandino, p. 20
  34. ^ a b Jordan, Robert (November 15, 1974). "Boston board approves zone for adult shows". The Boston Globe. 
  35. ^ "Text amendment no. 38 (BRA 4566)". Boston Redevelopment Authority. 1974. 
  36. ^ AP (August 31, 1974). "Liberty Tree Park Set to Go". The Lewiston Daily Sun. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  37. ^ Clapp, James A. (April 1988). "'X' Marks the Spot: The Problem of the Erogenous Zone of the American City". Revue française d'études américaines (Editions Berlin) (36): 225–234. 
  38. ^ Giorlandino, p. 49
  39. ^ Kaufman, Jonathan (December 27, 1984). "From Scollay Sq. Tattoo Parlors to Combat Zone Porno Films". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 17 December 2014. By the early 1970s, Boston was no longer a port of call for the military. 
  40. ^ a b Feeney, Mark (March 7, 2010). "A Vanished World of Sex, Squalor, Captured in Black and White". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  41. ^ a b Schaefer, Eric; Johnson, Eithne; Jenkins III, Henry, ed. (2003). "Quarantined! A Case Study of Boston's Combat Zone". Hop on Pop: The Politics and Pleasures of Popular Culture. Duke University Press. pp. 430–453. ISBN 9780822383505. 
  42. ^ a b Giorlandino, p. 39
  43. ^ "Partial text of report on Police District One". The Boston Globe. November 9, 1976. 
  44. ^ Heineman, Zachary R. (June 4, 2002). "Brutal Murder of Student Leaves Class of 1977 Shocked, Mourning". The Harvard Crimson. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  45. ^ a b Noonan, Erica (December 6, 1998). "Boston residents fear return of combat zone". Associated Press. 
  46. ^ Martin, Phillip (2013). "Prostituted Women In Mass. Pay Greater Price Than 'Johns'". WGBH News. Retrieved 31 January 2015. 
  47. ^ Kloc, Melissa (December 11, 2009). "Looking back on Boylston and Tremont's badder days....". JSONS. Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  48. ^ "Archstone Boston Common". Emporis. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  49. ^ Grillo, Thomas (March 8, 2013). "New projects wipe away more vestiges of Combat Zone". Boston Business Journal. Retrieved 17 December 2014. 
  50. ^ "Chesty Morgan". Boobpedia. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  51. ^ "Honky Tonk Theater Fights for Life". Portsmouth Herald. August 26, 1974. p. 23. 
  52. ^ O'Brien, Keith (January 22, 2006). "Exposed". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  53. ^ History Project. "Public Faces, Private Lives: Sylvia Sidney". The History Project. Retrieved 13 December 2014. 
  54. ^ Santosuosso, Ernie (January 21, 1983). "Comedy Clubs Serious Business to Jay Leno". The Boston Globe. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  55. ^ "May 27, 1963: Frazier Visits the Gilded Cage". Troy Street Publishing. Retrieved 16 December 2014. 
  56. ^ "Summary of Fire Incidents 1934–2006 in Hotel Fires in the United States as Reported to the NFPA, with Ten or more Fatalities". National Fire Protection Association. January 2008. Retrieved December 3, 2010. 
  57. ^ Vacca, Richard (October 2, 2013). "Never a Dull Moment at Izzy Ort’s". Troy Street Publishing. Retrieved 23 December 2014. 
  58. ^ Santosuosso, Ernie (May 17, 1990). "Sammy Davis Jr., Entertainer for Six Decades, Dies at 64". The Boston Globe. 
  59. ^ Shand-Tucci, Douglass (2004). The Crimson Letter: Harvard, Homosexuality, and the Shaping of American Culture. Macmillan. p. 208. ISBN 9780312330903. 
  60. ^ "May 23, 1954: “Rum-Saturated” Silver Dollar Bar Under Fire". Troy Street Publishing. Retrieved 19 January 2015. 
  61. ^ King, Stephen (2011). 11/22/63. p. 278. ISBN 9781451660807. 
  62. ^ Cohen, Julie M. (February 25, 2010). "Exhibit is a flashback to Boston's Combat Zone". MetroWest Daily News. Retrieved 7 February 2015. 
  63. ^ Wallace, David Foster (1996). Infinite Jest. Boston: Little Brown. p. 428. ISBN 9780316073851. 
  64. ^ Hull, Lynda. "Suite for Emily". Poetry Foundation. Retrieved 13 February 2015. 
  65. ^ Bjorklund, Dennis. Cheers TV Show: A Comprehensive Reference. Praetorian Publishing. ISBN 9780967985237. 
  66. ^ "Aerosmith - Lightning Strikes". Retrieved 16 December 2014. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 42°21′05″N 71°03′46″W / 42.3515°N 71.0628°W / 42.3515; -71.0628