WBUR

A Visual History Of Boston’s Combat Zone

Photographs used with permission from the artists.

WBUR’s Lisa Tobin co-produced and edited this story.

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  • Julie Jordan

    I was known as Julie Jordan/Miss Bicentennial one of the Headline acts at The Mousetrap from 1975 to 1978. – Since everything was red, white & blue in Boston I jokingly suggested to my costume designer, Hedy Jo Starr, that we have a patriotic stripper. She came up with an amazing 10 piece costume complete with top hat, cane, and a bolero cape. That chapter of my life was exciting, fun and very interesting. I was the baby who entered the world of Burlesque in it’s last days of existence. It was a job that was marred by shame and judgment by family,friends and some of the clientele. When asked by anyone outside of the Combat Zone “what do you do for a living? I had to carefully weigh my answer. Do I lie or go through their reaction of shock, judgment and questions. I met many wonderful women and customers and let’s not forget the bartenders who took care of us in their own ways. To this day I am very dear friends with 4 of the gentlemen I met at The Mousetrap. I feel lucky to have experienced a chapter of my life in Boston’s notorious Combat Zone. A place and time in history that will never be again. It was dark and light and full of characters. It was like living in a movie set except the dramas were real. It was a real privilege! You can write me: julie713@cox.net

  • Howiewho

    I was on board the USS Wasp 1959-1961. I loved the combat zone and the salvation army. I use to go in 4 different bars, 18 yrs old. Bar maids would take me to the back and give me a beer,with sandwich. I went into a bar off Washington street,a guy at the bar wanted to buy me a beer, the bartender(friend) threw me out. I came by later in the day, he said there was hit out on the guy.

  • http://www.journeymanstudios.com Patrick Johnson

    Fantastic collection of articles and photographs that really bring this place/period in history to life! The graphic artist in me also appreciated the layout/presentation. Much love to WBUR!

  • http://www.toonstoonstoons.net Michael Shapiro

    The Combat Zone had a certain amount of mythic power. Back in the 70′s a friend of mine died of a heart attack. He was in his thirties. In reality, he died on the dance floor at Dance Free. Some time later, he came to me in a dream and intimated that he had been murdered in the combat zone. It seemed better for his myth, as if that was how he’d rather be remembered. So now, when I think of him, I am as likely to think of the Combat Zone as I am to think of Dance Free.

  • Mike B

    The ‘Zone’ represents memories of my youth in terms of a place not to go because of the rough characters that hung out there. As I got older, I’d take a long peek now and then and found out that there was more than just a handful of sleazy people and drunks, but also employees of TNMC and other decent business people walking to their jobs. Sadly, women office workers would get hassled by ‘legitimate businessmen’(usually morons who thought that they were something) assuming that they were prostitutes, just because they were heading to and from the medical center.

    I grew up mostly in the suburbs and for the guys who had younger brothers, the ‘Zone’ was a place to take them on their 18th birthday. Supposedly, the experience they received there would make ‘men’ out of them. If they weren’t lying about the time they spent there, they probably came back with a good case of the Clepp or VD. Dummies. That was the mindset of the mid to late 70′s. Thanks for the memories, Combat Zone. Good riddance!

  • Dot Lutterbaugh

    Back in the 60′s I loved the combat Zone. They had some great bands play there. I met my husband in Jerome’s in 1966. He was on the USS Wasp. We were married 33 years before he died. My friends and I always felt safe in Jeromes. We went back after it all changed to adult sleeze. we hated it and never went back.

  • Carolyn Donovan

    Right, the Combat Zone was quaint. No druggies, no hookers, no pimps; everything was above-board and charming. Nothing that would damage a young woman for the rest of her life. Nothing that would objectivize a female. And everybody went there for the high-class dancing. Of course.

  • Carolyn Donovan

    Right, the Combat Zone was quaint. No drug/alcohol-addicted street people, no hookers, no violence, no objectification of women. Nothing that might damage a young woman’s sense of self. And everybody went there to see the high-class dancing. Of course.

  • Carolyn Donovan

    Right, the Combat Zone was quaint. No drug/alcohol-addicted street people, no hookers, no violence, no objectification of women. Nothing that might damage a young woman’s sense of self, everyone was there for fun and positive experiences. And everybody went there to see the high-class dancing. Of course.

  • Suzy Burns

    I was a costume designer in the Combat Zone, among other places, from the early 80s until the late 90s. I loved my work and felt that the Zone was an opportunity for me to make and sell the weird things I usually came up with just for fun. The women I met through my job were mostly wonderful, intelligent individuals who wanted an alternative way to make a living. It was, of course, not for everyone. No one talks about the strength, both physical and mental, that is necessary to endure the stress of such a job. Where else could one make such a good living for doing 4 aerobic workouts a day?
    I saw women who worked consistently at the clubs go on to open their own businesses, put themselves through college, and attain a level of independence not possible in the 9 to 5 thing. Sure, there was an element of sleaze but it tended to be in the eye of the beholder, as one makes of oneself what they would have in any occupation. If you use your head in your life, you will do so in this extraordinary situation as well.
    I was sad when I realized that the show was over as far as the main source of income for me, but I always knew that the position was temporary. I still make weird stuff.

  • Steve Leeman

    To this day, I miss the Combat Zone. As a young man in the late sixties, it, to me, was by far the most exciting place in Boston, if only to sit in King of Pizza and people watch. I actually got my start in music playing drums (believe it or not) on Sunday afternoons in the Two O’clock Lounge. Back when they had a cheesy organ and a backbeat to “take it off ” to!
    What a mysterious, film noir kind of feel the place had. I was always comfortable there, except I NEVER wanted to walk up LaGrange St. at night. That place gave me the creeps. I think the fact “The Zone” was on the edge of the equally “mysterious” Chinatown lent it an even deeper sense of intrigue.
    Love looking at the old photos–they bring back a lot of fond memories.

  • NU ZONE NEEDED

    WE NEED A NEW COMBAT ZONE WITH FRESH MEAT .

    HOW DO WE KEEP PRICES DOWN A SUCH A PLACE?

  • Johnny Druid

    So funny! I met Julie Cox with a girl who worked with me at the old Filenes Basement back on a brutally cold and windy (like 20 below wind chill) night. We went bar hopping and she wanted to go see a strip show. I took here to the Mousetrap where Julie was headlining, and my friend was wowed by her outfit! Such a long time ago and such fun memories!

  • Robert Dalziel

    I’ve been to many red light districts in the past 35 years and I have to say that the Combat Zone was the nastiest, lowest class humpty dump of them all. The theaters stank worse than anything outside of Hell & the bars were disgusting fly traps. I’m amazed by the nostalgia for such a cesspool. Anyone who could write “It was never as dangerous as urban legend would have us believe” and “pretty girls” when describing the Combat Zone obviously had never been there. It was an awful place, and the girls were the ugliest in the world. The only thing the Combat Zone is memorable for is giving the world Barney Frank.

  • John L. A. Gullo

    I don’t know what you all is talking about, the combat zone was across the river from Chelse? I was the only white boy there, In 1971 it was all Bros, not white,who ever could imagine that someone would say it was nice.

  • Rawart90

    “if only to sit in King of Pizza and people watch” ( sounds like me! lol ) I did that all the time and I walked those streets @ all hours ( had to if I wanted to return the Coast Guard Base! ) I never was afraid or had a bad incident there. circa 1969-71 alumni, lol, Glenn

  • Pingback: Can of Worms « Back Bay Baby

  • Julie

    Too bad you never saw the women I saw. Some real beauties and I was one of them!

  • Julie713

    You are right Carolyn , it had all the elements you mention. Some of us were burdened by our conscience. A real spiritual dilemma. and still it was a fascinating experience – and Carolyn in case you hadn’t noticed life outside the Combat Zone.. ya know, in the real world including middle class and upper middle class mom & dads and kids and adults, teachers, priests, lawyers, Boy Scout leaders also struggle with addiction, violence, objectification of women, drugs, alcohol etc.. at least the Zone gave struggling women enough money to put themselves through college, give their children what they needed, have some fun being theatrical and choose whether or not they would do drugs, alcohol, prostitution and feel belittled.. or empowered.

  • Partinlawtontanya

    This is good for knowledge of such places. I have a history there myself.

  • Julie Lawson

    Johnny can you tell me the cross streets of  The Mousetrap? – write me at julie713@cox.net

  • David

    been there done that !

  • David

    I had a business in the “Zone” for 20 years legal as well as Boston Police supported,” illegal” dispite the opinions that it was a bad area in those days, people from every walk of life visited our streets after dark, after the freedom trail visits, after the Boston Common visits with those family swan boat rides, everybody made there way to the “Zone” to look, get involved, take in a show, buy some adult supplies, along with the fulfillment of some good old fashion american red blooded tax paying, church going , sexual freedoms so keep in mind the “Zone” would have never been what it was had it not had the blessings of the local law inforcement, as long as they got there cut!!…..

    • http://WomenofFaith.com Tanya Partin Lawton

      God knows those days are way over for me.  I am studying to be a minister full-time in the ministry.  I would to help anyone that use to do this and one’s that are in it presently to be saved.  These are the ‘Last Days and the places that still remain are ‘Sodom and Gomorah’.

  • LesleeAlln

    You were probably the one who said “She’s ok if you like to see a woman chewing bubble gum”.  I was pretty and was amazed at the amount of beauty that surrounded me.  I thought the audiences were fabulous!!  I was Amber.  I will always miss the fun of that long bar as a stage.  Loved it, and the friends I made and all the  bar tenders (ERNIE RIP) and Teddy Venus treated me like a queen.  I loved the  band also!!  Love You 2′OClock Club!!  China Town After Also!!!

  • LesleeAlln

    Julie,
    I have read a few of your posts and I feel the same way you do about that time.  My name was Amber and I danced at the Teddybear until it closed.  We all left pictures there for the workers who were going to tear down the place.  I loved working there and I loved the bartenders and Bucky.  Yes, they did help us all through all the delightful drama!!

  • Therevv

    I used to hang around the Zone back in the 60′s.  Me and a couple of guys were walking down the street one night when we saw someone lying in the street.  When we asked a guy in a doorway what happened, he said, “a smart man would keep on walkin’”, which we did. 

  • Partinlawtontanya

    What are you talking about?  There were white guys everywhere.

  • Acapete

    I was on board the wasp the same years as you.
    What division were you in?Pete

  • Acapete

    I was on board the wasp the same years as you.
    What division were you in?Pete

  • Dawn Govender

    I can remember it years ago—it really wasn’t that bad. There were beat cops everywhere, the streets were brightly lit, and the clubs had big bouncers who took their jobs seriously. The clubs were great for a night out dancing…live bands, lots of people, drinks weren’t that expensive. At least that is how it was in the late 60s.

  • Violet

    I worked at several places in the Combat Zone in 1967-68, including the Pussy Cat lounge (see last pic above). I had more trouble with the owners than I ever did with customers!

    I can’t speak for the other clubs, but the clubs I worked at had pretty girls—VERY pretty girls.  We had to audition to show we could dance, we had to have nice figures and pretty faces, or we’d be told to go elsewhere. This was before topless, so we had to have pretty faces, be friendly, and  be creative with our costumes and our dancing ability since we didn’t have nudity to capture the customers’ attention.

    I have no regrets about my time in the CZ. It was far from a degrading experience: quite the contrary, it was very empowering! I was coming out of a bad marriage, had no work skills, and two little kids. Dancing in the Zone gave me money enough to live on and to eventually get out of Boston and back to the West Coast (my home) where I continued working as a dancer for another 4 years.

    No troubles, no hassles, no regrets.

    (Oh, and for those of you who think we were all druggies, consider this: the person who gave me my first joint was a “straight” guy–he worked as a junior high school teacher!–not someone in one of the clubs! Maybe I was naive, but when I worked the clubs there, I didn’t see dope. If we needed something, we hit up the bartender for a freebie!) 

    • Jessica

      Hi Violet— I’m writing about striptease and the CZ and would be interested in knowing more about your experiences– if you get this email me at jessicaberson@yahoo.com.  Thanks!

  • jim

    I am 51 years old and grew up with the mystique of The Zone in my house everyday. Throught most of the 60s and early70s my dad worked there.

    I was wondering if anyone out there might remember him.

    In the 60s he worked at The Sugar Shack and then later went on to run some of the bookstores.

    His name was Carlo. If anyone knows anything of him or has any memories, I would like to hear them.

    Please, email me at Sonny21043@aol.com.
    @aol:disqus 
    Please, put Carlo in the subject box. Thank you.

  • Zoner32

    Lost my car once there lol, went bar hopping, and walked 3 hrs until I found it, not to mention getting my wallet stolen and chasing the hooker into an dark alley where It was me, her, and her 6″5″ pimp who looked at me like I was nuts and said what you doin here? I said Hey just want my wallet back, stunned , he gave it back (less cash) but gave me all my papers , license etc….told me to turn around and leave and dont come back….Geez I always remember wondering if he was gonna shoot my sorry drunk ass , but I guess he though i either had huge cojones or just plain stupid and felt sorry for me , lol

    • Leroy

      I shoulda shot your dumb ass, lol

  • george martinelli

    anyone remember me, GEORGE MARTINELLI frontman for the FERRARI’S OF CANADA at jeromes in boston. had alot of fun singing back then,i’m on facebook if you’d like to share.

  • GEORGE MARTINELLI

    george martinelli

  • GEORGE MARTINELLI

    GEORGE MARTINELLI

  • GEORGE MARTINELLI

    GEORGE DOING ELVIS

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