A research and writing project that I never seem to have enough time for is one I’ve tagged “Boston 1930.” That’s shorthand for the period encompassing the later years of Prohibition and the first years of the Great Depression—roughly the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s.
This is a fascinating but often overlooked period in Boston history, a time when the city was in decline and faced an uncertain future. This isn’t so much a “big issues” story, though. The tragic collapse of the Pickwick Club, which the popular press blamed on partiers dancing the Charleston, is the opening event. The big issues have received serious scrutiny, and I do not intend rehash what we already know about James Michael Curley, or Sacco and Vanzetti. Rather, I look at Boston 1930 as a prequel to The Boston Jazz Chronicles, focused on the cultural history of the place and time.
The central character is the bandleader Mal Hallett, an enormously popular entertainer in 1930, but almost unknown today. His rise to prominence was guided by the brothers Charlie and Sy Shribman, band managers and ballroom operators from nearby Salem who became kingmakers in the swing years of the 1930s.
Hallett isn’t the only music man we’ll meet. There were other bandleaders such as Leo Reisman, Jacques Renard, and Joe Rines. They were whites, but there were black bandleaders too, including Eddie Deas, Gene Goodrum, and George Tynes.
Then there were the saxophonists. Boston seemed to be a training ground for saxophonists, including such notables as Harry Carney, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Holmes, and Toots Mondello. So there were jazz players making their way through the bigger ballroom and social dancing scene. In 1930, America just loved to dance.
There were notable characters outside of music too, such as Prohibition-era policeman Oliver Garrett, who while under investigation for his own questionable activities, became a fugitive from justice himself. Newspaperman Larry Goldberg chased that story and many others. Gangster David “Beano” Breen was public enemy number one (that’s his funeral procession in the photo above; he was shot dead in the lobby of the Broadway Hotel). Governor Joseph B. Ely, a “wet” who vigorously opposed Prohibition, led the effort to repeal the 18th amendment.
These were the years when people were fascinated by all things related to aviation, took up miniature golf by the thousands, and first enjoyed the Boston Pops concerts at the Hatch Shell under the baton of Arthur Fiedler. These were years of grand openings: the Sumner Tunnel, the Ritz-Carlton and Statler hotels, the Boston Garden, the mighty Metropolitan Theater (now the Wang Theatre), and the art deco United Shoe Machinery Building.
Physically, Boston was such a different city from today. There was no Tobin Bridge, no Mass Pike, no Southeast Expressway (much less a Big Dig), no Government Center. But there were places like the New York streets neighborhood, Scollay Square, and the West End.
It was a time of bootleggers and speakeasies, cults and conspiracies, the Raytheon Corporation and the growth of radio. H.L. Mencken and Upton Sinclair were banned in Boston by the all-powerful Watch and Ward Society. Powerful racketeer Charles “King” Solomon was gunned down in a Tremont Street nightclub. Burlesque’s Ann Corio was the queen of the Old Howard Theater. No-nonsense Mary E. Driscoll chaired the Boston Licensing Board. And Harry “Doc Jasper” Sagansky was about to forsake dentistry for the more lucrative field of bookmaking. Boston, like any city, had its cast of characters. But Boston might have had more characters than most.
Boston was a newspaper town, with four daily newspapers in the morning and four more in the afternoon.
It was a time of social upheaval in urban America, and ethnic Boston, even with its deep strain of Catholic conservatism, wasn’t immune to it. The city faced hard times, but it was still very much alive, a place in time with stories to tell. Boston 1930 will gather those stories, and the period photographs to illustrate them.