Five things you didn’t know about Boston’s Combat Zone
Technically, it was Boston’s first designated “adult entertainment district.” But what everybody called it was much more colorful.
The sleazy enclave of strip clubs, lounges, X-rated theaters, peep shows, and adult bookstores was “The Combat Zone.”
In her book, “Inside the Combat Zone: The Stripped Down Story of Boston’s Most Notorious Neighborhood,” author Stephanie Schorow looks at the history of this little section of the city and the stories of the people who lived, worked, and played there.
The Naked i and Pilgrim Theater are long gone. So are the peep shows and pornographic theaters. But the memory of the Combat Zone lives on. And despite its legendary reputation, Schorow’s book shows there is much to be learned about the place.
Here are five things you may not know about the Combat Zone.
1. It wasn’t just a destination for lustful men.
After the demise of Scollay Square, the Combat Zone emerged along Washington Street as the go-to place for adult entertainment in the 1960s.
“People looking for a ‘good time’ went over there,” said Schorow. But its appeal was broader than you may think. While doing research for the book, Schorow discovered that people from all walks of life visited the Combat Zone. Women and college students would venture there on a lark or just out of curiosity. The Combat Zone was also a draw for businessmen attending conventions in Boston (something that city planners were reluctant to acknowledge), according to Schorow.
2. There were no lap dances or throwing money on stage (like there is now).
Back in the Combat Zone’s heyday, strippers did not dance around poles, they didn’t give lap dances, and spectators didn’t toss money on stage as tips, according to Schorow.
Dancers “took off one piece of clothing per song,” she said. By the end of their routine, “they would end up fully nude.”
When the women weren’t on stage, they were mingling with customers. It was all part of the job. Schorow said a typical encounter went like this: A dancer would approach a man and say, “Hey, do you want to buy me a drink?” And then he’d buy a round of overpriced drinks or a bottle of champagne. It was an effective strategy that boosted bar sales.
“The women had to make a quota,” Schorow said.
The dancers were fully dressed when they did this, and they received a salary for their work on stage (and off). Schorow said many of the exotic dancers who earned their living in the Zone were mothers and some were putting themselves through school (one Combat Zone dancer put herself through law school this way; another put herself through grad school and went on to become a dean of a university).
Schorow said the traditional form of exotic dancing lasted through the 1970s and early 1980s. Eventually, there was a shift toward the form of dancing that’s prevalent at strip clubs today, where more emphasis is placed on “floorwork,” in which the dancer writhes on the floor and exposes “her netherbits,” she said.
Today, Schorow said, “there’s very little tease in the strip.”
3. There are still two strip clubs left.
The area that was once known as the Combat Zone is now occupied by luxury apartments and trendy restaurants. Only two adult establishments remain: Centerfolds and the Glass Slipper. They’re located next door to each other on LaGrange Street. Centerfolds bills itself as “Boston’s premier gentlemen’s club” and the Glass Slipper is advertised as “Boston’s original gentlemen’s club, where every man is a VIP.” Centerfolds is the newer of the two. Schorow said the Glass Slipper has a long history in the Combat Zone, and has been in business for decades.
4. It quashed the career of a powerful politician.
In the 1970s, Wilbur D. Mills was a powerful congressman from Arkansas who served as the chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee. He was also smitten with a stripper named Fanne Foxe.
In October 1974, Mills made headlines when he was pulled over by police in Washington, D.C., and Foxe sprung out of his vehicle and jumped into the Tidal Basin just off the National Mall. “It was a huge story,” Schorow said. After the scandal, Foxe became known as the “Tidal Basin Bombshell” and was suddenly in high demand on the national stripping circuit.
Foxe quickly landed a well-paying gig in the Combat Zone, and was booked for a two-week engagement at the Pilgrim Theater in November. And on more than one occasion, Mills was there to cheer her on.
One night Foxe brought the congressman up on stage with her. “I’d like you to meet somebody,” she said to the audience, according to Time magazine. “Mr. Mills, Mr. Mills! Where are you?” And, lo and behold, out walked Mills.
The next day, Mills returned to the Pilgrim and watched her striptease act again. “I’m going to make a movie star out of her,” Mills told reporters, as he pointed at Foxe. “She’s better than Gypsy Rose Lee.”
After he finished talking to the press, Mills and Foxe left the theater together. The episode effectively quashed the congressman’s political career.
“But today we’d elect him president,” quipped Schorow. “And I’d say Stormy Daniels took a cue from Fanne Fox.”
5. The zoning that created the Combat Zone is still on the books.
To rein in the growth of adult businesses, city officials decided to create a district that confined them to a 5½-acre area in Chinatown.
When the Combat Zone was officially designated as an adult entertainment district in the city’s zoning code in 1974, it was one of the first of its kind in the nation, according to Schorow. Of course, there’s not much adult entertainment happening there anymore. Although the zoning is still on the books, the Combat Zone that Boston once knew is no more.
“I would say it’s gone,” she said. “Just because there are two strip clubs, it’s not the Combat Zone anymore.”
Stephanie Schorow will give a talk about the Combat Zone at the 1699 Isaac Winslow House in Marshfield on Aug. 16.