Getting Into the Old Howard

Early Monday morning, July 24, 1972, I propelled myself towards Boston, speeding up Interstate Route 91 through Hartford, towards Massachusetts. The highway was mostly deserted, at least to me, and I drove over freshly black tar in my wife´s boxy blue Volvo, framed by meandering green fields beneath a baby blue sky. Every color was bold, sharp, defined. It all seemed new, everything possible. Beside me on the passenger seat, riding shotgun, lay the book of Massachusetts statutes. In it, neatly folded, was a photocopy of the specific law permitting me to see my original adoption records, along with a copy of my birth certificate. I was taking no chances. Worried, for no understandable reason, that I may only have one chance to do this, I planned first to drive to the Boston Government Center to obtain a certified copy of my current (as in adopted) birth certificate. In Massachusetts, like other states, once you are adopted, a new birth certificate is issued (the original is sealed), deleting the names of the birthparent/s and inserting the names of the adoptive parents. All the other information remains the same. At least I thought so. Once I had the certified copy in my possession, my plan was to drive immediately out to the Norfolk County Probate Court in Dedham, down the street from the Dedham Jail, to see my adoption records. It always struck me as odd (still does) that, at least in Massachusetts (turns out most other places too) in order to be adopted you first have to go through the Court that deals with death. On the bright side, I guess, you get to live again, after they have decided that your first self no longer exists – a bit better than the other people processed through probate. For me,  though, my first self had been around for 2 years.

But on this summer morning, at the beginning of the week, I was only happy, windows open to a fresh breeze, singing along with the Eagles on the radio:

Well I´m a runnin´ down the road

Tryin´ to loosen my load

I´ve got seven women on my mind

Four that wanna own me

Two that wanna stone me

One says she´s a friend of mine

Take it easy, take it easy

 Don´t let the sound of your own wheels

 Drive you crazy

It´s the one that says she´s a friend that I was interested in. If there were moments in life that you could freeze frame, this would be one. In a sense, I have.

Leaving the Massachusetts Turnpike, I found the Government Center and parked nearby (illegally). The Government Center is at the site of what was once Scollay Square (www.bambinomusical.com/Scollay/index.html), home to the Old Howard Theater (which advertised as the place where there was always ¨something doing¨). The Old Howard   (www.bambinomusical.com/Scollay/Howard.html), was the fantasy of many a school kid (mine included), hoping to sneak in to see the famous burlesque shows. John F. Kennedy (the Government Center includes the John F. Kennedy Federal Building), was reportedly a regular patron while a Harvard undergrad. Before it became a burlesque theater, it  housed vaudeville and, even earlier,  more serious productions dating back to 1845, when it was known as the Howard Athenaeum. John Wilkes Booth, Groucho Marx, Abbott and Costello,  and W.C. Fields are just a few of the famous performers appearing at the Old Howard (John L. Sullivan and Rocky Marciano even gave boxing demonstrations on the stage).  But it was most famous for burlesque and, in Junior High School, I made plans with a friend, Dennis O´Leary, to sneak into Boston because he said they´d the ticket man would ¨look the other way¨. We never went. It is just as well because – apparently unknown to Dennis – the Old Howard closed in 1953, when we were only 7 years old, after a cop made a film of the performance of Irma the Body (Mary Goodneighbor – I´m sure she was), resulting in indecency charges that ultimately closed the theater.

It somehow seemed appropriate, without knowing why, that the site of my birth certificate was almost exactly at the site of the Old Howard Theater. JFK might have had  a chuckle himself to learn his name is now attached to the location. I wouldn´t begin to understand its significance for me until years later.

I jogged across the cavernous Government Center Plaza, laughing to myself  that the Gothic facade of the burlesque theater, now gone,  had more character. I found the place for birth certificates. I waited in what seemed an incongruously dark room for such a modern building. Since I was only requesting a certified copy of my amended birth certificate and even had a copy with me, I expected no problems. And there were none. Certification in hand, I was out of the building and on my way back to the Volvo in less than 15 minutes, barely thinking of the famous theater that was once my early teenage (unrealized) mecca. Back in the car, I checked again to make sure I had everything, placing my new and concededly deserved traffic ticket under the black book. Even though it was not yet 2 p.m. I wanted to be sure to get to Dedham before the Court closed. I drove out of Boston on Route 1, heading for the Probate Court, full of expectation, ready for a fight, and without any real sense of the adventure that was to come.

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