One day in 1970, while I was working in the Cyclorama, Royal Cloyd-who recently died-bought me a ticket to a cowboy movie at the National Theatre next door. At the time, he was thinking of incorporating the National into his plans for the Boston Center for the Arts, and he wanted me to count the boxes, or, as he called them, loges. It was a bright, sunny afternoon, and it took my eyes a long time to adjust. Although I don’t remember the number of boxes, it was easy to count the number of patrons-a sparse group of men sitting singly in the 3500-seat house.
The National was an imposing structure with a big boxy marquee and enormous vertical sign at the bend of Tremont Street. Built in 1911, it had once been a vaudeville house where, according to Fred Allen’s memoir, big shows came but somehow business was poor, possibly due to its location. Location, however, was no problem for South End kids of the Forties and Fifties, and they gave the National plenty of business.
Regina Clifton, who grew up on Dartmouth Street in the late Forties-early Fifties, a student at Girls’ High School on West Newton Street, went to "the Nashie" three times a week. She called it "my prep school."
In the same era, Irene Hickey and her girlfriends paid twelve cents for a full day of movies and hoped a truant officer didn’t catch them going in. Candy was a penny more inside so they bought it outside.
Helen Chin, then of Tremont Street, recalls that in the Fifties "Three children could watch movies for four hours for thirty cents-total." When the winning raffle ticket number was announced, she often won. "Pretty good: ten cents to get in and come home with a toy," she says. She called the theatre a "mothers’ salvation."
Before World War II, the National gave out pieces of China on the weekends. In later years, according to John Jones, formerly of West Canton Street, a raffle was held on Thursday nights-more plates and the dream of someday owning a matching set.
For some, the Saturday matinee-two features and a newsreel-was their reward for helping their mothers clean.
This was true for Marge Tyler, although the reward turned out to be a mixed blessing when she got ringworm on her neck from slouching down in a seat at, as she termed it, "the Hash House."
In the early Forties, the Fotos brothers on West Newton Street ran a minor scam. As Steve told it, "Every Sunday our mother sent us to Sunday School with a penny for the sheet of news the nuns handed out. We handed over the penny for years until we decided why not skip and go to the movies? We saved money from helping our mother clean nineteen rooms on Saturday, twenty-five cents each for that. The National cost nine cents, Black Crows licorice another nine. So there was money left over. We saved it for Sunday and went to the movies again.
Mother Superior caught on. The lights would go on during the movie and we were removed. We’d be crying outside, worried about our mother finding out. Mother Superior would march us all back to the Cathedral."
The National had a very strict manager named Ethel. If a kid acted up, she’d say, "Hey, you! You come with me." Then she’d help him out to the aisle, "She’d have him by his throat," said Steve.
South End kids went to other theatres too, some cheaper than the Nashie. There was the Uptown on Huntington, Loew’s State on Mass. Ave., the Rivoli at Dudley, and the Puritan or "Puke House" on Washington Street. But the National was legendary. Peter Halfkenny, a Milford Street kid of the Fifties, wondered who could resist the excitement of opening nights when the National shined bright lights back and forth over the neighborhood in two big arcs.
Those were the days.
In the early 1970s, Royal Cloyd and the Center for the Arts attempted to bring the National back, introducing a brief flurry of "culture"- a Bartok program, the Center Screen Film Society, and even a "gala evening" at the National Theater "in its pre-renovation glory." In the early eighties, the BCA tried unsuccessfully to enlist the help of others, including E. M. Loew and the George Robert White Fund, to redevelop the theatre, but plans were eventually abandoned. The building, said to be full of water and beyond repair, was torn down in 1997 and replaced by the Calderwood Pavilion with its state-of-the-art Wimberly and Roberts theatres.