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The Life and Death of Blinstrubs


The Life and Death of Blinstrubs

By Bill Russo

2017 – published by CCA Media, Cape Cod, U.S.A.

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This tale is set in Blinstrub’s Village, a castle-like nightclub in South Boston. It was home to the biggest stars of the mid 1900s. What follows is the story of its life and its death; and of the lives of some of the people who performed there.

This account is based on actual events and real people. Some names have been changed and some events have been amplified. The author was lucky enough to have been among the many thousands who clubbed at the famous venue which serves as a backdrop for the narrative. He also was fortunate enough to have met and known some of the principals during his student days in Boston’s Kenmore Square. Parts of the tale were told to the author by people with close ties to the principals.

Blinstrub’s in the 1950s during sidewalk construction

At the corner of Broadway and D streets in South Boston, is a Burger King and a McDonald’s. They have pretty good food and it’s inexpensive.

I don’t think Stanley Blinstrub would be too upset if he knew that two fast food franchises have taken over his iconic spot. After all when he opened his restaurant in the 1920s, he offered pretty good food – fast and cheap.

A sandwich was five cents and a dinner was two-bits (25 cents).

Stanley was barely 20 when he realized that success in his Father’s real estate business was not making him happy. He saw a shuttered restaurant in Southie and immediately decided that he would re-open the building.

That night, at home in the Brighton section of Boston, he made his case to his family. He told them of his plan and asked them to help him. His Mom was reluctant but Stanley kept pushing and ultimately called for a family vote. He won and the family gave him the financial backing to start his venture.

The restaurant grew and sprouted a 350 seat night club next door. Soon there was a cafeteria and cocktail lounge at the D street entrance. Townies could get a meal and a drink for a decent price. On the Broadway side, the restaurant had morphed into “Blinstrub’s Village”, one of America’s largest and finest nightclubs. There was seating for almost two thousand dinner guests and a stage that held only the top entertainers of the day.

Blinstrub’s became a destination, not only for the eight million people within a few hours’ drive, but also for people from all over the country. This was the era of glittering nightspots. New York had the Copa and the Latin Quarter and Boston had ‘Blinnie’s Village’.

Jimmy Durante considered Blinstrub’s his home away from home. Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Patti Page, Johnny Mathis, and Robert Goulet were regulars. Johnny Mathis sold out two shows a night for two weeks and was so popular that 160,000 people had to be turned away.

The top entertainers commanded up to $20,000 a week. And the pay was in CASH! At the end of the night, the entertainer would follow Stanley into his office where Blinstrub would count out the day’s wages from his take and then hand the star a stack of fives, tens, and twenties that added up to as much as four thousand dollars for a night‘s work.

The shows consisted of the featured entertainer as well as a chorus line of eight girls and the Blinstrub’s house band. When the star attraction was a comedian or other non-musical act, Director Mike Gaylord’s job was easy. But when a big name singer was booked, things got tough. The talent would specify how many pieces were needed for the orchestra and would also often require unusual instruments such as a harp. Mike only had eight regular men in the group and when he needed more players, he would have to supplement with extra members from the Boston Musicians’ Local. And these New England guys had to sound just as good as New York or Los Angeles people.

One guy who loved the house band was Sammy Davis, Jr. Immensely talented, Sam always did well in Boston. One night after the second show, he grabbed bandleader Mike Gaylord and told him, “You cats were great tonight. Really solid. It’s on me….I want to take the whole band out for dinner.”

Sam darted out to Broadway and hailed a bunch of cabs. Sixteen bandsmen flooded out of the club and piled into the Checker cabs. In the lead cab were Sammy Davis Jr., the bandleader and the sax and trumpet men.

“Where to Mr. Davis?” asked the driver, who recognized Sam – probably by the eye patch he was wearing at the time and perhaps because of his tuxedo and the pick-up at the nightclub.

“To Roxbury,” Sam replied.

Roxbury was, and still is, a predominantly Afro-American neighborhood of Boston. It was, and still is, home to some of the best Ribs in the world. And that’s where Sam took the band that night….to a Roxbury rib joint.

Ribs, drinks and a good time were had by all.

Sammy Davis Jr. was loved and respected by the band, but his pal Frank Sinatra could be a bit of a problem: especially concerning the trombone.

By the 1960’s Sinatra had worked with Billy May, Nelson Riddle, and Count Basie: heavyweights all. Before them, Frank had cut his musical teeth with the great trombone player and leader, Tommy Dorsey. In fact, Frank learned his amazing phrasing and breath control by copying Dorsey’s trombone style. Tommy developed a way of playing while breathing from the corners of his mouth. It gave the appearance of continuous play, without ever having to take a breath.

When Frank was booked into the club, he sent instructions to Mike Gaylord that called for a twenty piece orchestra with strings and an especially good trombone player.

Tony Bennett was headlining the day that Sinatra’s request reached Blinstrub’s Village. When he heard of the dilemma he told the bandleader about a trombonist he had met during the summer on Cape Cod.

John Havlicek, star of the Boston Celtics and a bunch of Kennedys, were among the crowd at a club on Main Street in Hyannis. Players that night included Dick Johnson on Clarinet (he was running Artie Shaw’s orchestra at the time) as well as piano great Dave McKenna and fabulous trumpeter Lou Columbo. The trombonist was Cas Boute .

Tony arrived after his gig at the Cape Cod Melody Tent. At midnight, the doors to the club were closed to the public and a select crowd was treated to a jam session that lasted until after four a.m.

“This trombone player was fantastic. He was as good as Jack Teagarden. You should get him to do the Sinatra gig,” Tony advised.

Armed with the player’s name and address, bandleader Mike Gaylord drove seven miles from Boston to Lynn, an old industrial city of 104,000 people. Due to the toughness of the town and the high crime, New Englanders coined this taunting rhyme

“Lynn Lynn, city of Sin

You never come out the way you go in

Ask for water, they give you gin

The girls say no, but they always give in”.

  • * *

There’s a huge General Electric plant in the city that had 3000 employees as of 2017, but probably had twice that number back in the 1960s when Mike Gaylord was searching for his trombone player.

He found Cas Boute by the side of a spinning lathe, working on a Jet Engine Design. Boute loved his job in the G.E. Plant. He had many offers to be a full time musician but liked his craft too much and did not take to the idea of having to leave his wife and kids for long periods while on the road.

But he did like the idea of playing at Blinstrub’s and signed on right away. He played beautifully during the Sinatra booking and Frank even took a special liking to Cas Boute – singling him out on stage for his excellent solos.

After Sinatra’s engagement, Boute went back to his job at G.E. and Norm Crosby came in for two weeks.

Norm is a Boston comic who hit the big time in a three year tour with Robert Goulet. After the Goulet period, Norm went out on his own, and was highly successful. He packed Blinstrub’s and as a bonus, met and fell in love with one of the chorus girls – Joannie Crane Foley. She left a job as a Rockette in New York City to come to Blinstrub’s. They have been married over fifty years.

Norm is known as the ‘Master of Malaprops’. He opened his show with lines like, “I speak to you tonight from my ‘diagram’ and I want to tell you that I never get nervous on the Blinstrub stage because I drink ‘decapitated coffee’.

Midway through the Crosby engagement, potential disaster struck again for Mike Gaylord and his Blinstrub’s house band. Judy Garland was scheduled to follow Crosby for a two week stint.

“You can’t use Cas Boute as your trombone player for my wife, “ said Sid Luft, who was not only Garland’s husband, but also her very successful manager. He had guided her back to the top after a disastrous period during the 1950s.

“Why can’t I use him? Boute is one of the best in the country. If he’s good enough for Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Nat King Cole, and Bob Goulet, I think he’s good enough for Judy Garland.”

“Goodness has nothing to do with it.” Luft said. “You can’t use him because he is bald. Judy will not let a bald man in the band. If she sees this guy, she will go nuts. She will lose it. The whole engagement could go south. Get somebody else.”

Opening night came and Mike Gaylord set up his band, with one slight alteration. He had the drums out front and put the entire brass section in the back row. He did this because he kept Cas Boute in the ensemble and he figured if he was in the back, Garland would not see him.

The club was crammed full at show time and 60,000 people had to be turned away. The entire two weeks were totally sold out.

Judy Garland was spectacular. She opened with “Get Happy” and then went right into her award winning version of ‘The Man That Got Away” from her Academy Award Nominated performance in 1954’s “A Star Is Born.” When she did “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“, the entire audience did not take a breath for two minutes and thirty seconds. She wrung every note out of ‘Old Man River’, with the power of Paul Robeson.

The Blinstrub’s house band was crisp, flawless and powerful. Gaylord was worried that Garland would see his bald trombone player. While conducting, he kept trying to move his body between her eyesight and Cas Boute. Sid Luft was petrified lest his wife should discover the ruse and blame it on him.

To thunderous applause, Garland closed the show with ‘The Trolley Song’. For an encore she spoke to the audience about the people who inspired her. She talked of Frank Sinatra and pointed out to the group that they both recorded for the same label – Capitol Records. Then she told the boys to do “I’ll Never Smile Again“, which was the biggest hit for the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Sinatra as the vocalist.

The song is almost a duet between Voice and Trombone – and the trombone player is supposed to take a spotlight when he does the solo.

Luft and Gaylord were frantically waving their arms at Cas Boute, signaling him to stay seated, while Judy Garland was motioning to him to rise. Luckily, the bell of the horn was hiding his chrome pate from her view.

Just when it looked like Cas Boute was going to stand and get in the spotlight, Sid Luft sent two stagehands to forcibly hold him down while he played the solo parts. Garland never missed a beat and wrapped up the show to a standing ovation.

Shaking like a motor with a broken valve, Sid Luft was backstage with his wife/client when she told him,

“I want to talk about the band. Bring the leader in here to see me.”

Gaylord stepped into the dressing room like a prisoner on the walk to the gallows and hung his head just as low.

“I want to compliment the band Mr. Gaylord. Tell the boys they did a great job. But for tonight’s second show, why don’t you put the drums in the back and the brass in front!“

Gaylord’s heart stopped. He choked on his words and gurgles came out instead of words.

Judy Garland continued, “I spoke with Frank Sinatra a few weeks ago at Capitol Records in L.A. He told me about your trombone player. He said he’s great. Frank also told me he’s bald and he said ‘Get Over it!’. So for the rest of the engagement, I want the bald guy in the front row where I can hear him better. I just won’t look at him.”

The engagement ended with rave reviews and blockbuster attendances. Garland thanked all the band members- even Cas Boute.

  • * *

As for the 60,000 people that had to be turned away, they got a pleasant surprise when Judy Garland announced that she was going to do a free outdoor show. It was held in August on the Boston Common and was attended by over 100,000 people – and yes she had her favorite bald trombone player with her; and her husband too. But that didn’t last long. The end for Luft came later that summer and Judy moved on to another husband – she had five or six before she died.

The end for Blinstrub’s Village came just about the same time as Garland and Luft’s ending.

In the middle of the night on February 7, 1968, fire engulfed and destroyed Boston’s biggest and best club. Owner Stanley Blinstrub had NO INSURANCE on the property.

“I had a twenty four hour fire watch team” that’s why I had no insurance,” he said. Damage was over one and a quarter million dollars. Blinstrub’s pal, Archbishop Cushing of Boston, called the morning after the fire: “I’ve got $100,000.00 to help you out,” said the leader of Boston’s Catholic community. “and I am going to organize a fund raiser.”

He did; and it was a four and one half hour show at Boston Garden with dozens of the nation’s top stars. They raised another $150,000.00. But this was short of the amount needed – and Blinstrub was 71 years old. Back in 1929, he lost everything in the crash and rebuilt his empire in less than three years. But he was barely in his 30s then and rebuilding was a delightful challenge. In the end, America’s smartest supper club became a memory.

The remains of the massive brick structure were razed and ultimately replaced by the Burger King and the McDonald’s . Looking at the site now, it looks small. How did one of the biggest clubs in the world ever fit into that little space?

Blinstrub’s is gone. The Stars are gone.

Southie is still here. D Street is still here and so is Broadway. You can get a burger for a buck and for another buck you can add fries. There’s no entertainment with the food, but if you walk outside on D street, you might see the Boston cinema crew making a movie. You might spot Ben or Casey Affleck. Maybe Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg. You might get to see the real life Fighter, Micky Ward or his brother Dickie Eckland.

Or you might see a longtime Southie regular, Bobby Quarters. That’s not his real name but it’s what people call him because he walks up and down D Street asking for quarters.

He’s also known as Bobby No No: Because you have to give him a quarter. If you offer anything less or anything more, you hear: “No No – It has to be a quarter!”

The End

Bill Russo, retired on Cape Cod, was educated in Boston at the Huntington School and at Grahm College in Kenmore Square. He was editor of several newspapers in Massachusetts as well as a former disc jockey, news writer/presenter, and broadcaster for various outlets in New England.

His sighting of a swamp creature just before the turn of the century, led to appearances in the Bridgewater Triangle Documentary Film, America’s Bermuda Triangle, and on Destination America’s Monsters and Mysteries series.

In addition to his radio and newspaper work, he held management positions in logistics and warehousing as well as a stint as an ironworker and President of Boston Local 501 of the Shopmen’s Ironworkers Union.

Contact Bill at [email protected] All e-mails are personally answered

Bill’s Blog is called Adventures in Type and Space: http://billrrrrr.blogspot.com/

He also shares news and videos on his Youtube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/billrrrrr

The Life and Death of Blinstrubs

From the eyes of a college student living nearby in the 1960s, here's an in depth look at the life and times of Boston's biggest nightclub, Blinstrub's Village. You'll learn about the venue and meet its most illustrious performers. It's also the story of how a young man's vision transformed a shuttered, beaten down, corner saloon into one of the premier entertainment centers of the mid 1900s. In the end, the empire fails for a reason that most people will find hard to believe. .

  • ISBN: 9781370271528
  • Author: Bill Russo
  • Published: 2017-05-23 21:35:15
  • Words: 2913
The Life and Death of Blinstrubs The Life and Death of Blinstrubs