Musings: The Blinstrub's Fire - And My Sweet Deal

By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author

THE BLINSTRUB’S FIRE – AND MY SWEET DEAL

Fify years ago one of the sweetest deals that I – or anyone else, for that matter - ever had
went up in flames. Literally.

On February 7, 1968, the Boston Fire Department was summoned to the corner of West
Broadway and D Street in South Boston. The response was rapid, but it was already too
late. Blinstrub’s Village, the last of Boston’s big-time nightclubs, was already engulfed in
flames. It would be an overstatement to say that it burned to the ground because by the
time the fire was out its outer walls were still standing. Everything inside, however, was
totally destroyed, only the charred shell remained. Blinstrub’s was history, out of
business.

For most Bostonians it marked the end of an era, a time when they could see famous
entertainers like Nat King Cole, SammyDavis, Jr., or Dianna Ross and the Supremes, in a
relatively intimate setting for a relatively moderate price. For me it meant the end of that
sweet deal.

I was lucky enough in those days to know Chester Blinstrub, the nephew of Stanley
Blinstrub, the club’s owner. Chester was a bartender in the cocktail lounge that was
located just outside the showroom. I and a couple of other guys would show up at the
lounge, order a beer from Chester, and when we heard Michael Gaylord’s orchestra (the
house band) strike up the music we’d quietly slip into the showroom through a side door
while Chester pretended to look the other way. We’d find an empty table and watch
whoever was performing that night for the price of the beer we’d bought at the lounge
bar, which in those days was fifty cents, as I remember. I’d say that was pretty sweet,
wouldn’t you?

On weeks when particularly strong acts were playing - say, Sammy Davis, Jr., or Jimmy
Durante – I would be in Blinnies’s, as we called the place, seven nights a week, two
shows a night. I even got to know the guy who ran the lights and would occasionally
watch from his booth which hung from the ceiling high above the stage. All for fifty
cents a beer.

I came to appreciate the talent of the great performers and how they paced their acts,
never, for example, placing two slow ballads back to back – they were always separated
by an up-tempo crowd pleaser. Durante’s act would build to his breaking up the piano in
mock frustration and tossing its various parts around the stage. It appeared to be absolute
mayhem, totally out of control – until you watched him do the same thing in the second
show, and every show for as long as the engagement lasted. Then you realized that he’d

been doing variations of that for more than forty years. It was a carefully choreographed
bit – and his genius was that he made it look fresh and funny every single time.

I never did meet Durante or any of the other stars who played Blinnies. They never came
around the lounge area; but the opening acts, often wizened old comedians who had
bounced around the circuit for years – some of them had even been on Ed Sullivan a few
times – would often be at the bar between shows for a scotch, or three.

The truth is that even then Blinstrub’s was an anachronism, the last of a dying breed. The
nightclub business, save for places like Las Vegas, was all but extinct. Costs were out of
control. It was getting more and more expensive to hire the big acts. Plus, those acts were
discovering that they could play an arena or even an outdoor stadium for a show or two
on a weekend rather than two shows a night every night of the week and make far more
money. And they didn’t have to put up with any drunks who were sitting ringside.

Blinstrub’s was kept afloat largely through the banquet business. It was a barn of a place
with a seating capacity of 1700, which made it ideal for big charity fund raisers – with a
floor show to top it off. Stanley Blinstrub had become close to Cardinal Cushing, who
was a prince of the Church and in those days the undisputed king of Boston. The Cardinal
threw a lot of business Stanley’s way. If you belonged to a parish anywhere in greater
Boston back then, and that parish had a big affair, such as an anniversary, chances are
that the time was held in Blinstrub’s. I remember one big dinner which the cardinal held

there, I think for Catholic Charities, and the show’s headliner was the Jewish comedian,
Myron Cohen. He was an ecumenical smash hit.

When word of the fire first got around there were whispers that maybe it was one of those
deals that happened “accidentally on purpose,” you know, for the insurance money. That
might have been plausible except for the fact that the place had no insurance on it. It was
a total loss.

Yes, it was the end of a sweet deal for me, but it was a deal that was running out anyway.
When I started going there I was in my early twenties, fresh out of college, working
unhappily in the real estate and insurance business. By the time the fire struck I had the
beginnings of a career going. I had already built a bit of a reputation as a speech writer
for politicians. Kevin White had been mayor of Boston for only five weeks and I was his
press secretary. It meant working long hours and many nights. I was still a bachelor but I
didn’t want to be known as a guy who hung around bars every night. Plus, the bar scene –
even in the lounge at Blinnies – was getting old. I went there less and less often.

But as I stood next to the mayor that morning on the sidewalk of West Broadway in
South Boston watching Blinstrub’s Village burn down I couldn’t help but think that it
was great while it lasted. Fifty years later I still think that it was.