The Life and Death of Blinstrubsby Bill Russo / Historical Fiction
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”.