There are many roads that lead to harmonica heaven. I took a step closer to the action at a young age when we moved down the Orange Line, the elevated train line in Roxbury, from Northampton Street to Dudley Street Station. And with my asthma getting better, I could finally go outside, play on the streets and see and hear things more or less, for the first time. There was a lot to see and hear.
We went from the brownstone building on Northampton Street, where there was basically only family living, to being packed in close together with all different ethnic groups in the Orchard Park Housing Projects.
As it had been earlier for the Irish-American community, Dudley Street in the Roxbury section of Boston and the area around it was becoming the center for Black-American life in the city. Although at that time there were also Italian and Jewish families in addition to Irish and Puerto Rican folks living in the neighborhood.
Everyone had their music and liked to play it loud. You would hear it blasting from open windows of most houses as well as the car radios of people cruising up and down Dudley Street.
I Thought I liked it Hot..
Suddenly, a world of new foods was available. Ice-cream sandwiches, root-beer floats, a Bavarian German bakery, shrimp limbos, challah bread, and the first slice of pizza that I ever bought for myself. Perhaps you wonder how I remember the pizza? I went into the shop with my friends and realized that I had never been in a pizza joint before. I ordered my slice, and it came out steaming hot.
I saw people sprinkling red stuff on their pizza and figured that I would do the same. The pizza maker warned me to not use too much crushed red pepper because it was really hot. “How hot can it be, I asked.” Of course, I had never used it before but thought if a little pepper was good then a lot would be great. I put on a lot and yes, I found out then how hot, hot can be!
First, I burned the roof of my mouth because the pizza was bubbling hot, then, as I now had no skin on the roof of my mouth, the pepper really burned me, and drinking water for 5 minutes did not help at all. Long story short, it took about a week for the skin to grow back in my mouth plus it was burning that entire time from all that pepper that I put on my pizza, that I was not able to finish. Yes, I learned my lesson!
The love of cinema begins
The food, the music and overall excitement to be found around Dudley Station was great but going to the movies in those old movie houses like the Rivoli Theater was another world completely. I could only find a faded old photo of the theater. It has since been torn down, unfortunately, but the Rivoli was what you would expect of a grand movie house.
The excitement started as soon as you saw the billboard and neon from halfway down the street and only increased while waiting to give your 15 cents to the woman in the gilded ticket booth that was on the street outside of the theater doors. You could smell the popcorn from there. Give your ticket to the uniformed ticket taker at the door and take your first steps into another world of plush carpeting, giant chandeliers, art-deco and empire-style ornaments and furnishings, old movie posters, and a specific warm temperature that you could only find in this sort of movie theater.
And that is all before you get inside the theater itself, which was huge with more than 1500 seats, a giant screen, and an amazing sound system. It was all magic to me.
We were brought to our seats by an usher with a flashlight. We sat down and started eating our buttered popcorn as the theater went dark and we waited to see the new film, “Jason and the Argonauts” after the newsreel, The Three Stooges and The Adventures of Captain Marvel. Sometimes during a SATURDAY MATINEE, you would also have a traveling music group that had a hit record out at the moment.
The curtain went up and a tall thin guy with big hair and a sharkskin suit came out and joined the band. I did not recognize him, but I did know the song from hearing it on the radio at home. It was Major Lance doing his dance hit “Monkey Time.”
It was the first time that I saw a real music group. The band was dressed sharp, and I was amazed at their instruments and amplifiers. This was all new to me. Many years later, I would cover several Major Lance tunes in my bands. And of course, Major Lance was the father of the woman who would become the major the great city of Atlanta, Keisha Lance-Bottoms.