A walk on the wild side

The Combat Zone, plus burlesque, drag, cross-dressing, and the avant-garde
By GREG COOK  |  February 16, 2010

1002_angier-main
SONNY, WASHINGTON STREET 1974: Roswell Angier and his peers documented Boston’s now all-but-vanished “adult entertainment district.”

“Boston Combat Zone: 1969–1978” | Howard Yezerski Gallery, 460 Harrison Ave, Boston | Through March 16

“Henry Horenstein: Show” | Walker Contemporary, 450 Harrison Ave, Boston | Through February 27

“Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde” | MIT, List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames St, Cambridge | Through April 10

Everyone looks so weary in Howard Yezerski Gallery's gritty documentary photos of Boston's dear departed Combat Zone from 1969 to 1978. The year's still young, but this glimpse into our past from Roswell Angier, Jerry Berndt, and John Goodman may be one of the best shows of 2010.

The stretch of Washington Street between Stuart Street and Downtown Crossing got its name from rowdy Navy sailors who prowled its bars in the 1950s. But it had become a haven for adult bookstores, clubs, and moviehouses by the early '70s, when, as a way to quarantine legal sexcapades, city zoning officials designated it Boston's official "adult-entertainment district."

Cambridge photographer Angier worked his way into strip-club back rooms with the help of the joints' PR folks. Elizabeth Harris — a guy who'd had a number of operations to become a woman — bares all as she slithers around a pole at the Two O'Clock Club. Lorraine Gail sits exhausted backstage in her satin and rhinestones robe. Then she raises her arms and shows off her naked breasts, but her eyes are empty. Angier reports that an ex-boyfriend later beat her to death with a crowbar in a park.

One of the strippers to whom he got closest was Coty Lee. She looks into a hand-held mirror as she fixes her make-up. Angier stands over her shoulder in the dark — a kind of metaphor for all the watching men. You can see his camera, but his face is obscured by the flash.

Berndt, who now lives in Paris, focuses on women — perhaps prostitutes — alone in empty diners at night. Their blond hair, heavy eyeliner, and dresses are all perfect. Cigarettes fill their ashtrays. They gaze out windows into neon streets.

Goodman, who's from Wellesley, offers several shots of a young woman — probably a prostitute — along Tremont and LaGrange Streets. You see just a tight tube top, bare midriff, and denim shorts that show off her curves — all of them. She stands, with her feet turned in like a shy little girl, next to a guy who seems to have money secreted in his hand. Afterward, they went off together. The only happy-looking people here appear in a 1978 shot of a car full of young toughs smoking, giddy, laughing, with a couple of six-packs of Schlitz on the front seat.

Before the '70s were out, the city, under pressure from Chinatown residents, was pushing to clean up the Combat Zone via redevelopment. That took more than two decades, but now the area is all bland shops and college dorms and condos. Yezerski's biggest coup here is an old neon sign from the Naked i, which was demolished in 1996. A woman's orange legs fall open and a blue eye flashes between them. Along Washington Street, the Pussycat Theater became the Empire Garden Restaurant, the Pussycat Lounge a McDonald's, and Boston Bunnies an office of the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

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