Meanwhile, as the BRA was busily concocting all this, Debbie Beckerman was independently, and fatefully, becoming involved. Then a public-relations person for a Brighton hospital, Beckerman — who is now entirely estranged from the Zone and its people — first encountered a strip show in late 1973 when investigative reporter Jack Kelly invited her to accompany him to lower Washington Street. “Jack was doing a story about the Licensing Board,” she recalled. “He introduced me to some people, and I concluded that the place was not so bad. I wasn’t mugged or accosted on the street and the show featured attractive young women in beautiful costumes — not a bunch of old ladies with bad bodies doing obscene things as I had expected.”
One of the people she met that night was Teddy Venios. “What you people need is a good PR person,” she joked. A few months later, Beckerman was on the payroll. She had a little office in the Capri Cinema (whose showing of The Devil in Miss Jones, the first in Boston, led to the overturning of the state obscenity statue), and her $15,000 a year came jointly from the Capri and the Two O’clock, two Venios operations.
Her job, of course, was to sell the Zone as a fun place, and she found the task absurdly easy. “I spent the first month taking the nicer, better-educated dancers on all the talk shows and talking to reporters. They printed everything I said, and I was really excited. Instead of ‘White Slavery in the Combat Zone,’ the papers started writing about strippers as human beings, and I had found the cause that I had never had all through college. I was going to make it PK to be obscene.”
And so, apparently, was the BRA. Beckerman’s effective image-building crusade dovetailed neatly with that agency’s efforts toward physical improvements in the Zone-the city’s own contribution being “Liberty Tree Park” at the foot of Boylston Street (the only park in town, it is said, with no benches, so it would not become a gathering place for hookers). All this led, perhaps, to unreal expectations. Like, for example, BRA Director Kenney’s attempt to rename the Zone “Liberty Tree” and his fearless prediction, “Within a year or so the term ‘Combat Zone’ will be a thing of the past in Boston.” (Today, appropriately, the term is still a household word hereabouts. “Kenny and “Beckerman” are not.)
Still, while it lasted Beckerman’s PR effort worked well. A classic, if not precisely typical, example was Oui magazine’s article shamelessly describing Boston’s brand-spanking-new “Erogenous Zone” as “the new experiment in freedom that is Boston’s gift to America’s third century” and unskeptically quoting Beckerman’s by-then-standard claim that your average Zone customer was an electrical engineer, an IBM salesman or an ad exec.
At the same time, city officials in places like Atlantic City and Milwaukee, faced with the creeping menace of adult entertainment in their bailiwicks, began speaking of the Boston plan as a mode, perhaps, for much of the nation. “The Zone became a media event,” complains Assistant District Attorney Timothy O’Neill, who has been openly campaigning of late to eradicate the Zone. “The focus of the media became ‘Isn’t it a cute idea?’ Only recently has that focus switched to a look at the soft underbelly of the whole thing, reflecting the changing public perception of the Combat Zone.