There was plenty of live theatre on the streets of Beacon Hill when I was living there in the 1960s. Who needed an odeum when there was a live theatre almost every night in the street. Performances ranged from light opera to Shakespearean tragedy. One summer, actual Shakespeare was performed as students from a local college practiced in the street. We all opened our windows to watch the sword fights.
It usually was domestic rumbling and knots of drunken street singers on their way home from the local bars flush with spirits – literally.
As below, so was it above. The flat rooftops were also gathering spots for drama, drinking, music, and conversation. A few candles or a lantern were all that needed to transform a roof into an impromptu folk coffeehouse. Indeed, the gig was not as lucrative as one at a Cambridge or Charles Street coffeehouse, but free beer and an appreciative audience made up for some of the lost revenue. This arrangement was fine for late spring, summer, and early fall. But in winter, we huddled in the warmest rooms in our poorly heated apartments; the kitchen.
Then came a change. One evening four of my friends trudged up Grove St. with a massive bundle of canvas in their arms. It was a huge army surplus canvas tent. Over the next several days, we cleared the snow off the roof and erected the tent with an old kerosene heater in the center. We now had a true odeum. Random chairs, pillows, and discarded couches made it into our winter palace on the hill.
Our erstwhile friend John was in charge of publicity and tickets, and soon our rooftop was lucrative. The Folkie Palace members performed and served cheap jug wine procured from sources in the North End. The fine crystal was dixie cups, and the cuisine was bags of chips. The Clientele was whomever John pulled in. All were depressed by a snowy winter and looking for something different to do.
Good things do not last. I could lie and say that the kerosene heater started a fire or that competition from other illicit entertainment put us out of business. Those would make better stories, but the answer was more mundane. It was the dance party that did it.
We decided to have a big party, and invite all our friends. So one evening in February, in the middle of a snowstorm, we had about a hundred people on the roof dancing, drinking, and carrying on. The following day the roof was a mess. The tent poles and tent were half-collapsed under the weight of snow. A drunken conga line had knocked some poles out entirely. The litter of empty beer bottles on the roof and street below was a sight one had to see to believe. The only thing that had saved us from the Fuzz was that everyone in the building attended and had no reason to complain, and with the storm, the police had many other things to deal with.
Somehow over the next several day’s words got to our usually completely absent landlord. He showed up with his maintenance supervisor, and up to the roof, they went. The scene was almost exactly as we had left it. We had decided to wait until a thaw and melt to clean up. So the tent with sodden pillows, couches, rugs, and beer bottles was all in place – artfully covered by eight inches of snow.
The screaming, shouting, and carrying on beat our usual decibel standards for street theatre. Doors got pounded upon, recriminations and threats were made to tenants. Being that it was midday, few were home, but all claimed to know nothing.
Over the next couple of days, the evidence disappeared. By the time the landlord returned, the roof had been sanitized. The clean condition, it had never been so clean, seemed to enrage him. His tantrum could be heard down to Cambridge Street. Finally, in a turnabout, the righteous members of the Folkie Palace called the police to complain about the noise coming from the roof. As the police arrived, we sanctimoniously pointed the way and complained that our neighborhood just was not what it used to be.
After that, it was a quiet winter. Then came spring!