If you walk through downtown Boston in 2023, you’ll find a vibrant theater scene that’s safe to visit with children and grandmothers. But as many know (but are unlikely to admit), you’d find something much different in the 1970s and '80s.

I’m referring, of course, to the infamous Combat Zone.

Boston Herald via YouTube
Boston Herald via YouTube

To many New Englanders who just missed out, the Zone is up there with Larry Bird and the Boston Strangler when it comes to fame and infamy. It was a destination for debauchery that for a time rivaled New York City’s Times Square.

The Combat Zone was Boston’s “adult entertainment” district, and then some. It’s where you could visit the Naked i, see Princess Cheyenne or Chesty Morgan, and then some.

It’s also where a number of well-known performers cut their teeth.

“The Combat Zone was an area of Boston where all the big department stores were located – and it was also where all the clubs were located,” recalls Peter Wolf, lead singer of The J. Geils Band. “And many of the clubs had go-go gals, some of them had strippers in it, and it was all run and owned by – shall we say – the ‘wise guys.’

“The streets were all crowded, lots of ladies standing on the corner late at night looking for ‘new friends,’ shall we say. So for me, it was an amazing education.”

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Jay Leno went on to host The Tonight Show for 22 years. But in Boston, he started out performing between acts at strip clubs such as The Two O’clock Club. And when the district spilled over to Park Square, he performed at the Boston location of the storied Playboy Club.

“You had to do six shows a night,” he recalled, a slight grimace detectable in his otherwise workman-minded tone. “You had the Playmate Room and the Playboy Room. It was two rooms, upstairs and downstairs.

“I remember working the gig, and they’d always have some female singer opening for you singing ‘Mountain Greenery’ or something. And I remember that the Bob Winter Trio – the house trio – had to move the drums up and down in between shows.

“There’d be a show at 8 o’clock in the Playboy room, then 9:15 in the Playmate Room. Then at 10:05, they’d move again. And they’re doing six shows a night. And remember that the female singer, while I was on stage, she had to carry the drums for the band. About halfway through the show you’d see her mascara running, big sweat stains under her dress from carrying this drum set up and down.”

Another fixture in Boston’s nightlife scene was the nearby Hillbilly Ranch. Leno recalls one night when friend Freddie Prinze was telling jokes at President Nixon and an audience member pulled out a gun and fired it just above the comedian’s head. “Everybody hits the floor, the band runs off – it was just crazy.”

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And even if you were just minding your own business, business would find you.

“You would walk down the street and someone would go, ‘Hey man, you wanna buy a watch??’” recalls Wolf. “And me being not too bright – ‘Wow, look at all those diamonds!’ Guy would say, ‘How much money I got on ya?’ ‘I got 25 bucks.’ ‘Okay, good, man! It’s a 300-dollar watch, so I’ll give it to ya.

“I took the watch home, and the diamonds turned out to be rhinestones. And I remember lookin’ at my brand-new watch and tryin’ to wind it up – and boom, it exploded.”

A perfect metaphor for a common reaction to performances in...The Combat Zone.

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