Fred Shibley--Tumbler and Sandblaster--Started a Newspaper and Was Bankrupted By Catholic Churches and Urban Renewal
The life of Fred Shibley has much to teach us. A curious combination of human will, seemingly "chance" encounters, and social forces inexplicably opposed to a man's will. At a thousand points his life might have been an entirely different story. And yet somehow it was all inevitable. Mr. Shibley's life is just like our own, only much more exciting.
I WAS BORN here in Boston. I was born down on Edinborough St., now it's part of the highway there, in Chinatown it was, Chinatown, we went to the old Quincy School down there, mostly Chinese boys now. Then from there I moved out to West Roxbury, lived out there for a while, my father bought a home out there but he had his business in town, it was quite a job commuting between West Roxbury and Boston, quite a distance you know. He had a wholesale dry goods business in Boston. He had to get up at 4:30-5 o'clock in the morning in order to get the store open at 8 o'clock. It'd take an hour and a half, two hours by street car from West Roxbury. In those days you come in by horse and buggy, there were only a few cars around at the time, we didn't know how to drive, and those people who could drive, had to be engineers practically, or mechanics....
I liked mechanical work. I had a natural aptitude for it anyway. At the same time when I was 10 or 12 years old here in Boston, I used to spend hours writing stories, I used to write poems and stories, I did a lot of writing, you know. Even at that age I'd write these long weird stories and send them off to agencies. As fast as I sent them out, they sent them back. You're young, you don't get too discouraged, anyway. I could write, I mean I always wanted to write, so when I was in show business I started writing skits and shorts, and things like that, plays, you know playettes, blackouts, they call blackouts short plays and skits you know.
I dropped out of school when I was going to Boston Trade, and I had been training at the time as an acrobat down at the gym, at the BYNCU on Boylston St. I was going to be a mechanic, I was studying automotive engineering over there at Boston Trade and I was going to go to Went-worth and finish up over there. But I was down at the gym one day working out down there, I worked after school at a garage for a while, and I didn't think too much of it.... Just something I wanted to learn, something I wanted to do. And I became a pretty good acrobat by the time I was 15, 16. I was a good acrobat, in fact I could have qualified professionally but I don't know. I was down at the gym one day working out one day, I had been working evenings and making $18 a week, or something like that, and a fellow came along and asked me if I wanted to join up with him, said he just came in from the West, and needed a good tumbler and saw me tumbling down at the gym, working out, and said you're just what I need... to put an act together. That's not working I said. I have some kind of a job. I asked him how much money was in it, and he said, Ah, you can make a couple of hundred a week out of it, and it sounded pretty good to me so I decided to take that.
I started out with him as a tumbler, we did a tumbling act for a while--he and I; another fellow joined us. I played the old Washington St. Olympia, here, we played the BFT Theatre, we played the Scollay Square Olympia, we played the Portland, Maine, we broke the act in here before we went to New York. We worked around here about 25-30 weeks and all through New England, and we got the act all set and finished, all ready for New York, when we went to New York with it we started working around New York. And then we went out West. I was about 16, I guess, 15, 16.
WHEN I was 19 I was with a group that stopped in one of your smaller towns in New Hampshire. I was just crossing the street the morning after the show when these two ladies walked by talking to each other, you know; and they were talking in Arabic. The one said to the other one "Isn't that the fellow who was in the show last night?" I turned around and I says yes. I understood Arabic and I knew what they were saying. I just talked to them for a while and then went on. Now when I got across the street this cop asked me why I was assaulting those women. I said I heard what they said and just answered them. He asked me then if I were a wise guy or something. And I says to him "Are you a wise cop?" So then later when I'm sitting in the restaurant having something to eat, he comes in and jumps me from behind. Now I didn't know who he was, he didn't have a badge or or anything, so I turn around and belt him and then hit him over the head with a ketchup bottle. His friend sees this, and he draws a gun on me. They arrest me and take me outside in the alley. They put the handcuffs on me and I couldn't do nothing because one's got a gun on me. Then the sheriff tells the other one to put the gas gun in my face and let'm have it. Well, I didn't know what he was doing so I looked right into it. He shot it and my eyes were burned with hot gunpowder. I couldn't see anything for weeks and it made me partially blind for three years. They partially blind for three years. They healed and got better but I have to wear these glasses some of the time now. I tried to sue the cops, but the trial was in their town and they all called each other by the first name at the hearing. The judge would say "Now what's he say that Tom's done?" It didn't stop the act though because we had the tumbling act and you could do that even if you could barely see.
THE FIRST act we did was the three clowns. It was all comedy that we were doing, hitting each other with broomsticks, and they'd pull the pants off me and I had a dress underneath that flared out this way here, and big rubber sponges for muscles on the thighs and the calves of the legs. It was a very funny act, it was a scream. It lasted for a constant eight or nine minutes; it didn't stop a second. From there on, I get tired of it after a while. Meanwhile, one of the acrobats that was with me started giving me tap dancing lessons. Matter of six or eight months, I was a good tap dancer. We combined that with the acrobatics, we made acrobatic dancing out of it, see. And then later on after a year or two of this clown act, I get sick of putting the make-up on, you know it takes a long time to put that make-up on, and he and I decided to do an acrobatic dancing act so we came back and were very successful with that, went along for about two or three years with that.
And meanwhile of course, I studied music, I studied the banjo while I was on the road. So with the combination of acrobatic dancing and banjo playing I had a good single act and I could work by myself in case the need ever arose, which it does sometimes; without a partner sometimes you can go out and work if you have to.
I worked alone for quite a while after that. Then I worked with musical comedy up with Kid Boots over in New York at the Eddy Cantor Show, you remember Kid Boots, I got a part in that. I went along with the Kid Boots company, I was with the Kid Boots company oh maybe fourteen, fifteen months all together. Then they went on the road and went as far as Colorado and I decided I had had enough of it and wanted to get back to New York. I called my agent meanwhile and talked to him, asked him if he had anything for me in New York, he said sure, come on in, so I got back there and got another show.
It was Five O'Clock Girl, I think it was. In fact the fellow that was in the show had just quit, and I took his place. And then I went with another show called Dance Man, another one Stop, Look and Listen, all these shows were going on all the time, you'd be with one for four or five months, then out of it. You're looking for something better all the time. Eventually--the beginning of the Thirties there--show business fell apart. Barely lingered on until thirty-three, thirty-four; then everything collapsed along with the economy. You recollect that was quite a market crash back in '29 there, and everything went along with it. Theatres started closing one by one. In the latter part of the Thirties the talking pictures came in.
You'd take out girls who would be in the shows, various girls. You get acquainted with them in the show and you get company from one of the girls in the show and you love her until the season close, and then that was about the way it worked out. If the girls in the show weren't available, there were always plenty of girls in the town, the stage door Janes, you know, there were always a bunch of those around, waiting at the stage doors to meet some of the boys out of town. I knew they'd be there today and gone tomorrow so they wouldn't talk.
I finally got out to Chicago and stayed there for two or three years. I worked at the Oriental there, with Paul Ashe's band, I was doing a solo there, acrobatic dancing with them. And while I was there, of course, I decided to go to school so I went over to the University of Chciago, took a few courses over there, liberal arts courses at East 60th St. there and when I got back to New York I went to Columbia.
I said I might as well get an education too while I'm fooling around these places, so I had nothing to do during the day so I thought I'd go to school, cause you're only doing two matinees during the week, so I went to school.
And then when the bottom fell out of the business in the early Thirties I came back to Boston and looked around for something and there wasn't too much to do. I went along until about '35 or '36, struggled through these places, certainly a far cry from the theatres we had played in Boston.
We even played the Old Howard; the Old Howard had a burlesque show and between the first and second half of the show they had vaudeville acts. For us it was just a one-day stand, for a Sunday. Like the Lowe's Orpheum on a Sunday, you couldn't do any dancing on a Sunday, so they put acrobats in for a Sunday. It was against the law to have any dancing, you couldn't even walk to music. It was a peculiar law, but that's the way the law read. They'd have spotters out there watching, in case they did. So if you walked across the stage when the music was playing you had to walk offbeat. You couldn't walk in time with the music, which is ridiculous, I know that. Today when you see them out there doing everything on a Sunday.
'35 or '36 it was, show business had just about fallen apart. I was opening a dancing school, in fact I took over a dancing school for, what's his name, I can't think of his name off hand, but he had a school up there on Massachusetts Avenue, a little short fellow, I took over his school for a while. I didn't like that; he was just paying me on a commission basis and he was getting all the money, teaching tap up there and teaching acrobatics. Then I went to work for the Starahide company, selling building maintenance, sandblasting building, cleaning building, and things like that.
I got quite a few jobs, in fact I got the Trinity Church over in the Back Bay here, we did the whole face of that church, water-proofed it, $3000 job, took about two weeks to get it, and 20 per cent commission, which wasn't too bad.
You know all those figures on the front. They're all made of sandstone, you know. They all have these figures depicting the various chronological eras in the Bible as it goes through. We sandblasted those, steamcleaned them rather, because you couldn't sandblast them, you'd ruin the sandstone. You'd steamclean them with acid. Then we waterproofed them, we blew wax into them. That's so as to preserve it. I got quite a few jobs. But eventually the fellow I was working for went out of business, Starahide his name was, and I looked for something else.
About '37, or '38, they had a WPA project at the time with vaudevillians. That was quite a thing, boy, that was really a hang-up. They would take professional people and put you in a storehouse over in South Boston someplace, you sit around all day and go home at night. We were supposed to be rehearsing and putting on shows.
About this time I came near marrying a girl, but she said no and she was very smart because she was quite a bit older than myself, some fifteen years older than myself, so I'm glad she said no. She explained it, she said I'll be an old lady and you'll be young, it won't work out, it just won't work out Mike. I didn't care about that, but she said no, so that was it.
Then I decided to start a paper, in March of '38. I had been in court, I had listened to several cases, I thought some of the stuff was very humorous. When you read it in the daily papers they seemed to take the whole thing serious. It didn't appear very serious to me, if a man was chasing a prostitute through an alley, a policeman chasing a prostitute through an alley, or two or three of them, jumping over barrels and she climbing over fences, trying to capture a girl for soliciting or something like that, I thought it was very funny. I thought you could get a lot of humor out of it.
I just wanted to cover the police courts, and the blotters, things like that. I had a typewriter, that's all. I had a little space in the house, on Newman Park, I lived with my mother there at the time. Putting out 10,000 papers in those days, an eight-page tabloid, the cost is only 75 to 80 dollars a week.
I started out as the Midtown Journal. I put out the first issue; prior to that I had gone around solicited some advertising. In those days papers were selling for three cents a copy. I got a few ads, I got $30 to $40 worth of advertising, but I was always short of enough money to pay the printers. I was out at work nights, dancing in these barrooms. You could pick up $80 to $90 a week there, so I was putting my money into the paper to get the paper rolling. It got rolling along in about '42 or '43.
The first issue I put out I gave away. I put out 10,000 copies and had boys put them in all the doorways. The people were a little bit amazed, I guess, to see a different kind of a newspaper. I went along for a few months, for four or five months, depending on the advertising, but the advertisers in the area weren't too responsive. Eventually I moved deeper and deeper into the phase that I wanted to go, that is towards more humor, then every story became a humorous story, everything had a humorous angle to it, regardless of what the story might be.
Finally a tremendous buildup started in the paper, it really started to build up awfully fast about '46, '47. It was during the war, I sent out a lot of papers to the various camps; and these boys--I got a lot of letters from them, and subscriptions.
Then I decided to sell the paper. It was kind of discouraging at first, and I put them off to sale at three cents a copy. I think the first week I sold 25 papers. I cut the printing down to a thousand papers, and even then got most of them back. But the following week I sold fifty, and that was a hundred per cent increase. So I kept going by percentages, and before I knew it I was doing five thousand a week. That was in the early forties, '42. Then we were up to 8000, then 10,000, and 20,000, and 30,000.
Then I went to a nickel on it. I was the first one of the daily papers, in Boston, or any of the papers in the city, to go to five cents. Then there was a tremendous surge in the paper, went to 40,000, 50,000, hit 60,000 a week, paid circulation.
But of course at that time I was handling distribution myself. Friday I'd take a fellow with me, load the big Buick up that I had, we'd go out, he'd jump into the front of stores with them. I delivered until I got up to 36,000. Then I just couldn't do it all; it was too much: writing the paper, covering the courts, delivering the paper, so I finally hired a few fellows to take care of the distribution for me. Finally, eventually I wound up with eight or ten men just handling distribution. I did the rest of the work. But even at that, the rest of the work, writing the paper, covering the courts, was an 80-hour week. And then I went to a dime eventually.
The paper of course encountered a lot of difficulty, such as the Catholic Church. They thought it was a pretty horrible newspaper. They sent their agents around to tell the people in the various stores in the neighborhoods where they lived that they wouldn't trade there unless they took the papers out. I lost a lot of sales that way.
I had headlines that they claimed were double entendres. I remember one particular headline "Two in Bed, Tangle Lasses." If you read it fast it sounded peculiar. Another one was "Big Balls Win Gal Prize." Of course, it was nothing more than a girl attending a drinking party, and wound up in court, she won the prize for large highballs, though she never collected it. You couldn't put down large highballs, you didn't have room enough, you only had a certain amount of type, you only had 21 units that you could use, and you had to write the whole headline, so you got some weird results as a result of being confined to so many units. You kept switching words around until you found what you wanted.
And of course, I got deeper and deeper into the direction which I was travelling, humor. And it became a hilarious paper; people would scream at it. That's when the Church; I guess they didn't like the idea of the headlines, they thought it should be the old Quaker line such as the old Boston Post, or something. Uncle Ned, or whatever it was. So they put the crush on me, I lost a lot of sales, through South Boston, especially in the Catholic area, in fact they invaded the South End area.
I probably lost 10,000 sales, but it didn't put me out of business. I was doing about 60,000 at the time. It dropped to about 50,000. I had about 200 stores in South Boton and they started putting the papers under the counter. Especially stores on the block of a church.
The Catholic League of Decency, established in Chicago at the time, they put the paper on the list. They were self-appointed censors, you know, they told people what they could read and what they couldn't read. Although there was nothing in the paper that could be called obscene, none of the four letter words that's permissible today ever appeared in the paper. They just didn't like it, that's all. It's just one of those things. You just can't figure them out, that's all. There was nothing I could do about it.
I married in '43, in '42 I got married, somewheres around there. It didn't last very long, it lasted three or four years, and that went out the window. Then I went along as a happy bachelor for quite some time until another woman talked me into marrying her.
While I was in here running the newspaper, these groups of people that I know who are interested in horse racing and wire service, which was legal at the time, they come in and wanted too hire space in here, and we made arrangements, they pay me so much. Then of course the whole thing cracked down on me; investigating committee started, investigation of the wire service, and Kefauver.
Continental went broke. You see, a lot of the bankers in Chicago were behind Continental, a lot of the racketmen were behind Continental, they were afraid of being exposed, cause they were really cheating on the take of money out there, they were taking in millions a year, millions and millions, and weren't declaring all the money, and rather than face prison they blew up the whole thing, and set fire to the thing, and a couple of people were murdered, and there was quite a hullaballoo about the whole thing, out in Chicago. Well, that finished up Continental. Then United Press stepped in. When UP stepped in they took over everything, as they anticipated doing, they took over the whole thing. UP became strong, in fact UP became one of the biggest in the whole country. Then they absorbed, gobbled International, became UPI, and then they controlled the whole thing. I went down to get a UP wire service later on, but they wouldn't sell it to me.
They gave it to the Record American instead, cause the Record American didn't use Continental; they had Associated at the time. And the Record American did exactly what I was going to do with it, and that's how they're making money on UP. They're a pretty smart bunch of boys down there, I don't know where they are now, I remember talking to them down there. Anyway, I went along after that, I didn't care whether I got it or not. The paper was the thing I lived for, the thing I wanted.
I was covering the entire city of Boston, I was shipping out to Lowell, I was shipping to Fall River, New Bedford, we covered Providence, I had a distributor down in Providence, and I had one in Brockton, I had one in Holbrook, Randolph, all of Quincy, Lynn, Revere, I had all around, within a radius of 25, 30 miles of Boston, we covered, each driver covered a different area. I covered quite a bit. But the outside sales were not to be compared to the sales in the city. I had about 30,000 in Boston. All over the city. In any store in the city. Scollay Square was a good area, the West End was a big area. The New York St. was a good area. Dorchester, Roxbury was very good, also the Back Bay, Jamaica Bay, the North End, all the streets down in the North End, I practically had every store in the city selling papers. There were about 1400.
Anyway, so I went along, then the Urban Renewal thing came in. I realized then that it would hurt everybody in the city, the way they were taking the city apart, and I question the legality of taking these properties by eminent domain and giving them to somebody else. Which is absolutely illegal, it's still in my opinion illegal, and it was declared so by Judge Dimmond of the Supreme Court in Alaska. And that was the first time it was taken to a Supreme Court. He said this Urban Renewal, this group, just a freewheeling group and not a part of the state or territory of Alaska, they're not responsible to the people in any respect, they certainly can't take the property from one person and give it to another to develop.
They usually kept it from going to the United States Supreme Court by paying off these people and paying the price that they asked. It's caused a lot of destruction here in Boston. It's driven 250,000 people out of the city; it put like 25,000 small businessmen out of business, and the cost to the people of Boston, as I predicted, would be about two billion dollars, and the amount of money they got from the government 200 and some odd million dollars. And if they weren't getting today about 80 some odd million a year from the sales tax coming into Boston, your tax rate today would be about 150 to 160 dollars, which I predicted six years ago, that that's what it would be.
The stores that I had were all torn down, I lost 850-900 stores, out of 1400. And then of course the people moved away also. Where they went, I don't know, I couldn't find any of them. They just vanished.... They started moving out in 1961, 1962. In 1963 I began to feel the slump. Every week a store closed, five stores, eight stores, 20 stores. One fellow came back after delivering his route, came back in about an hour. I said, how many stores you have left? He said about 20. He had had 125. Another fellow, the same thing. All of them the same way. Eventually it wound up, I said the hell with this, I'm losing too much on this thing.
I tried to move out of town with it, but the cost of distribution out of town is prohibitive. You take it out to Framingham, or go up to Winchester, and put out 100 papers, the trip to there isn't worth it. And if you get a distributor up there, they want too much. There wasn't any concentrated group; it wasn't the South End; the South End had about 80,000 people, which was the ideal place where you circulate at a minimum cost. I had a store on every corner see. And it made it fine. But once that was spread out there was no way to recapture it, there was nothing I could do with it.
So I just had to close up.
I closed up in 1966.
Up 'til then I worked every week, never missed an issue. Even when I was sick, and had to lie in bed on my stomach, and run my typewriter beside my bed, after having had an operation, and all these things, I continued publishing, never missed an issue. A little bit late a couple of times, but never actually missed an issue, in the entire 29 years.
I'd never do it again, not what I had to go through. I just went broke, I had no more money left. I was getting all the money I was getting from other sources, a few dollars here and a few dollars there, all going into the paper, and I finally wound up $25,000 in debt, which I still am, a little more than that, about $30,000. I was only selling 4000, 5000 papers a week. I sold each issue for ten cents. The publication costs were about $4000. I was getting about seven cents a copy, bringing in about $300 and some odd dollars a week, which wasn't enough to pay the rent and pay the girl in the office, and pay the linotype operator that I had working here, and give me a week's pay, and pay the drivers' who were taking out the stuff. I was in the hole at the rate of three or four hundred dollars a week. I stopped in June of '66.
Shortly after I closed the paper up, about four or five months, I was brooding, doing a lot of brooding over it. One morning I got up and collapsed, choking to death and they had to call a doctor, he analyzed my ailment as asthma at the time. Here I was a professional acrobat, used to run five-six miles in the morning, keep in condition you know. Asthma, me? Yeah. Nerves, he said. Take it easy and relax. I just walked around in a fog for a year and a half after it, the shock of it, you know, it will affect people that way.
If I ever start a career like that again, I certainly wouldn't devote my time to writing newspapers. I'd go into magazines or books, because the rewards are greater and the pressure isn't as great as it is in a newspaper. Your newspaper's all right for hack writers, these people who file straight reports, you know.
Last year I happened to be in the store one night down at the corner of Upton St. and Ed Beardsley, this fellow connected with the Avatar, came in and he had put them in the store to sell, and he asked Jimmy in the store, how they were selling, the clerk of the store how they were selling, and Jimmy said look up there and see how they're selling. I said what is it? He said a newspaper. I said something new? And this Beardsley said yeah. So I looked at one of the copies of Avatar. He asked me if I had ever seen a copy. I said no, I had heard of it, published up at Fort Hill. He said yes. So then the clerk said Fred here used to run a newspaper, the Midtown Journal. He said, you did? I said yeah. He asked me where I put the paper, I said up in my plant, up in Rutland St., it's vacant now. He said we're looking for a place. I said, well come on up and I'll show it to you. So I brought him up here and showed it to him, this room in here. He said it's not big enough. I said there's another room out there, there's two rooms. He said that's just ideal. It makes it perfect, it's just what we need.
I don't remember what I thought of the first issue. I glanced through it, and I tried to follow it. It was a little bit unusual, a little bit different than anything I had ever read in newspapers. So they just moved in here, and the first issue they put out here they all went into the can. They had a centerfold with the four-letter words in there. I thought, if they want to do it, it's all right, the hell, it's not my paper. I wish they had been here thirty years ago, they'd have thought my paper was a Sunday School sheet. I was in here the day the police came in and confiscated the papers. Since then, the police have quieted down, I guess they've read it several times and they don't think it's too bad.
They just finished building this meditating platform out back. They asked me if they could build it; and I said sure, if it helps them put out the paper, why not