The 1880 Club controversy on the turnpike in Westborough
By Glenn Parker, Special Contributor
Westborough – In July of 1947 Westborough selectmen met with Shrewsbury resident Joseph Pezzella, manager of the 1880 Club, a dinner club on the Turnpike, regarding a proposal to build a theater and amusement park on the club property. Pezzella also ran the Italian American Canteen on Shrewsbury Street, in Worcester with his wife Rose and brothers Ralph, Anthony and Pasquale. Pezzella proposal included a theater that would seat 500, outdoor swimming pool, dance hall, an amusement park and zoo. Although selectmen didn's vote to approve the permit, they did give Pezzella the ok to construct a 50 x 100 foot building, which was estimated to cost $4,000.
When local residents discovered that selectmen were considering a permit for the club, they formed a neighborhood committee to fight the proposed club. They circulated a petition, ultimately signed by 380 voters, requesting that any permit given for the club would be immediately rescinded. The neighbors and clergy believed that the theater would become a burlesque hall and be detrimental to the community.
In August, 300 residents packed the selectmen's meeting to present the petition and address the board to protest the proposal. The meeting was adjourned to the auditorium where comments from the clergy and residents demanded answers. However, the board was not prepared to resolve the issues at hand and scheduled a public hearing to hear from both sides of the proposal.
At the September public hearing 600 residents filled Town Hall to hear both sides state their opinions on the proposal. Although the community response was overwhelming against the theater/amusement park, the selectmen were reluctant to vote on the matter and deferred their decision until they could meet in executive session. At the October meeting, with many residents once again in attendance, the selectman unanimously denied the permit to build the amusement park and theater but gave Pezzella tentative approval for the only available liquor license.
Then on Dec.19, 1948, a fire at the rear of the club was reported by a motorist at 2:20 a.m. The passing motorist saw the blaze and woke Walter Katunas, the owner of the property, who then called the fire department. Although the fire department quickly responded, the fire had spread rapidly and the club was heavily damaged.
The cause of the suspicious fire was of undetermined origin. Walter Katunas, who owned the property and lived in the house nearby, estimated the loss would be $50,000. Pezzella's quest to further develop the property came to an end.
Then in March 1949 Joseph Pezzella, doing business as Turnpike Barn Inc., purchased a six-acre site on the westbound lane of the Turnpike at the top of the hill diagonally opposite Hooper's Cabins. He than began construction of a cement block building for his new theater. In April he applied to the town for the remaining seasonal club all-alcohol license under the name of Playhouse Inc.
Although the selectmen approved the application, the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission denied the license based on an incomplete building requirement and the Turnpike Barn Inc., d.b.a. Playhouse Inc., was not a chartered business with the state.
The theater club at the time was under the management of Robert Daggett and then Allen Gray Holmes. Despite the reputations of Daggett and Holmes as successful straw-hat theater managers, there was no documented evidence that either presented straw-hat theater at Pezzella's Playhouse Theater.
On an appeal by Walter Katunas on April 20, 1950, the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission granted the Fox Club Inc. an alcohol beverages license after Westborough selectmen failed to act, leaving the Turnpike Barn Inc./Playhouse Inc. without any chance of acquiring a liquor license. Katunas had built a new building on the site of the former 1880 Club and the Fox Lounge was born.
In May 1951, Johan and Thomas Andersen acquired the Playhouse Theater property, a cement block building and established Duplicon Co. The company became so successful it expanded in 1953 and again in 1967 when the business outgrew the facility. In 1969 the company was acquired by Zero Mfg. of Burbank, CA., a larger competitor, and in 1971 it relocated the business to the west coast.
The building remained vacant until the Howard Johnson Hotel chain acquired the property and cleared the site in anticipation of building a hotel. During the construction of the new hotel the Westborough Police were hired to guard the property against unlawful actions by union members that were picketing the non-union construction company.
Today the Doubletree Hotel is located on that site.
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