Boston Restaurateur Icon, Tom Kershaw, Turns 85

A true Boston icon, Tom Kershaw, the venerable Beacon Hill businessman and philanthropist, as well as longtime owner of  Hampshire House whose basement pub inspired the classic sitcom, ‘Cheers,’ turned 85 on Friday, Dec. 1.

In 1969, Kershaw, then a 30-year-old recent graduate of Harvard Business School, said he “did some psychological testing on what his career path might be,” and “the results came back: hospitality, hospitality, hospitality.”

Tom Kershaw (center) is seen with Liz Vizza, president of the Friends of the Public Garden (left) and Meg Mainzer-Cohen, president and executive director of the Back Bay Association, at Kershaw’s 85th birthday celebration on Nov. 29 at the Hampshire House.

He initially considered going to work for one of the major hotel chains in the city until a colleague from the Junior Chamber of Commerce suggested to Kershaw that he go into business for himself instead. Later that same year, Kershaw, together with fellow Harvard Business School grad Jack Veasey, assumed ownership of the Hampshire House and took over its existing cocktail lounge, dining room, function room and 12 hotel rooms before beginning to look for ways to improve the property.

They had a bar custom-built in England, which was shipped back to the U.S. and installed in its current location in the basement of the Hampshire House, and the Bull & Finch Pub opened on Dec. 1, 1969 – Kershaw’s 31st birthday.

(In 1972, Kershaw and Vesey opened The Landing on Marblehead Harbor, and Kershaw subsequently traded his interest in The Landing with Vesey for his interest in the Hampshire House.)

In 1981, the creative team behind the TV series “Taxi,” and which also  included director and producer Jim Burrows, whose father, Abe Burrows, had been a scriptwriter for “Duffy’s Tavern,” a situation comedy set in a neighborhood bar and broadcast on American radio from 1941 to 1951, was looking for a new project.

Through a stroke of luck, the team discovered the Bull & Finch Pub, which became the inspiration for their next sitcom project, ‘Cheers.’

‘Cheers’ premiered on NBC on Sept. 20, 1982, but it wasn’t a success in the ratings until then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neil made a cameo in an episode the following February. “Everyone tuned in…and it made the news both locally and nationally,” Kershaw told this reporter in 2019 as Hampshire House was celebrating its 50th anniversary.

In August of 1983, Kershaw traveled to Hollywood to attend a filming of an episode, where he negotiated the rights to sell ‘Cheers’ T-shirts from behind the bar at the Bull & Finch.

With the show’s continued success in the ratings, the bartenders were soon selling more T-shirts than drinks, so Kershaw was compelled to open an on-site gift store to vend ‘Cheers’ gear. The merchandising business expanded to boutiques, stores and kiosks throughout the city, and at one time, Kershaw held the national rights to sell ‘Cheers’ merchandise.

“It was a fabulous business back then,” Kershaw recalled in 2019. “It’s still very nice, but not like it once was.”

After earning 28 Primetime Emmy Awards from a record 117 nominations, the 275th and final episode of “Cheers” aired on May 20, 1993, and to mark the occasion, Jay Leno brought “The Tonight Show” to the Bull & Finch for only the third remote filming in its history.

Meanwhile, Kershaw opened a Cheers replica bar in Faneuil Hall Marketplace in 1983;  75 Chestnut right behind the Hampshire House in 1997; and 75 on Liberty Wharf in 2012. Hampshire House, Cheers, 75 on Chestnut, and 75 on Liberty Wharf are Kershaw’s active business interests today.

But before “Cheers” ever hit the air, Kershaw and Hampshire House were already well known throughout the neighborhood for their philanthropy.

Kershaw’s own charity, Cheers for Children, began as Globe Santa in 1980, after two Bull & Finch bartenders – the aforementioned Doyle and John Grasso  – read a story in The Boston Globe about two underprivileged  boys trying to raise money to purchase holiday gifts for their needy siblings. This inspired the bartenders to hold an auction at the Bull & Finch that raised $570 for the newspaper’s gift fund for needy children and paved the way for Cheers for Children, which has since gone to donate more than $2 million to children’s charities.

Since 1995, Kershaw has also sponsored the annual ‘Garlands and Greens’ event at the Hampshire House to help the Beacon Hill Civic Association raise the money needed to decorate the neighborhood’s nearly 1,100 gas-lamps for the holiday season. He now hosts a pancake breakfast at Hampshire House for those who help “undecorate” the lampposts as well.  Kershaw also served on the BHCA board of directors for one term and has supported the group in countless ways over the years.

Patricia Tully, executive director of the Beacon Hill Civic Association, extoled  Kershaw for everything he’s done for the organization and for the neighborhood.

“There are so many different ways he supports what we do, and he just never says, ‘no’,” Tully said of Kershaw in a video produced for Kershaw’s 85th birthday celebration, which took place on Wednesday, Nov. 29, at Hampshire House. “He’s just a wonderful man.”

In 2003, Kershaw was selected as one of three individuals to receive the BHCA’s annual Beacon Award that year in acknowledgment of his “significant and sustained contribution” to the community.

Kershaw also assumed the mantle of the Charles Street Merchants Association in the early ‘80s, which he rechristened the ‘Beacon Hill Business Association’ to be more inclusive of all businesses in the neighborhood.

In 1982, then-Mayor Kevin White asked Kershaw to undertake a study of Charles Street, which informed White’s decision to repave the street. And When Charles Street reopened two days later, the direction of traffic had been reversed,. So as the well-worn expression now goes: “Thomas Kershaw turned traffic around on Charles Street.”

“All in all, it has been a good thing for Beacon Hill and made it into a little village in the middle of the city,” Kershaw said earlier this week of the decision to permanently modify the flow of traffic on Charles Street.

Jack Gurnon, the owner of Charles Street Supply who was among those in attendance at Kershaw’s 85th birthday celebration, said in a statement: “Tom is one of the most valued and treasured icons of not only Beacon Hill, but also the whole city of Boston and Massachusetts. His generosity of not only his time and talents, but the kindness and openness of being such a gracious host at the Hampshire House for all occasions is legendary.  We should all strive to be more like Tom Kershaw.”

Kershaw was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Beacon Hill Business Association and remains Chairman Emeritus of the organization.

Additionally, Kershaw visited Aspen, Colo., circa 1993, on a skiing trip, and after seeing an outdoor skating rink there, he was inspired to bring the concept back to Boston. He successfully pitched the idea to then-Mayor Thomas Menino as a year-round facility, and using capital funds, the city, opened the Frog Pond Skating Rink on the Boston Common in January of 1997. Besides skating in the winter, the facility also serves as  a spray pool in the summer and a reflecting pool in the spring and fall. Kershaw operated and maintained the rink for its first 14 years, installing a skate rental amenity, new restrooms, a snack bar and garage for the Zamboni. At Kershaw’s suggestion, the Boston Common Frog Pond Carousel also opened nearby on the Common.

Among the many noteworthy individuals who offered Kershaw well wishes during the video produced for his 85th birthday was Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots, who said Kershaw “represents Beantown better than anyone I know.”

In a statement, Rep. Jay Livingstone, who was in attendance for Kershaw’s 85th birthday celebration,  said: “I appreciate Tom for his dedication and leadership, and for providing hospitality in Beacon Hill, Boston and throughout our Commonwealth. He has had a profound positive impact on our community, and I was so happy to celebrate his birthday with him.”

Also in attendance at Kershaw’s birthday celebration was City Councilor Ed Flynn, who said in a statement: “Tom Kershaw is an exceptional friend to the City of Boston.  He truly believes in the city and has always generously supported Boston and so many worthy organizations.  Tom has provided invaluable leadership and inspiration in Boston’s tourism, hospitality, and trade industries.  We are proud to call him a loyal friend and true son of the city.”

Likewise, Jim Brett, president of New England Council, said, “I wish someday the city would create a position, ambassador at large. Tom Kershaw would be my candidate. His impact has been enormous. Tom is an extraordinary business leader but more importantly, he’s a really extraordinary human being.”

Despite all the accolades bestowed upon him, Kershaw, a committed member of the board of directors of the Boy Scouts of America who received the Distinguished Eagle Scout Award and was the first inductee into the Eagle Scout Hall of Fame, said he considers himself first and foremost “a grown-up Eagle Scout.”

“I took the lessons I learned in Scouting seriously and am pleased to be in a position where I can help in a variety of ways,” said Kershaw. “I like making things happen and leading people to a successful conclusion in whatever projects they set out to do.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.