Hampshire House Turns 50

The Beacon Hill landmark whose basement pub inspired the classic TV sitcom “Cheers” – celebrates its 50th anniversary this Monday, June 10.

“When you’ve been around 50 years, you have to have a party,” said Tom Kershaw, chairman of the Hampshire House Corporation, which besides the namesake business and Cheers Beacon Hill at 84 Beacon St., also owns and operates 75 Chestnut, 75 Liberty Wharf and Cheers Faneuil Hall.

The day’s festivities will begin with a private luncheon that is expected to include appearances by Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito and Speaker of the House Robert DeLeo, among other elected officials and luminaries.

From 6 to 9 p.m., Hampshire House will then hold its 50th Anniversary Celebration. Guests will be able to move freely around the building’s five stories while the third floor will be home to a casino with two blackjack tables, a roulette wheel and craps table. (This will involve the exchange of no money, Kershaw said, although non-cash prizes will be awarded to winners.)

The event will also feature musical entertainment, an open bar, passed hors d’oeuvres and appetizers, as well as keepsake photographs from the party for guests.

Invitations went out to 17,000 names on Hampshire House’s mailing list, all of whom Kershaw refers to as “part of our extended family.”

Tickets are also available to our readers for $50 for 50 Years per couple, or $25 per individual ticket, with proceeds benefitting Cheers for Children charities. Visit http://bit.ly/HampshireHouse50 to purchase tickets.

 “We thought it would be a great way for people to see the whole building…and what we’ve done with it over the past 50 years,” Kershaw said.

The Hampshire House mansion was originally built by architect Ogden Codman in 1910 as a family home for fellow Brahmins Bayard and Ruth Thayer. The Georgian revival townhouse was designed with Italian marble, carved oak paneling, crystal chandeliers and tall Palladian windows overlooking the Public Garden.  In 1942, the owner of the Lincolnshire Hotel on Charles Street leased the property and converted it into a small hotel to accommodate workers from the Charlestown Navy Yard. The building later served as living quarters for nurses from Massachusetts General Hospital.

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

Kershaw 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 that he go into business for himself instead.

As a resident of Mt. Vernon Street, Kershaw knew the Hampshire House was on the market, and had walked past it countess times, but he had never set foot inside the building. He soon partnered with fellow Harvard Business School grad Jack Veasey and began looking for investors.

“Eventually we had enough money to purchase the property, but not to improve it,” Kershaw recalled. “We originally had the grandiose idea of converting it to executive townhouses – a so-called ‘businessman’s retreat’ – but that was put on hold because we couldn’t raise enough money.”

Upon assuming ownership of Hampshire House, they took over its existing cocktail lounge, dining room, function room and 12 hotel rooms before beginning to look for ways to improve the property.

“Interestingly enough, one of the first things we did was put the pub in the basement…because we thought that was the best thing to do initially,” Kershaw said.

They had the bar custom-built in England, which was shipped back to the U.S. and installed in its current location.

The Bull & Finch Pub opened on Dec. 1, 1969 – Kershaw’s 31st birthday. “It was a popular, local bar initially with very limited food,” he recalled, adding that a kitchen was eventually installed at Hampshire House that continues to serve a full menu to this day.

The pub quickly became a popular destination for people from around the neighborhood, particularly those in the 30 to 50 age-range, as well as for professors from Emerson College; Kershaw recalls one Emerson professor even used to hold alcohol-free seminars at the bar some afternoons.

In 1981, the creative team behind the TV series “Taxi,” was looking for a new sitcom project, and this 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 broadcast on American radio from 1941 to 1951.

Jim suggested updating this premise for television, and writer and producer Les Charles agreed, but with one caveat: that they replicate an actual bar for the set to lend the series authenticity. (Les’ brother, Glen Charles, was also a member of this creative team.)

Jim then selected Boston as a good hunting ground to find a colorful tavern, believing that the city’s rich history of politics and sports would be ripe fodder for barroom banter.

Armed with a list of recommendations from Hollywood executives and friends and relatives living in Boston, Jim and Les toured a slew of neighborhood bars. But after visiting them all, Kershaw said, “They still couldn’t find the warm and fuzzy feeling they were looking for.”

They returned to their hotel room at the Ritz Carlton and began perusing the Yellow Pages, and since the Bull & Finch Pub came towards the beginning of the listings and appeared in bold print, Kershaw said it “jumped out” at them.

The Bull & Finch was also fortuitously located right around the corner from the hotel, so they stopped by at around 3 p.m. the next day, which fell between lunch and “cocktail hour,” giving them the bartenders’ full attention.

The next morning, Jim and Les were waiting at the door when bartender Eddie Doyle arrived to open, when they broached the idea of using the Bull & Finch as the setting for a prospective TV series. Then, with the owners’ blessing, they took numerous photographs of the bar, which an award-winning designer used to conceive the set for the TV series.

“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 said.

Also, Ted Danson, who starred as Sam Malone, the owner of the titular establishment and a former Boston Red Sox relief pitcher on the TV series, along with Shelly Long, who played Diane Chambers, a cocktail waitress, Boston University graduate student and Malone’s on-gain/off-again love interest during the first five seasons, visited the Bull & Finch on the evening of Thursday, Nov. 6, 1982, when one of the first few episodes was airing. “Their visit cemented the fact that the bar on the TV series was actually copied from a real bar,” Kershaw said.

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 said. “It’s still very nice, but not like it once was.”

Today, Kershaw’s “Cheers” merchandise outlets are limited to two on-site stores at 84 Beacon St., as well a third at Cheers Faneuil Hall.

After earning 28 Primetime Emmy Awards from a record of 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.

Award-winning sportscaster Bob Costas served as the emcee for the episode, which featured cameos by Joe and Ethel Kennedy and Newt Gingrich, among other notable public figures and celebrities.

Kershaw even opened up the third floor of Hampshire House as private dressing rooms for cast of “Cheers” for the once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

As part of the festivities, a grandstand with seating for 700 was erected on Beacon Street, and the party eventually moved outside, where a pianist sang and performed Gary Portnoy’s theme song for the series, with its indelible “Where Everybody Knows Your Name” refrain.

“It went on to become the third most-watched episode of the ‘Tonight Show,’” Kershaw said.

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

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 underprivileged siblings. This inspired the bartenders to hold an auction at the Bull & Finch, which raised $570 for the newspaper’s gift fund for needy children. Cheers for Children has since gone on to raise more than $500,000 to purchase children’s gifts, as well as donating an additional $2 million to 17 local charities that support children.

Since 1995, Kershaw has also sponsored the annual “Garlands and Greens” event at the Hampshire House to raise the money needed to decorate the neighborhood’s 1,089 gas-lamps for the holiday season. “I agreed to throw the party, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” he said.

That same year, Kershaw recruited neighborhood residents Chris Quigley and Ivy A. Turner to lead the decorating campaign for the first time under the auspices of the then-dwindling Charles Street Merchants Association, which they rechristened the Beacon Hill Business Association.

Similarly, in 1980, Henry Lee, founder of the Friends of the Public Garden, broached Kershaw with the idea of trying to raise money to decorate the Boston Common with lights for the holiday season.

Kershaw agreed and began selling “Light a Light” buttons for $1 each, bringing in 87 cents a piece profit and going on to raise around $35,000 for the cause, which was enough money to illuminate most of the Common. He would continue to help spearhead this effort for approximately the next 15 years.

Also, around 35 years ago, Kershaw started People Power for the Public Garden to help maintain the park, paving the way the Rose Brigade, which now cares for the Public Garden’s four rose beds under the leadership of former People Power member China Altman.

Upon visiting Aspen, Colo., circa 1993 and seeing an outdoor skating rink, Kershaw was inspired to bring the concept back to Boston. With the blessing of the city’s Parks Department, he put together a plan to open a four-season recreation center that would serve as a skating rink in the winter; a spray pool in the summer; and a reflecting pool in the summer. He pitched the idea to Thomas Menino, who was then in his first term as mayor of Boston.

Menino had already determined that area of the Common was in dire need of activation, Kershaw said, so he agreed to underwrite the cost of the facility using capital funds, with the stipulation that “it wouldn’t cost the taxpayers a cent to operate.”

Kershaw, along with Paul George, then learned how to operate and manage the rink, bought skates and raised enough working capital to launch the operation, which continues to this day.

But that was hardly the first time that Kershaw had an audience with a sitting mayor of Boston.

Circa 1983, then-Mayor Kevin White recruited Kershaw to study traffic on Charles Street, which at the time, headed towards the erstwhile Greyhound Bus terminal on St. James Street.  Just attempting to Charles Street could be perilous for pedestrians at the time, Kershaw said.

At Kershaw’s urging, the direction of traffic on Charles Street was subsequently changed, and this had a positive impact on its retail landscape as well as some of the neighborhood’s seedier establishments moved out, ushering in boutiques and other high-end businesses to replace them, he said.

Most recently, Kershaw sponsored the Kershaw Seesaw on the Myrtle Street Playground as part of an extensive overhaul of the neighborhood children’s recreational facility.

In recognition of his “significant and sustained” contribution to the neighborhood. Kershaw, along with Lee and Linda Cox, received the seventh annual Beacon Award in 2003 –  one of numerous awards bestowed on Kershaw for his philanthropic endeavors over the years.

Meanwhile, besides accommodating community events ranging from the Business Association’s annual meetings to last year’s reception marking the reactivation of Boy Scout Troop #74 after a decade-long lull, Hampshire House continues to serve as one of the city’s premiere venues for weddings and other private events, and the Bull & Finch remains a favorite destination for fans of “Cheers” and tourists from around the world.

“The way it’s operating now, with ‘Cheers’ in the basement and private dining on the second floor, it seems to work well in this building and in this neighborhood, and I don’t see that changing in the foreseeable future,” Kershaw said.

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