Worcester and Spencer’s Last Picture Show

By Rosalie Tirella

A classic. photos: R.T.

Maybe it’s living in Spencer, but watching for the first time THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and finding it kinda relatable. I’ve been meaning to watch this Peter Bogdanovich 1971 classic for years. It’s bittersweet, sad …about small town life in a dying Texas town, as seen thru the eyes of three graduating high school seniors, their feckless parents and the town’s sole small biz guy, Sam the Lion – the soul of the town. Sam still remembers his dreams and tries to create a little magic for kids Sonny (Timothy Bottoms) and Duane (Jeff Bridges). But their lives are so circumscribed by the lack of opportunities, glory days gone by …

So, here I am, in what some might consider a dying Central Massachusetts town, and thinking: Spencer’s on the upswing, but it’s still looking a bit downtrodden if you stroll thru its center and I wonder about its kids’ futures. Watching this iconic black and white film here in my very nice Spencer apartment I’m seeing the overlap: the center of Spencer boasting few attractions and the boarded-up buildings with their peeling paint and rotted wood shrivel the spirit … the love of big new trucks and shiny vehicles of all stripes – the ultimate status symbol around here … and hooking up – couples are definitely the be all and end all in Spencer. What else is there to do but couple and uncouple? And, unless you’re rich, the average education that kids get here can’t guarantee a high school grad much of anything these days. Ms. Gobi, a lifelong Spencer resident and years as the State House politician, talked of building an agricultural high school here in Spencer. Wowza! As Governor Healey’s new rural czar she could make it happen. But, instead, Gobi claims it’s too expensive to be built and staffed. So why bring it up in the first place??? Free press.

Watching the film at home in Spencer.

There’s no downtown movie theatre to even screen the LAST picture show here. I wonder if Spencer had a movie theatre years ago like Clinton, Fitchburg … Worcester. I know Spencer had a T and G news bureau here with one of its reporters, Fred Smock, a physically huge guy and a bit of a local legend, at the helm. And there was another newspaper in town, The New Leader, with its own little building right on Main Street. In the 1980s I worked there as a cub reporter, along with five other writers covering Spencer, the Brookfields, real local news. LOCAL NEWS. SERIOUS AND SILLY COVERAGE. ENGAGING THE TOWNFOLK. BEING A KID AND LEARNING CIVICS HANDS ON. Now five reporters are about half of the T and G’s city room in downtown Worcester, New England’s second largest city!

If you – America – loses its local newspaper and reporters and local movie house, what have you got? No picture shows. Fewer dreams to dream … No civic lessons, less knowledge … And goodbye to learning a craft – reporting – the good old fashioned way – apprenticeship style. America has really changed – our small towns and cities are a lot like what you see in the movie I’m now watching, THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, winner of two academy awards, nominated for several.

I drove by the Mercantile building in Worcester last week looking for the Telegram and Gazette sign, along with its website. The building, built in the 1970s and looking tired these days, sits across the street from City Hall common, in the middle of all the fancy trendy restaurants and diners and all the ugly new apartment complexes. The ripped down T and G signage was not visible to me, being physically too close to the tall building, once headquarters of the the old Mechanics Bank. I couldn’t tell what had happened. But the letters – taken down by the bottom-line-obsessed, fu*king cheapskate Gannet publishing behemoth that destroys local newspapers after buying them up – was never meant for ordinary townies to see – just walking or driving by the building. It was meant to be seen from the expressway – an ad for middle class folks, thousands of them commuting home to a Woo suburb after working in Worcester – looking out their car windows to see that they had a city newspaper. What b.s. With all the old timers like a Fred Smock shown the door, reporters given severance packages, encouraged to leave when still in their writing prime, Gannet screwed the city – and was able to hire newbies on the cheap. Their reporting is solid but like the disappearing signage, something is definitely missing.

In the center of Downtown Spencer: an eye sore and public safety hazard.

It’s the opposite experience of that big beautiful red TG sign that sat atop the four story high Worcester Telegram and Evening Gazette building for years and years. Like City Hall’s clock tower, embedded in the landscape, king of Franklin Street. Next to the old Coronado. A hop skip and a jump to Sylvia’s Dress Shoppe or that great wig shop with the beautiful blond lady and her daughter, both sexy looking and wearing that same type of sexy long blond wig. Closing up shop after hours to keep special appointments with transvestites who bought their wigs there and appreciated the privacy and one on one special attention. I once interviewed the owner for a story! The city’s newspaper was right there in the thick of things, the Coronado’s bar, the wild wigs, Sylvia’s racks of mother of the bride dresses … a real downtown player with FOUR FLOORS OF EMPLOYEES. First floor of the old TG building: billing and subscriptions and the guards. Second floor local news – the city room in the middle with desks pushed together and typewriters and computers the size of Volkswagens clacking clacking as reporters beating the hell out of the keyboards fighting up against deadlines. Making the morning paper or evening gazette. Upstairs: features… the elegant travel reporter, the two or three feature-writing ladies, the feature-writing guy, the food writer – the best writers in the joint … Cooking, sailing, books, restaurants, local phenoms, weird people …these Telegram and Evening Gazette reporters write about them all and were the most gifted writers on the papers. They wrote about all things Worcester. Plus, there was a local sports department, local columnists, and the wedding pictures and engagement announcements were free – as well as the obituaries – arguably covering the two most important days in a person’s life, besides the day of her birth. Also, listed for free in our local rag. You could be just your average nosy person, not interested in world or local news, and still buy a yearly subscription to the Worcester telegram or Evening Gazette. Just to read the obituaries – little feature stories on the people you grew up with or worked with or lived down the street from.

Now, like the last picture show, all that is gone. All that local flavor. All that coming together of ordinary people creating something extraordinary and special: their community.

I remember that old red neon TG sign, even as a little girl walking home from The Mart with my mom and two kid sisters. It felt imposing and important. Our mom would tell us stories about her being a cashier at the Coronado when she was very young and seeing all the big wig editors and local pols coming in to drink and eat at the restaurant. She remembered the news reporters and editors in their trench coats, their fedoras slanted over their eyes – always polite to her – looking like something right out of a movie.

The last picture show.

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