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’On Location’ with the Boston Movie Mile Walking Tour

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Aug 2, 2012

The Boston Movie Mile Walking Tour departs from the visitor's center at the Boston Common, a hub of activity that also serves as the start point for a Civil War tour and a trawl along the Freedom Trail (that's the one that follows the red stripe running along Boston's sidewalks). But history buffs aren't the only ones who can enjoy a walking tour in Beantown: Film fans, too, have an option open to them. Boston, after all, is something of a movie town.

The Boston Movie Mile Walking Tour is one of a couple offerings from On Location Tours, the same company that runs the famous "Sex and the City" tour in New York City (not to mention tours dedicated to "The Sopranos" and "Gossip Girl"). The other Boston tour offered by the company is the "Boston TV & Movie Bus Tour," which is a three-hour trawl through filmic hot spots around the city, including locations used in the 2006 Martine Scorsese film "The Departed."

Our walking tour takes half as long, and is mostly confined to Beacon Hill, the exclusive neighborhood of brick sidewalks, gas lamps, and the occasional remnant of cobblestone streets that just screams "Historic Boston." It's no wonder so many films have used locations around Beacon Hill: The neighborhood is nothing if not cinematic.

Indeed, prior to the tour, I could tick off any number of films in which I'd glimpsed Beacon Hill locales. Years ago I lived in the neighborhood, and I recall the excitement and tumult that erupted when John Travolta was in town filming "A Civil Action," a movie that used the fifth floor of The Boston Athenaeum as a setting for a lawyer's office and paid a visit to DeLuca's Market on Charles Street for a brief scene featuring William H. Macy.

I especially recall Macy's visit, because I worked at DeLuca's at the time, and my register was used in the shot. Not me... just my register. Though I did get to give the actor who played the cashier a quick tutorial in how the register worked. Macy, meantime, sat on a chair in the middle of the market's floor, the picture of absolute calm, unfazed by the glances and stares of shoppers and staff.

Sunlight, Digital Cameras, Action!

The tour begins at 2:30 in the afternoon. Our guide, Javier, gathers up today’s group. There are about 10 of us: Three young couples (one gay, two straight), a trio of middle aged women, and myself.

It’s a cloudless, bright July afternoon, and one of the middle aged women demands of Javier, "Where’s your umbrella?" She evidently means parasol, unless she’s making an oblique reference to a recent spate of rain storms; either way, Javier is game and plays along.

"My umbrella, ah, my umbrella," Javier replies, a sparkle of mischief in his eyes. "Stolen by a bad roommate."

Javier is twenty-seven, dark-haired and bearded. He grew up an Army brat, he tells EDGE, but he’s lived in Boston for the past nine years. "As soon as I got here, I was home," Javier recounts. "Forget anyplace else. This is where I want to be."

Javier’s love of the city is matched only by his love of movies. "Have you seen ’Ted?’ " he asks excitedly, referring to the just-released Seth MacFarlane film, starring Mark Wahlberg, about a grown man and his magically animated, profane teddy bear. "That is just a great all-around Boston movie!"

As the tour progresses, the guide’s passions for city and film both come to the fore: "If you’re into movies at all, Boston is the place to be."

Boston, Je T’aime!

This is more the case than it used to be, now that Massachusetts offers film production companies attractive financial incentives to shoot in the state.

Before those incentives were put into place, movies set in Boston were being filmed in places like Toronto and New York. Think "Good Will Hunting" is as Boston as a movie can be? Think again: Javier informs us that about 40% of the film was shot in Toronto.

It was an absurd situation, Javier notes, given that, as he tells us, "Boston is home to over 200 movie and TV series combined." It’s not just the case that movies from "Amistad" to "The Thomas Crown Affair" are set in Boston; so are numerous television shows, such as "Boston Legal," "Boston Public," "Ally McBeal," and, of course, "Cheers," the enormously popular 1980s sitcom that took the real life hotel bar of the same name as its setting.

Now, the situation is reversing itself: Film companies are finding it more economical to come to Boston to make movies. Indeed, Boston stood in for Paris during the filming of "The Pink Panther 2."

Start with ’The Departed’

We begin the tour right there in Boston Common, with Javier leading the way. ("Have you been On Location?" the slogan emblazoned across the back of his blue "On Location Tours" T-shirt asks.)

"Does this look familiar?" Javier asks the group as he leads us across the green. "This is where the opening scene of ’The Departed’ was filmed, when Matt Damon is playing rugby." The Common, Javier added, has also served as a location for "Good Will Hunting" and "Fever Pitch."

Javier passes around his company iPad, which has been loaded with film stills. (The bus tour version comes complete with film clips shown using on-board video screens.) Damon and another actor share a park bench in the still. Yep: They’re on the Common, all right.

But we’re not... at least, not for long. Javier leads the way up the steps to Beacon Street. Just across the way is the State Capitol building, its golden dome shining in the sun. Javier pauses by a bas-relief of Union soldiers on horseback: This is a depiction of the 554th Regiment, one of the first African American regiments in American history.

"I can’t stand the way that movies compress things and rewrite history," Javier tells us. "I mean, I understand why they have to do it. They’re movies! But there’s a movie about the 554th Regiment called ’Glory’ that really did get the history mostly right."

Doctors and Lawyers

Javier leads us up the street to 14 Beacon. The name "Congregational House" is carved into the stone above the entrance. "This building is the office setting for Ally McBeal," he reminds us.

The show was shot in Vancouver, but that didn’t deter the management of the physical street address in Boston from celebrating McBeal’s fictitious law firm, which, during the show’s run, was listed on the building directory in the lobby.

We pause again at 10½ Beacon, the address of The Boston Athenaeum. "This is the oldest private library in the country," Javier tells his tour group, going on to explain that because Harvard University is often skittish about allowing movies to shoot on its campus, The Athenaeum often stands in for Harvard interiors. "The architecture is from about the same time," Javier notes.

One film in particular that used The Athenaeum for Harvard was "With Honors," a 1994 Joe Pesci vehicle about a Harvard student who loses his thesis. The paper ends up in the hands of a homeless man who extorts lodging from the student.

At One Beacon we come to an imposing edifice of a building. This was the setting for "HouseSitter," a Frank Oz-directed comedy from 1992 starring Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn, but it was also the setting for the 1993 thriller "Malice," an early Alec Baldwin film that also starred Nicole Kidman.

Retracing our steps and heading back toward the State House, we take note of the Omni Parker Hotel, one of the ritzier accommodations in Boston. The hotel is noteworthy not due to having been used as a film location, but for historic reasons: "Malcolm X worked there," Javier notes. "With Ho Chi Minh!"

Golden Dome, Storied Edifice

Back at the State House, we gather before the Bulfinch Entrance. Javier shares the story of how a scene for the 1997 Steven Spielberg movie "Amistad," about a group of men captured by slavers revolted and then sought legal protection, was filmed at the State House.

Then he drops another tidbit: Passing around his iPad, Javier says, "Some of the biggest names in the business started as extras." The still on his iPad shows a very young Bruce Willis helping fill out the crowd for a courtroom scene in "The Verdict," a Sidney Lumet film from 1982 starring Paul Newman and Charlotte Rampling.

Next, Javier leads us to a patch of shade at the intersection of Joy Street and Beacon--which also happens to be the place where a scene in the Jeff Bridges and Tommy Lee Jones action film "Blown Away" takes place. "In the movie, you see this Jeep speeding out of control down the street," Javier recounted. "If you go speeding down this street on your bicycle, as I’ve done many times, it takes 13 seconds... not two and a half minutes!"

The scene culminates in the Jeep exploding at the bottom of Joy Street, but that wasn’t the biggest bang in "Blown Away." Javier explained how people still talk about the movie’s infamous exploding boat, in a shot that the director wanted to boast a titanic detonation. He got his wish; there was so much TNT packed on board that the boat’s explosion blew out 8,000 windows, costing the studio over $1 million in repair expenses.

Rough Rides and RomComs

That bit of recent history may have been spectacular, but as Javier leads the group up Mt. Vernon street subtler, and more persistent, signs of Beacon Hill’s longstanding charm are everywhere.

Javier notes that the brick sidewalks and gas lamps keep the street looking much the way it did in hundreds of years ago, minus the cars of course. Our guide points out another quaint feature: Here and there, on the stoops of various buildings, there remain curious little metal protrusions. These, Javier explains, were used to scrape manure off people’s boots and shoes. Before this street was lined with cars, it was traversed with horses and carriages, with predictable results.

The walking tour’s route takes us past 85 Mt. Vernon Street, the "only standing mansion on Beacon Hill," as Javier notes, and the setting for "The Thomas Crowne Affair"... not the 1999 remake starring Pierce Brosnan, but the 1968 Norman Jewison original, starring none other than Steve McQueen. Javier passes around his iPad once more to show us a still in which McQueen, breakfasting amid the splendor of a rooftop garden, leafs through a copy of The New York Times. "It ought to be the Boston Globe!" Javier grouses, sparking a wave of laughter.

"The Thomas Crowne Affair" not only used 85 Mt. Vernon Street as a location, but also nearby Acorn Street, where a rare vestige of the city’s original cobblestone streets remains. These really are cobblestones, round and varying in size, and not a smooth brick thoroughfare. Javier notes that riding along a cobblestone street couldn’t have been a very smooth proposition.

Even so, this little stretch (which is forbiddingly marked "Private Way") conveys a certain romance, and as such it’s also been used as a setting in a few romantic comedies, including the Kate Hudson, Dane Cook, and Jason Biggs film "My Best Friend’s Girl," from 2008.

So, Who Done It?

Beacon Hill is something of an upscale neighborhood, but even here there’s a still more exclusive patch--namely, Louisburg Square, which includes the address of Sen. John Kerry. As the group comes to rest on a street corner, one of the group’s members asks Javier which house the senator lives in.

"Well," Javier says teasingly, glancing slowly over his shoulder. As it happens, we are standing right in front of Kerry’s home.

"I’ll tell you something," Javier adds conspiratorially. "If you go trick-or-treating on Halloween, this is one of the best houses to visit: They hand out full sized Snickers bars!"

Even better for the purposes of the tour, Kerry’s house is situated directly across from #22... the house used for exterior shots in the 1968 Richard Fleisher film "The Boston Strangler," starring Tony Curtis. Javier gives us the chilling lowdown on the facts behind the legend and the movie it inspired: Forensic evidence assembled after the fact showed that the man who confessed to the crimes, Albert DeSalvo (played by Curtis in the movie) could not have done the deeds. Why did DeSalvo confess? No one knows for sure; bravado, perhaps, or the notion that the infamy of the killings would lead to financial gain. DeSalvo was a convicted rapist who was serving time when he made the claim to being the Strangler. Whatever DeSalvo’s motives, Javier told us, the real killer has never been identified. "He’s still out there," Javier intones.

Given that the last of the Strangler’s 13 victims was murdered nearly 50 years ago, that may not be much of a threat, even assuming that all 13 victims were killed by the same individual... something else about the case which has long been in dispute.

Boston’s ’Boondocks’

Cheerier topics await us as we make our way toward Charles Street, which skirts Beacon Hill and leads to the Common and the Public Garden. "This place has not been used in a movie yet," Javier tells us, as we pass by Rouval’s Flowers, a quaint shop that also sells antiques. "But some day it really should be."

Near the flower shop is Cedar Lane Way, which was another location for "A Civil Action." "If you haven’t seen ’A Civil Action,’ " Javier quips, "it’s basically ’Erin Brockovich’ with John Travolta." ("Erin Brockovich" stars Julia Roberts and was made in 2000 by director Steven Soderbergh... in case you haven’t seen that movie, either.)

Upon reaching Charles Street, the group hangs a left. Javier points out the former fire house on Mt. Vernon Square where various productions have taken place, including the Boston edition of "The Real World," and he waxes enthusiastic over Café Vanille, which appeared in the 2001 Martin Lawrence and Danny DeVito romp "What’s the Worst That Could Happen?"

Javier also points out the building that was used for an exterior shot in "The Departed," where, having been tarted up for the camera, it portrayed a bar owned by Frank Costello, played by Jack Nicholson. Javier holds up his iPad: The movie version of the address is so much prettier than the drab dry cleaner’s that really exists on the spot.

But what excites him most about Charles Street is that it appears prominently in "The Boondock Saints," the 1999 cult film by local director Troy Duffy, himself such a character that he anchored a documentary, the highly amusing 2003 film "Overnight," which held Duffy up as an example of how not to succeed in Hollywood. (Duffy had the last laugh, making a sequel to "The Boondock Saints" in 2009 and appearing in another documentary, "Off the Boulevard.")

Laughter? Tears? Suds? Cheers!

As we make our way to the end of Charles Street, I cast a glance across at the still-closed DeLuca’s Market, which suffered a fire more than a year ago. The store is now being renovated, but it looks like it’s still months from reopening.

We cross over into the Public Garden, where Javier shows us a bench that featured in "Good Will Hunting." Where Robin Williams and Matt Damon had shared the bench in the film, today it’s an older Asian couple who occupy it, looking over the water of the pond where the famous swan boats glide back and forth, powered by pedaling boat drivers. Nearby, a wedding party poses for photos, the bride and groom radiant and surrounded by smiling bridesmaids and groomsmen. It’s picture perfect. It’s even, one might say, "moving picture perfect."

Javier leads us to the nearby Hampshire House hotel, where the original Cheers bar is located. "Have you reserved us a table inside?" someone asks.

Laughing, Javier responds that this is the end of the tour. It’s a good place to finish up and go have a drink, especially on a hot day, but his duties as tour guide don’t extend quite that far.

That’s fine, though. Anyone needing a pint can certainly find his or her way from here. After all, it’s Cheers... "Where everyone knows your name."

The Boston Movie Mile Walking Tour runs April - October. In April and May the tour takes place Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30pm; from June through August, the tour also takes place Friday through Sunday at 2:30 pm. In September and October, the tour takes place on Saturdays only, at 2:30 pm.

The tour meets near the visitors’ center on Boston Common. Tickets cost $22, plus a $2 ticket fee. The tour lasts about 90 minutes and includes more than 30 sites.

The Boston TV & Movie Bus Tour runs year round. From January through March the bus tour runs on Saturdays at 11:00 am. In April and May, the tour runs Saturday & Sunday at 11:00 am. From June through August, the bus tour runs Thursday through Sunday at 11:00 am. In September and October the bus tour runs on Saturdays and Sundays at 11:00 am. In November and December, the bus tour runs Saturdays at 11:00 am.

The bus tour departs Boston Common and costs $38 oer ticket, plus a $2 ticket fee. The tour lasts about 3 hours and includes more than 40 sites around Boston.

Tickets may be purchased at

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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