286-288 Commercial Street

Former Star Theater | Former Board Stiff | Hocus Pocus

In January 2012, Shop Therapy and Spank the Monkey moved to this building from 344-346 Commercial Street. • Forensic architectural investigation is often aided by obvious clues. The false front on the two-story building at 286-288 Commercial Street looks nothing like its gable-roofed neighbors. That’s because it was built in 1910 as a theater — the Star Theater — Provincetown’s first movie house. The theater was developed by Albert Zerbone (±1872-1959), who’d come to New Bedford from the Azores when he was four years old and began his career as an exhibitor in Provincetown by showing movies at the Masonic lodge. Zerbone’s projectionist was his cousin, Antone Joseph Viera. The theater was leased beginning in 1918, to Frank Knowles Atkins (±1877-1940), prorietor of the town’s second movie house, the Pilgrim Theater, at 293 Commercial Street.

In time, the theater was converted into the Bowlaway bowling alley. The Knights of Columbus met in rooms above the alley before they purchased their own building. A longtime tenant in the storefront space was a diner known as the Tid-Bit, run by Harold Wilson. It was the favorite of Capt. Manuel “Sea Fox” Zora, Provincetown’s best known rumrunner during Prohibition. Zora dejectedly repaired here, to the Tid-Bit, on the night that hijackers discovered the secret location of 200 cases of liquor he’d smuggled ashore and stole 196 of them. (Zora took four cases for himself when he saw the situation was hopeless.) That would have yielded a half bottle of free booze for every man, woman and child in town.

“It was a happy night in Provincetown,” Scott Corbett and Zora wrote in The Sea Fox: The Adventures of Cape Cod’s Most Colorful Rumrunner (1956). “It was more than a happy night — it was a fiesta.”

The whole town seemed to wake up and share the excitement. The Tid-Bit began to fill up with costumers, and every man who came in eyed Manny from under the brim of his hat with a knowing smile. At first Manny sat at the counter stolidly drinking his coffee, but finally he turned and grinned sourly at the joking, chattering men.

“You bastards, go ahead and laugh. I know why. Go ahead, have a good time. I hope you got enough liquor. You was getting so goddam starved for some booze.” … Manny stayed in the restaurant for hours, enjoying the spectacle. Since he had helped pay for the fiesta, he felt he might as well get all the fun out of it he could.

It was the biggest night’s business the Tid-Bit ever had, and the only time Wilson had ever stayed open all night.

Other retail tenants over the years have included the Hat Box, the Souvenir Shop, Market Square, Cheap Thrills, Hocus Pocus and Board Stiff, “the only surf shop on the tip of the Cape.”

[Updated 2012-01-09]












One thought on “286-288 Commercial Street

  1. When we tore out the old bowling alley to make a store, I was told that the building was built as a theater for stage plays. When the movie theater was put in, they extended the building forward to allow the projectionist to be behind the balcony. He was apparently partly in the roof, which had an addition for him. There were some old props and canvas backgrounds. The rear of the building was a house that was floated from the point. The house behind it was also brought over. It has a circular cellar with a cooking fireplace, pot holder on swing and a built-in brick oven.

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