Eagle Feathers #2 -Eyes on Bette Davis
By Bob (Monty) Doherty
Over the years, the Somerville Theatre has showcased the likes of Bruce Springsteen, U2, Frankie Fontaine, Kate Smith and Leonard Nimoy. While you may be aware that these various icons of the entertainment industry performed at the theatre (some of them more than once), you may not know that one of the biggest Hollywood legends ever to grace the silver screen actually lived just a few blocks away on College Avenue. During World War II, the great Bette Davis was the single highest-paid working female in America. She was voted the second-greatest actress of all time according to the American Film Institute. Her rank was trumped by Katherine Hepburn, whose grandfather, incidentally, started the Union Glass Company on Webster Avenue (Somerville’s largest employer during the 1850’s). While you probably won’t find Davis’ movies in your local Redbox, since they hardly qualify as “new releases,” you can buy or rent many of her 100+ motion pictures online. Many of them, such as All About Eve and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, are considered by critics and audiences alike to be the greatest films ever made. She also gave the name “Oscar” to the statuette awarded at the Academy Awards.
Davis’ parents had an apartment across from Teele Square’s Engine 6 on 11 Westminster Street. Her mother raised the family while her father attended Harvard Law School. At the end of her pregnancy and at the request of her grandmother, Bette’s mother traveled to Lowell, MA, to give birth to the baby. After Bette’s birth, they returned to Somerville where the family resided for four years. Upon graduation, Mr. Davis obtained a lucrative position at the New England Shoe Manufacturing Company, enabling the family to move from Teele Square to College Avenue. In her memoir, she wrote of her love for the new house, where she could people-watch from the large porch. Davis Square, however, is not named after Bette, but after a grain dealer in Somerville named Person Davis. While Bette Davis never stopped being a legend, she enjoyed a slight resurgence when Kim Carnes released a cover version of Jackie DeShannon’s 1974 song “Bette Davis Eyes.” The hit song was Billboard’s number one single of 1981 and was a number one hit in 31 countries.