They'll tell you where you can go
With corny jokes, cheeky attitudes, and boundless enthusiasm, four tour guides lead lively jaunts through Boston history
What's the only city in the world where you can pay prices in the double digits to scream "Dump the tea into the sea!" alongside a guy in a tricorner hat? Where else can you hear a recording of a forefather telling you to keep limbs inside the trolley at all times?
With more than 55,000 out-of-towners expected in July to swarm the capital of the American Revolution -- about 35,000 of them crying down with another King George at the Democratic National Convention -- the visitor industry will experience its biggest month since before 9/11.
Faced with a throng of folks who fear all chaos will erupt if they step just one foot off that red painted line, the plethora of downtown tour companies and foundations will find easy prey to participate in the American tradition of marketing and packaging its own past. To find out what they'll hear, the Globe followed four men, steeped in the tour guide creed of no joke too corny, who put their own spin, be it a phony Irish accent or buckled shoes, on the standard recitation of Boston history. Let profits ring. Michael WestermanBoston Duck Tours So what if the kids on the other duck boats lined up in front of the Museum of Science get to yell "Quack!"?
The 16 fifth-graders on a field trip from Riverdale School in Dedham don't need such nonsense, nor is it encouraged from the 6-foot-tall man lumbering up to take the wheel of "Beacon Hilda."
He's called Johnny Baggodonitz. He wears black-and-white ostrich and alligator shoes -- wingtipped. His jacket says "Duck Tour Witness Protection Program," he sports sunglasses on a gray day, and, introductions over, his tour starts like this:
"Someone said this, someone said that, blah, blah, blah. American history. So listen
up . . ." Thus it goes with Johnny at the wheel, perhaps Boston's most unlikely history buff, who seems to be half Mafioso wise guy and half raunchy uncle who makes the kids laugh and Grandma blush. You get the feeling he enjoys saying that the back seats sit on the "poop deck" far more than the kids like hearing it -- and even they are squealing.
Yes, part of it is his work shtick: He's really Michael Westerman, 50, former recreational therapist of Franklin, and he's Irish, not Italian. His guayabera shirt that he claims was made by "old women on the island of Sicily with arthritic knuckles" turns out to be from
But onboard, the act works.
"Hey! Blabbahmouth!" he yells at a chatty brunette in the fourth row now sitting bolt upright. "If you want to talk, keep it down."
Then, to no one in particular: "So that's why I'm not a fifth-grade teacher."
"OK now, let's drop this 25,000-pound boat in 25 feet of water and see if it floats," Johnny says, with the tires poised at the top of a concrete ramp leading into the Charles River.
Hilda plunges, white water banks out on both sides, and Johnny calls the first volunteer, Timmy in the Red Sox hat, up to the wheel, explaining, "I can't drive anyway because I'm legally blind. And hard of hearing."
As Timmy walks back to his seat after a minute of steering, Johnny spots a teachable moment about the World War II vehicles used to deposit soldiers and supplies on the slopes of Normandy on D-day, whisked out of retirement for tours like Johnny's around the country.
"Timmy, that's the same seat the soldiers sat in when they went in to break the back of the Fascists," he says.
The reporter asks Brandon Greene, 12, on the poop deck if he knows what a Fascist is. He says no. Later, when Greene tells Johnny the cross hanging around his neck is his good-luck charm, Johnny holds up the nearly life-size silver grenade necklace around his neck: "This is mine."
After each student takes a turn driving, Johnny heads back to the ramp.
"C'mon Hilda, c'mon baby," he says in that peculiar way men like Johnny have of talking about a great machine like a great dame. Hilda grabs shore, all hulky 20,000 pounds of her, and rumbles up onto level land.
"Ye-aahhh!" Johnny belts from the gut. "Let's hear it for Hilda!"
Kids clap and cheer. Some drivers might leave it at that.
"She's in great shape -- 61 years old," Johnny goes on. "She's had a few parts replaced. But for 61 years old, that's not unusual."
Chaperone Mom in the first row shakes her head. Again. Chris Di FronzoOld Town Trolley ToursThere he goes, clanging over Longfellow Bridge with the "1812 Overture" blasting, punctuating the cannon cues with pulls on the bell rope, and entertaining, well, himself, mainly.
"Oh, sorry, the song was over," the tour guide says after a few extra clangs. "I always get excited for the `1812.' "
The guy in horn-rim glasses manages a weak grin. The rest of the middle-age human cargo, winnowed down to six after most jumped trolley at the USS Constitution, got used to the corn long ago, perhaps right after Chris Di Fronzo's introduction: "I am the Spaceman. Hopefully your tour will be out of this world. So let us begin on our odyssey."
We take off on a diesel-guzzling trolley, hostage to the Spaceman Hour: a one-man amalgam of bad jokes, soulful "Cheers" singalongs, and sound clips of galloping horses and a Jack Nicholson impersonator saying to stay in your seat -- all reeled off like a 1930s radio show on wheels.
Spaceman explains the 1919 flood resulting from the explosion of a North End molasses tank: "It killed dogs. It killed cats. It killed horses. It killed 21 people that were slower than molasses!"
Sarcastic "ahhh" from lady in the back.
"Some people call it the Boston Malassacre."
Another "ahhh." Same lady.
Spaceman points out the Asian sculptures at the gates of Chinatown: "You don't want that dog jumping on your bed in the morning -- 3,000 pounds!"
He's still honing his tour since starting in March. Sick of the "hum of the lights and the cubicle feel" of his former job at a local software company, he quit, finished his master's degree in engineering management at Tufts University in February, and spotted an ad for a trolley driver. Numerous figure eights around cones and recitations of a 60-page script later, Spaceman's at the wheel.
And ringing that blasted bell, as he does for the shot heard 'round the world at Lexington Green in 1775:
"Suddenly, one, two, three shots rang out," he says. You can guess how that was accompanied.
Or: "The USS Constitution is an amazing one, two, three, and zero. Undefeated! Woo hoo!" Yep, that one, too.
Nicholas Hays, 14, and his brother Scott, 18, from Mississippi, look highly unamused.
"Our parents made us do it," Nicholas says, nodding to the couple in the back seat yelling out the answers to Spaceman's queries, tour map splayed out on Dad's lap.
They get off in Cambridge. Another four leave at the Boston Marriott Copley Place, and a tour guide jumps off in the South End, saying "You do a great job." Then it was just the reporter, but Spaceman acts like it's a full bus, switching on a clip of "There's No Business Like Show Business" in the Theater District.
"I've been practicing my Ethel Merman impersonation," he says.
Let's hear it.
He plays the song again. "That's me."
Oh, a joke. Shoulda guessed. Mike ManshipOld Town Trolley'sGhosts & GravestonesIf the kid in the Abercrombie hoodie asked to come on this tour, as his mom claims, you sure wouldn't know it. He looks deader than the tour crew, which is hard, considering they're trying.
But the Evans family is "a little historied out," so here they sit on the packed "Trolley of the Doomed," as the brochure calls it, with the theme from "Ghostbusters" blasting, black roses on the rafters, and each tourgoer reaching out a hand -- spell-casting style -- toward the last two people to board: "Doooooom on yoooou!"
The two grin, sit down, and we're off down Commercial Street on a black trolley with neon purple lights, squeaky brakes, and a driver called "Wrong Way" dressed like the Grim Reaper. At 9 on a Saturday night, the "spirits and haunts [who] venture out among the living" guaranteed in the ad take more the form of bachelorette partygoers and tipsy college guys screaming "Trolley guys rock!" as we putter by.
The guide introduces himself in a faux Irish accent as Stephen O'Normal, an ordinary but long-since-dead bloke who redeems his ordinary life by telling historically based ghost stories to tourists. He's really Mike Manship, an actor from Somerville, and how similar he is to O'Normal is for you to decide.
The amused tourgoers disembark and follow O'Normal to Copp's Hill Burying Ground in the North End, where he unlocks the gate with a small, utilitarian key (the long antique ones dangling from the ring are just for show) and says: "And if our final victim -- ha, I mean final guest -- wouldn't mind closing the door."
"How many people are buried under the 2,300 gravestones of Copp's Hill Burying Ground?"
Matt Laderoute, 13, knows this one: "All of them." Years of bad jokes from his dad have paid off, he said.
Second stop: Granary Burying Ground, where O'Normal locks the door after everyone and yells, "OK, I'll see you in the morning!"
People's giggles are soon muted as a portly man dressed straight out of the Middle Ages leaps from behind the Franklin family tombstone: "Who dares disturb my slumber?!"
Laderoute claims he didn't jump. "I was expecting something."
The group stops at John Hancock's gravestone, where the guide can't resist pointing out its unique shape and size: "We saw the big signature, the big tombstone. He might be compensating for something." He leaves it at that -- the adults laugh and it goes over the kids' heads -- but on second glance at the grave, you realize he does have a point.
Reunited with O'Normal on the way back to the wharf, all are instructed to shriek at lone bar-bound carousers. The first guy, walking with his hands in his pockets, smirks but otherwise pretends he hasn't just been startled by a trolley of tourists.
But on the curb outside Coogan's, the guy with slicked hair is more primed for the activity.
"Yeeahh," he belts back. "Pull it over!"
One woman on the tour knows why he's game: "You get a little more alcohol, you get a little more response." Donald WatsonFreedom Trail FoundationC'mon, if you're paying $12 to follow around a guy in knickers and a tricorner hat on the Freedom Trail -- looking the tourist of all tourists -- you might as well scream with some gusto.
"Oh, you can do better than that," the costumed revolutionary scolds the bemused disciples before him from his flower bed perch in front of the Boston Common Visitors Center.
Quick pause for dramatic effect. Remember, Donald Watson is an actor -- his resume includes speaking roles in "Message in a Bottle" and "The Crucible," and he was Medic Number 2 in "One Crazy Summer."
But now, in his six-years-running role as forgotten patriot James Otis, Watson tries once again to rouse his audience: "Are we ready to walk the Freedom Trail?" he shouts.
His disciples respond with alarming enthusiasm, and the 18th-century rabble-rouser raises his fist in a dead white guy's take on a black-power salute, a bit anachronistic, considering.
"OK, now maybe we're a little embarrassed," says Vishesh Kapur, visiting from Seattle.
Minus the Floridians who Googled him before the tour, no one really knows who this James Otis is. "Oh, sure, Paul Revere gets all the credit," Watson quips.
Nevertheless, all seem willing to follow the mystery man as he forges on by the yellow Jeep with Sean Paul booming in front of the State House, slapping five to the girl in a "Yankee Hater" cap over Revere's grave, fielding questions with cheer from the Coloradan: Is there a beacon on Beacon Hill? What's the mineral composition of the tombstones in King's Chapel Burying Ground?
Watson walks up to a gravestone in the cemetery swarming with enough people to rival the number underground:
"I present to you the handsome James Otis," he says, followed by an equally grandiose bow.
"I argued against the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act. I coined the phrase `Taxation without representation is tyranny.' "
Eight-year-old Aaron Kupin turns to his parents: "I told ya."
Yep, they're the ones who logged on to the Freedom Trail Foundation website and researched the tour guides. Warren Kupin whips out the printouts from his backpack as proof.
Now across from the Old South Meeting House, it's time for the cheer. Oh yes. The Cheer.
"We'll do it three times or 33 times, but let's make it three," Watson says. And, with experience being the best teacher, the tourgoers know they'd better cooperate.
Watson yells, "Dump the tea!" and all follow with, "Into the sea!" three times, scoring quizzical glances from the people seated in the plaza outside Borders Books and Music. Watson thrusts his hat into the air in victory, but Stewart Cooper isn't impressed.
"It's a waste of good tea, if you ask me," Cooper says.
Being on vacation from England, he may be a tad biased.