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Before the bridges, they’d flock to the happening place: Onset

“What’s really surprising,’’ says Jay Heard, director of a new film about Onset, “was just how robust [the village] was in its heyday.’’ “What’s really surprising,’’ says Jay Heard, director of a new film about Onset, “was just how robust [the village] was in its heyday.’’ (Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff)
By Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / June 9, 2011

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WAREHAM — Onset holds many secrets.

Many don’t know that the village in the town of Wareham was once a summertime destination for world-famous entertainers like Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman, and W.C. Fields, as well as chorus line dancers from Broadway. Or that it once had a casino that hosted big band concerts, huge dance parties, and wrestling matches.

Those long-ago moments are among many featured in “Postcards from Onset,’’ a new documentary that chronicles the tiny seaside village’s colorful past and illustrates how it evolved into a prime-time vacation spot drawing tourists from all over. The hourlong film, produced by Wareham Community Television, or WCTV, will premiere Sunday at a free public screening.

“We realized there’s a lot of history here that people don’t know much about,’’ said Jay Heard, executive director of WCTV. Onset “used to be a premier summer resort area. . . . It was a happening place.’’

The village is much quieter now, but it remains one of the most popular tourist spots on Buzzards Bay, helping to swell the town’s year-round population of 21,000 during the summer months, when snowbirds return to their cottages, beachgoers flock to the ocean’s edge, and visitors gather for outdoor concerts and festivals.

“Postcards from Onset’’ was directed by Heard, a third-generation summer resident who now lives in town full time. He and the staff of WCTV spent the past year and a half collecting postcards, images, and anecdotes to make the film.

Drawing from more than 1,200 vintage postcards and photographs — many unseen by the public for decades — the documentary shows Onset’s growth from a Spiritualist summer resort to a Victorian-era vacation spot for tourists from Boston and New York.

The documentary features interviews with 20 longtime residents and local historians, including Randy Joseph, an educator from Plimoth Plantation who traces Onset’s beginnings to the Wampanoag; 87-year-old Audrey Carter, who reminisces about heading off in high heels to the big dances (“I didn’t walk, I ran,’’ she says, with a chuckle. “They had the big bands there. . . . We danced our feet off.’’); Richard T. “Dick’’ Porter, the local resident known for his extensive collection of thermometers; and Anthony “Tiny’’ Lopes, who tells about the rise of the local Cape Verdean community and what Onset was like “back in the day.’’

“Onset was a very upscale community. This was considered part of the Cape,’’ said Lopes. “Nothing can compare to the beach in Onset. It’s one of the best-kept secrets.’’

From the turn of the century through the 1930s, Onset was bustling. Tourists arrived by train and steamboat ferry, and trolley cars ran through town. Longtime residents say they remember navigating through bumper-to-bumper traffic on main roads.

“What’s really surprising was just how robust [Onset] was in its heyday,’’ said Heard. “It was amazing to think that there were streetcars going down there, and a whole contingent of large hotels that people went to. . . . It had a very dynamic theatrical and music scene. You had world-class performers coming into Onset.’’

Onset’s glory days began to fade as more people started driving automobiles. After the Bourne Bridge and highways were built, many chose to bypass Onset and go directly to the Cape. And then there was the tragic case of Ruth McGurk, a 25-year-old woman who disappeared from an Onset dance hall and was never seen alive again. Her 1946 murder made headlines and struck fear in would-be visitors, which had a lasting impact on Onset’s tourism industry.

By the 1950s, according to one local history, Onset had a reputation of being a “village of sin and corruption.’’

“Postcards from Onset’’ spans several eras and touches on rum-running during Prohibition, the birth of Kenny’s Salt Water Taffy, and the glory days of the Colonial Theatre and Casino, a two-story dance hall and entertainment complex with an ornate exterior that advertised its vaudeville shows, bowling, and ice-cold tonic.

The Colonial wasn’t a casino in the gambling sense; rather, it was a live-entertainment venue for dances and concerts, and it also hosted professional wrestling matches of all kinds. Even the pro wrestling legend Gorgeous George once hit the mats there.

In the documentary, Richard Crocker of the Onset Fire Department talks about the night the Colonial Theatre and Casino burned down in 1964. There are also recollections of other tragedies, including the Hurricane of 1938 and a deadly gas explosion that leveled downtown buildings in early summer 1946.

The film provides historical background and insights on local folklore, explaining, for example, how the Dummy Bridge that spans the East River got its name (from the type of steam-powered “dummy’’ locomotive engines that once traveled over it).

It highlights people who made major contributions to Onset, like George Kashimara, a Japanese immigrant who gave swimming lessons to youngsters and led the effort to clean up Onset Beach in the 1920s and ’30s, helping to transform it into a beachgoers paradise.

Wareham Historic Commission member Malcolm Phinney hasn’t seen “Postcards from Onset’’ but said he plans to attend the premiere. Phinney, who is also a member of the Wareham Historical Society and the Rochester Historical Society, is one of several local residents who contributed to the documentary’s production.

“We think it’s great,’’ Phinney said of WCTV’s effort to capture Onset’s past on film. “For one thing, a lot of new people in town don’t know the history of town at all.’’

Heard said he hopes the documentary can be used in schools to educate children about local history. He also hopes the film will get more residents interested in the local cable-access television station in their backyard.

He believes the high quality of the production showcases what the station is capable of, and could disprove misconceptions people might have about public access TV.

“One of the reasons we did this was to get members involved with production. Anybody can do it,’’ he said. Local cable access stations like WCTV “have the facilities. It’s a fabulous resource that’s underutilized.’’

Heard said the project originally was to focus solely on the Colonial Theatre and Casino. But the WCTV staff quickly realized that so many of the people who could tell nostalgic stories about the theater were no longer around.

“These historical documentaries have to be done while we can still do them,’’ he said.

The free screening of “Postcards from Onset’’ will be held Sunday at Salerno’s Seaside Function Hall at 196 Onset Ave. Doors open at 8 p.m. RSVP to onset@warehamtv.org. Emily Sweeney can be reached at esweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney.

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