The Filene's Basement Story From Those Who Knew It Best

By Lori Gwyr

Once one of Boston’s most well known shopping destinations, Filene’s Basement is the subject of the new documentary Voices from the Basement, premiering Thursday, December 9 at 8:30pm on WGBH 2. Through newsreels, archival footage, vintage photographs and audio recordings, filmmaker Michael Bavaro and psychologist Dr. Susan Edbril illustrate the enormity of this landmark institution, weaving history through a collection of stories told by the people who worked and shopped at the Basement. Recently, WGBH’s Lori Gwyr sat down with Michael Bavaro to discuss his new film.

Executive producer Sue Edbril and producer/director
Michael Bavaro of ‘Voices from the Basement.’
Photo: Angela Rowlings

WGBH: How did this documentary originally come about between yourself and Dr. Edbril?
MB: I had just completed a documentary about Rex Trailer, who had a kids’ show here in Boston for many years. Dr. Edbril had approached Rex about an idea she had about Filene's Basement, and he said you should talk to Michael. So I heard what she had to say, and we talked about it. Because her grandmother had originally worked there for 40 years, it was to be a doc about the women who worked in the Basement. But the more we explored it, the more we saw there were many other layers. We thought we would start off with a small film, but over time there were more and more things that people didn't know about what Filene's had contributed to society. WGBH: Watching the documentary, it seems everyone involved with the store – from shoppers to employees – had this sort of nostalgic admiration for it. Something about that store was definitely special, what do you think that was?

MB: You know, I think it's all timing. We were at the dawn of the industrial revolution, the twentieth century. The things we take for granted now were just becoming available as conveniences of life. Filene’s was one of the first stores to offer ready-to-wear machine-made clothing, right before everything was tailored. I think the thing that caught on about the Basement was that suddenly you could get really good stuff from Paris and around the world, and it would be at a discount price. Filene's introduced that idea. There had been other bargain basements, but they were kind of dark and dingy, with castoffs. This was quality stuff. Then they created the Automatic Markdown System so that people would think they were getting something for nothing.
WGBH: Can you talk a little bit more about the Automatic Markdown System. Do you know how that came about?

Shoppers browse through racks of discounted
men's suits.

MB: It was Edward Filene’s idea. He wanted to create a system that was like an auction in reverse. Everyone at the time called it “Filene’s Follies.” Some thought, well that’s ridiculous, people will wait until the price gets down to 75 percent off. But, Filene knew that it was good stuff and that people would want to be the first to get it before it was gone. I think it set into motion this whole discount concept. Even today, people might say “Oh I got a Filene’s Basement bargain deal on my car,” or something else. It’s become part of our vernacular, in terms of what a deal is. There were a lot of copy cats – Jordan Marsh had a basement, Macy’s has a basement or a cellar. Everybody tried to play off that idea, but there was no place like Filene’s Basement. And I think it had to do a lot with that location, because at the time the subway system had just been put in and the Filenes knew that area was going to be like the crossroads of the world.
WGBH: In the film we see that they had a snack bar for people and some of the interviewees describe “making a day of it.”
MB: In those days, there weren’t shopping malls out in the suburbs, so people would make an event of going into the city. While they shopped they would get hungry. A lot of places had snack bars and counters. It was a ritual, you would go to Filene’s, and then you would maybe go to Bailey's afterwards for an ice cream. People talk a lot about what the whole downtown crossing area was like back then. Then of course, malls started opening up; it was more convenient for people to go shopping for an hour or two close to home.
WGBH: The film captures the history of Filene’s Basement through many different vehicles – archive footage, there’s newsreels, photos, personal stories – did you face any challenges with, for example, finding former employees or celebrities, or was that pretty easy to do?
MB: Well, there’s a couple of things. Celebrities weren’t that forthcoming. We had many men who wanted to talk, but people always think of the shopper as the woman. We had heard of different celebrities who were down in the Basement, like Liza Minelli, and we approached all of them about being in the film, but nobody really wanted to talk. The only one that agreed was Estelle Parsons, because she's from the Boston area. She went off to New York to do the Today Show when it began, and [in the film] she talks about how all her clothes came from Filene’s Basement. I think what we found was that some people saw shopping at Filene’s as a badge of honor; others didn't want to admit they shopped there.
WGBH: Yeah, the two groups of shoppers.
MB: So that was fascinating to discover. Like some people called it “Filene’s” and others called it “Fuhlene’s.”
WGBH: Actually, I wanted to ask you about that. So Michael, for you, is it “Filene’s” or “Fuhlene’s?”
MB: Well, I still say “Filene’s,” but when I want to be uppity about it, I say “Fuhlene’s.”
WGBH: Some of the former employees you spoke to described working at Filene’s as a lifetime job, like stock boys would work their way up to men’s suits. Was that the case for most of the modern-day Filene’s workers you interviewed? Did you find a lot of lifers who still worked there in 2007?
MB: In 2007, there were several people who had spent their careers there. One woman, Sylvia Amenta who had worked there for 60 years, started right out of high school. And Bernard Horan, who came here from Ireland in 1964. They all thought that they would just take a leave of absence or two-year vacation [when the store closed], maybe some of them retired, I'm not really sure. We really didn't speak to the employees of today, because it's a different company now.
WGBH: What was that like actually to be part of such a historic and emotional moment when the original Filene's Basement closed?

Filene's Basement was beloved for its deep discounts
on high end goods, often at the expense of personal
space and privacy. Filene's built its first private fitting
room for women in the 1980s.

MB: At the time, we were looking forward to a grand opening and filming that, and having the ribbon cutting and then maybe have the film premiere around that event. When we saw that it wasn't gonna happen, I think we realized we were there for the closing and really did capture history. I think this film sort of helps people grieve the loss of the store in some way.
WGBH: Definitely, there was sort of a cathartic feel to it at the end. So take me through the process of organizing the film. You had all this old footage and photos and interviews to go through, and you ended up breaking the film into segments. I love the “Hunters and Gatherers” section. How did you decide it should all come together in the end?
MB: Sue and I had talked about a lot of the topics that we wanted to explore. She’s a psychologist, so she was really interested in the psychology of what made people hunt for a bargain, and why employees worked there for so many years, why they were so committed. We started off just interviewing people to find out what they had to say. And then we found pictures and old newspaper articles. We didn't really have a lot of footage or material.
WGBH: Where did you find that stuff?
MB: I found some on eBay. I found a woman up in Vermont who's grandfather started off as a stock boy and rose to become chairman of the company. She had some old recordings and films stored away in the barn. It was like an archeological dig, because a lot of this stuff had to be found. Even when we premiered the film at the Parker House back in May, I didn't have the footage that's in the film now. When we showed it last month at Dean College, we found a couple who met there in the 1960s and shot home movies of all the different sales and people working. The new film shows authentic coat sales, fur sales, bridal sales, employees, and even parties after work from the 1960s. I replaced a lot of the stock footage and photographs with the new footage, and it really better illustrates the era of the 50s and 60s. It looks like the scene out of “Mad Men.”
WGBH: Following up on that, the Basement in its early days was something of a dichotomy, in that people considered it very democratic. I think it might have been Former Governor Dukakis who used the term “leveling,” where commoners could rub shoulders with doctors. But at the same time, there were some very clear divisions. Dukakis said he never saw a black sales person at the Basement or anywhere else. And men had their own dressing rooms, whereas women had to strip down in public. What did you think about the two faces of Filene’s, so to speak?
MB: I grew up in the time when we were coming out of that generation of “it's a man’s world.” I saw women’s liberation and the feminist movement. I think some of the things that were accepted then, are not politically correct today. And even though Boston was one of the first states to abolish slavery, there was still an unwritten prejudice here – I think everywhere. Over time, though, you saw people of color working in the Basement. I'm married to an African-American woman, so we talk a lot about that – how some things change, but they still stay the same. But I think in places where people were employed, it did change. On the dressing rooms,part of the show was to go down there and watch the women undress; it was part of the allure of shopping there. I think the store got away with it for as long as it could, until a woman in the 1980s decided to file a discrimination suit against Filene's. So they then had to make a dressing room for women. That was what we discovered as we were making the film. That's also why there is no narrator – I didn't want to put a voice on it.
WGBH: You let the images and the people speak for themselves.
MB: You know, Mike Dukakis was around before I was, so he observed that and I didn’t. But I think it spoke to the democracy of the basement. Because even then, it didn't matter what color or what class of society you came from, everybody had the same access to the goods.
WGBH: One of my favorite moments in the film was the juxtaposition of the “Running of the Brides” event with the running of the bulls in Spain. I really thought that was great. Do you know how and when the Brides event came about?
MB: The first bridal sale was in 1947. There’s footage from the 1960s that shows the wedding gown sale and people coming in and just buying dresses out of big piles. Some would ship them off to Italy; some would buy a dress just to scrub pots with it. So it wasn’t like it is today. Later, maybe in the 70s and really into the 80s, it became more of a media event – because people lined up at the doors for all the sales. You’ll see that in the 60s too, for handbag sales and coat sales. They’re all waiting at the door and then they rush in. And that carried over to the “Running of the Brides.” And the “Running of the Brides” comes from the running of the bulls. I cut the bull shot in – no pun intended – because people think like that and it’s funny, it gets a laugh. Susan Dobscha, who’s a professor at Bentley, did a whole study about the “Running of the Brides” and didn’t appreciate that shot. She said it sort of gave credence to the whole stereotype of women charging in like animals. We had a big back and forth about it.
WGBH: Well, I’m glad you won that argument. It’s definitely a classic moment in the film.
MB: Well, I had final cut, so...
WGBH: So let's switch the focus to you for a little bit. You began filmmaking in high school. What first got you interested in it and what was your first project?
MB: I was always an artist and my parents always got me paints and things. But I was fascinated with our home movies, thought about how they worked; how could I be on the screen and be sitting here watching at the same time? No one could really explain that to me. So, when I got into high school, I had a teacher who got me into a Saturday morning program at Mass College of Art, and I ended up in the wrong class. I ended up in filmmaking. Since I had always been interested, I asked if I could stay. And they let me stay. I started off making an animated film – just experimenting with frames and understanding movement. Then I just experimented with movie cameras with my friends and we would make little movies. My first film was called “Blocky,” which was a spoof on “Rocky.”
WGBH: And what do you think of “Blocky” now, looking back on it?
MB: I think it was the beginnings of YouTube; seems like what people are doing now. Everybody is making movies, everybody is telling stories. For me, though, instead of a video camera or a digital camera, I had a Super 8 film camera. So we made a spoof about “Rocky.” It was this chubby little Italian guy who was trying to impress his girlfriend. Instead of working out on a side of beef, he worked out on links of sausages that his father had in a deli that he owned. We tried to mimic “Rocky” in a funny way, sort of like Mad Magazine. That led me to make more films, and when I got into college I made a documentary about my hometown. From there, I went into advertising and promotion, doing commercials and promos.
WGBH: So you were nominated for a New England Emmy for your documentary about Rex Trailer’s Boomtown, and I understand that's now even a part of the permanent collection at the Museum of TV and Radio. Are you sort of a sucker for nostalgia, do you think?
MB: I think I am. After working in advertising for a while, I felt like I wasn’t telling stories like I wanted. I thought it was important to make a film about something I was passionate about. When I met Rex Trailer, who I had watched growing up, it was the perfect fit. Sue also wanted to make a  passion film about her childhood. We put five years of love into the film and I'm really happy with the way it turned out.
WGBH: Must have been quite a process. So what’s in store for you next, Michael?
MB: I have a production company called Digital Freeway and I just moved back up to Massachusetts from New York. My job is; I make people’s dreams come true. I think everybody has a story to tell.

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