Fit for the movies: Marion resident recalls a lifetime in the theater

By Tanner Harding | Aug 28, 2017
Photo by: Tanner Harding Tom Shire stands in a room full of his memories.

Marion — He has shaken hands with Walt Disney, eaten lamb with the Saudi Arabian Olympic basketball team, earned three college degrees and rubbed elbows with John Wayne. Just about everywhere he goes in Marion, someone stops to say hello.

Tom Shire has lived quite a life.

It began in Boston, Roxbury specifically, in 1937. Shire was born to an immigrant father, who had come to America from what is now Lebanon as a young child. Eager to make his own money, Shire began working at a young age.

“I knew I wanted to learn how to make money,” he said. “We were very poor growing up.”

When he was 5, he made his first penny.

“I used to collect horse manure,” he said. “The ladies in the neighborhood would give me a penny a pail…I still have my first penny. It had the year my father was born on it and I remember going home and saying ‘Daddy I have a penny with your birthday on it!’”

It wasn’t Abraham Lincoln’s likeness on the penny; in Lincoln's place was a Native American Chief. The penny had been minted in 1897.

When he was 16, Shire started working at a theater. This, ultimately, would prove life changing. “I got hired as an usher. I worked three nights a week at one theater, and four at another,” he said. “I got paid 65 cents an hour…I liked it a lot. I liked working with the shows.”

Eventually, Shire went to college at Northeastern University, where he majored in history and government, and minored in banking and finance. However, while he was in college, he continued to work in the theater.

He stayed in the theater business even while Eastern Nazarene College for his master’s degree. There, he earned one master’s in education and a second in education administration. “I thought it’d be nice to teach,” Shire explained.

He found an opening as a substitute teacher at a school in Allston, where he remained for a couple years. The city of Boston then began a new program for students who had been expelled from other schools.

“I was hired to teach Latin and history,” Shire said. “I was there for 20 years.”

Though he eventually became the assistant program director, he couldn’t leave his love for the theater behind. He took a job at a Syracuse, New York-based company that opened theaters around the country. He traveled around New York, Utah and Idaho.

Shire then made his way back to Massachusetts. Sticking with his love for theater, Shire began taking over theaters in his home state. “I started in Randolph,” he said. “The theater had 700 seats, all on one floor. It was just wonderful.”

He took over The Colonial in Brockton and The Strand in Dorchester. Then he made his move to the South Coast.

“I came to New Bedford and met Morton Zeits,” Shire said.

Zeits and his family owned what was then called State Theater. They had originally called it the Zeiterion Theatre, a combination of their own last name and the European theater chain called the Criterion, but nobody liked the name. Shire rented the theater from Zeits for several years, continuing to call it State Theater.

It was in the theater business that Shire had his run-ins with fame. There used to be an annual convention for theater owners, and in 1966 it was held in Hollywood.

“I thought I can’t miss this,” Shire said. “I went to the Hollywood theater convention and was probably one of the youngest people there…There was a huge auditorium. It was so special.”

Shire’s assigned seat was up in the balcony, and he said when he looked down he could see the head table where the biggest names were seated. Then, he heard someone coming up the balcony stairs and turned to see John Wayne and Jerry Lewis walking toward him.

After speaking with both of them, Wayne brought Shire down to the floor.

“He introduced me to Gregory Peck, and then brought me to a round table at the front of the room,” Shire said. “He seated me there at the front of everything, when who should come by but Walt Disney. I said ‘Nice to meet you Mr. Disney.’”

It was also during his days at State Theater that he met the Saudi Arabian Olympic basketball team. “I was outside putting a sign up when a station wagon pulled up,” Shire said. “The passengers asked where to find lamb.”

After pointing them in the right direction, the people in the car invited Shire to a lamb roast. As it turned out, the passengers happened to be the Saudi Arabian basketball players, and the driver was a Tabor Academy graduate. The team was staying and practicing in Marion, which is where Shire and future wife Alice went for the lamb roast.

Serendipitously, the couple had been looking for a home for when they married.

“We got to Marion and Alice said ‘I’m home.’”

The next morning the couple met with a realtor to look at homes in Marion, and found one on Converse Road, where they lived for eight years.

And just like the theater, when Shire finds something he loves, he sticks with it.

Forty years later, he still lives in Marion. More than 50 years later he still drives past the Zeiterion to check in on it. Seventy-five years later he still meets up with the same friends every month and plays bridge.

“Can you believe that?” Shire asked. “All these years later, we’re still getting together.”

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