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Rubbed the wrong way

Skandia Sauna Senter, 175 Bedford Street, across from Mitre, Burlington MA
Skandia Sauna Senter, 175 Bedford Street, across from Mitre, mid-1970s.
175 Bedford Street
175 Bedford Street today.
Elfie's Garden of Eden, 64 Middlesex Turnpike, Burlington MA
Elfie’s Garden of Eden, 64 Middlesex Turnpike, mid-1970s.
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64 Middlesex Turnpike today.

Women shall not massage men. Men shall not massage women. Massages can only be given for purposes of health or medical treatment or “invigoration.” No arousing or gratifying any sexual desires. You need a $50 Board of Health license. You need to be at least 21 and of good moral and ethical character. You need to be a high school graduate with at least eight years of experience in massaging, and you need to take a massage course. You need to undergo a blood test and a chest x-ray. You need to dress within the bounds of decency. No revealing or abbreviated attire.

Those are some of the regulations proposed by Burlington police in the 1970s as the town struggled with a pair of extremely thorough massage parlors that refused to go away. And those are just the personnel regulations. What about the facilities?

Massage rooms cannot be used as bedrooms and must have large observation windows. Each room must have a light bulb of at least 40 watts. No alcoholic beverages.

The state didn’t start licensing massage providers until 2006. So back in 1976, Burlington was left to grapple with Elfie’s Garden of Eden at 64 Middlesex Turnpike and Skandia Sauna Senter at 175 Bedford St. without any higher authority to lend weight. In fact, Burlington’s decade-long massage melee became the bellwether for area towns. Here’s a timeline of our close encounter with Robert Kraft Syndrome:

February 1976: Police begin surveillance on Elfie’s Garden of Eden while one employee awaits a court date for “lewd behavior.”

November 1976: Police raid Elfie’s and Skandia, arresting five employees total. The charges: open and gross lewdness, maintaining a public nuisance, soliciting for prostitution and allowing the premises to be used for prostitution. Burlington Police Inspector Charles Chicarello later told the town’s Board of Health, “When you see girls walking around in baby doll pajamas and nylon tops, what do you think goes on? We’ve gone into Elfie’s and caught a masseuse with her breasts exposed and a man lying naked on the table. What are we supposed to think?”

November 1976: A week after the raids, someone hurls a smoke bomb into Elfie’s, forcing an evacuation and brief hospital stay for two employees. Police remind the public that despite the recent arrests, the businesses themselves are technically lawful until declared otherwise in court.

December 1976: Police refuse a Sunday operating license to Skandia, which has been operating Sundays from 1 p.m. to 2 a.m. Skandia’s attorney argues that Sunday is a very important business day for the company, and that the company isn’t just a massage parlor. “It contributes to the welfare of the community.” Meanwhile, the prostitution hearing was delayed because the owner, Norman Obert, was in a New Hampshire hospital recovering from a shooting.

August 1977: Derry and Pelham NH look to Burlington’s regulation efforts as a model for themselves as they anticipate possible issues with their own massage parlors. However, Burlington Selectman Robert Roberto says the Burlington proposal may be discriminatory for singling out one specific type of business, and therefore doomed to failure at the first court challenge.

September 1977: Ayer also looks to the outcome of Burlington’s proposals as it deals with a proposed massage parlor in town.

November 1978: Eight men are indicted for a Mafia-related effort to extort money from many New England massage parlors including Burlington’s. One of defendants is found dead in the trunk of his car, along with the son of another defendant.

October 1978: Chelmsford’s heath department, armed with an opinion of the town’s counsel, shuts down the town’s only massage parlor, the Garden of Paradise in the Chelmsford Mall, on an ownership technicality. The shutdown has nothing to do with any misdeeds at the business, but it raises eyebrows given the backdrop.

Garden of Paradise, Chelmsford MA
Garden of Paradise, Chelmsford MA

July 1979: Lowell tries to agree on massage parlor regulations after a masseuse is arrested the previous fall.

July 1980: Another arrest at Skandia. Two women in custody for prostitution. A month later, Burlington revokes Skandia’s business license. Barry Haight, attorney for Skandia owner Norman Obert, argues the business should be kept open: “He can’t control the actions of his employees, and it appears his record over eight years is pretty decent.”

March 1983: A Middlesex Grand Jury indicts Elfrieda Compton, 90 Perkins St., Stoneham, on four prostitution-related charges her Elfie’s Garden of Eden. She later pleads guilty to one charge, “keeping or maintaining a building used for prostitution.” It carries a potential penalty of three months to three years in prison, and a fine of $100 to $1,000. Superior Court Judge Sandra Hamlin instead sentences her to a year of probation.

June 1983: Robert A. McIntosh, 43, of 4 Hart Street, Burlington, is indicted in Middlesex Superior Court for allowing his business, called Newton Health Club, to be used for prostitution from 1981 to 1983. Kenneth Portman, 24 of Quincy is also indicted for his role as the manager on duty when police raided the club. Brenda Wong, 19, of Melrose, was indicted on a prostitution charge.

July 1983: After a yearlong undercover operation, Burlington police arrest Jean M. Rogers, 37, of Taunton, for soliciting prostitution at a Lord Baron Apartment leased by Norman Obert, 59, the owner of Skandia Sauna Senter before it was shut down. Obert is charged with allowing a premises to be used for prostitution. He pleads innocent in Woburn District Court.

January 1984: Lowell’s City Council recommends the Board of Health restrict massage licenses to same-sex only.

January 1985: Lowell police raid Relaxation Retreat at 36 Burlington Ave. and charge Albert P. Gould, 47, of Framingham, with running a house of prostitution. Also arrested are Deborah Goes, 22, of Lawrence and Robin I. Tunny, 28, of Jamaica Plain. They’re charged with soliciting prostitution.

Eventually this settled down. The state began licensing and monitoring massage providers. Many reputable health and wellness businesses now operate in and around Burlington.

5 thoughts on “Rubbed the wrong way Leave a comment

  1. The west edge of Burlington had two dens of iniquity. Skandia or some previous spa was active there by ’72, for sure. And a rest stop on rte. 3 North, close to second ave was removed around ’72 because of “activity”.

  2. The timeline for this 10 year legal struggle started with the police raid at 175 Bedford Street in 1976. But that massage activity had been established there without regulation or legal struggle 4 years earlier, since ’72.

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