Alumna tells tales of time in Old Hollywood

by Anna Buckley / Beacon Staff • October 2, 2014

Pat Bartevian, who graduated from Emerson in ‘44 and spent many years in Hollywood, now runs the consignment shop next to the Piano Row Dorm.
Pat Bartevian, who graduated from Emerson in ‘44 and spent many years in Hollywood, now runs the consignment shop next to the Piano Row Dorm.

From the outside, the Bartevian Inc. consignment shop at 160 Boylston Street is unassuming. Inside, the dimly lit store boasts trinkets and treasures with stories to tell: beautifully gilded gold frames that house paintings from yesteryear, rings  that were sold long ago which were supposed to signify eternal love, intricately ornamented vases bereft of their flowers.

And yet, perhaps the most intriguing story sits with Patricia Bartevian, the Emerson alumna behind the counter.

Pat’s father, Gregory, was a former Armenian soldier who fled to America before the genocide in 1915. Pat said Gregory became a businessman after serving in the Signal Corps, protecting the port in Boston in World War I. He eventually bought the building next to Piano Row with the dream of creating a nonprofit family trust.

“He said, ‘Only in America do you have the freedom and the opportunity to make something of yourself, and I’d like to give back after what America has done for me,’” said Pat, 88.

The building now hosts an architecture firm, Copley Wolff Design Group, on the third floor; First Literacy, an adult basic education program, New England Innocence Project, which provides pro bono legal representation, and the Poe Foundation, which has raised funds for a new Edgar Allan Poe statue, on the second floor; and the consignment shop on the ground floor. The store takes items in­­ — generally from elderly folks in need of money, according to Pat­­ — and when the items are purchased, the money goes back to the seller.

“This is what my father wanted to do,” Pat said.

Pat, who said she graduated from Emerson in 1944 with a degree in film and theater, recalled the institution as being known for drama and radio. She and her sister Priscilla, who also attended the school, even taught as assistant directors in theater design for a short time. Priscilla died of cancer eight years ago.

Pat said the two used to walk the streets looking for materials for props, seeing as the college had less material wealth back then. 

She said that once, for a production of Gulliver’s Travels, the pair found a barrel of green plastic “Hawaiian skirts” for 10 cents apiece at a store down the way, which they stapled to a plywood cutout of a tree. With a gelatin covered lantern, a fan blowing the “leaves” of the tree, and Gulliver and his gang walking in place, the two turned a potentially boring set change into an applause-inducing scene transition.

“We had a ball,” Pat said. “It was such fun.”

Following their time with Emerson, the sisters were fated for bigger spotlights. After attending an audition, the women were running to catch their train back to their home in Newton when they slipped on some ice, taking out a few other passengers along the way—one of whom was a booking agent.

“He thought that was the funniest thing, so he says, ‘Come on down to my office tomorrow,’” Pat said. “We went down to his office, and a week later we were on the train to Hollywood.”

The duo became “The Hickory Sisters” and drew upon their childhood living in a house filled with banjos, violins, and guitars for their folksy musical acts. Their agent marketed them as twins, though they were a few years apart. 

“We never were big stars—we were a part of the show and sometimes we’d be included and sometimes we wouldn’t,” Pat said. “I used to ask the guys when they were doing the cutting on the cutting room floor, ‘Please save us some film so we can have it!’”

The one set of film stills that they managed to rescue are from the 1948 movie The Emperor Waltz, directed by Billy Wilder, starring Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine. In the stills, the girls are dancing.

Working alongside and bumping into big-name Hollywood actors and actresses was not uncommon for the Hickory Sisters. Among the laundry list of stars the sisters became acquainted with—whom Pat named with an uncanny coolness—are Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, and Elvis. The women even sang for Frank Sinatra during a talent casting by the Friar’s Club for which he was on the board. Pat still has the documentation with official letterhead detailing the stars for whom they performed.

Pat recounted an interesting moment that she and her sister had with writer Ernest Hemingway and actor Gary Cooper in Wyoming. Hemingway used to frequent a ranch where For Whom the Bell Tolls is rumored to have been written, and one night when the women were strolling around and busking for silver dollars, they caught the eye of the two men, who were sitting at a table together. The men made a vocal bet regarding the authenticity of the women’s bosoms.

“Cooper says, ‘I’ll pay for the drinks if I’m wrong—I think they’re real,’” Pat recounted with a chuckle. “I took Hemingway’s finger and I poked and he says, ‘They’re real!’ They weren’t. They were false. Cooper had thought he’d won though, so I didn’t say anything.”

Back in Hollywood, Pat said that she and Priscilla would go out to the local canteen—a gathering at which entertainers would perform for troops fighting in World War II to boost morale—and see all the stars there. Pat still has thank you letters sent from the Red Cross documenting and thanking them for their service.

“We were so lucky to be [in Hollywood],” Pat said. “In those days, to some extent, you were a personality. Today, you’re just a commodity that they sell. As long as you sell, you’ve got it. It’s not the same kind of star. That world is gone now, and I’m so sorry, because the kids today don’t realize what it was.”

When Pat finished flipping through her publicity book filled with their old glamour shots and letters from fans, which she keeps tucked away in the shop, a nostalgic grin remained on her face.

“In some ways I’d love to go back there,” she said. “But in some ways, we move on.”