hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA

June 6, 2013

Visiting 1970s Haverhill

Film features 1975 political feud, dying shoe industry

By Bruce Amaro
Correspondent

---- — They are icons from Haverhill’s political past.

Mention the names George Katsaros and Lewis Burton, and people who can remember back to the 1970s will think of a sometimes-fierce political feud as the men battled to be mayor.

The struggle was against the backdrop of mid-1970s Haverhill. The city’s shoe industry had all but died out, the economy was suffering and the community was politically tense.

A Greater Boston film group is about to take people back in time to relive that mayoral campaign and time from Haverhill’s past. The group has revived a documentary film made in 1975 about the city’s political struggles of that time.

The documentary “If It Fits’’ will be shown July 29 at 7 p.m. at the Brattle Street Theatre in Cambridge. The film will be presented by Documentary Educational Resources, a Cambridge film curator, and The Doc-Yard, a bi-weekly film and discussion series. Documentary Educational Resources is a non-profit organization that shows cultural and educational films.

Film-maker John Marshall made the 58-minute movie in the 1970s to detail what happened to the city’s once-successful shoe-manufacturing industry and how its demise hurt Haverhill’s economy. The film documents the lives of political figures, their campaigns and the condition of a struggling Haverhill.

The film details how Fire Chief Lewis Burton ran for mayor against Katsaros and beat him in 1975, as the city debated how to rebound from the dying shoe industry that cost many jobs. Shoe-manufacturing had been Haverhill’s economic lifeblood for generations.

“This film examines a dying industrial town and its politicians’ search for votes over such issues as municipal spending, rising taxes, the revitalization of depressed areas, and attracting new industry,’’ Documentary Educational Resources said on its website.

Marshall made the documentary during the second administration of Katsaros, a three-term mayor. The film captures Katsaros’ efforts to win an election as the city’s economy was collapsing. The film does not reach the conclusion of the campaign, which Kastaros lost to Burton.

The film opens with a slow panning of the Merrimack River, showing the muddy banks and debris that littered the water’s edge. Behind the river rises the concrete river wall of downtown and the backs of vacant factories with broken windows and rusted fire escapes.

The film features images from the two mayoral candidates’ campaigns — Burton’s newspaper ad with the slogan “It’s time for a change’’ and a sketch of a crying baby in diapers; Katsaros carrying on the political tradition of giving pens to voters outside a supermarket; Burton visiting an elderly housing complex, where he told residents the city’s finances had gotten so poor under Katsaros that Haverhill might have to close the complex.

There are campaign rallies featuring music from bands and cheering supporters holding signs.

And looming in the background, repeatedly, is the image of a city mired in a an economic breakdown.

When told the documentary will air next month, Katsaros’ widow, Effie Katsaros, remembered their life together before he entered politics.

Katsaros worked as a salesman for a Lawrence paper company after returning from the Army in the late 1940s. He married Effie and they built their house at 1 Richmond St.

“I remember putting the shingles on the roof one afternoon,” Effie Katsaros said. “We built the house a little at a time. We started it in 1950 before we got married, and it was done by the time we were married in 1951.’’

With his wife, they opened and ran a downtown lounge and rented its large back room called The Crystal Room. They ran that part of the building as a function hall on Merrimack Street across the street from The Haverhill Gazette newspaper office.

“George liked music and he was a band leader,” his wife said, explaining he started his own band and played in clubs alongside other big bands.

“It was different then, and the big national bands played everywhere and the local bands would play, too,” Effie Katsaros said.

Katsaros served three terms as mayor, the first from 1972 to 1973 and a second term from 1974 to 1975, when he lost the election to Burton. Burton served one term from 1976 to 1977. Katsaros came back to beat Burton in 1977 and served his third term from 1978 to 1979.

“It was a grudge match and Kastaros won,” former mayor William Ryan said of Katsaros’ last campaign in 1977.

“Burton went back to being fire chief after Katsaros beat him,” Ryan said.

Ryan was elected mayor in 1981 and served three consecutive terms.

Katsaros died in 1982 at age 62, a victim of leukemia.

“He was a man with his heart in whatever he did,” his wife said.

The documentary ends with Katsaros playing the 1968 hit “Those Were the Days” on an electric guitar at an outdoor rally.