JUNE 15, 2017 – On a recent morning, the wind was whipping off the docks on Rogers Street in Gloucester, and the gusts rattled the windows of a downtown bistro where Henry Allen was sipping his coffee.
Allen, who is 51, stroked his mutton chops and patted the head of his dog, Flat Stanley. Allen, like so many Jews on Cape Ann, loves his adopted city, which he first visited as an art student 35 years ago. Back then he vowed to set down roots here, and eight years ago – after his son Cameron died of cancer at age 13 – Allen loaded up his car, drove from his home in Minnesota to Cape Ann, and stayed.
“Cameron and I had always talked about when he was done with high school that we would move to Gloucester and start some kind of creative retreat together,” said Allen, the son of a US diplomat, who grew up in Austria, Peru, Brazil, Cuba, and the former Soviet Union. “A lot of people have felt this powerful draw to Gloucester. It could be the granite in the earth, or the powerful tide. Its history was huge to me.”
The writer, performer, and director changed his last name to Allen when he started his acting career. In 2009, he rented a place in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he found solace walking on the nearby beaches.
“I completed a circle moving to Manchester at that time,” he said. “I eventually met my neighbors and as it turned out, all of them had lost children. I found people right in the middle of my immediate sphere who spoke the same language, and we would get together and talk about grief and loss.”
Six years ago, he moved to Gloucester and opened a theater troupe on Main Street. With seven theater companies in the city, Allen wanted his to stand out, and he decided to focus on history and folklore.
One of his first original musicals would be based on Gloucester’s greasy pole contest, held every year in the city during the St. Peter’s Fiesta in June. That weekend-long competition includes locals with fishing ties or Italian blood who swim out to a dock and traverse a grease-smeared wooden pole with the hopes of grabbing a flag nailed to the shaft before falling into the water.
When he first heard about the contest, he made his way down to the Fort, an area first settled by Sicilian fishing families last century. He began asking about the connection between the greasy pole and the fiesta, and was surprised when many old-timers said they opposed the greasy pole’s inclusion in the festival. This tension is explored through songs like “The Greasy Pole Boogie Woogie,” “I Ain’t No Saint,” and “We All Walk Together.”
These days, he’s getting ready to present the sixth revival of “Greasy Pole, the Musical,” which will run from June 23 through July 9 at Allen’s North Shore Folklore Theatre Company on Main Street.
“Even though this story is so uniquely Gloucester, it’s a universal story that anyone who is a child of immigrants can relate to,” he said.
The musical has earned accolades from locals and professional actors. After the first show in 2011, Allen found Norwegian actress Liv Ullmann sitting by herself and wiping away tears.
“I came over and sat next to her and she was weeping,” said Allen. “I took her hand and she just kept saying over and over, ‘It was so real, it was so real.’”
Allen hopes to continue working on projects at his theater, and finding ways to honor his late son. He lives modestly in downtown Gloucester, and much of his food comes from a local pantry. He feels at ease in this city, where the loss of the thousands of fishermen at sea is never too far from people’s minds.
“It’s one of the deeper connections I have with the city,” said Allen. “It’s a city that knows loss the way I know loss.”