First person

Notes from underground

A documentary by Milford native Michael Bavaro, 51, on Boston's beloved Filene’s Basement, Voices From the Basement, will air on WGBH-TV on Thursday.

Michael Bavaro (Jonathan Wiggs / Globe staff)
By Jenn Abelson
December 5, 2010

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Did you shop at Filene’s Basement?

Yes, when I was an adult living in Boston. I didn’t go into Boston much when I was growing up. I never would have set out to make a story about the Basement if Sue Edbril [the film’s co-executive producer] hadn’t approached me. She wanted to honor her grandmother, who worked there for 35, 40 years. She had gone in and done interviews with longtime employees. It was supposed to be the women of Filene’s Basement. I thought there was more to it.

Did you have any concerns that a film about a department store wouldn’t make a compelling story?

The more I researched it, the more I realized there is a whole history here on how the American economy runs. Filene’s, which created Filene’s Basement, was among the first to offer health care for workers, a credit union, and minimum wages. It became a lifetime job for many people because of the benefits and working conditions.

What did the celebrities you interviewed say about shopping at Filene’s Basement?

Estelle Parsons was the only female celebrity willing to be interviewed. Some people wear it as a badge of honor. But all these other celebrities didn’t want to be on record. We heard about Liza Minnelli and Lauren Bacall and others shopping at the store. But they don’t want to admit they got it at the Basement. Estelle Parsons got her first job on the Today show [in the early 1950s]. She talks about how all her clothes came from Filene’s Basement.

How were you able to finish the film when the flagship store is still a crater in the middle of Downtown Crossing?

We walked into history. We didn’t know the store was even going to close when we first started. And then we thought we’d come back in two years and see the ribbon cutting. When that didn’t happen and the economy tanked, we were on hold. Now we don’t know when it’s going to end. But we came up with our own ending that’s very powerful. We just decided to interview the players and let them speak to the future.

  • December 5, 2010 cover
  • Dec. 5. Magazine cover