It’s 1975, and Bette’s Rolls Royce, a restaurant/nightclub on Union Street near Faneuil Hall, is the place to spend an evening sipping $1.25 Champagne cocktails for two. Settling in to your supper of Bette’s famous chopped sirloin or soused shrimp, you wonder if the owner plans on dropping by to greet or perhaps even serenade her customers, as you’ve heard she likes to on Sunday nights. By the appearance of her signature yellow Rolls Royce parked outside (illegally of course) you know you’re in luck.
Bette Arnold had already had a successful business career before opening her restaurant in 1971, though she always had a taste for entertainment. As a young woman, she sang with the Chappie Arnold Orchestra, a big band style ensemble led by her first husband. Wrangling musicians and lining up gigs for the band, she quickly learned she had a gift for management.
She graduated from Simmons College with a degree in psychology in 1941 and played an instrumental role in establishing a program for pre-professional studies – a course of study she hoped would be helpful to other entrepreneurial women. She and Chappie began a bus company and invested in real estate before turning to the ambitious undertaking of providing the swells and students of Boston with the “best fun, best food, and best booze in town!”
Though the food, music, and warm atmosphere of the joint may have kept Bette’s regulars coming back, tales of the owner and her infamous Rolls drew people from around the world looking for a good time in Boston. Bette claimed that the illegally parked automobile outside her restaurant was responsible for the majority of her walk-in clientele, making it one of the city’s most effective signs. The city disagreed, and Bette incurred almost $5,000 in parking fines. The car was impounded, but Bette, undeterred, started a lively publicity campaign to set it free. The car, with Bette perched on the hood, was a much beloved participant in many city parades throughout the 1970s.
Bette’s daughter donated a number of fascinating pieces of memorabilia from her mother’s restaurant. Matchbooks, recordings of Bette’s Sunday night performances, a menu board, and the Rolls’ license plate may send former patrons on a trip down memory lane, but students of local history, food culture, and, especially women in business will certainly want to peek at Bette’s scrapbooks for a look into a decade of fun and success driven by an extraordinary lady.
- Alexandra Bisio, Archives Assistant, Archives & Manuscripts, John J. Burns Library