Friday, July 19, 2024

Don Holland seeks to keep his ManRay licensing during an Aug. 19, 2014, meeting of the Cambridge License Commission. Peter Valentine is at right, wearing an old ManRay tag. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Club owner Don Holland, creator of the legendary ManRay club resurrected this year in Central Square, died Sunday. It was announced via social media by his daughter, Cheryl Holland.

Holland was 82. Family plan a wake at Brown & Hickey Funeral Home in Belmont on Sunday, followed by a funeral there from 9 to 10 a.m. Monday and then a funeral mass at St. Joseph’s Parish in Belmont. The burial is in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in West Roxbury. A condolence book will be available at ManRay, 40 Prospect St., Cheryl Holland said.

The cause of death was a fast-metastasizing prostate cancer, she said.

“It was so aggressive. It just ravaged him,” Cheryl Holland said. “The whole family was devastated. At first, he was like going down to the club once a week, and I was like, ‘Dad, you know you can’t be doing this. It’s just too much.’ But he wanted to see the club.”

The quest to bring ManRay back from its closing in 2005 was ”all that was on his mind the last 18 years,” Cheryl Holland said. “And he finally did it,” just to get a diagnosis that looked increasingly dire. “It was so bittersweet. I mean, just it just broke my heart.”

A ManRay logo glows Thursday inside the reopened nightclub in Cambridge’s Central Square. (Photo: Annie Schugart)

Attorney James Rafferty, who estimated that his relationship with Holland goes back some 30 years, used the same language, saying the timing was “bittersweet for sure.”

ManRay, a nightclub, bar and goth fetish scene, lasted at 21 Brookline St. in Central Square from 1983 (starting as Campus, with ManRay emerging two years later) to July 2005, when its distinct, bunkerlike structure was razed to make way for housing. Holland tried several resurrections in Central Square over the years and in 2021 finally secured 40 Prospect St.

The club finally reopened there on Jan. 14.

For generations of clubgoers, Holland’s death “was a gut punch” to hear, said Shawn Driscoll, author of “We Are But Your Children: An Oral History of the Nightclub ManRay,” who said he learned the news Sunday as he and friends were seeing The Cure play the Xfinity Center in Mansfield.

Dancing Thursday at the new ManRay. (Photo: Annie Schugart)

“Don was a businessman and a club owner, but I liked the view of Don as in the life-changing business. His opening ManRay changed a lot of lives – everyone from DJs wanting to have a shot to people working in the service industry and people like myself, who ended up going to his club and finding a new voice and a family, people I’m still friends with 30 years later,” Driscoll said. “He made people feel comfortable by opening those doors. People were able to walk in and find their authentic selves and others who are like them.”

“I can’t think of a better legacy to leave than nearly 30 years of helping others find find themselves,” Driscoll said.

Businesses opened and closed

The Holland family shaped Central Square and Cambridge for years.

Don Holland lived in Belmont, a widower with children, said Ruth Ryan Allen of Paddy’s Lunch, who recalled how he and her father, Harry “Bubby” Ryan, would meet at auctions to find bargain fixtures for the businesses. “Mr. Holland was a good businessman, and very creative,” Allen recalled. “He would listen to a lot of people who weren’t otherwise heard. That’s how ManRay came about.”

He was also “sort of a no-nonsense man” like her father – “like, if you don’t want to hear what he has to say, don’t ask him,” Allen said. “He was such a character.”

After getting out of the U.S. Marines, Don Holland worked as a bouncer at The Palace in Boston, where he met his future wife. After she died in 1970, he was left with three stepchildren as well as his own two kids to raise. “He never said ‘stepchildren.’ It was his children to him,” Cheryl Holland said. “All he did was work. Even Sundays he worked. He had to hire somebody to take care of us.”

He’d opened Hi-Fi Pizza at 496 Massachusetts Ave. in October 1966, finally selling it in 1983 to his brother Frank. It lasted more than 45 years, serving late-night slices and other fare until losing the leased space in March 2014. Don Holland also ran Don’s Pub & Grub at 512 Massachusetts Ave., which in 1981 “morphed into woman’s bar” called The Marquee, Cheryl Holland said. The lesbian bar at some point in the 1980s became an industrial club called Ground Zero before falling into disrepair; the space was reopened as The Phoenix Landing in 1995, said Joe McCabe, owner of that sports bar and dance club.

Meanwhile, Holland bought property that, until a 1976 fire, had been the Italian restaurant Simeone’s at 21 Brookline St. He turned that into Campus in 1983, then integrated ManRay into it, Cheryl Holland said.

Don Holland leveraged that real estate in the 1980s to open a short-lived nightclub in Florida’s Key West in an old, converted movie theater, Rafferty said. Holland had a separate club in Pompano Beach, Florida, that he called ManRay South. (“He could never sit still,” Cheryl Holland said, mentioning also a club in New Hampshire.) When the Florida businesses failed, he lost ownership of the Brookline Street property and was instead a tenant there for the next 20 years.

Holding out hope

Don Holland managed to hold on to his licensing from ManRay’s closing in 2005 for far longer than his brother as he fought to bring the club back in the square.

“I used to joke with him that he had the record for longest inactive license in the history of licensing,” Rafferty said. But the License Commission “worked with him. He was known to them as cooperative, he ran a good place – but he probably went, I don’t know, six or seven years with an inactive license?” (It was more than eight.) Still, Holland had something on his side: ManRay’s former home becoming homes meant that his “pocket license” for that address wasn’t needed by another restaurant or club coming in.

As Holland struggled with logistics and the real estate market in trying to reopen ManRay, “there were quite a few skeptics as to whether the marketplace was even ready. And I must confess that I used to talk to him and say, ’You’re sure you want to do this? It’s kind of a young person’s game, and you’ve been out of it for a while.’ But he was very, very committed,” Rafferty said. “Nothing came easy in the last year or so for him when it came to rebirthing ManRay. But it became his mission. And he was never as pleased as when it when it reopened.”

That work was complicated by diagnosis of a UTI in September, which he tried ignoring – until infection moved on to his kidneys and brain, leading to treatment for a condition called metabolic encephalopathy, Cheryl Holland said. After rehab, he “seemed like he was getting better in December … until he went to the doctor and had an ultrasound, and they were like, ‘We think he has prostate cancer.’”

“He got the diagnosis right around when the club was opening,” she said, “which was awful.”

The expectation was that it would be slow moving, Cheryl Holland said, but it was not.

When the end came on Father’s Day, “he just went downhill real quick. It was awful. But we were there for him,” Cheryl Holland said. “The thing that he was worried about in the end was the club, and of course his family. And I said, ‘Dad, don’t worry, I will make sure this club goes on. You’ll be proud of me.’ Those were kind of the last words, besides ‘I love you,’ and to go home to my mom. But the club was on his mind all these months that he was sick.”

Perseverance and dedication

The same attitude that him trying business ventures in Florida and Cambridge was extended to promoters and people who had ideas for dance nights, author Shawn Driscoll said. “He would immediately be like, ’Let’s see if we can make this work,’” he said. “More often than not, it worked.” The same ethic was at work at the new club.

Driscoll said Holland didn’t speak with him for his book, despite them being friendly enough to say hello over the years when crossing paths at the club or later events. He finally had the chance to speak with Holland a couple of months ago at a Heroes club night, Driscoll said, after sending sending a copy of the book through bartender Terri Niedzwiecki.

“He took me aside and said, ’I want to thank you for doing that book.’ And he didn’t say this, but Terri told me that he kind of teared up a few times when he was reading,” Driscoll said. “I was very happy with being able to talk with Don in the New ManRay, and for him to see that hard work pay off. I mean, that’s a long time to go to bring something back – and he did it. That’s a true sign of amazing perseverance and dedication.”


This post was updated June 20, 2023, with recollections of a Central Square industrial club called Ground Zero and June 21-22, 2023, with comments from Cheryl Holland.