Bright Lights Film Journal

Haunted Cinema: Movie Theatres of the Dead

“There are no start times, there are no intermissions . . . there is no beginning, there is no end.”

The movie exhibition business has always been extremely volatile. The public’s taste in movies and the product available were fated to be always in flux, and theatres that weren’t at the top of the food chain had to constantly struggle to eke out a living in this fiercely competitive arena where a “sure thing” was as rare as Haley’s comet. It was a tough way to make a living, and the world of movie exhibition was full of desperate people. This was true for arthouse, grindhouse and even first-run. Since the glory days of movie-going in the ‘40s when everybody went to the flicks and every neighbourhood had a theatre, it’s been one crisis after another, and this has forced many a theatre on hard times. This is the story of how some of those troubled theatres ended their lives.

The big Hollywood studios started having problems back in the early ‘50s when competition from TV was keeping people on their sofas. Conversely, arthouses and drive-ins, which can be considered rural grindhouses, flourished. Only here could deeply repressed American audiences see nudity and sex, or at least allusions to such, as theatres carved out a niche rebelling against the Production Code, in active enforcement since 1934. These were in fact the only two growth segments of the movie business during that decade and constituted what could be termed speciality cinema.

A film like Bergman’s Summer with Monika, with its glimpses of nudity, packed them in on both circuits through the ‘50s where it screened in radically different versions. Grindhouse mogul Kroger Babb flogged a dubbed, condensed and re-scored version through the drive-ins of the Midwest, while Cy Harvey’s Janus Films, located in Cambridge, Mass., distributed a full-length subtitled version to the arthouses, often located in the university districts of big cities. Here in tasteful low-key settings, patrons were served espresso and small cakes while debating the relative merits of the European masters like Fellini, Truffaut, Antonioni and Godard. In the meantime, high ticket prices kept “the man in the street” out in the street.

The crisis caught up with arthouse cinema by the end of the decade, and bookers could no longer afford to be so stuffy and elitist. In 1959, for example, bookers on the grindhouse circuit expressed moral qualms about screening Russ Meyer’s pioneering “nudie-cutie” The Immoral Mr. Teas, so instead he opened it at second-run arthouses that were looking for product, and it took off from there and became a huge hit.

In the mid-’60s Hollywood began to defy the Production Code and explore the kind of provocative subject matter that had long been the province of foreign films – or to make those foreign films themselves. Having financed Antonioni’s Blow Up in 1966, MGM refused to cut out controversial scenes and still managed to release it without a Code certificate. Hollywood was by various means beginning to co-opt arthouse cinema, and by 1967 producers were ignoring the Code and films were getting more risqué. Arthouse, as a distinct form of exhibition, was coming to an end. No longer would viewers have to suffer through bleak fare like Bergman’s The Silence to get a whiff of sex. In the early ‘70s many a failing arthouse began to book porn, bringing a snicker to the lips of those who had always seen a dubious double message in the phrase “art cinema.” Gindhouse – porn being a form of it – had moved in to possess the corpse of arthouse, the final and most ironic disfigurement of its precious memory.

To illustrate the transitory nature of the movie theatre business in an immediate and personal manner that eschews dry theory, I have chosen to (1) sketch out a brief overview of the dynamics at play in that key moment when pornography reshaped speciality exhibition, and (2) profile a select handful of urban theatres in a no-holds-barred fashion, theatres at the end of their lives after they had passed through innumerable booking policy changes, from arthouse, foreign-language or commercial second-run to grindhouse and then finally to “adult theatres” or “porno grinders” – an ignominious fate, as we shall see. It was, to borrow a phrase from Celine, a journey to the end of the night.

* * *

Nothing could be more mysterious or forbidding to the uninitiated than an old movie palace laid waste by years or even decades of neglect at the hands of absentee landlords and mercenary owners determined to suck every last dime out of a joint and then torch it for the insurance money. And once a theatre slipped into the twilight of exhibiting XXX hardcore porn, it rarely slipped out again. In most cases nothing was ever upgraded, and even the most basic repairs were a rarity. Broken chairs were left where they collapsed, burned-out light bulbs were never replaced, and even the life-blood of the enterprise, the movie projectors, turned into rat’s nests of filth, while up in the restrooms a witches’ brew of slime bubbled away in plugged-up toilets. This attitude of radical laissez faire imbued these environments with a certain frozen-in-time ambiance as the architectural remnants of Depression-era grandeur slowly sank into appalling decay and unimaginable things took place in the darkness.

This aura of lurking malice informs depictions of such theatres in mainstream movies like Midnight Cowboy, Taxi Driver and Hardcore. To respectable citizens, inner-city porn theatres (and grindhouses that originally served the same social function) were dens of menace, criminality and unspeakable perversion. They might more easily be persuaded to gate-crash a leper colony than push through the battered doors and clanking turnstiles of these establishments and shuffle into the pitch-black darkness where faceless urban misfits sought sexual solace in theory as well as practice.

In Midnight Cowboy, where a 24-hour grindhouse doubles for the genuine XXX article that wouldn’t appear for another year or two, protagonist Joe Buck gets a blow job from a queer kid in black-frame glasses while an outer space horror movie plays. To average folks, it was an apt metaphor: these theatres represented alien territory, another world. Joe later beats the kid bloody in the toilet and takes his money in a scene that is one of the most wrenching in ‘60s cinema. He is shocked by what he has done. Here in this creepy movie theatre he has turned into another kind of person.

In these films the atmosphere of the porn theatre is conveyed by a focus on the flickering beam of light from the projector and the small scattered audiences staring straight ahead in almost petrified silence. Almost imperceptibly someone slides into the next seat . . . It was an atmosphere and a ritual charged with all the fear and excitement of meeting (or just wordlessly encountering) a stranger in the big city. On evidence of viewing environment alone (since we rarely get to see the actual films, or if so just in the briefest glimpses), the porn theatre was depicted as a cultish forbidden urban experience.

In the 1968 underground film The Meatrack, sometimes referred to as “the poor man’s Midnight Cowboy,” the main character flees from the mean streets of San Francisco’s Tenderloin to the sanctuary of a porn theatre. He finds no safe refuge there, however. As if caught in the clutches of a surrealist nightmare he is groped and savaged by five pairs of disembodied arms before bolting out onto the fire escape. Even this comparatively more knowing take on the porn theatre experience couldn’t resist a clichéd and over-dramatic interpretation. It seemed to be everybody’s favourite nightmare.

* * *

If grindhouse programming indicated a theatre was in desperate straits, then the switch to triple-X hardcore represented the final stage of devolution, a road of no return. But it paid the rent. Harried cinema owners had families to support and no time for false modesty. And many were bitter, convinced that the theatre business had sold them out by denying them more attractive product and leaving them to fend for themselves in urban neighbourhoods that went to hell as the ‘60s wore on. Dan McLean, who owned San Francisco’s Embassy on Market Street, was typical of this breed. Taking over the theatre in 1938, he saw the business at its best, during the war years, and then suffered through its slow decline in the ‘50s and ‘60s, changing booking policy repeatedly to survive. This inner-city neighborhood, like so many others, got dangerous, and he was even mugged once in an alley behind the theatre. By the ‘70s the Embassy was one of the city’s most notorious and decrepit grindhouses, and by the time McLean passed away in 1983 he was a very cynical man.

To such struggling owners it seemed like a miracle, then, when suddenly in mid/late 1969 there was easy money to be made screening porn. The easiest money there ever was, if one could set aside moral qualms. Many were able to set aside their moral qualms. It was that rare “sure thing.”

San Francisco, New York and L.A. were the first cities to get into hardcore exhibition, and San Francisco was at the head of the pack primarily because of its tradition of liberated attitudes and because that was where the films were first being made. By mid/late ‘69 there were approximately 25 theaters in town playing hardcore. Some of these were old, established cinemas in rough neighbourhoods that had undergone countless changes of booking policy over the decades.

The Roxie on 16th near Valencia in the Mission district was one of these, a classic example of a theatre that struggled along on a diet of second-run arthouse and grindhouse before it turned to porn. Opened in 1912 (or possibly earlier), it was one of the first “legit” theatres to turn to “beaver films” around 1967. Jim Mitchell, of Mitchell Brothers fame, worked at the Roxie for a time, and it was there that he got the idea of getting into the adult movie business. It was one of the first venues to switch to hardcore, and one of the first to show it on the higher-quality 35mm format when that became available. (Unlike many theatres, the Roxie managed to escape the porn ghetto when Robert Evans took it over in 1976 and instituted a rep house booking policy that continues to this day.)

Other cinemas came out of nowhere, built in spaces that had never hosted film exhibition. Many of these new venues were very small rooms located in storefronts. They came to be known as “shoebox theaters” and were the direct descendants of the semi-private backroom peep shows that had always existed, but now, as censorship restrictions loosened, the back room became the front room. (During cinema’s first wave of popularity as an entertainment medium in the ‘teens, there was such a demand for more theatres that countless retail and residential spaces were converted to movie exhibition on an ad hoc basis. They became known as nickelodeons and were patronized by working-class audiences. And now here in San Francisco, history was in a small way repeating itself – new theatres were springing up to service a specific need.)

Seeking to avoid undue police attention or the moral outage of neighboring businesses, many were hesitant about dressing up their frontages with lurid come-ons in the manner of the grindhouses, and continued to refer to themselves as peep shows, albeit “public” or “widescreen” peep shows. There were also, no doubt, building code and zoning issues at play, and it was much easier to avoid running afoul of these if your theatre had a small number of seats and advertised its wares discreetly. Sometimes seating was just a few rows of folding chairs, the films shown on portable projectors and music supplied by whatever LPs the projectionist had handy. The product was so sought after that customers willingly endured these conditions in masochistic silence. There had always been pornographic “stag” movies, but these new films were in color and some were starting to feature synch-sound. And they starred hippie girls of the type you saw passing on the sidewalk. It was all too much to resist.

In New York City most new porn theatres were setting up shop near Times Square where the tourist trade could best be exploited. This trend in mini-theaters caught the attention of the New York Times, which reported with some alarm on the subject in an October 22, 1969 piece penned by Howard Thompson and entitled “Mini Movie Houses Are Flourishing.” (Among other things the article maintains, without any attribution, that “even children” were among those attending these films.) With seating capacities of 100 to 300, they were generally larger than the shoebox rooms in San Francisco. While a few of them had previously existed as theatres, most were newly built in what had been retail space or apartments. One theatre, the 210-seat Avon-on-Love on 42nd Street, had recently been a branch of the American Savings Bank, while another, the 130-seat New Mini Cinema, had been built from the ruins of a fire-gutted bar-and-grill on 47th Street. Some owners even claimed that the new facades were an improvement over the dreary frontages they had replaced.

At $2.50 to 5 bucks a pop for films like Stud Farm, Baby Light My Fire and Hot Erotic Dreams, ticket prices were steep, but local businessmen on their lunch breaks and out-of-town tourists and conventioneers who comprised the bulk of the trade willingly shelled out. But were the golden days of porn already past? In the above-mentioned NYT article some owners complained that the field was already overcrowded and profit was falling, while established theatre chains were behaving in a hostile manner toward these new upstart venues.

In these early days, when the money was pouring in, the theatres were fairly well maintained, but inevitably, due to a number of factors, they slowly hit the skids. In a few years (most of) the businessmen had stopping coming by, and only the most confused or masochistic tourists now wandered through their blighted portals. They became meeting places for people interested in having sex, not watching movies. These were folks who couldn’t care less what film was playing, in stark contrast to the first audiences at porn flicks who, welded to their seats, gazed upon the screens in blank-faced absorption.

The theatres rotted away, becoming the essence of urban sleaze on a par with subway toilets and hypodermic-strewn back alleys, things that good people looked away from in fear and revulsion. If our inner cities were being laid waste by a ravaging disease, then these increasingly ramshackle porn theatres were the visible pox. They functioned in equal measure as flophouses, bordellos and pool halls without the pool tables. They were anarchic “free zones” that seemed to exist outside the laws and social norms of the cities in which they were located, very much in the tradition of grindhouses but with an even more malevolent edge. They became haunts of public sexuality, catering to urban sexual outlaws who were invisible to mainstream society and even invisible to each other. This was a transitory and anonymous clientele.

The following observations are based in part on visits that this writer made to some of these establishments, but also incorporate the testimony of many other voices. Aside from a few New York area fanzines like Shock Cinema, Gutter Trash and Sleazoid Express, almost nothing was written about these theatres at the time they existed, so it has been an enormous advantage to also be able to include comments from Internet posters – primarily filed on the Cinema Treasures site – only relatively recently made available. Those who attended these theatres are often described as among the “faceless masses,” but if that is true then they are at least no longer voiceless. Here follow accounts of some of the most infamous and colorful theatres America’s big cities had to offer, all now long gone.

The Variety Photo Plays

Located at 110 Third Avenue, just below 14th street, Manhattan’s Variety Photo Plays was a rare surviving artifact of old grindhouse movie culture. It had served as a refuge for generations of no-place-to-go sailors knocking about on shore leave and Joe Buck-style transients looking to make some money or make somebody. If the New York Times was to be believed, the place had been on the skids since the ‘60s, “shifting from B-grade to raunchy to naughty to pornographic.” In fact, the old house had been on the skids, or at least up against it, since the ‘20s, when what had been built as a mere nickelodeon in 1914 began to feel fierce competition from Manhattan’s larger and more prestigious venues. At just under 600 seats and lacking the regal pretensions of the nearby movie “palaces,” it would forever be forced to struggle in the B-movie trenches.

While other theatres prospered during the boom times of the 1940s, The Variety continued to fade, partly due to the fact it was so close to the Bowery. As David Robertson recalls in a post,1 “as a teenager I worked at night during the summer (of 1946) helping to fix the seats in The Variety. It was a weird place, close to the Bowery and drunks sleeping it off. If I remember they closed it down at 2am and threw everyone out so we could fix the seats.”

During the ‘50s it played B-westerns, and as the years wore on it switched to grindhouse style programming. When sexually explicit films came along at the end of the ‘60s and filled the coffers of many a struggling theatre, The Variety Photo Plays was in on the action, frequently screening “white coaters” – sexploitation films with an educational premise. Yet its programming was utterly unpredictable and could never be classed as purely triple-X.

“In 1969-70,” writes Chelydra in a post2 “I used to go there every couple of weeks with a friend when we were finished doing layouts and cartoons at Rat Subterranean News around the corner on 14th street. My friend had a bad habit of bringing a few bottles of Ripple wine and tossing the empties against the side wall – the audience barely noticed. Admission prices started at about 25 cents in the morning and gradually rose to a dollar or two by evening. The shows – always double features – were absolutely random. A typical show would combine a kiddie movie about a pet bear cub and the trashiest low-budget porn available. The weirdest thing was the rest rooms, both of which were unusable due to always being jam-packed with homosexual orgies; if you opened the door someone would grab you to try to pull you in to join the party.”

A fellow calling himself Shank Dude confessed in a subsequent posting3 to be that friend with the Ripple wine, and contributed a few additional insights on the unpredictable programming and clientele.

I actually don’t remember hardcore films there, but many (of the sex films they played) in the hardcore era were, oddly enough, more soft core, probably because they were so cheap, or just fell off the truck. And by this time there were many triple features. Lots of Spaghetti Westerns with Lee Van Cleef which at the same time were on television in the afternoon. There was a weird graphic novel aspect with roaming weirdos as well as drunks and bums in the back that snored, often loudly. Occasionally management would come down the aisle yelling EYES GLEAM (Ice cream) which they sold, contributing to the slick and sticky veneer which hung about. When he got to the front where the men’s room was, he’d holler and clear the place.

Through the ‘70s and ‘80s The Variety Photo Plays gained a special reputation with those in the know, and amongst the nameless riff-raff that patronized the establishment one might suddenly bump into underground filmmakers like Jack Smith or Andy Milligan, who circulated about looking for anonymous sex, or Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein, who also frequented the establishment. At the nearby Screw offices it was affectionately known as “suck theatre.”

It was purely though a spirit of neglect that the place retained its B-joint atmosphere, but atmosphere it had in spades, and a number of movie directors were attracted by it. In Taxi Driver Robert DeNiro’s character, Travis Bickle, first meets Jodie Foster in The Variety, and the film’s closing shootout happened right around the corner from the theater. In 1983 it was used as a setting for the film Variety starring Nan Goldin and co-scripted by Kathy Acker. Here a female ticket-taker at the theater finds herself at first repelled by the milieu but gradually fascinated by it.

While the clientele became increasingly more degenerate and depraved, the outside trimmings spoke to passersby of an earlier and happier age. The New York Times would wax nostalgic about the delightful marquee festooned with light bulbs. This feature was added back in 1923 and embellished in a redesign executed in 1930 that left the “coffered field with regularly spaced bulbs” intact, but added “a zigzag Art Deco fascia in enameled metal and neon lighting. The fascia gives the theater’s, rather that the show’s, name . . . the lights buzzing on the underside of the marquee enveloped the passerby in a warm, glowing field. People going past the theater, even in the daytime, got a whiff of vintage celluloid, and at night it was intoxicating.”4

Eventually the marquee became streaked with rust, and inside the theater, people were intoxicated by other substances and sensations. The place was a potent cocktail of old moviehouse karma and rampant sleaze, as this writer discovered one sweltering summer day in 1984 after shelling out some bills, buying a ticket and going inside.

Upon entering the auditorium, I saw the movie was playing upside-down. This lasted a good fifteen minutes. Nobody complained or perhaps even noticed. Quiet, nearly invisible queers clad in starched white shirts and thick black-framed glasses and looking as if they’d stepped directly out of the ‘50s moved about from seat to seat while prostitutes blatantly trolled the aisles, all of this clearly visible as the theater was more brightly lit than most. Among the clientele that afternoon were trashy drag queens and what William Burroughs refers to in Junky as “rooming-house flesh;” the old, the infirm, the pallid-complexioned occupants of the neighborhood’s cheap residency hotels. There was a preponderance of fat unshaven duffers dressed in dirty woolen caps and multiple layers of T-shirts and coats, dressed for the middle of winter on this sweltering afternoon. Two old floor fans clanging away up front did nothing to cool the place down.

It was like stepping into a time capsule. I noticed four large globe-like lighting fixtures that had somehow survived the decades. The walls were an unremarkable (patched) plaster, but the ceiling was special, composed of patterned pressed tin. There was a single modest balcony. My main memory was of patrons moving about the theater in a constant bustle and streaming into and out of the toilets oddly situated down front below the screen and surely a distraction for anyone trying to watch the film. The room was filled with the continual rustlings and creakings of people on the move. It was more like a mass happening than a movie screening, and in fact I have no recollection of the film at all.

Located between an ancient basement bar called The Dugout and a Christian mission, it was generally known and referred to as a gay porn theater, although the XXX fare it played was generally or perhaps exclusively straight. But as noted above, the programming was utterly unpredictable, and one might see a late ‘60s b/w sexploiter dropped into the middle of an ultra-explicit fuck-and-suck triple bill. It was like a master class in exploitation cinema.

The curtain came crashing down on The Variety Photo Plays in 1989 after two undercover health inspectors reported “omnipresent” unsafe sex between male patrons while a child of approximately eight years of age – apparently a theater employee’s kid – was on the premises. At 3 pm on February 8th a cadre of cops and public health officials rousted all the customers out of the theater and into the cold. The doors were padlocked and remained so for many months afterwards. The lobby with its vintage 1940s candy machine and a projection booth full of antiquated equipment were left to molder in the tomb-like darkness while real estate agents haggled over the building’s fate.

In 1991 it was purchased by the 110 Third Avenue Cooperation and eventually refurbished and converted to live off-Broadway theater. The first play staged in what was now called The Variety Arts Theater was aptly entitled Return to the Forbidden Planet. The playhouse hummed along though the ‘90s and into the new century, but other interests were eyeing the property, and in October 2004 it closed, the lot purchased by New York University, which was grabbing up land all over Lower Manhattan. They planned to build student housing on the site.

From February 2005 onward the theatre was demolished piece-by-piece, at a pace so slow that, at least for lovers of historic architecture, it suggested a certain premeditated sadism. Despairing theatre buffs and just regular folks from the neighbourhood kept track of the progress of the demolition, decrying the loss of one more historic old theatre and the further homogenization of their city. “This is just too sad for words,” noted one.5 Some of the demolition permits posted on the site stated that the building was not a landmark, over which someone had scrawled in black marker, “YES, THIS IS A LANDMARK!” – to no avail.

“It’s totally over,” noted a post.6 “The theatre has been completely demolished and carted away. It’s a small empty lot now.”

The Metropolitan

Born in 1914 as the New 14th Street Theater, this venue, located just east of Third Avenue, was a full-fledged movie theatre rather than just a nickelodeon, although its seating capacity was only a bit more than The Variety Photo Plays. It was renamed the Arrow in 1940, switched to a program of Spanish-language films in the early ‘50s and became The Metropolitan in the ‘60s.

Through it all the interior remained unaltered, and some claim it was never even painted, the walls covered by an ancient red damask. The original screen could still be observed hanging against the back wall while a newer and somewhat larger one had been installed a few feet in front of it. Up above was a sliding glass skylight that appeared to be a remnant of the original design.

If the theatre ever had any pretensions to class, you couldn’t tell it by the ‘70s when it was relegated to the screening of XXX, its filthy battered marquee casting an evil shadow over the entire block. Oddly enough, there were also a number of fairly large trees in front of it (an extreme rarity in Manhattan), which made it an even more popular place to hang out and grab some shade or shelter when it rained. The entrance of The Met, as it was now known, drew every pervert, pick-pocket, bum, mark, out-patient and junkie on notorious 14th street like a giant magnet, and it was a curse to all the nearby shops.

The theater’s twin balconies had long side ramps that extended almost down to the screen, and these were invariably crowded with old geezers and pervs leering down at the crowds below. “The sound of constant rustling so peculiar to The Variety’s ambience is amplified here to an unbearable noise,” noted Sleazoid Express writers Bill Landis and Jimmy McDonough after a visit to The Met in the mid-’80s, “like a million bats walking in a cave.”7 While by this point the two were regulars at The Variety Photo Plays, it had taken them by their own admission years to work up the courage to venture into The Met. Its reputation preceded it. Old projectionists told hair-raising stories of having to fight off groping hands in dark stairwells on their way to the projection booth, while tales of muggings and violence abounded. However, according to Mike Black, a student of Metropolitan mystique, there was hardly any violence at all in the place.

Like many urban porn venues, the movies were heterosexual, but the quick and dirty sex action was of the other variety, and the theatre was soon everyone’s worst AIDS nightmare come to life. As Black noted in his fanzine Gutter Trash, the toilets were a “filth addict’s wet dream,” reeking of piss, grunge and body odour.” The urinals were perpetually flooded with rivers of piss, overflowing onto the floors to create a sea of green and orange slime.” Black recalled witnessing sixteen-ounce beer cans standing in the urinals, filling up with piss. Then he witnesses a man shaking one to see if it was full yet and placing it back in the urinal.8

Sex was everywhere, especially in the two toilets. Black once observed two drunken bums dallying on one of the long benches in the lounge area that adjoined the bathroom, blowing each other. One after the other, two bottles of Thunderbird slipped from the folds of their drunken clinch and they immediately began to flight over who was the owner of the fuller bottle. On another occasion Black saw an obese fellow squatting his fat ass over a trash can and taking a dump. The horrid stench sent people fleeing for the exits and fresh air. (This might have been the Mad Shitter, a well-known deviant barred from every theatre in the city.)

The Met was closed in 1987, but its marquee continued to haunt the neighbourhood until the building was demolished some years later. Other stories have it that the structure was reconverted into a state home for the deaf. In any case, all traces of the building were eventually removed from the face of the earth. For well over a decade the site was left vacant, just a gaping space in the adjoining brownstone frontages, as if the very ground was cursed.

The Harem of 42nd Street

Further up Manhattan were the famed 42nd Street theatres between Seventh and Eight Avenues, a strip known as the Deuce. These once legit theatres had formed the core of “Movie Capital of the World.” Built in the 1920s and ‘30s, they had undergone many booking policy changes over the decades, from old westerns playing 24 hours a day to musicals and first-run flicks, but as New York took a crash dive in the ‘70s managers started to book films with the kind of ghastly, lurid titles that confirmed all too well fears that the city was going straight to Hell. These theatres generally offered squalid but seemingly indestructible interiors and long ominous staircases that led down into subterranean toilets ideal for muggings.

Most of these venues struggled along on a diet of grisly grindhouse, not hardcore. An exception was The Harem, which, according to author Josh Alan Friedman, was not only the most depraved theatre on the strip but in all America. As he writes in his book Tales of Times Square from 1986:

The Harem, 249 West 42nd, is actually the only porno grinder on 42nd street that operates 24 hours. . . . Two long narrow rows of seats are occupied by black transvestites, pre-op transsexuals, subway toilet queens and confused Japanese tourists. Night or day, they live here for five bucks. Not one empty seat. Ghastly, open-mouthed faces lie unconscious, others are smoking, wheezing, spitting, festering in the warmth of each other’s disease. The sleaziest theatre in America.9)

It had a balcony roped off “for couples only.” No one paid the slightest attention to this except voyeurs hoping to catch some second-hand hetero action. Approximately a decade later it was still going bad. “I was inside the Harem in 1994,” comments a poster, “and almost had a very bad experience in the downstairs men’s room. Luckily I ran out in time.”10 No one can know what happened down in that toilet, but it must have been something since this fellow reported that every time he passed the theatre he felt a sense of extreme trepidation.

Many theatres that fell on hard times and ended up showing porn had epic histories, but The Harem had no history at all. It had been created out of retail space and had never been a theatre before, despite a full marquee that gave the impression it was cut from the same cloth as the neighboring venues. It closed at the end of the ‘90s and according to a feverish web posting “The Harem was a crackhouse in its last days! A transsexual named ‘TABU’ would sit in the front row and sell crack to the patrons! Poor TABU is now dead! A victim of AIDS!”11 Given all the extraneous activities that took place there, theater buffs argued online as to whether it was a theatre at all.

The Harem was fated to live on – in a TV commercial crafted by Rudy Giuliani’s short-lived presidential campaign. Many saw evidence of racism at play in the spot. “They used to call it unmanageable, ungovernable,” says a narrator’s voice. Then a faded street scene appears picturing non-whites walking in slow motion – then a shot of the Harem theatre. Harem . . . Harlem? Did Giuliani perhaps mean to imply Harlem? Some thought so. “Does Giuliani mean to suggest the non-white population of the city is ‘ungovernable’ in the same way that porn theatres were?” wondered a poster.12

The Adonis Theatre

Exploitation films were notorious for changing titles to appeal to different markets at different times or just to rip off customers by getting them to go back and see what was essentially the same movie twice. But theatres also frequently changed their names over the years. The Adonis, which occupied two different locations, was just such a “shape-shifter.”

It was built in 1921 on a lot at 839 Eighth Avenue, between 50th and 51st streets, and dubbed The Tivoli. It had an impressive Renaissance façade, and its large marquee became a distinctive fixture on the west border of the Theater District neighbourhood. It came complete with a grand lobby and a balcony flanked by solid two-story Ionic columns. With a seating capacity of 1,433 and an open-air “roof garden theatre” of 951 seats (which probably fell into disuse when the talkie era began), it was, as period advertising boasted, ideally suited for the presentation of “films, orchestra and grand opera soloists.”13 It also came equipped with a Kimball organ. Like most theatres, it changed ownership and booking policy through the decades, including a stint in the early ‘60s as a showcase for Spanish-language films.

Chelly Wilson took over the place in the early/mid ‘60s and ran it as a grindhouse. On March 4, 1975 she rechristened it The Adonis and began exclusively programming gay porn, winning praise from the trade publication Variety, which pegged it as the largest and most lavish gay porn theatre in NYC. Wilson was one of the more colourful characters of Times Square, but she was also an ace businesswoman, and in 1968/69 added to her stable of smut cinemas by building The Capri and The Eros 1 from the ground up in what had been apartment buildings. These two classic mini-theaters, together with The Eros 2, which was later renamed The Venus, were clustered in the vicinity of Eighth Ave and 45th street. Titles like Virgin Flesh and Sex Deal adorned their marquees. The Eros was a gay venue and had the honor of screening Heavy Equipment, a 3-D homo classic featuring Jack Wrangler and The Christy Twins, while The Capri and The Venus were for straights, or at least played hetero porn. As for the latter venue, it was, as Landis reported in Sleazoid Express, “so pitch black you couldn’t see your watch on your wrist” and “smelled of lavender mothballs.”14

But The Adonis was Wilson’s pride and joy. She opened it with a XXX gay feature called Sur that had been filmed in Northern California’s Big Sur area. In the early days the place was neatly done up. Signs lettered in old-fashioned script proclaiming it to be “The male flagship theatre of the nation” were posted about the premises. It was clean and spacious. Comfortable wicker chairs and other tasteful appointments adorned the lounge areas and did the old theatre proud.

The house manager had a stake in the career of gay porn star Jack Wrangler, and in 1977 he was brought in to shoot a film called A Night at the Adonis right in the theater, after-hours when it was closed to the public. Theatre employees such as Bertha the cashier acted in bit roles, and as soon as a print was readied it was shown at The Adonis. A net posting by Oliver Penn recalls the movie. “It was well-publicized when it came out and some of the actors, I used to see on the streets of New York. I’ve met Jack Wrangler too, we chatted for a while. The movie is about the ‘adult games’ that went on at the Adonis Theatre. You can guess what activity I mean. . . . it was rather odd to be in the exact theatre that was being depicted on the screen, sort of a movie coming to life all around you. What was happening on the screen was also happening in real life as you were watching the film.”15 In the lobby, photo stills from the movie were proudly displayed on a black velvet backdrop called “Adonis Superstar.”

In the early ‘80s the theatre began to fall into serious disrepair. Its interior, which had now been painted a bright “whorehouse red,” contributed to the tacky feel of an establishment in decline. Originally films were screened from twin 16mm xenon projectors in the booth, but now they were shown on a video projector placed smack in the center aisle of the orchestra pit. Sex was taking place everywhere, and the pay phone located near the balcony-level restroom (equipped with a disco ball) was constantly ringing with callers who wanted to hear some dirty talk. There were also serious structural problems, and sometime in the mid-’80s the balcony collapsed.

In the meantime real estate developers that had a stake in the neighbourhood were trying to get the theatre closed down to tidy it up for the building of the Worldwide Plaza. One prospective tenant, a law firm, stipulated that the theatre, which stood on the adjoining block, had to close. The plaza’s developer, William Zeckendorf, subsequently bought up the site, and that was the beginning of the end of the Tivoli/Adonis. A postscript to this story surfaced when a partner in said law firm who had agitated so self-righteously for the closure of the “disreputable” Adonis was found dead in a squalid Bronx motel room. It turned out that this pillar of the community liked to engage in rough gay sex. When co-workers noticed his bruises, he would tell them it was the result of a mugging. The theatre was closed in January 1990 and later demolished. A high-rise was eventually built on the site.

But The Adonis lived on, its name transferred to another theatre owned by Chelly Wilson further south on Eighth Avenue, almost to 44th Street, on the west side of the avenue. This venue had most recently been known as The Cameo before its closure in 1989, but Wilson had in all probability been running it as far back as 1964 when she programmed the infamous Olga movies there. This was also an architecturally significant structure. As a poster marvelled, it possessed one of the most “distinctive facades of any surviving theatre from the early 20th century, a kind of heroic Palladian composition . . . with a breathtaking interior. Stone fixtures made almost 100 years ago could still be seen in the back.”16

This became the new home of The Adonis and was quickly outfitted with campy Greek statues and the like. The black velvet photo display of stills from A Night at the Adonis was reinstalled here, and some nostalgic staffer had also put up clippings about the old Tivoli/Adonis. Bertha the cashier and other employees who had sworn allegiance to Ms. Wilson could now be found toiling in this new location. But at this late stage in the game there seemed to be a mummy’s curse laid upon all adult theatres, and the new Adonis also gradually succumbed, evidencing increasing blight. In 1994 it was closed by the City’s health department after a raid revealed high-risk sexual activities taking place among patrons. The neon sign that adorned the new Adonis was unceremoniously blowtorched to pieces, the chunks tossed into a dumpster.

The theatre later reopened as The Playpen, and a new sign that traced the NYC city skyline in red neon behind the reclining outline of a nude female was installed on the marquee. But its revival as a functioning theatre was short-lived. It was simply pointless in this day and age for a sex emporium to show movies on a single screen, and, like so many venues that had once served that function, it was gutted, the seats taken out and booths installed. Here girls performed for a fee, while the balcony was transformed into a male section with “buddy booths.” A brief description of The Playpen surfaces in Sasha Cagen’s ‘90s fanzine Cupsize, dedicated to riot grrrl politics and bisexuality. She describes the lobby of the Play Pen as “a house of love, a mirrored, bejewelled carnivalesque hallway,” where a woman sold tokens from behind a yellow booth.

The Playpen was closed in September 2007. It was the end of another slab of movie lore that had stretched back to 1916 when it had opened as The Ideal Theater, later to go through numerous name changes and booking policy shifts that saw it screen Italian and Russian films and “girlie” sexploiters in the ‘50s. In 1970 it became the city’s showcase venue for John Lamb’s Sexual Freedom in Denmark, which laid the groundwork for the exhibition of hardcore porn.

Perhaps the theater’s most dramatic moment occurred in 1946 when the 1943 film Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors was playing. The New York Times reports that “during a tense moment on screen one evening a 10 x 20 foot section of the theater’s ceiling fell down, injuring 19 patrons. Those in the front seats were unruffled, thinking they were hearing sound effects.”17

By the time the old movie house checked out at 91 years of age, the only sound effects were paid dancers faking moans of pleasure.

The Jewel of the East Village

The greatest shape-shifter of all was The Jewel. It was known by a host of names over the years, but it was as “The All Male Jewel” that it gained the most attention and notoriety in the late ‘60s when it functioned as the East Village’s gay porn venue.

The building actually predated movies, opening in 1880 as a restaurant. It was then converted into a music hall, and in 1910 transformed into one of New York’s first movie theatres, a 274-seat house in the nickelodeon style named The Comet (as were many theatres thusly named in this, the year of Halley’s Comet.) By 1923 going to the movies was such a popular pastime that it doubled its seating capacity, yet it was cursed by its location just a few blocks north of The Bowery, and by the ‘30s, now as The Lyric, its audience was composed for the most part of transients and hobos. For a mere dime they could enjoy a newsreel, a short and two features, one usually being a western, and if they got there at 7 am when the doors opened, they could snooze in their seats for an hour before the show started.

At some point thereafter it became an off-Broadway playhouse and continued in this capacity though the ‘60s. It added films to the repertoire in ‘68 and relaunched itself as The Pocket Cinema Theater, and shortly thereafter as The Jewel, apparently with the mix of film and live theatre continuing for a while. Soon it was exclusively showing gay porn. In accord with its East Village location, on Third Avenue between 12th and 13th Streets, it had a more underground and less touristy vibe, but that didn’t seem to influence its interior design in a more tasteful direction. Sporting tacky ornamentation like Greek pillars and an obsessive fondness for the ever popular whorehouse red, it was just as garish as its Times Square brethren. In the ‘70s it screened such fare as Joe Gage’s Kansas City Trucking Company and El Paso Wrecking Corp., which ads billed as “Lusty, dusty, sweaty and hardhitting!” It became The Bijou in the ‘80s and continued to screen gay porn. In 1988 or ‘89 it was closed by the city as a health hazard.

It later reopened, and through the ‘90s and into the new millennium it was known variously as The Cinema Village Third Avenue, The Cinema 12 and The Cinema Village, each reflecting a new (and doomed) programming strategy. It showed repertory, then went back to porn, and then tried first-run, opening with an engagement of The War of the Roses. But with new theatre complexes springing up in the neighbourhood the competition was too fierce, and it quietly went back to showing porn.

It was then transformed into a “nightclub.” That closed around 2001 – apparently. It reverted to something resembling a movie theatre but without showing actual movies. “They were running HBO on the screen,” reports a posting, “it really did not matter what they played since the purpose of coming here was to have sex.”18 It had just turned into a gay cruising spot. Or was it even still open? “The property, including the apartments above, are currently vacant,” noted a post.19 This was disputed by another poster: “While no signs appear, its function is nonetheless announced by its anonymous façade and blacked out glass doors.”20 Another noted that the Spartacus International Gay Guide of 2004/2005 listed The Jewel as still in operation. So was The Jewel back? And if so what was it?

During 2004/05, online debate continued as to whether the place was still actually open or not. To theatre buffs it was important to classify whether a theatre was open, closed or demolished, but apparently few were versed in the visual shorthand of gay cruising spots. It was a difficult call. “This one is a real obscurity,” noted a post. “Did this theatre ever have a marquee? I don’t think so.”21

In 2005 somebody finally walked by and stuck their head in the door to report that the walls had all been stripped back to bare brick. Finis.

The Pilgrim

While New York City had the right atmosphere and a crushing quantitative edge over any other town, Boston had The Pilgrim.

Located on Washington Street near Essex, this once-grand picture palace had a proud history of movie exhibition behind it. In 1953 it had been the first theatre in Boston to present 3-D movies, and had hosted historic runs and premieres, including William Castle’s The Tingler with full gimmick accompaniment. And it even had a wooden escalator.

By the mid-’60s the neighbourhood had started to attract clubs, bars and adult businesses migrating from the city’s original red light district at Scollay Square which was then in the process of being demolished to form the office complex known today as Government Center. It started showing sexploitation films at this point, and by the early ‘70s this neighbourhood – now dubbed The Combat Zone – had truly gone to hell and The Pilgrim had tumbled along with it.

It was now located in a classic urban red light district, and its days as a first-run movie house were over. Yet it was able to continue attracting crowds by booking live burlesque, which it did between 1971 and 1975 with a fair amount of success. The theatre entered history when on one cold December night in 1974 a tipsy Wilbur Mills joined stripper Fanne Foxe on stage – after she had completed her act. The congressman’s future, as well as the theater’s, was cursed after that fateful night: Mills was quickly divested of his chairmanship of the powerful House, Ways and Means Committee and became America’s favourite walking one-line joke, while The Pilgrim jettisoned live acts the following year and began showing hardcore pornography.

At some later point the theatre had to soldier on without the balcony after a patron plunged to his death from it in the late ‘70s. From then on the balcony was officially closed to the public. The two balconies with their fourteen brass-railed box seats made the theatre architecturally unique, but they were built on such a steep grade that even under the best circumstances they constituted a certain danger. “The steepest balcony I have ever been in,” commented poster Robert Nott. “There was no way you would want to watch a movie from it, but, for a kid, going up there held a similar thrill to climbing to the top of a tall tree.”22 In fact it was nicknamed The Matter Horn.

By the ‘80s The Pilgrim experience had changed radically: Instead of the showbiz glitz and ballyhoo that animated the old house in its heyday, it was now basically an abandoned ruin. That was the monster mansion I ventured into one hot summer afternoon circa 1987, and here follows my account of that experience.

* * *

Handing over five bucks and pushing through the turnstile, you’re immediately hit by a damp fog of pine-sol disinfectant that ironically suggests a place swarming with germs rather than a place recently cleaned. You walk up a long dim ramp sided by battered vending machines around which old men cluster in conspiratorial silence. To the left is the entrance to an endlessly descending stairway that appears to lead down to the earth’s very core but actually leads to the toilet. Walls are covered with obscene graffiti, while crudely hand-lettered cardboard signs confront you at every turn: “No sexual activity or exhibitionism! You can be arrested for this! It has happened here!!!”

You walk into the main room and ever so slowly it reveals itself as your eyes adjust to the darkness. The old clapboard stage is a nice touch, although it is relatively small. The balconies are breathtakingly steep. Miles above (it seems) the beam of the projector slices through the darkness. Above that looms the vague suggestion of an ornate domed ceiling, although it is too dark to discern architectural details. The place is festooned with what appears to be the original drapery, now shabby and flea-ridden. The place is trashed. Chairs are completely wrecked or missing altogether, while paint peels from the walls and ceilings. An ancient air-conditioning system blasts away without making a dent in the stifling heat.

Earlier as you came up the ramp it was clear to see all the stairways were chained off with defiant “Balcony Closed” signs, yet as you recline awkwardly in your broken chair, leaning slightly sideways, butt almost to the floor, you notice that the balconies are absolutely full of people. They appear first as pale transparent spectres, sexless wavering forms that materialize in a box seat or from a doorway far above, only to suddenly vanish like a puff of smoke. You have to stare a long time to convince yourself you’re not seeing reflections or mirages in the flickering recesses. Down here in the loge human apparitions float along the wide back aisle, seemingly without moving their feet, to disappear and appear elsewhere. But people are moving their feet because there is a pervasive muffled background noise of shuffling shoes and creaking chairs and floorboards that is never pierced by the sound of a human voice. In this strange light nobody looks genuinely human or real, not even the scattering of souls sitting near you . . . not even the old man who lurches into you as he staggers up the aisle. The place is so dark that it takes almost a full hour for your eyes to adjust and hence most of the audience wanders in a state of virtual blindness; bumping into seats, bumping into each other, ever groping their way forward. Yet others seem to be able to manoeuvre effortlessly in this void.

The place is far more interesting than the movie, and the eye wanders. At one point someone rattles a padlocked side door, probably just mistaking it for a functioning fire exit which by law it should be. Instantly out of the balcony three separate flashlight beams are trained on the door! No one there. The show goes on. Either The Pilgrim has the largest (and least efficient) troop of ushers in the world or the regular customers bring their own flashlights. Whatever the truth of the matter, the least of their problems is someone trying to get out through the wrong exit.

* * *

In 1988 The Pilgrim converted to video projection, and the aesthetic quality of its viewing experience plummeted even further. The image was now unbelievably blurry, and the sound quality was even worse. The dim light of video projection consequently made the place even darker and extra caution was required to avoid gashing yourself on a broken chair or falling over a reclining customer. Eventually the interior began to vaguely suggest itself, and phantom forms began to emerge.

The theater floated along through the rest of the ‘80s while its brethren in New York were shuttered wholesale by the authorities, and it did not close its doors for good until December 1995. The following spring it was demolished.

Ten years later another connoisseur of The Pilgrim by the name of Alistair Schneider posted these passages which serve as a fitting epitaph.

In its final months they began selling off some of the hand painted advertisements for the “adults only” exploitation films they showed in the mid-to-late 60s, before the arrival of hardcore. I bought a few of these, as well as a painted poster with a glossy photo of one of the dancers from their burlesque revival in the early ‘70s. But the best thing that happened was when I asked if there were any more of these posters around and the manager gave my friend and I a flashlight and sent us upstairs to a room above the marquee! It was crammed with billboards and old posters. When we were through there we decided to explore and began heading up and up into the theatre. Every time I thought we were at the top there was another staircase. A network of dark Burgundy wallpapered hallways lead to sets of French doors that let out onto the balconies. Never figured out how to get to the opera boxes, but I did find the old projection booth. The hallways were also covered in ancient graffiti, mostly sexual stream-of-consciousness like rants! The manager wasn’t too happy with us until we started buying stuff, then he calmed right down.

On another trip I also found a sub level bathroom at the bottom of a cavernous staircase. Because of the sign on the marquee promising three XXX features, I wasn’t totally sure if the Pilgrim was a single screen theatre or not. I thought I was on to finding another screen until I heard the sounds of sloshing water. When I turned the corner there was an ancient tiled bathroom, two men to a stall (all the doors had been removed) going at it, and everyone standing in about an inch of water on the floor! It was like a location out of “Se7en.” I happen to be “straight” (a ridiculous term!) and the Pilgrim only ever showed straight porn. I hadn’t realized, until then, that any porn theatre was prime turf for gay cruising, which now seems obvious. I had an older gay friend who had frequented the theatre in its wild days and told me a few stories about groping around in total darkness in the stairways under the opera boxes.23.

The Green Parrot

Located on First Avenue’s “Sleaze Row” and adjoining the historic Pike Place Market on its southern slope, The Green Parrot was one of the oldest theatres in Seattle. The long narrow auditorium, which seated several hundred, was adorned with vaguely Art Deco lighting fixtures, the walls were covered with tapestry and there was a small half-balcony with a curved front. As was typical of theatres predating the “movie palace” era, it had no candy counter and a very small lobby. The toilets were up front, behind the screen.

In the ‘30s/’40s it had screened B-westerns, serials and other low-budget triple features. In the ‘50s and ‘60s it veered toward a grindhouse repertoire, and in the early ‘70s it converted to 16mm hardcore porn and opened on a 24/7 basis, earning it the nickname of “the dirty bird.” According to projectionist Dennis Nyback, who has contributed the bulk of information about this theater, it now doubled as a flophouse for patrons who during cold spells would sometimes stay for days at a time. It closed once a week on Monday morning from 5 am to 9 am to be cleaned by a Hispanic kid who pocketed the under-the-table 25 bucks and subcontracted the actual cleaning to one of his Spanish-speaking teenage girlfriends whom he paid a 10 note.

Green Parrot owner Roger Forbes was king of Seattle porn and owned at least 20 theaters around the Northwest. His mansion, originally built by a bootlegger in the ‘20s, was a big old place nestled in a secluded area of Capital Hill, and some of the b/w sex flicks that played at The Parrot were filmed in its huge basement. The house was later bought by the Wilson sisters of the rock group Heart.

The theatre never had more than one employee on the premises, a union projectionist who could sit at either the ticket counter or in the projection booth, since he was responsible for both. If he sat behind the counter, he could see the screen in a mirror. He couldn’t really make out what was happening in the movie, but when the film had tailed out of the projector and the screen went white, he knew it was time to put on another film. If he happened to be reading a book or was otherwise diverted, it could be quite a while before he happened to notice the movie had ended. No one ever came out of the theatre to complain. If the projectionist chose to kill time in the booth he could snooze on a sofa. When the film tailed out of the projector, it would flap away until he woke up and started the next movie. If he put the machine on rewind and went downstairs to sell tickets, the same thing would happen to the beginning of the film; it would flap away and eventually break off in pieces. This was how the beginnings and ends of so many porn films were lost.

Every Friday a new double-feature was posted on the bill. Actually this was just two different 16mm reels grabbed from a supply of hundreds stacked in the back room. One reel would be a film with both sound and color, while the other would be a b/w silent film shot in Forbes’ aforementioned basement and starring local talent.

There was a battered old 8-track tape deck to provide music for the silent films, and anything that played on that would come out wowing and fluttering all over the place. The tape selection was not wide, and most of it was easy-listening dreck. Nyback recalls his favourite tape was some sort of “A Thousand Strings Plays Broadway Show tunes” thing that offered up a deliriously distorted version of “Old Man River,” providing bizarre accompaniment to the on-screen porn. The advantage of screening a silent film was that you could play it at the slower sixteen-frames-per-second “silent” speed, resulting in slow-motion porno and more free time between reel changes. Often the projectionist would play the sound reel at the slow speed too, using the tape deck for music. This would allow for more sacking out on the sofa.

A buzzer indicated when the front door was open. If you heard the buzzer and went downstairs and found no one there, it meant that someone had snuck in. For the conscientious, duty-bound operator, this meant returning to the projection booth where the movie was stopped and the janitor lights were turned up. These lights were so bright that the regular customers, trying to sleep or give a blow job, would be really pissed off and would gladly point out the guilty party so they could go back to being in the dark. The dreaded balcony was “no go” territory that even the janitors refused to enter. During operating hours it was always pitch black, and if anyone bothered putting a bulb in the aisle light it would soon disappear. Nyback, for his part, lived by a strict code: always try to avoid entering the auditorium and never go into the balcony.

At least a third of the chairs in the theatre were unusable. One customer had become enraged when he sat in a chair and it broke. He then ripped it out of the floor and hurled it at the screen, leaving a gash that was noticeable even after half-assed attempts had been made to repair it. The ripped screen became a trademark symbol of the ultra-shitty Green Parrot viewing experience. They couldn’t show movies over the rip, so they just reduced the size of the picture and shifted the image to the side, making a mockery of boasts adorning the frontage that they had “the biggest screen, the sharpest picture and the hottest new movies” of any XXX theatre in town. They had none of the above. Nor did they have large crowds: at no point over the last ten years of their existence were there more than 30 customers in the place at once.

Among the regulars was a circle of older gay men, one of whom acquired the nickname “Free Today” since that was what he unfailingly inquired every time he came in to buy his ticket. “Is it free today?” Free Today was at least 70 years old and considered dishing out blow-jobs to be the ideal retirement plan. Another old regular was Les, a friendly effeminate man with pure white hair done up in an impressive pompadour. He had worked as a drag queen in vaudeville, and after that he’d been a dress designer for burlesque dancers. There was also an elderly African American called “old Black Joe,” and another guy they tagged Farmer John because of the way he dressed. They all haunted the balcony, waiting to service younger men, who were few and far between.

In fact the theatre had long been reputed as a gay cruising spot. In 1965 it figured in a police case that involved the Reverend Keith Milton Rhinehart, a noted spiritualist and founder of the Aquarian Foundation. He was accused of having a gay encounter with a teenager by the name of Jim Miller. When Mr. Miller failed to appear in court, the police went looking for him and found him hiding out in The Green Parrot. In the police report the theatre was referred to as a “homosexual hangout.” (Rhinehart was sentenced to 10 years in prison, but the conviction was later vacated.”)

Another regular always came in at noon and would stay less than an hour. When given his ticket he would keep it in his hand until he got to the trash can where he would carefully deposit it. He also wore a wedding ring and was no doubt eager to keep his wife ignorant of his lunchtime activities.

The regular customer of greatest renown was a small plain-looking man in his thirties who never said hello or goodbye. His modus operandi was unique: he would unscrew the light bulb in the bathroom, strip naked and sit in the urinal so that anyone who came in to piss would unknowingly do so on him.

One of the union projectionists commonly assigned to the Parrot once fell asleep on the sofa without locking the projection booth door. He was awakened by a drunken Indian with a big knife sitting on his chest, demanding money. He told the intruder the money was downstairs. The Indian started down the stairs first, and he shoved him the rest of the way down and fled back to the booth where he crawled out the window onto the marquee and began screaming for the police. When the cops arrived, they discovered that the Indian had dropped the knife after slashing himself as he tumbled down the stairs. An ID card had also fallen out of his pocket: he was known to the authorities and they had no trouble finding him. The other projectionists, who would never dream of leaving the door unlocked, speculated that perhaps he had fallen victim to his own grade-Z porno fantasy and hadn’t locked the door in the hope that a woman would walk in looking for sex.

In the early ‘80s The Green Parrot was gutted by a fire that many suspected Forbes himself had set, and the building was eventually demolished. Fire was the only way a shifty landlord could collect any insurance money due to the fact it was an architecturally protected part of the historic Pike Place Market and there were a lot of limitations placed on how buildings could be used or altered. Because First Avenue sloped downward sharply on the waterfront side, the theatre was a one-story building in the front and several stories in the back. Past the screen and the toilets was the rear exit. Anyone taking it had to walk down several flights of rickety, wooden, bad-smelling stairs to exit onto Post Alley. The arson fire that finally put the theatre out of business started back there.

The Mini-Adult

While most of the hardcore porn theatres that inhabited inner cities were demolished or reclaimed for more respectable uses in the late ‘80s, San Francisco’s Mini Adult Theater continued to spin on in time capsule fashion through the ‘90s, surviving to the cusp of the new millennium – a lost lonesome relic from the days when the town resembled an open-air bordello.

The humble two-story structure in which it resided had lots of history behind it, having been built in 1918, but there was little evidence that it was ever intended as a theatre building and displayed nary a trace of that kind of architectural character. No doubt it had undergone countless changes of identity, from retail to a restaurant to a bar . . . probably just about everything before it was converted to a classic mini porn theatre in the late ‘60s. All of this happened at Jones and Golden Gate, which gradually became the worst intersection in the city’s notorious Tenderloin district. Here ragtag armies of homeless people camped on the sidewalks in filthy sleeping bags and waited in long lines across the intersection on Jones, toward Market, to get a free meal. Smeared with graffiti, the Mini Adult was right at home and came to epitomize all that was low-down and lawless about the proverbial inner city American porn theatre. And it supplied the classic product in spades: an endless glut of scratchy 16mmm hardcore porn films served up in appalling viewing conditions to a monumentally uncomplaining and usually otherwise engaged audience.

The following impressions were penned after a series of visits I made to the theatre circa 1992, hence the switch to present tense.

* * *

Pick a pleasant sunny day to visit the Mini Adult to add to the jarring contrast of the vile darkness into which you are about to be plunged.

As you approach the battered wooden door you notice crude hand-drawn posters of early-seventies porn films that no one ever heard of. They are taped inside grubby poster cases, the glass long ago smashed out. Although the posters are periodically changed you can be sure these aren’t the films that are going to be playing today. It’s academic anyway since all the prints have flopped endlessly on unattended projectors, Green Parrot style, and few even have titles anymore. The posters themselves are curious, though. Consisting of simple free-drawn imagery, they sport crude hand lettering and resemble artifacts from an Art Brut exhibition. The theatre owner could have had his kids draw these. They have no sexual imagery and very innocent titles, like Three Came Running, for example, which date them as artifacts of an earlier time when owners sought to avoid offending neighboring businesses and drawing the attention of the authorities. They witness to the fact that at the very beginning hardcore porn was a poverty-stricken enterprise. In a few years it became big business and started generating billions of dollars, but none of that money or glamour has rubbed off on the Mini Adult. The atmosphere and the films themselves are straight out of porn’s primal dawn of 1969 when it was all just a bunch of dirty hippies trying to get dope money. Here time stands still.

You pass through the door and pause at the glass-encased ticket counter to the right, its surfaces streaked with greasy fingerprints and the suds of dried whiskey. An Oriental guy takes your 3 bucks and hands over your stub with hardly a glance. His hands are dirty and you can see over his shoulder that he is repairing one of the two junky Bell & Howell 16mm projectors used here. In fact the ticket alcove doubles as the projection booth. Pushing through the curtain that hangs over the doorway, you enter total darkness . . . bumping into an immobile cluster of viewers gathered just on the other side. No one says anything. Words, even words of surprise or anger when you step on someone’s foot, are never uttered here. Nobody has a face or a voice here in the Mini Adult.

Carefully feeling your way down the rows of seats so that you don’t end up sitting on someone’s lap, you find a place. The flickering projector beam dominates the atmosphere. After a while your eyes adjust to the darkness, and you realize that a theatre that was almost full when you entered is now almost empty, although no one has left. The density and deployment of the audience change rapidly here and without any connection to the movie or the laws of physics. The Mini Adult is nothing if not atmosphere. In contrast to previously profiled theatres like The Met, The Variety Photo Plays and The Pilgrim, which are characterized by constant rustling sounds, The Mini Adult is a veritable sanctum of unearthly silence. All the better to hear the clatter of the projectors and the bang of the occasional empty beer can tossed onto the grungy concrete floor by a drunken patron who couldn’t care less.

The projectors are the key to the ambiance. Placed behind portals crudely cut into the back wall, their beams of light pierce the smoky darkness at about head level. This guarantees that every couple of minutes the blank, glassy-eyed mug of a wandering patron throws a giant silhouette up onto the screen. No one ever complains. Customers roam about and stand in front of the movie with a frequency and obliviousness that suggests brain damage, while behind them loom grainy reddish images of guys with greasy beards and massive sideburns screwing skinny hippie chicks in unappetising close-up. Ugh! . . . Occasionally somebody will emerge out of the lavatory after blowing crack and stumble into the glare of the projector beam with nose twitching and bloodshot eyeballs rolling, only to falter clumsily into the front row of patrons who remain uncannily silent as they skillfully slip out of his slippery, epileptic embrace.

A lot of very elderly men wander about in confusion, as if they are completely unaware they are in a movie theatre – even though the beam of the projector is shining directly into their faces. They come from the many fleabag residential hotels for which the Tenderloin has been known for decades. But youth has also left its mark here: legend has it that this was a favoured cruising haunt of gay underground filmmaker and enfant terrible Curt McDowell.

Viewing conditions here are the worst observed anywhere. Giant, hairy, bobbing insect shapes attack the on-screen fornicators as gobs of crud and hair work their way through the never-cleaned rat’s nest projectors and jam in the film gate. The screen itself is nothing more than a battered sheet of plywood, while seating consists of rows of hard old-fashioned wooden chairs that resemble church pews and might well date back to the forties.

The dialogue of the films is absolutely incomprehensible, and the easy-listening music that predominates on the soundtracks is distorted and wobbly, like something coming from underwater. The last thing anybody ever wants to happen is for the lights to come on, and when splices break and the film suddenly stops, patrons are left to sit for long periods in total darkness. Movies start and end without any warning, logic or continuity. Often you’ll be waiting for the second half of a movie to come on and they’ll just start up another spool of a different movie and you realize it doesn’t matter anyway.

All the above factors combine to make you doubt your own senses in a style somewhat similar to The Pilgrim but without its majestic spatial extremes. This is indeed a small room and probably couldn’t seat more than 50, but that’s not a problem because at any given time only half the audience is in their seats. It is hard to think of the Mini Adult as a movie theatre at all. From what one can discern through the murkiness it contains large empty floor spaces that somehow reek of both urine and disinfectant. You could die in one of those far back corners and your body might never be found.

It is a classic one-man operation, but where is that one man? The ticket-taker/projectionist is never seen in the auditorium, and I have never observed anyone who might be even remotely employed there, with the possible exception of a fellow I once witnessed dragging around a plastic garbage bag full of empties. He would fish out empty beer cans from between the seats, loudly crush them and then toss them into the bag. Approaching two musky forms engaged in a sex act, he simply looked around them for empties and continued on in silence. The only time I ever heard the sound of a human voice was when I had treated two friends from Detroit to an afternoon there and we were in the process of leaving. “Goodbye, officers!” rang out a sarcastic salutation as we passed through the tattered curtain over the door and back into the blinding sunlight of a beautiful afternoon.

It seems like the frailest of business enterprises: in five minutes the place could be completely cleaned out and the room returned to what it probably was before; a mouse-infested storage room for sacks of rice or crates of stolen car parts. It has the smell of the illegal and temporary about it, but it has been operating for decades! It is so far below the authorities’ radar and located in a neighbourhood with so many worse problems that the police turn a blind eye, and it has managed to stay in business longer than any other such establishment in the country (I would dare say). In a city where decadent punk, gay and neo-vampire performance artists covered in piercings and tattoos seek to provoke and achieve new levels of shock, the most extreme experience remains a secret that only those who haunt the streets are privy to. Sleaze is in style in S.F., but the Mini Adult spins along in its own orbit, a true creature of the ghetto too unreconstructed to appeal to slumming hipsters.

There are no start times, there are no intermissions . . . there is no beginning, there is no end. No one is in charge. The darkness is absolute, eternal and merciful. People only fear one thing: the day they turn the lights up at the Mini Adult.

* * *

But one day the end did come. And they did turn the lights up.

This happened in 2001 when the Mini Adult was bought by the Jack Sen Benevolent Association. Soon enough they closed down the cinema and reconverted the space into a sweatshop. K & P sewing company operated the ground floor, and Chinese women could be seen toiling at their machines through what used to be the main door to the cinema. At the building’s east end was a sign over another door for The Five Fortunes Sewing Co.

Dismantling the cinema happened virtually overnight. In one fell swoop all the films and posters and photo stills were tossed into a nearby dumpster, only to be quickly fished out again by the artists, punks and slackers who lived in the neighbourhood. Some of the films ended up at the now defunct Werepad, an art/film collective over on 3rd Street at the foot of Potrero Hill. They put a few on their projector and quickly deemed them utterly unwatchable. But of course: when viewed in the Mini Adult, the films had a certain absurd charm; when taken out of that environment and exposed to a more dispassionate and objective scrutiny, they were impossible to endure. The films had always been the least part of the experience.

Postscript

News of the demise of the Mini Adult reached me on a far distant shore, as I had moved to Denmark in 1993. This prompted me to pull out and reread a letter (postmarked December 1998) that I had received from an old friend, now sadly deceased – the filmmaker Sarah Jacobson. She was aware of my article about the theatre, essentially the piece you’ve just read but sans the ending, which had yet to occur. Here I reprint the part of her letter that refers to the theatre and her visits in the fall of 1998. It sums up the spirit of this unusual place better than I could.

Dear Jack,

I’ve been meaning to write you for a while now. You remember the article you wrote about the 24-hour Mini Adult? You can’t imagine how influential that article has been on my life! About a month and a half ago, I was at the infamous Werepad and I struck up a conversation with this really cute guy about your article. Both of us have always wanted to check out the Mini Adult Theater but didn’t want to go alone and we could never find anyone to go with. I told this guy, Patrick, that I was dying to go and I gave him my phone number. Unlike most other people who say they are interested in going but never get up the guts, Patrick actually called me and we set up a date for Tuesday.

After seeing a double feature of Blade and Snake Eyes at the Saint Francis, accompanied by much evil weed, mixed Club drinks and malt liquor, we hit a 24 hour diner (the Pinecrest), passed a crime scene where some guy in a BMW had been shot dead by the cops, went karaoke-ing and then ended up at the mysterious 24 hour Mini Adult.

There was a beeping sound as we entered the lobby, not unlike a deli-liquor store. Then, as we passed through the subway turnstile there was a huge buzzer sound that could wake the dead. I don’t know how recently you’ve been there, but instead of the drop dead quiet atmosphere it was like a party for homeless crack addicts who ran back and forth between the hallway to the bathroom and the theatre, changing seats often. Some guys were jerking off but most everyone was smoking crack as me and Patrick smoked pot. The sound of the movie was unintelligible. One of the films we saw, California Girls (which I found out my best friend had on tape because she’s a roller derby freak and this film has a roller-skating plot!) starred John Holmes. . . . When Patrick took me home, we realized we had hung out for 10 hours and not been bored once.

The next day Patrick went to New Jersey for 10 days but the day after he got back he called me and we went to the Mini Adult again with his friend Ericka. Then, later in the week, we went to a press screening of Slam at the Embarcadero and wandered over to the Mini Adult. An older guy named Hampton kept coming over to tell us he was going to dress up as Mayor Willie Brown for Halloween. Each time he came over he kept touching my arm more and more so I grabbed onto Patrick’s arm to make the guy back off. When Hampton finally left, instead of letting go, Patrick leaned over and kissed me! Our first kiss at the Mini Adult, I can think of nothing more romantic. Since then it has been the best relationship I have ever had and I’m convinced it’s because our first date was at the Mini Adult. As we commented on the films, we realized we have the exact same taste in porn which is a nice bond for any couple.

Now we are committed to studying the setting of the Mini Adult at all hours and situations. We finally ventured back to the hallway leading to the toilet. It was quite noisy and I thought that was coming from a loud party next door, but it was a group of guys listening to the World Series on a radio! We went on Halloween, where it was crazier than usual, complete with a big fat black guy in the back with a full clown suit on including the white face make-up, big shoes and big green fright wig. We take visiting filmmakers who are brave enough to go. We have yet to go during the daytime because we are too lazy so far, but we will.

It’s funny because almost everyone is there to have a place to go, five bucks for all night. But me and Patrick just go for fun and to make out. I get the feeling that the other patrons think we’re perverts for going to a porno movie to make out, but I’ve noticed the occasional crack whore sucking some guy’s dick a couple times so maybe I’m just imagining the disapproval. In fact on Halloween some young homeboy came in with his bicycle, who we dubbed “The King of the Mini Adult” from his cocky attitude. Some woman was listening to her walkman, blasted so loud it drowned out the feeble sound of the movie. She talked out loud to herself and whoever was in her way in between bouts of sitting on her boyfriend’s lap and kissing and singing. Finally The King started screaming, “Bitch, shut the fuck up! People are here to relax and maybe get their dick sucked, they don’t want to hear your shit!” Maybe you had to be there, but it was really funny. Every time I put down my 5 bucks I bug the Korean guy behind the glass about fixing the sound. He always waves me off . . .

Addendum

Around 2007 or 2008 the sewing companies vacated the premises. The building’s current function is unknown. Its once graffiti-smeared sides have now been covered with a new-age style mural of whales and subway cars (if memory serves) that reeks of misguided civic boosterism. Very odd. (It’s perhaps worth noting that they painted a mural of whales on the side of the Mitchell Brothers O’Farrell Theatre.) Coincidently I happened to walk past the theatre when the woman was up on a scaffolding doing sketches for the mural. She was friendly enough and we chatted for a while, but the whole thing seemed to leave her a bit distraught and chagrined.

In September 2008, the BUT film festival (B-movies, Underground & Trash) of Breda, Holland built a facsimile of the Mini Adult in their spacious festival hall. Their aim was to recreate all that was extraordinary about the Mini Adult experience down to the smells, feels, films and empty beer cans on the floor. They got someone to smear the construction with graffiti, and from Belgium “old dirty wooden theatre chairs with chewing gum and other stuff still attached” were brought in. But some details still defied a solution. As they reported close to the opening, “The billboard sign on the outside with the lights and letters-almost-falling-off is still a problem, though.”

  1. Posted by David Robertson on Dec. 16, 2004 on Cinema Treasures – “Variety Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/288/ []
  2. Posted Oct. 15, 2004 on Cinema Treasures – “Variety Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/288/ []
  3. Posted April 4, 2005, on Cinema Treasures – “Variety Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/288/ []
  4. Christopher Gray, “Streetscapes: Variety Photo Plays Theater; Marquee’s Lights are Dark on 1914 ‘Nickelodeon.’” Sept. 3, 1989. []
  5. Posted by “Markay” Feb. 20, 2005 on Cinema Treasures – “Variety Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/288/ []
  6. Posted by “Markay” on June 2, 2005 on Cinema Treasures – “Variety Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/288/ []
  7. “At the Met,” by “Jimmy [McDonough] and Bill [Landis]”, from the “Velour Soul” issue of Sleazoid Express, undated but around 1984 or 1985. []
  8. “The Metropolitan,” by Mike Black. Gutter Trash, issue # 1, 1991, page 23. []
  9. Josh Alan Friedman, Tales of Times Square, New York: Delacorte Press, 1986. (Since republished by Feral House. []
  10. Posted by greenpoint on Dec. 26, 2005 on Cinema Treasures – “Harem Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/17459/ []
  11. Posted by Forrest136 on Dec. 29, 2005 on Cinema Treasures – “Harem Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/17459/ []
  12. http://techpresident.com/blog-entry/favorite-videos-week-swift-kids-truth-attack []
  13. From period advertising. []
  14. Mr. Sleazoid and Buggin’ Out, “Deep Fried Streets of Sin,” Sleazoid Express, vol. 4, No.1, Early summer 1984, page 3. []
  15. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0253326/usercomments []
  16. David W. Dunlap, “A Seedy Eighth Avenue Landmark, Gone Dark,” New York Times,September 7, 2007. http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/07/a-seedy-eighth-avenue-landmark-gone-dark/ []
  17. Ibid. []
  18. Posted by RobertR on Oct. 19, 2004 in Cinema Treasures – “Bijou Cinema.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/8371/ []
  19. Posted by br91975 on Oct. 5, 2004 on Cinema Treasures – “Bijou Cinema.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/8371/ []
  20. Posted by Rollingrck on Oct. 19, 2004 on Cinema Treasures – “Bijou Cinema.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/8371/ []
  21. Posted by hardbop on April 8, 2005 on Cinema Treasures – “Bijou Cinema.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/8371/ []
  22. Posted by Robert Nott on August 27, 2007, on Cinema Treasures – “Pilgrim Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/6624/ []
  23. Posted by Alistair Schneider on Nov. 19, 2006 on Cinema Treasures – “Pilgrim Theatre.” http://cinematreasures.org/theater/6624/ []