We’d opened optimistically enough the previous April with Blazing Saddles and Bananas, but by November the worm had turned: we were in the thrall of an unfriendly landlord who seemed disinterested in providing heat, and the season when movies rake in the most cash — summer — was long behind us. People just weren’t coming out. We weren’t aware at the time that the movie industry itself was in a lot of trouble, short of product; but we were increasingly aware that single-screen movie palaces had morphed into total anachronisms. The day our soft-core porn triple feature (the above-mentioned film plus Love Under Seventeen, and Love Times Three) hit the big screen in our nearly-deserted auditorium, was, as always, a Wednesday. November 3, as it turned out the day after one of the most notable elections in American history. A Georgia peanut farmer, Jimmy Carter, was the new president, replacing Gerald Ford, who had himself replaced the only president ever to resign, Richard Milhous Nixon. On the eve of what will be — either way — another singularly notable election, one with clearly disreputable aspects, it seems oddly appropriate to recall our brief journey into porn.
A seventy-five page essay might not cover the perpetual argument concerning what pornography is, so I won’t attempt clarification, except to say that one definition I found claims porn is intended to arouse erotic passion without deep emotion, while another (Merriam Webster, full definition) offers that porn depicts “...acts in a sensational manner so as to arouse a quick intense emotional reaction.” Suffice it to say, there’s been porn for a long time, and there will always be porn, whatever it is.
A whole district of grindhouses (now vanished) populated Times Square in 1976 to purvey it. Many of them had been fine old movie palaces themselves. I was sent as a courier at least once to the New Amsterdam in its triple-x days, to pick up a package of carbons--for our ancient projectors. Carbons were pricy and we were always running short of them. By 1976, most neighborhood theaters had gone to xenon projectors, but the porn houses were--along with us--back on the last technology, carbon arc projectors. (For a full treatment of this topic, see “Running Out of Carbons”). By the time we got around to peddling soft porn, I feared the New Amsterdam (and the Victory, not to mention Peepland and Fantasyworld) might have more in common with us than antiquated technology.
In spite of what it said on our marquee, the movies we ran in election week were, by porn standards, pretty tame. In addition to The Sensuous Teenager (originally Je Suis une Nymphomane, directed by Max Pecas (1970), we offered Love Times Three, a 1973 release featuring a mother and daughter who share the same lover (“Now it takes three to tango...” ) and, circa 1971, Love Under Seventeen (Lieber Unter Siebzehn, directed by Veit Relin). Lost in the frantic mists of that time is the question of whether the third movie was subtitled; I assiduously avoided the auditorium while these flicks played, largely out of feminist shame, but also because the clientele we were attracting — all male — seemed, at the very least unsavory and possibly unhygienic.
On the day before the movies ran, Dean phoned our booker in Manhattan. “I only have two x’s in the marquee room...”
“Well,” said Charlie, “...just call the movies 'three-x.' It was me gave them their ratings in the first place.”
“Can you do that?” Dean wondered. “Isn’t there some kind of commission to assign ratings?”
“Baby, I’m from the south, and a Georgia peanut farmer’s about to be president. Us southern men can do anything.”
Charlie was actually a New Yorker, born and bred; but he listened to Ray Charles and liked to affect a southern persona, so Dean didn’t challenge him.
It’s all vanished now, Charlie and the Times Square porn world where he had his office. These days if you want peep shows in the five boroughs, you might explore the streets under the BQE and the Gowanus Expressway, although I’m told Blue Door Video in Manhattan does a good business. There is still a multi-screen theater in Brooklyn, Kings Highway Cinemas, dedicated to porn, but according to one employee, numbers are low, because “the Internet fucked everything.”
Why, did I start off talking about elections — the one that happened the night before we ran Je Suis une Nymphomane and the one that’s happening now — in a blog post dedicated to porn? Despite the rise of feminism, in 1976 men were still undoubtedly in charge — Charlie was quick to point that out. Then Times Square was “cleaned up” and Disneyfied, in the decades that followed our theater year, as women entered police forces, fire departments, building crews and armies, and achieved public office in much greater numbers. As women have begun to approach equality, porn has become at once more private--aided by the net--and more public, with presidential debates and cable news verging on the soft-core.
Can’t stand it? There may be a restored movie palace within driving distance. Greensboro, L.A., Washington Heights, you name it. If I lived in Ann Arbor, I’d be heading down to the Michigan to catch A Man Called Ove tonight at 9:30.