History of the Adult Cinema
When we talk about porn nowadays, most people think about smutty videos or images, stashed away in inconspicuously named folders. It brings to mind horny guys and gals browsing the net behind closed doors, looking for titillating videos to sate their increasingly jaded tastes.
What we often forget is that porn hasn’t always been so accessible, or even private. The only thing that has stayed consistent throughout history is the constant need for new ways to get one’s rocks off. Whether it’s Japanese woodprint blocks or erotic verse from England (by a celebrated poet, no less,) each and every civilization’s pornographers have chased—or even pushed for—technological innovation in order to meet demands for erotica.
Of course, it’s hard to imagine the Japanese or English gentleman of yonder congregating to, ahem, “admire” these pieces together. Even back then, pornography remained a furtive pastime. People bought it, no doubt, but hid it away from the unforgiving eyes of moral guardians.
But for a decade in the last century, there were places where men went to enjoy the illicit, often grimy thrill of watching porn alongside a theater full of strangers—adult theaters.
Adult theaters emerged in droves in the early 1970s. Some popped up in Europe, although most appeared in major American cities like Los Angeles and New York. But these places didn’t just materialize out of thin air, complete with sticky floors, meat-beating patrons, and an old timer leering as he asks for your entrance fee.
If you ever get the chance to walk into a still-functional porn theater, you’ll find more times than not that beneath the general griminess lies a surprisingly elegant venue with all the red velvet armchairs you’d imagine in any classical cinema. Before becoming the sticky, unsavory places they were in the ‘70s, these theaters were just that—theaters. They served respectable clientele, mostly upper-middle class audiences.
When the ‘70s hit, they hit hard. Wealthier families living in these cities fled in droves to the suburbs, away from growing inner-city poverty. The Sexual Revolution beginning in the 1960s reached its peak, ushering (no pun intended) in liberated sexual attitudes. Facing the flight of their original audiences, movie theaters had no choice but to adapt. Shedding their respectable air, they began to cater to downtrodden patrons willing to spend some change for pornography on the big screen. Thus adult theaters were born, kicking off an era of theatrical porn.
Imagining the interior of these theaters becomes an uncomfortable, visceral exercise. They played films on constant loop, so patrons could enter or leave at will and still catch a show. Any time of the day, you’d enter and be greeted with the stench of bodily fluids, the glares from men seated, scattered throughout the dim theater, each enjoying himself alone in the company of others. It’s hard to know how many of them really enjoyed it, and how many of them came here because they had no other choice.
Of course, some came to find company. Adult theaters proved popular among gay men of the time, who used them as “cruising spots” to pick up other men. Many theaters even screened gay pornos for this very reason, intentionally advertising themselves as gay-friendly spaces. They appealed to the gay community as locations of anonymity, where men came and went without needing to reveal anything more to a stranger than one’s body. Away from their families, their homes, their religion, they could lose themselves, for just a while, in who they really were.
Not all theaters sought to draw in men. The Pussycat Theater, a chain of porn theaters throughout Southern California, had more ambitious plans. The founder of the chain Vincent Miranda attempted to attract a more middle-class demographic as well, as well as single women. His ambitions never came to fruition. Unsurprisingly, middle-class couples and women simply weren’t interested in coming to a seedy location where men leered at them from the stands while beating off. Even in the more accepting sexual climate of the ‘70s, respectable people still wouldn’t be caught dead at any place named The Pussycat Theater. To this day, mainstream culture remains wary of complete sexual liberation in the vein of porn theaters, where the most private bedroom desires take public expression.
This same stigmatization, of course, led to the eventual demise of adult theaters. When home video arrived, it revolutionized movies while drawing an end to an industry most people were never even aware of. With the new availability of porn at home, on demand, adult theaters lost nearly all their clientele overnight. That, combined with stricter zoning laws that either outlawed them entirely or forbid them from opening within a certain radius of family businesses, killed almost all of the industry.
Almost. Even today, a handful of adult theaters have managed to survive. But instead of filling in the role of supply for an insatiable demand, these mostly rely on the novelty factor or cater to subcultures.
The Art Cinema, the only adult cinema in Hartford, Connecticut, celebrates its survival after 98 years and “many lives,” championing a “couples-friendly” environment as well as “themed adult theater parties.”
In contrast, New York’s The Bijou continues a tradition of anonymity. Described as a “hidden underground cinema and sex den,” it attracts gay men regardless of whether they’re in or out of the closet with a promise of sexy, faceless debauchery.
By capitalizing on their history as a selling point, the remaining adult cinemas have turned themselves into novelty locations that serve as quaint reminders of our ever-evolving desires. They came into being in accordance with the circumstances of the time, and died off immediately when replaced.
You have to wonder what anonymous tales were played out or abandoned, remembered or relinquished, under the glow of the projected pornography.
Image by lightstargod, CC0