Jeff Smith 12:30 p.m., Oct. 25
Putting the "X" back in Xmas - a brief history of San Diego porn theaters
Plus what killed the Gaslamp's peep show empires, and why they deserved to die
Modern day porn movies are notorious for their ridiculous and idiotic titles. Looking at a porn star's list of film names would have been funny to me a few years ago. Now, it's just sad and disturbing to realize that such low common-denominator basement-level trashiness serves as some lovely young lady's "resume." Looking at such a list makes me think the porn industry deserves the virtual death it's experiencing.
There's nothing sexy or "outlaw" about today's porno movies. It's such a far cry from the early days of so-called porno chic, when patronizing a porn theater (let alone working in the porn industry) was a radical, brave, and even socio-political act.
Perhaps '70s porn only achieved a PATINA of mainstream Hollywood respectability. But at least many of those filmmakers and performers ASPIRED for something more, for something elevated and outlaw and unseen in our then-repressive society. Some of them even succeeded.
Now that the leash has been off all these years, all the pornsters aim for is urinating down the basement steps.
The reason porn has become unprofitable isn't necessarily because of its free proliferation on the internet. The reason is because 99 percent of this hideous stuff really IS worthless, in every sense of the word. I pity the people still churning out this crap, and I fear for the dispositions of their souls if they don't knock it off, whether by choice, inspiration, circumstance, luck, or by being forced to quit by the continuing collapse of the porn production industry.
Now let me confess here, I'm not exactly a prude. I still have fond memories of the original wave of porn theaters and films, and I marvel at photos and recollections of the Times Square Pussycat era, with entire city blocks full of flesh palaces, with giant marquees touting sex, sex, and more sex.
It was a necessary and utterly exciting time and manner in which to throw off so many societal shackles. But we have (hopefully) moved on and far past all that. The porn wars were won way back when Nixon failed to federalize a national obliteration of porn.
I should also admit that, when I first arrived in San Diego in 1979, my first full-time job was working for Walnut Properties at their all-night grindhouse movie theaters downtown; mainly the Casino and Aztec, but also the Balboa, Cabrillo, Plaza, and, yes, down the block on 4th at the Pussycat Theatre.
(4th Avenue Pussycat Theatre circa late '70s)
I didn’t like working at the Pussycat as much as I thought I would. The novelty of fifteen-foot tall genitalia wore thin after the first few hours and the non-stop moaning and groaning (usually listless overdubs recorded by bored, fully-clothed “thespians”) quickly grated on the nerves to the point where I could barely recall what actual, factual sex sounded like.
Plus, I hated handling money peeled from the sticky palms of sweaty looking men who smelled like a gangbang where nobody remembered to bring towels.
(5-29-77 ads for the San Diego 'Cats, as well as the adult features then also screening at the Guild, the Fine Arts, and North Park's Academy Theater on University near 37th Street, where cult rock star Gary Wilson, famed for his DIY album You Think You Really Know Me, was working at the time)
People literally hid their faces when they walked up to the Pussycat. The first thing the manager said to me on my first night of training was “If you see someone you recognize, pretend they’re a complete stranger no matter how well you know them.”
This was good advice. Later that night, when I saw the guy who worked at a sandwich shop down the street, I resisted the urge to say “Hey Scotty,” even as I vowed to myself never to eat a sandwich there again.
(National City Pussycat Theatre above, El Cajon 'Cathouse below)
For awhile, the Pussycat had a swinger couple, in their early 30s maybe, good looking, who’d come in at least once or twice a week to watch a movie and then, well, put on a little show of their own. All the clerks liked this couple. We found a lot of excuses to whip out our big black flashlight and do an auditorium walk-through.
Some things the other clerks told me about their own encounters with The Swinger Couple seemed even then to be the stuff of urban myth. But I did see the two of them in action, in the seats, and I can attest that they were into public sex in a big way. They never talked to me, but I often saw them talking to other patrons, before or after (and at least once during) their private showtime, and usually the couple would leave with a patron or two exiting right behind, if not with, them.
This was not an aspect of social interaction I’d ever encountered before.
In the years since, I’ve spent an obsessive amount of time wondering what possible “pickup lines” were appropriate & effective in that particular situation:
“Excuse me, but it’d be a shame for that erection to go to waste.”
“The two of us are doing an in-depth survey on threesomes for the Kinsey Institute, can you help us out?”
“You know, my wife can do that with her hands tied behind her back.”
“Did you ever want to be in your own porno movie?”
Or perhaps, simply, “F*ck my wife…please.”
I only spent a few weeks at the Pussycat but, when I went back to the Aztec and Casino, the two 5th Avenue theaters were switching off showing X-rated features as well, serving a two-pack of porno at the Aztec one week and at the Casino the next.
(Above and below: 5th Avenue downtown circa early '80s)
Even the stately Capri, the Roxy PB, the Guild, the Fine Arts, and the Academy theaters showed porn for awhile.
Heck, the huge mainstream Mann Theater chain occasionally screened porn as well, in some of its most high-profile local theaters. Check out below ad from August 1973, courtesy http://www.myspace.com/sandiegocinerama .
The San Diego Union may have been unwilling to run the actual NAME of the porn movie screening, referencing it only as "An x-rated film in color," but there it is in B&W newsprint, right below "the best movie so far this year," American Graffiti.
In downtown San Diego in the late 1970s, the Pussycat had numerous competing theaters, from the peep show booths of the F Street Bookstore to tiny hole-in-the-wall screening rooms like the Foxy and the Lux, and up to full-fledged moviehouses who operated almost identically to the Pussycats, albeit usually minus the velvet trim, ornate fixtures, and longterm business plans that Walnut favored.
John Antonelli owned the Lux Theatre just underneath the Neptune Hotel. His brother Andy Antonelli ran Sonny's on the west side of 5th, with Wes Andrews and a guy named Charlie. The Lux was later purchased by Rick Ford who also operated a porno filming place upstairs in the Neptune that he called Seabag Productions.
Bob Smith used to own the Little Hollywood, which was on G Street between 4th and 5th under the New Kelsey Hotel.
Smith also owned the Bijou on 5th Avenue, across from the Casino and Aztec theaters. Formerly called the Savoy, he called it the Cinema X, as seen in the 1979 George C. Scott film Hardcore. The Bijou/Savoy/Cinema X would later be purchased and operated by Walnut Properties. Smith also owned a gay club down on PCH called the Ball Express.
By December 1979, around 30 adult bookstores and porn movie houses operated within a 16-square-block area downtown, not to mention a strip club on Broadway near the YMCA with a giant, impossible-to- ignore sign reading “Hypno-Sexism.”
Smack dab in between Walnut’s Casino and Aztec theaters on 5th Avenue was a disreputable little cave called the Foxy Theater that screened mostly silent porn loops, in a foul-smelling space reeking of disinfectant and several other fluids best not dwelled on (I used to catch whiffs while standing on a sidewalk ladder to put up new marquee letters at the Casino...the Foxy door would open, and I’d about swoon and fall over from the malodorous assault).
Just south of the Casino on the same block was yet another X-house, the Follies Theater, as seen in below photo (between it and the Casino was the Royal Hair Academy and a residential hotel).
On the SAME 5th Avenue block, after the Follies Theater, there was a 16mm porn loop theater, followed by a 25 cent porn booth arcade. That meant, in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s, there’d be five or six porno palaces all operating on the one Fifth Avenue block, all on the same side of the street! Add one more if you count the Bijou/Savoy/Cinema X across the street on the same block.
No matter what you think of today's Gaslamp Quarter, just looking at these pics must make it clear just how epically x-rated downtown San Diego used to be during its sailors-on-shore-leave porn period.
Even Oceanside’s Star Theater showed porn until 1989, as did the nearby Palomar. Does anyone in Oceanside really miss the urban blight represented by those marquees?
Nowadays, the porn industry SHOULD be relegated to the outdated relevance of ancient Rome's vomitoriums, or blacksmith shops, or milkmen, Fuller brush door-to-door salesmen, and so many other endeavors that are now useless (or even dangerous) in our modern society.
Since everybody has a camera in their phones now, and anyone can upload to the net, let them film themselves having sex and load up YouPorn or Pornhub or Pornotube, or any of the other half million free porn sites. We can all watch each other screwing each other to death, if such is our interest and inclination.
For free. No "industry." No "porn stars."
If you think about it, that should have been the aim of porn all along: giving sexual freedom (and the freedom to watch sex) back to the people. To everyone. Not just to '60s hipsters with film projectors in their basements, or '70s adventurers lucky enough like me to stumble thru ShowWorld in Time Square, or to the first early '80s VCR fans whose demand for playback fodder launched the video age (driven, of course, by porn).
The internet has effected this utter leveling of the playing field.
Now, it's time to retire everyone's number. Gerard Damiano, Marilyn Chambers, and Linda Lovelace are dead (though Lindsay Lohan is reportedly signed to portray Deep Throat star Lovelace in an upcoming bio pic).
Not even Charlie Sheen has been able to keep his pet porn star "goddesses" on a leash any more.
The porn industry is almost dead as well. Sure, sex will always be #1 on the hit parade, as it was long before porno films and as it will be long after people finally refuse to pay salaries to dimwits and lowlifes and creatively bankrupt misogynists doing what all people do anyway - have sex.
The sexual revolution has been won, or at least nearly so (the final battle probably being over gay marriage).
Sex can finally go back to being just that: sex. Not porn. Film it if you want, watch the film if you prefer, but building an industry or a career around just cinematic/videographic sex?
Give mercenary sex-for-cash back to the prostitutes and pimps who can no longer delude themselves into adopting alterna-titles like "porn stars" and "movie directors."
Sex will always sell, but porn, which is at best a mere funhouse reflection of sex, deserves to go the way of the vomitorium (and don't even get me started about the many similarities between those two outdated, useless, and ultimately unhealthy institutions).
"Before It Was The Gaslamp: Balboa's Last Stand" -- Cover story 6-21-07: In the late 70s/early 80s, I worked at downtown San Diego's grindhouse all-night movie theaters. This detailed feature recalls those dayz, the death of the Balboa Theatre, etc., including interviews with operators, vintage local movie ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...
"Pussycat Theaters: When 'Cathouses Ruled California" -- for the first time, the inside story of the west coast Pussycat Theater chain of adult moviehouses, which peaked in the '70s but later died out. Company head Vince Miranda owned and lived part time at the Hotel San Diego, operating several other local theaters downtown and in Oceanside, Escondido, etc. Told by those who actually ran the theaters, with a complete theater-by-theater encyclopedia covering every Pussycat that ever screened in CA -- http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...
"Field Of Screens" -- Cover story 7-6-06: Complete theater-by-theater history of San Diego drive-ins thru the years, including interviews with operators and attendees, dozens of rare and unpublished photos, vintage local theater ads, and more. http://www.sandiegoreader.com/weblogs...
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- "Better Than You'd Think" - Old Porn Movie Soundtracks — March 9, 2012
- Part 6: Famous Movie Poster Rejects You've Never Seen (Exclusive) — Dec. 8, 2011
- Part 4: Famous Movie Poster Rejects You've Never Seen (Exclusive) — Nov. 30, 2011
- Why Porn Movies Deserve To Die Out — June 28, 2011