I’m absorbed by this new HBO show, as it’s interesting to see the 1970s New York City sex business depicted in a continuing tv drama. The production is well-done with some good acting, writing, and clever production design, and for me it’s an entertaining supplement to the movie of personal memories that I carry in my head from my own experiences in Times Square over the years both as a fan and as a writer/editor for porn magazines and films.
Every inch of the neighborhood has some resonance for me. For example, the doorway shown below, on Broadway near 50th Street (I took this pic a couple of weeks ago) was in the 70s the entrance of one of the few “dime-a-dance halls” remaining in Times Square, where you bought strips of tickets to dance (and grind) with ladies…the tickets were no longer a dime then (that was the 1930s price), but if I recall correctly, around 1974 they were $29 a strip. Why $29, I never found out. I used the experience of going to that place in one of my porn novels which wasn’t very good except for the section set in the dance hall.
The Deuce helps me clarify my relationship with my own past. Unlike the characters in the show, I did not socialize in a bar with pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, or 8mm hardcore movie makers. I did patronize hookers, yes, on the street or in apartment brothels, but didn’t hang out with them otherwise; I would have, however, as I occasionally asked them to go have a bite or a drink–but they were only interested in making money from me as a john, alas. So my relationship to Times Square was largely as a customer and spectator; like a theatergoer who may see lots of plays on Broadway, but doesn’t hang out with the actors, playwrights and producers afterward.
Scenes on The Deuce where girls get in cars with strangers make my skin crawl. I feel frightened for them. In fact, when I went with a few prostitutes to cheap hotels back in the 70s, I was afraid that I would get hurt, or robbed, or beaten up. Loneliness as much as horniness drove me into their arms in those seedy rooms…and I always felt guilty about it. Oh how many unnecessary VD tests did I take to allay my neurotic fear that I would “punished” for my dalliances!! I always turned out to be okay.
The dirt, the garbage of the streets, the violence depicted on the show, and The Deuce‘s constant flow of “the-fuck-you-say” New York tough guy dialogue: these were not especially part of my experience there. Although while by now after 43 years as a Gotham denizen I have my own New Yorkese patter down pretty well, in the 1970s I was still mostly just a too-nice-for-my-own-good Jewish boy from Chicago and had only mastered one East Coast phrase: “Fuckin-A”. 😉 Does anybody still use that one? Haven’t heard it in ages.
My Deuce (or 42nd Street as I always called it then) was instead a kind of Smithsonian Institute of erotica, where I found mint-condition issues of John Willie’s original late-1940s Bizarre magazines for $3 each…
I also found copies of the fetish digest Exotique, and black and white photo pamphlets of models like Bettie Page or Tee Tee Red or Lynne Carter…and a lurid $1 novel called Growing Up in Pain which I studied assiduously to learn the structure of the cheap bottom-of-the-barrel porn fiction put out by Star Distributors so I could get a job writing the stuff myself.
42nd Street was my grade-Z movie source long before I got a VCR, a place where I could see triple bills of crazy schlock movies and enjoy wild audience commentary unlike anything I’d ever heard or probably will ever hear again.
For example, seeing The Thing With Two Heads at the Anco Theater, the venue furthest west on the south side of 42nd near Eighth Avenue, was the most hilarious ninety minutes ever…the audience was hysterically funny, talking back to the screen as the head of a racist doctor played by Ray Milland is grafted onto the body of a black death row convict played by Rosey Grier. Unfortunately, I also remember how smelly that decrepit old theater could be, too…
I picked up streetwalkers—and some of them were beautiful, knockouts, stunners. They peddled their wares on Eighth Avenue’s “Minnesota Strip” (so-called because of all the Midwestern-bred hookers who strolled there). As I worked up courage to select a pro, I ate souvlaki in the Greek joints and cheap chow mein in the Chinese joints and low-cost spaghetti in an Italian place on 42nd. I also went to massage parlors along Eighth Avenue and even as far east as 47th St. and 6th Avenue, on the edge of the Diamond District.
I found copies of my own porn novels on the racks for the first time in the bookstore next to the National Hotel at 42nd and Seventh, just a stone’s throw from the Golden Dollar topless bar, one of the bleakest clubs in the area. The titles of my books were The Screaming Virgins, The Punk Stud and His Women, Young Michael’s Seductress (wherein I wrote about the dime-a-dance halls), and Teasing Teenage Daughter.
I went to Show World Center at 42nd and Eighth, and Show Center at 47th and Seventh, and Show Plaza at 42nd between Broadway and Sixth, and indulged in fantasies with the one-on-one “booth babies,” the peep show girls who gave private shows in two-person booths separated by a glass panel and connected by a telephone for the exchange of all essential dialogue… 😉 . I still remember some of those ladies’ stage names: Blondie, Annie, Brandi, Olivia, and China. Upstairs at Show World, when I was in my “porn scribe” mode (as opposed to my looking-for-cheap-thrills mode), I interviewed X-rated movie stars backstage at the Triple Treat Theater and sometimes also photographed them there to illustrate my articles.
I went to the barmaids-in-leotard bars recreated in The Deuce which were on 48th between Seventh and Eighth Avenues: a joint like Club International (which ironically later was the title of a magazine I prolifically wrote for) and another one called Al Lang’s where, if I recall correctly, the suave-looking manager was always nicely dressed in a double-breasted suit. Up on 49th between Seventh and Eighth Avenues, I went to Tin Pan Alley (which I’ve read is the model for the Hi-Hat on The Deuce), and chatted with the barmaids there but I didn’t become friends with any of them although I tried to date one or two. I remember Nan Goldin, the famous photographer, briefly worked behind the bar at Tin Pan Alley in the early 80s. Somewhere around that time I was dating a girl who looked a lot like the character of Lori on The Deuce, I mean a REAL lot, as played by Emily Meade. In fact when Lori comes on-screen I feel kinda weird, because even her boobs (seen extensively in the second episode) look the same as I remember my girlfriend’s did…
On 42nd Street I went to the Roxy Burlesk to see strippers and watch hardcore Rene Bond movies like Diary of a Schizo wherein she played the titular role and made up her face to look like Raggedy Ann when she flipped out after too much sex. She was and is one of my favorite porn stars ever…check out this link, where I found her photo, to learn more about her (NSFW, though, there are explicit pix there).
I went to the Harem Theater on the north side of the Deuce toward Eighth Avenue for porn movies (as opposed to the bigger theaters where I went for kung fu, blaxploitation, horror, Harryhausen, and westerns) but stopped patronizing the Harem after some dude with a Derringer shot another guy in the audience. In the old big theaters I learned from experience to sit far enough under the mezzanine and balcony so that I wouldn’t get hit by flying cigarettes tossed down from above. Nobody ever put their hand on my knee or trying to blow me in a theater, but I also knew enough never to go to the men’s rooms in those places. I had a stronger bladder then.
I went to see burlesque both at the Follies at 46th and Seventh and the Melody (later the Harmony) Theater, watching dancers like Joey Karson and Therasita San Juan and Sonia Tokyo and Crystal Blue and Maria Krupa and Susie Nero and even the legendary striptease superstar Blaze Starr once. The Melody/Harmony was a whole world unto itself, too much to go into here…worthy of its own book or tv show. Check out this link to the adult industry history site The Rialto Report to learn lots more about it.
Through all those years, most of my friends were my fellow editors and writers, with some actors and artists too, often cynical about porn even as it fascinated us. We were all talented in our respective fields and many hoped for the main chance of opportunities outside of smut with more mainstream accomplishments. Some did, indeed, move on.
So, to sum up, in many ways, although I did mountains of magazine stuff related to the area and its workers, I was also always a fanboy and customer down on “The Deuce.”
The reality is my life is still basically on “The Deuce”, though…but rather the Deuce that exists in a different form, the Internet, instead of on a street. It’s the “The Deuce” as a way of thinking, you might say. With my writing about femdom and kink and webcam sites, for example, I’m still on the beat of the sleaze and the twists and turns of la vie psychosexualis.
What a tour I could give of Times Square! In fact, in one of the better porn films I wrote for Vivid Entertainment, 1997’s Masseuse 3, I created a character named Burt Lazarus who stands in front of the Show World Center as a kind of barker, talking about the area’s former tawdry glory. Unfortunately, in the way things sometimes don’t work out in the translation of screenplays to film, Burt’s scenes weren’t done the way I’d hoped, and the effect of his elegiac oratory didn’t have a chance to come across properly.
I could’ve done it better. So if some night you see me holding forth at 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue about the vanished and vanquished splendors of smut, don’t be surprised! 😉
I made the screencaps above from the first episode of The Deuce.