Dust Off the Dildos: L.A. Gets Sex Museum

Who says Los Angeles has no active culture? On Jan. 16, the West Coast’s first Erotic Museum opened for business at 6741 Hollywood Boulevard, flanked on its left by a rock ‘n’ roll leather emporium, on its right by a souvenir shop and a Starbucks filled with screenwriters angling for Internet “hot spots.”

The juxtaposition neatly sums up the current state of this bawdy, tawdry but gradually mall-ifying neighborhood, which some wags are calling Hi-Ho because it is now anchored by a large, tourist-prowled shopping plaza at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland.

A fortnight after the museum’s opening ceremony-which was attended by the mayor, but no showbiz celebrities-a publicist in tight jeans and a belly chain slid aside the metal gates for a private guided tour of the 6,000-square-foot, two-story structure “erected” (ho, ho) in 1926. (When you’re at an erotic museum, the double-entendres fly like fake fur.) She paused in front of a video of the late John Holmes in action. “I was here at 9 a.m., and I was like, ‘I need a cup of coffee before I see this,'” she said.

It wasn’t all porn, thank God. There were some curious wood carvings on the ceiling (“From Nepal, if I remember correctly,” the publicist informed), a smattering of naughty postcards (Bettie Page, sure-but Betty White?!); a Hall of Fame filled with tasteful oil paintings of key figures in erotic history (Mata Hari, Dr. Ruth) and some etchings by Picasso in his late “sex” period, when he apparently took up with a much younger lady friend. “Some things never change, rrrright?” cracked the publicist.

She lingered for a bit by the etchings, trying to explain them: “You really can see stroke by stroke where he started, heh, heh …. “

It all seemed very crisp and well-intentioned, but an unaccountable feeling of melancholy hung in the air. A couple in their 30’s, checking out an alleged Marilyn Monroe sex video, said they were from the “outskirts” of L.A.-as if the city had an “inskirt”-and refused to give their names. One couldn’t help but wonder if this museum would soon be as untrafficked as its counterpart in New York, the Museum of Sex on Lower Fifth Avenue.

Upstairs, the floors were freshly varnished and the exhibits got more ambitious and interactive: a glass case filled with breast implants that you could reach in and squeeze through rubber gloves (“Great for people that are a little more shy”); naked, life-size dolls (they start at $7,000); and a detailed montage on the history of the women’s vibrator, culminating in a model with a camera at the end-very Paris Hilton-and the infamous palpitating Harry Potter broom. Nearby, a gigantic array of dildos in escalating sizes and colors. “I’m so dull to it,” the publicist sighed.

She escorted curator Eric Singley out for a chat, a man with an uncanny and perhaps appropriate resemblance to Gene Wilder in the movie version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory .

Mr. Singley said his facility needed about $40,000 worth of improvements. “It looks great, but you have no idea about the dust and humidity,” he said. The Erotic Museum was late in opening because of “little hiccups” like a sewage pipe that flowed out to the street. But the location has its advantages: There’s something like a live installation every night around 11 p.m., when the still-lingering neighborhood hustlers begin their transactions.

“The hollering starts out there on the sidewalk,” said Mr. Singley, who lives in the Valley (epicenter of the adult-film industry, he pointed out). “There are some tortured souls out there. You really hear all the relations playing themselves out in the alleyways all around the neighborhood. I think it’s amazing. I’m talking too much about the seedy side here, but … they’re keeping it real on Hollywood Boulevard.”

Were they having any trouble with security?

Mr. Singley and the publicist both screwed up their faces.

“There was a guy in here recently who was a little off-kilter,” the publicist said, “and I was like, ‘ Borrris !'”

Boris is Boris Smorodinsky, a Russian immigrant in his 50’s, the museum’s co-founder and chief executive. It turned out that he, too, was lurking behind the second-floor portals, along with his friend and chief financial officer, Mark Volper. The horny pair met on Sept. 1, 1964, during an orientation session of the petrochemicals program at the University of Moscow.

Mr. Volper came to Los Angeles first, in 1981. “Thank you to Ronald Reagan,” he said.

But what would Mr. Reagan think of the X-rated display around him?

“Unfortunately, he can’t think about it,” Mr. Volper said, alluding to the ex-President’s Alzheimer’s. “I don’t know-I don’t have answer sometimes. But he was in movie industry, and movie industry was all about sex and entertainment-scandals, and love, and betrayals.” And large purple dildos? He chuckled. “Yes!”

Mr. Smorodinsky pitched his museum as an innocent love letter to L.A., his home of 15 years.

“New Yorkers are patriotic about their city,” he said. “New York for them is more than just place where they live. Is not exactly the same in Los Angeles. Los Angeles does not have such meaning-I cannot formulate why. But we wanted to do something for the city which is our home. This”-his arm described an arc taking in a large collage depicting Richard Simmons and a banana-“this is physical evidence of my love.”

“But we’re just a small peephole on a big strip,” Mr. Volper said. “We need help from state, obviously, and city, and probably some federal as well. Because this is the face of the whole country!”

Back downstairs in the gift shop, a woman with stiletto boots and witchy, thermostraightened hair was manning a selection of high-concept candles. Murmurs of “I love you … I love you … I love you” were emanating from wall-mounted speakers. The sales clerk said museum staffers had taped random passers-by uttering the words.

Meanwhile, Valentine’s Day approacheth! A couple of blocks east of the Erotic Museum, Frederick’s of Hollywood-the thinking woman’s Victoria’s Secret-had an excellent selection of cheap, sexy shoes: the classic marabou pump, $29; a Stuart Weitzman–worthy Cinderella clear plastic, $29.50; a nude calfskin ankle boot, $19.99; and a back-lacing black boot $69 (move over, Manolo). Also at F.O.H.: a permanent exhibit of historical movie-star underwear, including Ava Gardner’s eyelet petticoat from Show Boat , Natalie Wood’s pink and lilac embroidered bra from Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice and the fembot sheer chemises from Austin Powers . If the Erotic Museum is a sightseeing gang bang, this was more of a gentle caress.