In Search of Times Square’s Porn Emporium Past

Times Square Sex Emporium Past

If you work in Midtown Manhattan, you might be buying your lunch where the pornographic film ‘Deep Throat’ made its world premiere. Harmon Leon for Observer

I’m walking in the sticky steps of the gritty ’70s Times Square. Passing the Olive Garden, the M&M store, and racist Elmo, I’m harkened back to a simpler era. A Times Square that’s seen on HBO’s The Deuce, where you’d find Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver taking a first date to an erotic cinema, while Joe Buck from Midnight Cowboy gets a movie theater hummer. Yes, that Times Square.

Back in the ’60s, Times Square took a turn for the worst. Former movie palaces started showing adult films just to stay in business. By the the ’70s, 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue had become a slew of illicit activity. Times Square became gritty and grimy, a panorama of seedy debauchery.

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Needless to say, Times Square wasn’t a locale where you’d take the family for a dinner at Red Lobster.

Before New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani began a campaign to close porn emporiums in the late ’90s, Times Square had cultivated a sleazy charm that some still romanticize. My friend Peter said, “You used to be able to clearly see all of the neon XXXs from a plane when approaching JFK. It was magical.”

So, I’m going to venture to the current locales of former Times Square porn emporiums—and imagine what it was like in the days before its Disneyland-ification. And remember, that Hale and Hearty Soup shop where you buy your lunch just might be where the XXX movie Deep Throat made its world premiere.

Show World Center — 671 8th Ave.

Show World Center

(L) 1998. (R) 2019. James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

In its heyday, Show World Center was called the McDonald’s of Sex, the crown jewel of the NYC sex industry. Show World Center opened its doors in 1975 and was owned by Richard Basciano, the undisputed king of Times Square porn.

This sex emporium occupied four floors with 22,000-square-feet of retail space. Show World Center had a little debauchery for everyone: X-rated films, adult books, live sex acts and in-store appearances by well-known porn stars. Inside, on the second floor, nearly 100 women worked the rotating peep show.

At its zenith, a barker would stand in front of Show World Center and promise tourists the sexually explicit proclivities of Swedish beauties with impressive attributes onstage. If they were dumb enough to believe it, the reality of what they actually saw once inside was usually a couple of naked junkies onstage trying to have sex.

By 1998, the live sex acts were gone. Show World Center finally closed its doors in 2018. Now, it’s just a sad shadow of its former grimy glory—draped in iron scaffolding—waiting to be transformed into an $80 million office and retail complex.

Peepland — 711 7th Ave.

Peepland

(L) 1990. (R) 2019. Viviane Moos/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

Peepland has lived many twisty reincarnations… The theater started life in the ’70s as a Spanish language cinema. When it made the transition to porn, like the other theaters on the block, the box office was on street level, while the theater was downstairs.

In the mid-80s, it tried to go legit by showing second- and third-rate first runs of commercial movies, and it would screen flicks until 4 a.m. But in the late ’80s, the venue changed its name to Jocx Cinema and began screening gay male porn. The porn theater then rebranded as Show Follies Center, and then eventually Peepland.

Now, the former halls of Peepland is a great place to buy an “I Love New York” coffee mug. And instead of “Girls, Girls, Girls 25¢ Peep Show,” you can get “3 Hats for $10.99.” What a bargain!

Adult Mini Theatre & Jesus Saves — 432 42nd St.

Adult Mini Theatre

(L) 1970. (R) 2019. Walter Leporati/Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

This is as classic 1970s Times Square as it gets—a porn mini-theater right next to a Jesus Saves missionary. So the true question is, which establishment would you go to first that would eventually lead you to the other?

Now, this block of former depravity is coined “Theater Row.” This was all part of a 1977 redevelopment project to convert adult entertainment venues. So, instead of seeing “Lovely Girls & Boys” for 25¢, you can now see the off-broadway run of “A Musical About Star Wars.”

The Playpen — 687 8th Ave.

The Playpen

(L) 2005. (R) 2019. Spencer Platt/Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

The Playpen is still in operation, one of the last bastions of Times Square’s seedy past. The Playpen even still offers the old-timey sex emporium classic—the live peep show.

A little oddity about the remaining sex shops: In 1998, when Giuliani passed his unconstitutional ordinance against sex shops, the ruling stated that a store would be considered X-rated if adult material comprised 40 percent or more of a shop’s stock. Thus, porn stores, after that era, had to dedicate 60 percent of their inventory to non-porn related materials, such as crossword puzzle books or old TV Guides, as a loophole to technically keep them from being considered “adult establishments.” No one would go into these place to look at the crossword puzzle books that piled up in the corner with yellowing pages, but it kept the cops from raiding the place.  

Still, as a pure sign of NYC gentrification, two doors down from the Playpen, you’ll find happy tourists gobbling down hamburgers at Shake Shack.

Shake Shack

Shake Shack sells burgers two doors down from one of the last remaining sex emporiums in Times Square. Harmon Leon/Observer

New Mature World Theatre — 153 W. 49th St.

New Mature World Theatre

(L) 1973. (R) 2019. Bettmann/Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

There should be a plaque at 153 W. 49th Street. The New Mature World Theatre is where the iconic porn movie, Deep Throat, premiered in June 1972. After opening, Deep Throat attracted roughly 5,000 patrons a week—all of whom were each willing to slap down $5 (in 1972 money—accounting for inflation, that would be $30.63 per ticket today) for their viewing pleasure.

But it wasn’t a smooth run. The New Mature World Theatre was raided by police from the public morals division, who slapped the venue with obscenity charges, claiming that Deep Throat was “utterly without redeeming social value.” A jury was made to screen Deep Throat at trial and acquitted the defendants of all charges. 

However, the controversy continued; in 1982, it was discovered that the New Mature World Theatre was owned by the respectable Rockefeller Group. The venue was closed down and rebranded as the Embassy Theater, and things were cleaned up in a big way—by screening Disney movies.

The Embassy was eventually demolished in 1987. Now, on the very site where Deep Throat once screened, you can go to Hale and Hearty Soups—situated in the exact same spot where one of the most iconic porn cinemas once stood—and have a nice satisfying bowl of hearty clam chowder.

Grand Pussycat Cinema — 1607 Broadway

(L) 1981. (R) 2019. David Herman/Hulton Archive/Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

Grand Pussycat Cinema opened its doors as a porn cinema in 1981, and it screened such classics as Marilyn Chambers in Insatiable. The venue was owned by the Bonanno crime family, who also funded the movies that were shown at the cinema. To ensure their movies were successful, the Bonanno’s had Al Goldstein of Screw magazine on their payroll. Because of that, he would pen glowing reviews of all the porn films on the week they would open at the Pussycat.

The porn theater was so successful that it spawned a sister venue around the corner on 49th Street named the Kitty Kat Cinema. Both theaters were eventually demolished in 1987 to make way for a skyscraper hotel. Now, on the very site of the Pussycat, you can buy all the “I Love NY” gifts that your heart desires—or do some leg crunches at the New York Sports Club located upstairs.

Big Apple Theater — 1482 Broadway

Big Apple Theater

(L) 1989. (R) 2019. Viviane Moos/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

Originally on the site of the Big Apple Theater was the George M. Cohan Theatre, which was demolished in 1938. (You can find a plaque telling you such.) But because of its location, at the crossroads of Broadway and 42nd Street, the Big Apple Theater became a haven for XXX movies—where you could pop in for a continuous showing of “4 Adult Hits” for a mere 99¢.

If you’re looking for the current location of the Big Apple Theater, you’ll find it kitty-corner from Red Lobster. The location is now a Starbucks, where a screening of Lady Lust for 99¢ has been replaced by caramel macchiatos for, I don’t know, $17?  

Circus Cinema — 1604 Broadway

Circus Cinema

(L) 1993. (R) 2019. Barbara Alper/Getty Images and Harmon Leon/Observer

Another one of the adult cinemas that once flourished in Times Square was Circus Cinema; this was a theater that paved the way for other Times Square porn palaces. In 1971, it was raided by the police, and the manager and projectionist were arrested. The Circus Cinema faced charges of obscenity, carrying penalties of up to a year in prison or up to $1,000 in fines. Spoiler alert: they weren’t convicted, and Times Square went on to become the smut haven it was during the ’70s.

The Circus Cinema finally closed in 1996. Now, the locale is a defunct restaurant next to a Sbarro pizza shop.

The Bryant and Adult Book Store — 138 W. 42nd St.

The Bryant and Adult Book Store

(L) 1977. (R) Now. Bettmann/Getty and Harmon Leon/Observer

Before the Bryant screened such movies as Lollipop Place, along with three other features “rated XX,” it was called the B.S. Moss’ Cameo Theatre, which was opened in 1921. Like many theaters in the neighborhood, it eventually became a grindhouse cinema before metamorphosing into a porn palace.

Now, it’s just a big, shiny, fancy buildings that leads you to big, shiny, fancy Times Square, leaving you nostalgic for the seedy days of old.

In Search of Times Square’s Porn Emporium Past