Pornography in Newark, Part 3: Hello, Hardcore!

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I had intended to write this a while ago, but then got distracted writing a piece on Utah’s asinine declaration of pornography as a public health crisis last month; that ran on Salon, which has a vastly larger audience than this humble blog, but the truth is, I find writing here more fun. So, back to Newark.

I closed part 2 of this series by calling 1970 “the year hardcore broke,” but it turns out that’s not precisely accurate for Newark. There was some coastal variation in the emergence of hardcore pornography; much of it happened outside of both feature-length narrative films and what’s documented in historical archives. We can date 1969 as Hardcore Year Zero in San Francisco, and probably 1970 in New York City and Los Angeles, but the elusiveness of the loops, backroom screenings, and underground economy remain often just out of reach for historians, despite important and impressive work from a number of sources; for the academic sort, see Eric Schaefer’s article “Gauging a Revolution: 16mm and the Rise of the Pornographic Feature,” and for an oral history that touches on the secret history of backroom screenings in SF, see George McDonald’s story at the always-remarkable Rialto Report. Many of the very early hardcore films remain lost, and recovery work continues apace—Vinegar Syndrome’s just-released Storefront Theatre Collection, vol. 1 compiles several previously-lost L.A. one-day wonders such as the clumsily charming Homer, the Late Comer (c.1970) that show the genre taking shape; some of these films are mind-numbing, but you can literally watch filmmakers figuring out how to shoot sex in more or less real time.

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“oh wait, you wanna SEE my junk? but why?!”

And Newark? Things get even more tricky around 1969, because the Little Theatre—long at the forefront of sleazy cinema in Newark, and a place to which I will devote more attention in a later post—suddenly disappeared from the Star-Ledger film ads. Hy Gardner’s syndicated column, carried by the Star-Ledger, predicted “No holiday for sex” in films in August 1969, but as far as movie listings go, he was temporarily wrong.

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We can see smut emerging in the surrounding vicinity—here’s Matt Cimber’s early white-coater Man and Wife playing in nearby Irvington in 1970—but locally there’s no record. I’m not sure if the theater was out of commission, or just laying low; to be determined, I guess.(see below for inserted update).

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1971 also brought Red, White, & Blue to Irvington, made by Ferd and Beverly Sebastian before they struck grindhouse gold with Claudia Jennings in Gator Bait. I’m a little sheepish to confess I’ve never seen this, which is about the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, something I’ve written about. Clearly I should’ve been in north Jersey in 1971.

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Back in Newark, (edited to add, 9/25/16) we do see hardcore breaking in 1970, but a) just barely, and b) not advertised in the Star-Ledger, but only the Newark Evening News. When I interviewed Danny, who began running the Little Theater in 1966, he explained that the latter paper simply reached more people.

So, the first glimpse of hardcore in Newark that I’ve found is this, from September 11, 1970; while Cimber’s Man and Wife played Irvington, his He & She–a slightly tamer film, though one that does cross, if barely, into hardcore–reached Newark, not at the Little Theater but rather the more mainstream Loew’s!

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He & She played with this now-lost film, which would be great to recover:

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Later that month, another of the first wave of hardcore–this time not by Matt Cimber, but still a white-coater–hit another respectable Newark theater, the Branford:

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That was September 22, 1970–that same day, both the Little Theater and the Treat stuck to softcore, though a few of these movies, again now lost, deserve a double-take.

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The Little Theatre returns to visibility, or at least to the Star-Ledger, in November 1971, along with the Treat Theater a little to the north at Orange and Broad. There’s more Ferd Sebastian with Marital Fulfillment, but unless I’m mistaken, this is another softcore batch of films (the only one I’ve actually seen is the fairly dull pseudo-documentary Pornography U.S.A.).

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On a side note, but an important one, while hardcore remained in some kind of abeyance in Newark outside pseudo-scientific guises, the city pioneered other technologies that would later prove central to the advent of adult home movies: at the Gateway Downtowner motel, experiments with “Computer Cinema”–closed circuit pay-per-view–laid the groundwork for what would later blossom into an enormously profitable, and frequently smut-driven, market. Although the Newark test run relied on non-porn films such as M*A*S*H and The Dirty Dozen, it laid the groundwork for the later systems through which smug conservative assholes like Mitt Romney could denounce smut while sitting on the board of Marriott as it raked in millions from hotel porn (which occasionally got kind of awkward for poor Mittens).

This, and much more, is discussed in Peter Alilunas’s brilliant book Smutty Little Movies: The Creation and Regulation of Adult Video, which comes out later this year and shows just how central motels and other non-theatrical venues were to the development of the porn video market. For people interested in this history, it’s as close to a nailbiting thriller as a scholarly monograph can come. Peter was kind enough to share a few Newark-related documents, to whet our appetites for his book:

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Meanwhile, by February 1972, we have softcore X playing at a mainstream Newark theater (with yet another Ferd Sebastian film as its b-side). Sex of All Nations, just leaving the theater that week, appears to be a lost film (though Vinegar Syndrome has released numerous previously-elusive films from director Kemal Horulu, so who knows what the future holds), but Cal Culver hung out in front of a Times Square screening in Jerry Douglas’s gay porn classic The Back Row, and since I just happen to have screencaps on my laptop…

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That same week the Little Theatre played Zoltan Spencer’s Danish & Blue, still staying softcore according to prolific obscure-smut IMDB reviewer lor_. At the Treat, Female Emancipation continued its run, along with the now-lost Michael Findlay/Harry Reems pic Vice Versa!—good times for grindhouse sleaze, but placing Newark distinctly behind national urban trends, unless (a distinct possibility) there was hidden hardcore behind the evasive promises of a “2nd big hit.”

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Perhaps the theaters were wise to hold back; while I don’t detect much moralistic fervor from Kenneth Gibson’s mayoral regime, which upon his 1970 election translated Black Power first into bland technocratic governance and then, tragically, into the same old urban machine corruption Newark had already been long subject to, prosecutors live to prosecute, and porn busts pushed back against creeping explicitness, if with slightly less of the pompous posturing of the Cold War days.

It’s easiest to trace the emergence of hardcore in Newark through obscenity prosecutions, and early 1973 appears to be the first major showdown, as the most fascinating legal battle over porn in New Jersey spilled over from Paterson to Newark. Over at the Rialto Report, the internet’s greatest repository of adult-film oral histories, Ashley West and April Hall have documented the bizarre story of Deep Sleep, which began as a surprisingly community-supported hardcore film by Paterson director Alfred Sole (later most famous for the chilling Brooke Shields Catholic-horror film Alice, Sweet Alice, a masterpiece of Jersey regional cinema) and ended in handcuffs, when a local prosecutor went after it. But because New Jersey’s state obscenity law had recently been struck down by a federal court, the prosecutor instead charged Sole and several cast members under 18th century state-level sex laws, including fornication, private lewdness, and carnal indecency. It’s a jaw-dropping story at every point, and probably my single favorite Rialto Report. Not only does the podcast include everyone from star Kim Pope to an assistant prosecutor, but it’s a treasure trove of documents and news clippings. Seriously, check it out.

Back in Newark, the case received coverage from the Star-Ledger in January 1973, hilariously quoting the Paterson prosecutor declaring, “Illegal sex acts were committed in Paterson.”

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The remaining shards of the once-powerful Legion of Decency monitored the case closely, and in their files I also found a few great news clippings that add to the Rialto page. The “Free Alfred Sole” bumper stickers are amazing, and it seems newspaper reporters were confused about sex laws when they invoked “Comstock laws against fornication and private lewdness.”

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The Paterson Deep Sleep case expanded into a federal obscenity charge, and in the midst of all this, Deep Sleep opened in Newark at the Little Theatre. Local prosecutors immediately moved against it, using Newark’s local obscenity ordinance (since there was still no state obscenity law at the moment). In late March, the owner of Roden Ventures, Inc., which ran the Little Theatre, was found guilty; she was charged $100 personally, and the theater $1000. The judge spared her prison time, because he found her explanation that she hadn’t even seen the film to be possessed of “sincerity and candor.”

One newspaper account called the owner Mrs. Rose Gonato, another Rose Danota:

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Essex County Sheriff’s Detective William McTague explained the legal approach to smut in Newark: films already found obscene elsewhere were the best targets, so in addition to Deep Sleep, the more famous Deep Throat (after which it was titled) was next. The Linda Lovelace vehicle had arrived in Newark on a recent Monday, right after being found obscene in Manhattan the Friday prior.

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If I read this right, the Little Theatre backslid in the face of this aggression, reverting to softcore with John Hayes’ Heterosexualis and what I assume was Doris Wishman’s Amazing Transplant.

The attack on smut continued; defendant Howard Farber compared it to Nazi Germany when a judge ordered Deep Throat burned in late March 1973. By March 1974, the Archdiocese newsletter complained that the porn theaters were “back to the same old ‘grind'” after the “pre-election hoopla” that helps explains the busts; the sheriff took “umbrage,” testily noting that his detective had attended the very opening-day 11a.m. matinee of Deep Throat, so committed were they to keeping Newark clean. IMG_1054.JPG

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Of course, by then adult theaters and Newark and nationally were feeling “the porno squeeze” after the newly Nixon-reshaped Supreme Court issued the conservative Miller v. California, relocating obscenity standards to local rather than national criteria.

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It bears notice that Newark wasn’t the only city in the region to withstand anti-smut legal action. While nothing compared to the archaic fornication-law approach in Paterson, a Perth Amboy adult bookstore was charged with fraud under the federal Fair Packaging and Labeling Act for selling sex movies he claimed as 200 ft. long, but were really under 150. IMG_1001.JPG

And yet, the smut kept rolling in. From 1973-74: the Little Theatre with an “exclusive N.J. showing” of The Young Starlets; the Treat Theater with Teachers Week-End and Matter of Taste (apparently a 1970 film also known as Oralism—we can certainly learn much about the recycled distributional circuits of early hardcore if we track these bookings closely);

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And what a strange, glorious week this was: in the mainstream theaters, the now-forgotten blaxploitation film Fox Style playing with Texas gutter-auteur Larry Buchanan’s 1965 race-melodrama High Yellow (!), over in Bloomfield the turgid rock-opera Othello remake Catch My Soul (which would soon vanish from the face of the earth until its recent restoration by Etiquette Pictures), the classic hardcore double-bill of Deep Throat and The Devil in Miss Jones in adjacent Irvington, and then back at the Treat, Three Came Running and Personal Lip Service providing the week’s smut.

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Here’s a somewhat dizzying overview of north Jersey filmic offerings, circa 1974 (complete with microfilm machine in sight!)—Joe Sarno hardcore at the Little Theatre, and porn casually intermingled with Burt Reynolds, Robert Redford, and John Waters across the ads, the layout itself expressing a particular organization of film culture that wasn’t to last long.

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Some more, just for flavor:

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I have no idea what Laura, Woman of Love, playing at the Little Theatre in 1975, is:

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Carter Stevens, auteur enough to get his name on the ad for Teenage Twins at the Treat in 1976:

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More mysteries: the 1971 West German/Italian The Reluctant Virgin washing up at the Little Theatre in 1977? I dunno, I think I’d go see the still-MIA The Farmer this week…

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The theaters just outside of Newark had better ads than the local theaters, especially the Little Cinema 1 and 2, located, improbably by 21st century standards, in the Willowbrook Mall (and also where Deep Sleep had been busted). I have absolutely no idea what’s going on here—Curt McDowell’s 1972 San Francisco-hey-maaannn straight porn film Lunch rebooked in 1977, and . . . I assume Wild Wives is not an X-rated Charles Willeford adaptation (though one can hope), but I don’t know what it is…

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IMG_1136.JPGWhatever Wild Wives was, it was a hit—booked a second week, alongside John Hayes’ Baby Rosemary, one of the great hetero porn films of the era. In Newark, an early Cecil Howard film, but by this point, April 1977, the Treat had come under sustained attack by the authorities.

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A December 1974 raid on Ski Bunnies and Surprised Coeds commenced this round:

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Next month, three more: CheeseSix for Sex, and even the cartoon (!!!) Lovers in the Park (which, like many of the films in this post, I know nothing about).

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That same day, Gerald Ford embraced feminism and women’s liberation, in a GOP unthinkable today. The news also noted that the raids were a result of the lifting of a federal injunction against porn prosecutions.

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This helps explain the lifted injunction: the New Jersey state supreme court had performed “judicial surgery” on the state obscenity law to bring it in accordance with federal standards; Essex County prosecutors immediately targeted the Treat Theater, whose corporate owner was hit with 23 counts, in the first obscenity indictment under New Jersey’s remodeled obscenity law.IMG_1008.JPG

But how did New Jerseyans feel about all of this smut-busting? According to the Star-Ledger in 1973, most opposed censorship. IMG_1150.JPG

The Archdiocese disagreed; undertaking its own, surely rigorous and unbiased, er, study, it shockingly learned that an “overwhelming number” of Jerseyans opposed pornography!

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Still, neither public opinion nor even executive director of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography W. Cody Wilson as an expert witness for the defense could help the Treat, which in January 1977 was found guilty of showing a pair of fairly reputable hardcore films, Divine Obsession (by Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman) and Farewell Scarlet (by New Jersey’s own Chuck Vincent). The resulting fine was a state landmark, $36,000.

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The fines hurt Hamar Theatres, Inc.’s bottom line, but they couldn’t halt hardcore, and the Battle of the Treat continued, adding some insult of the injury of a flop, the Mitchell Brothers’ notorious dud Sodom and Gomorrah, which did not quite live up to its advertising.

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Throughout all of this, it was unquestionably Essex County prosecutor Joseph Lordi leading the charge. I don’t see much evidence of a Newark city-level political commitment to antiporn grandstanding. The sexual politics of black nationalism were often conservative, based on hetero-patriarchal values, but as mentioned above, mayor Ken Gibson didn’t really embody nationalism, which is one of the reasons Amiri Baraka turned against him. Yet while Baraka’s own sexual politics at that time were pretty reactionary, and he surely considered pornography one of the many vectors of racist cultural oppression (though I will cop to having no concrete examples of this on hand beyond the one below), maybe he held back on the issue because he himself had been arrested on obscenity charges during his bohemian years (as recounted in his former wife Hettie Jones’ memoir, well worth reading) and his hostile judge had quoted his own poetry against him in his trial after the 1967 uprising; censorship was surely not his bag.

In any case, the only evidence I’ve seen thus far of black antiporn sentiment in Newark is one brief story from Baraka’s own local newspaper, in the mid-Seventies–but about South Bend, Indiana. Still, both the image and the caption are telling:

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The Rabbinical Council of New Jersey, based in adjacent Elizabeth, also took a stand in 1977:

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Still, I’m going to speculate that the Essex County prosecutor ran the field on porn charges because he catered to a whiter, more Catholic political base at the county level, while as Newark mayor, Gibson highlighted economic bread-and-butter issues over moral ones. Certainly much research remains to be done on sexual politics in 1970s Newark (we’ve uncovered some remarkable material over at the Queer Newark Oral History that begins piecing this story together, BTW).

In any case, Newark city council finally got cranky in 1977 and tried to close the Treat Theater through a licensing ploy (reminiscent of some of the old burlesque tactics of a quarter-century earlier). Variety took note:

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The Treat responded by laying low; in the late Seventies, instead of ads, it simply had listings: “Three Adult Hits (XX).” I don’t think the double-X was supposed to contrast to the Little Theatre’s triple-X, but maybe they hoped it would look tamer. After all, other times they listed titles and only one X, but these were all hardcore:

 

Elsewhere in the region, adult films continued to advertise; tough call here, the now-elusive and mysterious Inside Ursula, or some genre movie?

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By the early 1980s, the new Cameo Twin Theater effectively replaced the Treat at the corner of Broad and Orange. This was in some ways a mini-red light district, right near the Lincoln Motel, which housed prostitutes, drug users, and also Club Zanzibar, influential site of New Jersey house music. And as always with “seedy” urban space, the block lends itself to multiple readings. In the dominant narrative, this was urban blight; in local LGBTQ history, Zanzibar looms large as a place of community formation. More on that in a later post.

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The symbiotic relationship between the adult-oriented establishments was quite literal: you could park at the Lincoln to attend the Cameo.

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The Star-Ledger continued accepting adult movie ads long after many of the dominant national papers stopped, so we can document porn screenings in Newark well into the video era, when Ginger Lynn competed with Ishtar (and probably won).

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This seems not to have caused much in the way of local moral panic. Indeed, considering that mayor Sharpe James, who took over from Gibson in 1986 and ran the city for twenty years, later got caught billing the city for his porn and body lotion while hanging out in Miami (one of the smaller but more embarassing details of his massive corruption, though even after prison he still considers himself, as per his autobiography, a Political Prisoner), who knows, he may have appreciated the place.

I’ll leave the story off in 1990, to pick up later. By that year, Newark’s economic decline had killed off all of the local theaters, except the adult ones. So if you zoom in on the day the crapo brat-pack sequel Young Guns II opened in New Jersey, the entire listings for Newark are . . . the Cameo and Little Theatre. Where, frankly, Ghost Lusters is probably better than 75% of the Hollywood fare playing that week, unless you think John Ritter is just really hilarious (full disclosure: I attended Problem Child in the theater, up north in Alaska where I was growing up at the time, and I did think that. In my defense, I was in elementary school).

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after Donald Trump destroys the world, all that remains will be cockroaches and smut.

 

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