The other month I wrote an article for Vice about the Little Theater, Newark’s last and finest theatrical den of smut. It was nice to share the story of Newark’s rich sexual and cinematic subculture with a much wider audience than this humble blog reaches, but it came at the cost of paring things down to 1200 words, sacrificing some of the history I wanted to present. I get it: Vice readers might be interested in the fact that men are still attending porn theaters and curious about what goes on inside; they are less likely, collectively, to hold a deep interest in the Little Theater’s development from ethnic grindhouse to multicultural cruising spot or its role in Newark’s cultural history.
Me, I’m interested in all of that. As film archivist Dan Erdman notes, porn theaters, the few that remain, lend themselves to a particular kind of quick-hit journalism, exactly what I’d aspired to avoid: “the writer gives a brief history of the theater, buys a ticket from the gruff doorman, takes a look in each room, notes the free coffee in the lobby, takes quick stock of the other customers.” All Erdman leaves out are the sticky floors. You could do this for the Little Theater—there’s no free coffee, but there are Frogger and Ms. Pacman video arcade games in its internal hallway, wholly unplayed as far as I can tell, and a “Watch Your Wallets-Pickpockets” sign on the wall, each worth a cheap guffaw if you need one—but drop the sensationalism, pay closer attention, and a real sense of history and community emerges, not against the sight of heads bobbing in seats, men rubbing themselves, and the occasional slapping sound, but through those acts, each as legitimate an approach to community-formation as cheering for the same sports team or attending the same school.
(I should also note, not every piece on porn theaters falls prey to the tendencies Erdman rightly laments; Charles Ferruzza’s longform 2013 article on Kansas City’s Strand is marvelous journalism, and Victor Fiorillo’s 2007 article on Philadelphia’s now-gone Forum is well researched but succumbs to a risible, gay-baiting AIDS panic in the home stretch; I actually called it out for this upon moving to Philly in 2008 and immediately checking out the Forum, but my angry comment has apparently long since been scrubbed by the internet housekeeping at Philly Mag).
In any case, I want to use this post to give a fuller, richer history of the Little Theater than the Vice article’s limits afforded. I’ll start with the present, then jump back. I’ve tried to minimize the repetition, but a little of this comes from the article. Most is new.
- The Context: Gentrifying Newark
Smack dab in downtown Newark, the Little Theater (Theatre on its marquee, but historically Theater in its ads, and also its social media accounts) is wedged among banks, corporate buildings, and historic churches on Broad Street, one of Newark’s major thoroughfares. Across the street, Washington Park has statues of the first president, Columbus, and more; just past that, the Newark Public Library, Newark Museum, Newark LGBTQ Community Center (which is struggling—give it some money, y’all!), and Rutgers-Newark anchor the city’s civic infrastructure.
Step past the gruff ticket-taker (for a ten-dollar admission), walk down a hallway full of Renaissance painting reproductions and obsolete “We Now Have Adult XXX Videos on Sale” posters, and you enter the main corridor, which primarily feeds into a 299-seat theater. Onscreen, digitally projected smut looks like any random selection from XHamster: good-looking people have fairly banal heterosexual sex. Scattered men occupy seats, either alone or in duos, but most of the crowd congregates at the back of the theater, behind a dugout-like short wall.
Downtown Newark is undergoing the same aspirational redevelopment as other postindustrial cities around the country, and men trading blowjobs in seats is not a part of the city plan; Whole Foods, slated to open next year two blocks away, is more like it. This transformation, intended to attract middle-class, mostly white, residents to the area, has no place for the sort of social formations provided by the Little Theater—even gay parents in Chelsea have turned on sex shops, using child-protection rhetoric. But the loss of these spaces is a local, and a national tragedy, for almost nothing in America offers as multiracial, cross-class, and sexually fluid a democratic public sphere (for men—more on that below) as the Little Theater. This was the central argument of Samuel Delany’s brilliant Times Square Red, Times Square Blue in 1999, but we all know Disney came along and killed that world. Here in Newark, it’s still alive—but barely.
So, I see this place as flawed and limited but still necessary and oppositional. One of my favorite pieces by queer theorist José Esteban Muñoz was about the “ghosts of public sex.” People mourn this in New York. And it’s true, you can’t fuck Keith Haring in a subway bathroom stall anymore; he’s dead, and so is the society that afforded the decency of restrooms in subways. But public sex is still holding its own, often rearguard fight against the neoliberal privatization of sexuality (and homonormative compliance to that push). In Newark, the police killed DeFarra Gaymon in a pointless act of antigay violence at Branch Brook Park in 2010; posts on sites like CruisingforSex responded by advising caution, the kind of community care you don’t see very much represented in scholarly accounts (for one interesting exception of sorts, see Shaka McGlotten’s article on “queerspaces and sexpublics” in Austin). Some people think that by nullifying sodomy laws, the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas Supreme Court opinion liberated sex. But it mandated that sex stay private, and for those on the fringes and out in the world, there’s still a war going on out there. Hey, ask Fred Willard. Ask Nick Stahl. Ask the less famous people at Theatair X in southern Indiana. Society is as busy policing pleasure as it ever was. The Little Theater is part of the resistance.
- Inside the Porn Palace
Descriptions of the crowd and activities inside were the heart of the Vice piece, so I won’t repeat it all. The short version is, the place has seen better days.
For the article, I chatted with some attendees and described the layout—299-seat big screen on the main level, TVs in a hallway, and the dimly-lit all-male room up a winding spiral staircase. People who’ve never been inside a porn theater might imagine it’s a perpetual orgy, but really the waiting game is the centerpiece of most visits. The projection is digital, professional enough. Okay, once I saw a film end and the screen lapse into a DVD menu for several minutes on end, but to be fair, it was around 4pm on a Wednesday and I was the single awake patron in the main theater. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but it’s a kind of beautiful solitude, having that large expanse to yourself, your thoughts, one sleeping man in a seat, and a menu of options to ponder onscreen.
I chatted with a few happily gay men for the article, but many of the men here surely identify as straight, and find their ways to compartmentalize their excursions. They’re likely the ones who sat stonefaced and silent when I made my one real faux pas, waiting until money shots had sailed and the TV went to empty bluescreen upstairs once and then blurting out, “hey, I’m working on a piece about this place and how important it is, does anyone want to chat,” to zero response except barely perceptible tensing from the four men standing in close proximity to me. Oops. I rode the awkwardness for about the duration of a bad rodeo performance, then slinked back down the stairs in shame.
When I met Danny, who owns and has operated the Little Theater since 1966, sex was not the story he wanted to discuss. People “come here to socialize with friends,” he explained, and he’s not wrong. On Portugal Day, a festival in the nearby Ironbound district, the all-male backroom was occupied by two older black men discussing the meaning of the holiday, relaxed and casual. Danny brushed aside my questions about queer communities and sex, but speaks highly of his patrons. “These are people you sit and have coffee with, nice human beings,” he emphasizes.
- History, Part 1: The Ethnic Grindhouse
I was having trouble locating the birth of the Little Theater, and I’m grateful to the wonderful staff at the Newark Public Library’s Charles F. Cummings New Jersey Information Center for reminding me of Philip Read’s indispensable Movie Houses of Greater Newark, which has a brief but illuminating page on the theater. According to Read, it was announced in August 1928, driven by the Newark Motion Picture Guild and modeled on the Fifth Avenue Playhouse in NYC.
Using the date Read mentions, I found this in the Newark Evening News:
The early Little Theater served ethnic audiences, screening films in German and Yiddish, and from the start veered toward sexy material–here’s a poor-quality but noteworthy flyer from 1931 for some “adults only” Dietrich (courtesy a 2006 comment from teecee at the wonderful Cinema Treasures), and testimony from the manager about the Jewish audience, as collected in a Federal Writers Project ethnic survey of New Jersey:
Some ads from the 1930s give a flavor of Depression-era Newark film culture:
By 1946 it showed things like Otto Preminger’s Laura on second-run, but also Hedy Lamarr in Ecstasy, into which the young Phillip Roth, Newark’s most famous literary figure along with Amiri Baraka, snuck, probably a formative experience.
- History, Part 2: Making Newark Sexy
By 1958, Ecstasy was back, and striptease films with Tempest Storm reflected the programming tendencies. From there, the theater followed the liberalizing obscenity standards and emerging sexual revolution as it ran nudist films, then roughies, then softcore.
The authorities took note. In Part 2 of this series I covered the cozy local political ties between Catholic anti-smut activists and the legal enforcers, and this 1959 memorandum is a perfect example: we can’t bust the Little Theater, so we’ll nail them on inspections and compliance… except it failed.
Russ Meyer’s Immoral Mr. Teas, which kicked off the “nudie-cutie” craze of the late 50s and early 60s, did land the theater in some hot water, temporarily…
…but nothing could stop the momentum of the early sexual revolution. While not alone, the Little Theater paved the way for new forms of sexual and erotic expression in Newark. The trajectory wasn’t always linear, as suggested by this 1962 booking, which appears to be a serious Greek drama and a recycled (and retitled) 1934 burlesque melodrama whose posters had attempted to entice with more than the film itself delivered. One imagines some disappointed patrons, if they were expecting Russ Meyer.
By 1963, a more forceful Little Theater had arrived– across most of the past half-century, it’s favored the discreet title-only ads seen above, but for this triple-bill consisting of one of my favorite sleaze-melodramas, an old 1930s nudist film, and something that I assume is not the Lucille Ball movie but rather whatever appears on this Something Weird Video roadshow collection, the Little Theater just had to revel:
We can basically chart the progression of sexploitation across the 1960s through the Little Theater. In 1964, you could watch the Beatles, or nudists (at least, on the second feature; I actually have no idea what the top-billed flick is):
Thanks to the great work of our friends at the Rialto Report, from which the below is taken, we can note that the now-lost Body of a Female, the joint debut of John and Lem Amero and Roberta and Michael Findlay, made its New Jersey debut at the Little Theater–alongside a sexy Finnish arthouse film and Dorothy’s Dilemma, of which I once again have no earthly notion.
July 1965 brought more of the same, though again I’m unsure what The Girl with the Magic Candid Camera is. By this point, sexy films were all over Newark:
Wow, for September 1966 they went with a truly loopy Texas double feature, one from Dale Berry (whose four cobbled-together, incoherent features represent either an all-time high or low for scuzz-cinema, depending on where you fall), and then the now-lost Weird Ones from San Antonio–check that tragic IMDB trivia: all known prints destroyed in a fire.
Clearly I could do this all day, but I’ll control myself; suffice it to say, 1967 brought us these:
Early 1969: a “Holy Grail of Cinematic Degeneracy”
And in Feb. 1969 (2/16, to be precise), alonside Ingmar Bergman, Truffaut, and Kubrick, a very elusive film: assuming Excited! is the same feature credited on IMDB to Gary Graver, and on EdWoodOnline to the Plan 9 maestro himself, it appears to have come out earlier than the 1970 date it’s given just about everywhere. On the other hand, there might also be another lost softcore film with the same title. I know not, but patrons of the Little Theater from 1969 might be able to help:
Finally, to cap off the Sixties in August 1969, a completely unremembered film outside a German blog, but more importantly, a chance to note one of the great cat films of the decade a few blocks away on Branford Place.
During my attempt at journalistic walking-the-beat, I stopped in at the Broad Street Cafe, immediately adjacent to the Little Theater. Patty, who’s run the place for eighteen years with a no-nonsense tough-talkin’-dame affect, gave me a quote too good to be true, about how the Little Theater is a “big ol’ family place” that “provides a very good public service” in which “nobody bothers anybody.” I was like, that’s my opening gambit for the article, hell yeah.
Well, it was a little too good to be true. When I return to the cafe a few days later to meet Danny, we hang out and chat for several hours. Only long into the conversation does it slip out that Patty is his wife. It was, I will admit, a nice moment of realizing I’d been played and having to admire the set-up, which I’d walked right into. Ballyhoo!
Danny’s wary at first: I can take notes, but can’t record. Why would I even want to write about this? Early discussion is terse, and a half-hour in it seems like things are grinding to a halt. None of my questions are going anywhere. Danny married into the theater. His first wife’s family ran it, and the two of them took it over right as the sexploitation explosion of Joe Sarno, the Amero brothers, Doris Wishman, Mike Findlay, and what would become the Something Weird Video catalog established a grindhouse canon. These were the boom years for the theater, when it ran one hundred radio ads each week on WNJR, and hosted personal appearances from Mamie Van Doren and Jayne Mansfield. Danny’s warmth toward the audience doesn’t extend to the films, though. When I geek out about this body of work with him, he switches gears from loquacious back to terse: “I don’t give a shit.” His tastes veer toward the films of his youth, when Newark had dozens of movie theaters. He fondly recalls Abbot & Costello, the Bowery Boys, and 1950s widescreen epics, but when asked about obscure porn films from the 1970s, the sort Vinegar Syndrome unearths to the acclaim of cult-movie discussion boards, he goes blank. I mention that I’ve written two scholarly books on pornography and obscenity, and offer to drop off copies. “Don’t bother, I wouldn’t read them.”
My inquiry about archives goes nowhere: imagining a goldmine of ad materials, booking receipts, correspondence, or even a forgotten old print of The Weird Ones sitting on a shelf, I ask what historical documents the Little Theater might hold. None, is the basic answer: “There’s nothing left, I gave it all away.” According to Danny, some nice mementos of film frames, posters, etc., went to friends years ago, and everything else went out in garbage bags. As an historian, my heart sinks.
By this point, Danny has warmed up a bit. Pornography is not his favored topic of choice, but we both share a broader interest in Newark history, and I get his, which runs parallel to that of the Little Theater. Born in Newark just a few blocks away from the theater seventy-four years ago, he came of age alongside it. In the 1930s and 40s, when the theater catered to Newark’s white ethnic groups, screening films in Yiddish, German, and other languages, Danny spoke Slovak until elementary school. By the time he ran free as a wild street kid, the Little Theater had evolved into a grindhouse on the boundary of respectability. Downtown Newark, on the other hand, was a paradise for him and his friends: he recalls the Wednesday night traffic jams because the giant stores like Bamberger’s stayed open two extra hours for family shopping, and treating the stores like amusement parks to explore. Shoemakers, pinball machines, Italian hot dog vendors, Cushman’s bakery: these are Danny’s cherished Newark memories. “It was a great city,” he sighs. As a kid, he didn’t make the Little Theater part of his circuit, but the other downtown theaters–and there were many–showed Tarzan, Bowery Boys, widescreen epics; that’s his cinema of choice.
Most of that infrastructure is long gone. Danny’s own childhood neighborhood was bulldozed to make way for Rutgers-Newark in the 60s. But the social history of Newark courses through the Little Theater; he remembers one summer evening in 1967 when “the cops came, said to close, there’s a riot going on.”
This raises the historical question: what movies played the grindhouse while Newark burned?
On July 12, 1967, the day the Newark rebellion/riots began (you don’t call them riots locally; while academic historians recognize that all riots are political and don’t use the word in a derogatory manner, the mass media at the time–and now–very much used the language of riot, looters, etc., to generate simplistic racist narratives of black rioters motivated by mere greed or laziness), violence was already a theme:
When protests took to the street after Newark police made a violent arrest of cab driver John Smith, the next day’s headlines tried to put a positive spin–“trouble,” but an “isolated” incident:
Instead, the rebellion went on four several days. As the local and national media reported unfounded stories of black snipers, the overwhelming preponderance of the violence was inflicted by the state, against black Newarkers. I’ve written about this before, in the context of the absurd 1971 pro-police “documentary” The Riot Makers, but you can also read more thorough accounts by Tom Hayden, Kevin Mumford, and Mark Krasovic, among others.
So, what was playing when the police interrupted? Looks like a double-feature of Sweet Skin (a French stripper film starring Nico, who knew?!) and Of Beds and Broads (a French anthology film “almost completely devoid of interest,” according to one of its few online reviews, though it does feature Johnny Hallyday serenading Catherine Deneuve).
This double-feature continued to play through the unrest. A July 16 Newark Evening News article reported that most of downtown Newark had become a “ghost town,” but the movie theaters remained open. I can only imagine how many patrons watched Nico as a stripper while the government began a military occupation of Newark, and what that cinematic experience must have been like…
Finally, on Monday the 17th, as troops pulled out, a switchover (that I assume was originally planned for Friday): patient grindhouse fans finally get a young Klaus Kinski in the Swinging-London flick The Pleasure Girls, b/w the obscure nudist film Traveling Light, which must have felt like some kind of cinematic restoration of normalcy, I suppose.
But to return to the story at hand: eventually, Danny warms up enough to give me a tour of the projection room. A shot from that was in Vice, but here are a few more. I promised not to show anything explicit, which is a shame, because I have a great shot of the screen from the booth, but word is bond. (On a few other matters, I also agreed to go off the record, including some details from Danny’s life. But what’s here is the core of the story).
6. History, Part 3: Newark Porno Chic?
According to Danny, the sexploitation era was the Little Theater’s high point. By 1968, “we were doing quite well,” he recalls. While the emergence of hardcore was heralded nationally as the “porno chic” era of couples attending Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door, in Newark it marked the beginning of a long decline, one grounded in the city’s own economic misfortunes.
As Danny explains, the shift to hardcore films in the early 1970s was gradual and incremental, as limits were tested. The Little Theater was busted only once, when it screened Deep Sleep (shot nearby in Paterson) in 1973 to compete with Deep Throat at the Treat Adult Theatre up the street. Authorities raided both places. He’s not eager to discuss this part of the story (which I covered in the third installment of this series); we know from such firsthand accounts as director Larry Revene’s recent memoir that mafia connections to the porn biz ran deep in this era, but Danny denies any connection. Did the Little Theater grease the wheels with local authorities (corruption defines Newark politics, with every mayor from the Sixties to the early 21st century convicted of some form of graft)? “Never. Never.” Well, everyone needs a narrative, and what else is he supposed to say? In any case, I haven’t seen any evidence of busts at the Little Theater after the Deep Sleep episode.
Ironically, attendance began to fall with the onset of hardcore, and has decreased ever since. Danny blames the maximum-explicitness approach that leaves nothing to the imagination, but also, of course, technology; the Little Theater might serve a social purpose, but it’s a very specific purpose, and easily clickable porn and sex apps certainly replace it for many. Another factor he points out is the lack of convenient parking in downtown Newark. Indeed, I’ve seen men rush out to feed meters on their cars when they’ve been lucky enough to score rare street parking on the block but as yet unlucky at scoring inside.
Throughout the Seventies, the theater kept to its tastefully minimalist newspaper ads, attracting as little controversy as possible:
Some of these titles are familiar (Joe Sarno’s Touch of Genie is a screwball romp with Harry Reems), but Love on a Mountain is . . . ?? I know not.
Cut ahead: by the late 1980s, Newark’s economic decline had killed every local movie theater except the Little Theater and the nearby Cameo, both porn houses (the latter closed in 2010 after a fatal stabbing occurred inside).
The Little Theater switched over to VHS projection in the 80s, then digital a bit later. Danny dates the all-male upstairs theater to sometime around the 1980s.
But even as investment has begun to flow back into the troubled Brick City, attendance has dropped about 80% even since the 1990s. As with other fallen porn theaters, the property is worth vastly more than the business itself. “There’s no business,” Danny admits; some nights only six people show up. “I’ll be seventy four this year, what am I waiting for,” he muses, but he has no real answer.
7. The Social Meanings of Smut in Newark
Okay, Patty at the Broad Street Cafe speaks well of the place, but not every Newarker appreciates the Little Theater. “Vile is an understatement,” huffs one commenter at CruisingforSex, who maybe has some misguided expectations about rundown porn theaters (on the other hand, a self-professed “piss pig” gives it two streams up). “It’s all fun and games until your toddler is abducted and found dismembered along the Passaic River,” warns another elsewhere, in a delirious replay of unfounded Cold War-era anxieties. But nobody I spoke with in person had any problems with the place. Ryan Hernandez, a clerk at a nearby convenience store, sees “nothing negative” about the Little Theater; he and his friends have long been curious about it, but never actually visited. Likewise with a security guard at a nearby building, and some down-on-their-luck folks staying at the YMCA a block down Broad Street. As a woman there with two children says, “everybody just walks by, it causes no harm.” Online, one transwoman, Sophia, even credits it with playing a “pivotal role in my training and development as a sissy.”
I might’ve seen Sophia there once, getting dressed in a seat. Aside from her, I’ve never witnessed another woman in the Little Theater. This speaks to the theater’s own failure, but really the broader systemic failure to welcome women into sexual spaces that marks the history of patriarchal culture. I don’t wish to gloss over this, or offer apologetics. It’s an ongoing problem, full stop. At the same time, one can offer both love and critique; it’s how feminist critic Ellen Willis listened to the Rolling Stones, and it’s how I feel reading the blog of BLOC, the Brotherhood of Leathermen of Color, who organized an outing to the Little Theater in 2011, after smartly stopping in the Ironbound for Portuguese food. There are, as there are in every internet comment section on earth, racist men complaining that the clientele is too black, and using various open and coded epithets. Again, perhaps those folks would be more comfortable somewhere else, like Idaho or the Simi Valley.
Danny notes that the Little Theater has never drawn protestors–neither religious conservatives, nor antiporn feminists, nor anyone else. Which is remarkable, since it’s right out in the open in the middle of the city–and probably fodder for a thinkpiece on Newark sexual politics elsewhere, this post is already long enough.
“If somebody had told me forty years ago I’d still be here in 2016, I’d have laughed at them,” Danny says. Yet the Cameo is boarded up and the Treat was demolished, replaced by the Rutgers Business School, while the Little Theater abides, if tenuously. Danny doesn’t see it as political, but it bucks the trends of privatizing sexuality that define both straight and gay life in the post-marriage equality world, as well as the neoliberalism and gentrification that have the same impact on public space of all sorts.
8. All That is Hardcore Melts into Tourism
On 42nd Street in New York City, murals went up earlier this year with marquees from the old porn theaters that had been destroyed to make way for Disney and suburban tourists. The memory of sleaze is celebrated once the actual thing is erased and reified into a sanitized commodity.
They’re gone already, I just noticed on a recent walk down 42nd Street, replaced with more Broadway ads.
In Newark, images of the Little Theater circulate without context too, in a weird celebration that is probably not actually understood by its celebrants—after all, the place looks charming, and who doesn’t love neon? So, if you go into the Applebee’s up near the Cityplex movie theater funded by Shaquille O’Neal (who introduces every film in a charming video, BTW), there in the lobby, among historical photos of downtown Newark, is a nice color shot of the Little Theater. I’d include it here, but the day I visited, I looked especially shaggy and sweaty, and the clearly dubious staff told me I couldn’t shoot it; I could’ve shot and run, but it would have been disrespectful, so you’ll have to visit Applebee’s yourself to see it.
But the greatest public commemoration of the Little Theater is a lovely mural, hidden on the backside of a building adjacent to the now-decaying Cameo and facing a fenced-in parking lot. I’m not sure many people notice this (I owe thanks to librarian, archivist, and all-around fountain of Newark wisdom George Hawley for calling my attention to it), but there among the buildings marking Newark’s theatrical history is our beloved porn palace!
Looks like it was painted in 2009 by Matt Gosser and team as part of the Newark Public Art murals program; great post about it here, though I cannot for the life of me tell whether anyone understood what the Little Theater was. In any case, I love that it’s an official part of Newark history, even if in slightly stealth form.
What does the future hold for the Little Theater? Danny offers a gloomy vision: the property is worth far more than the business, and with attendance down, what’s the point? Yet, he’s made these same points before– in this Star-Ledger article, he says, “We’re on our last legs. It’s all over for us . . . a year or two and that’s it.”
That was 2003, and yet here the theater stands, thirteen years later. It even innovates, dabbling in social media with a short-lived but delightful Facebook page that found far too few followers (a Twitter account has also gone deactivated).
They’re right about De Niro, BTW. Be honest: did you know that? I had to look it up–and I love that film! Party chat, indeed!
Still, you can feel the forces of gentrification pushing, salivating over the Starbucks or condo or whatever this could be that does not involve a public sex culture. Newark artist Noelle Lorraine Williams (#rebornamerica!) recently posted this new repurposing of the unused poster-space outside the theater on Facebook–a mild makeover to be sure, but the kind of thing that gets us close observers worried. Also, NYC, huh?!
So, this post ends inconclusively, as we await changes that will almost surely not be for the better, at least for those of us who support this kind of thing. Little Theater, long may your floors stay sticky.
9. Coda: A Visual Love Letter
To finally cap things off, here are a bunch of pics I’ve taken of the Little Theater over the years, my own visual love letter to this storied, fascinating place.