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Before it was the Playpen it was the Adonis (a different Adonis from the more famous one of the same name farther up 8th Avenue) and before it was the Adonis it was, of course, the Cameo, and I’m surprised that this theater doesn’t have a separate listing under that name because it was the “Cameo” for decades. Bill Landis (or, I should say, the late Bill Landis because he recently passed away) and his wife Michelle Clifford in their essential book on Deuce movie theaters, “Sleazoid Express,” devote a whole chapter to the Cameo and its owner, the infamous Chelly Wilson, the doyenne of Times Square smut palaces. Ms. Wilson deserves some sort of immortalization on the Deuce Walk of Infamy and if you can find Landis' excellent article on her that used to be posted on the Alpha Blue site, it is essential (and truly jawdropping) reading.
If I recall the book correctly, the Cameo is where the notorious roughie “Olga” movies played, but, more importantly, the Cameo played an important part in the history of Times Square pornography when in May of 1970 the film, “Sexual Freedom in Denmark,” premiered there. It was the first X-rated film to truly show “penetration” shots as compared to tamer less graphic adult flicks like “I am Curious (Yellow).” “Sexual Freedom in Denmark” was part of the wave of instructional adult films that were supposed to be documentaries or “how to” flicks, which is how they got away with the “redeeming social value” obscenity issue. Nowadays, they are known as “white coaters” because they usually had scenes of a sham doctor lecturing about the importance of sexual openness interspersed with the action shots. “Screw” magazine gave it the highest rating it ever bestowed on an X-rated film up to that point, and because of its explicitness it opened the floodgates of truly hardcore pornography that eventually overwhelmed Times Square.
“Sexual Freedom” played the Cameo for months. I saw the next film there in the fall of 1970 when I was a college freshman, “The Postgraduate Course in Sexual Love.” It was the first “adults only” film I ever saw. There was also a trailer for the next feature, “The Kama Sutra,” that, if my memory serves me correctly, featured an unknown (at that time) actor named John Holmes. I remember the theatre well: at that time it was still a comfortable, well-appointed, well-heated little theatre with a respectful, quiet audience. Years later (actually a decade later) I went back to the Cameo out of a combination of curiosity and nostalgia and it was a pure hellhole and indicative of how porn just totally trashed those Times Square theatres. The Cameo had been stripped of all of its prior interior comforts (carpeting, an ornamental urn in a niche as you entered the theatre), reeked of urine, and had tranny hookers patrolling the aisles for quickie tricks. It undoubtedly continued its inexorable decline down the sewer as it finally morphed into the Playpen and total decrepitude. But back then in the long ago time of 1970 it was still a lovely little theatre unkowingly about to succumb to venereal rot.
To claify some confusion, Irving Plaza, the former punk rock emporium, was across the street, on the north side of 15th street. The Irving Place Theatre was on the south side, between 14th and 15th Streets along Irving Place across the street from the Con Ed building. At some point the entrance to the theatre evidently was transferred to 14th street. I think in its last incarnation it was a warehouse for S. Klein’s department store on Union Square. I remember when I lived on 17th and Irving, I used to walk to the subway on 14th Street and wonder why on the facade of the building were the masks on drama and tragedy. That was all the basically was left on Irving Place to indicate that the building was once a theatre. It was finally torn down in the 1980s and replaced with Zeckendorf Towers which one poster above summed up accurately as “miserable.” It still is.
In answer to an earlier question, the Adonis anchored the northern end of the infamous “Minnesota Strip” that flourished during the heyday of the Deuce in the 1970s. It extended roughly from the Port Authority bus terminal north up 8th Avenue to the Adonis and was so named because of the number of very young girls who got off the bus from the hinterlands (like Minnesota) to escape from abusive families and were immediately sucked into prostitution by the pimps who hung out around the Port Authority Terminal and forced these desperate kids to ply their trade along 8th Avenue.
Across 8th Avenue from the Adonis on 50th street was the King’s Cinema, a seedier gay theatre, and next to the King’s was a hustler bar that I forget the name of that was downright scary. The Adonis was the one gay cinema along the 8th Avenue strip that you didn’t feel nasty entering: it had that great marquee and was always well lighted and the interior was kept clean. Only once in my several trips there did I actually engage in some play in the balcony with an incredibly nice guy: we shared a cigarette afterwards and he said, as he was leaving, as a way of thanking me for a good time, to go buy stock in Warner Brothers immediately because “Superman” was going to be a huge hit. I did and made a nice little bundle. I don’t know many guys who get stock tips in the balcony of a gay porno theatre, but there you are.
The best way to observe what the Adonis looked like is, as I think several people have mentioned, to watch “A Night at the Adonis” with good ol' Jack Wrangler as the star. It’s practically a guided tour of the place. For a great view ot the exterior of this lovely theatre when it was the Tivoli, rent or buy “Confessions of a Psycho Cat,” one of the many many sexploitation films that were shot in the Times Square area during the 1960s. There is a great shot of the exterior of the theatre as Jake LaMotta (the star of the movie) is running down 8th Avenue. I believe the next block down was the location of the old Madison Square Garden whose exterior can be seen in the great movie, “The Manchurian Candidate.”