`The last porn theaters in the age of the internet. Image 1.

Andy Bankin

Author

The last porn theaters in the age of the internet. Image 2.

Cait Oppermann

Photographer

 

The main difference between a regular movie theater and an adult movie theater is how nervous you are about the sticky floor. There was a time when adult film theaters were plentiful. Before the “Disneyfication” of Times Square there was an abundance in the area. Nowadays, they’re hard to come by. Why go out to watch porn when it’s something best done in the privacy of your own locked bedroom, swathed in the cool glow of a laptop or smartphone? Also, with the rising cost of admission it’s no longer practical. Popcorn and soda, a ticket for the wife, plus you have to hire a sitter… Oy! It’s just not worth the trouble!

The question is, in the age of the internet, what’s left out there to wow a New Yorker enough to leave their house?

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Kings Highway Cinemas

712 Kings Highway, Brooklyn, 11223

   

The last adult movie house in Brooklyn conceals its smutty lineup and landmark origins behind a facade of nondescript respectability. Its historic interiors and highbrow programming were once a draw for an artsy crowd that included a young Woody Allen. Inside, four theaters offer the best of both worlds: two upstairs show mainstream Hollywood fare while two downstairs play skin flicks divvied up by gay and straight subject matter. 

ticket price: $12 for an open pass to all three screens. 

The last establishment of its kind in the borough of Brooklyn,
Kings Highway Cinemas is located in the predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Midwood. Why? Who knows, why? Tickets are $12 for an open pass to any of the three screens constantly playing films on a rotation. In lieu of a concession stand there’s a table with some coffee not unlike the kind you would see in the lobby of a cheap motel. And there are a few arcade games, you know, for the kids.

Mike (not his real name), who works here, said he estimates about 40-50 customers come to Kings Highway Cinemas each day. Which sounds like pretty steady traffic for a porn theater, but judging by his air of resignation, it simply isn’t enough. Then he added, bluntly, “Internet fuck everything.” Which is a remarkable statement, depending on where the emphasis falls.

I walked into a small 20-seat screening room where six gentlemen were watching a ‘90s-era video of a woman aggressively fellating a man as he derided her. The patrons all turned to look at me in unison, as if to say, “Hey man, we’re pretty full in here!” One must keep some buffer seats as a courtesy, naturally. And so I nodded approvingly at the scene, as if to reply, “Hey, I get it. I’ll be moving along.” I didn’t get to finish the film, but I hope those crazy lovebirds work it out in the end.

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In 1977, the New York City Planning Commission estimated that the city had about 245 businesses dedicated to "adult uses," including movie theaters, toy and video shops, massage parlors, erotic bookstores and peepshows.

In 2015, a quick Yelp search returns 287 hits in the adult entertainment category, mostly novelty stores and strip clubs.

The patrons all turned to look at me in unison, as if to say, “Hey man, we’re pretty full in here!” One must keep some buffer seats as a courtesy, naturally.

The second screening room was playing an action movie about a kickboxer. It was empty.

The third screening room was beautiful in its own way. The theater used to be an Art Deco-inspired venue called “The Jewel,” which played intellectual foreign films and classics. It was frequented by a young Woody Allen. There’s history in these walls.

Sandwiched between a kosher pizza joint and an archetypal diner, it’s not unreasonable to imagine the theater going back to its roots as a highbrow cinema – and taking advantage of the increasingly hipper audience gradually moving in from the more gentrified neighborhoods nearby. Who knows why they haven’t taken steps in that direction already? Life is strange like that. I was thrust into a world of possibility and yet here I was in a porn theater in South Brooklyn.

The films aren’t modern, which may be appropriate because the idea of a porn theater isn’t particularly modern either. People who frequent the theater probably prefer an older variety of skin flick. Most of the offerings seem to be from the time of the theater’s last grasp at relevance.

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There are still booths in the back of some adult video stores as well. In one particular shop on St. Marks, there’s a single-person booth with five different knobs that afford you the freedom to flip through the dial and land on the genre of your choosing. Kind of like sampling the latest hits at a music shop. Richard (not his real name, obviously, you get it… ) says his shop makes most of its money off toys. The booths are mostly there for show. "Internet fuck everything," and so forth.

So what drives a person to step away from their device in search of porn? A goal? A mission? One particular customer named Randy (I’m Randy. Randy is me. I want a particular porn.) said he was in the market for something very specific. He (Me.) heard that the producers at Hustler Video – artists that they are – had made a pornographic parody of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s critically-acclaimed HBO improv comedy, entitled, This Ain’t Curb Your Enthusiasm: The XXX Porn Parody. If ever there was ever a reason to visit a bunch of sex shops, this would be it.

Under the Gowanus Expressway in Sunset Park there's a strip of adult video and toy stores, and if you’re digging through porn crates (less cool than records, arguably), that’s the place to go. In the ‘90s that particular strip of 3rd Avenue was re-zoned as an industrial center, and all the other adult-themed businesses in the neighborhood were prohibited from operating on other streets. They all went here and formed “Porn Row.” These weren’t the happy-go-lucky adult stores of Greenwich Village either, where bachelorette parties swarm in packs, picking up kitschy souvenirs for the bride-to-be. These were no-nonsense places where a no-nonsense man can get his particular brand of nonsense.

The films aren’t modern, which may be appropriate because the idea of a porn theater isn’t particularly modern either.

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Video City

 956 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, 11215

   

Incorporated in 2009, this tiny storefront is one of the newer adult-themed boutiques to set up shop in Brooklyn's Sunset Park neighborhood after a 1995 zoning law pushed many porn stores and peepshows out of Manhattan's Times Square district. In the back, three small booths offer varying levels of privacy while a spacious common area screens mostly gay titles. 

ticket price: $8 for entry into the viewing section.

The first spot I went was Video City. A sign hung in the window claiming to have “all kind of video.” The brightly lit, narrow space had mirrors all along the right wall, making the store appear much larger than it actually was. On the left wall, floor to ceiling, were “novelty gifts.” Immediately upon entering you feel completely surrounded by sex toys. Which, if you’re in the sex toy business, is a good marketing strategy for drawing pop-in street traffic. Needless to say, whoever their interior decorator is, they’re a genius.

I approached the register to inquire about the availability of my film. The clerk was a pale man with thick-rimmed glasses slouching back in a chair on the phone.

“Do you have the Curb Your Enthusiasm porno!?” I inquired enthusiastically.

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The last porn theaters in the age of the internet. Image 9.

In 1998, an Adams Media Research study four years later in Forbes estimated that video rentals accounted for $500 million to $1.8 billion of sales in the adult industry while the internet was responsible for $1 billion, annually.

In 2011, a study by Online MBA published the same year in Business Insider pegged internet porn revenue at $2.84 billion annually. There were almost 25 million pornographic urls online, including free porn-sharing sites.

He looked up listlessly, shrugged, and pointed in the direction of the films. I guess a video store clerk is a video store clerk, regardless of what kind of videos he’s selling.

I walked over the video section, which featured carefully merchandised shelves full of films organized by alphabetical order. There were even displays spotlighting a particular star’s oeuvre. Actual film stores could learn something from Video City. If I were a fledgling rental shop I would implement their business model immediately. They could even hang replica Darth Vader helmets and Indiana Jones lassos by the door – like the dildos and ball gags that Video City gloriously presented – for fans who don’t mind splurging a little to take their viewing experience to the next level.

Unfortunately they didn’t have what I wanted, so I took my business elsewhere.

He looked up listlessly, shrugged, and pointed in the direction of the films. I guess a video-store clerk is a video-store clerk, regardless of what kind of videos he’s selling.

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Sunset Video

952 3rd Ave, Brooklyn, 11215

  

Located just paces away from Video City along Sunset Park's "Porn Row," the main draw of this no-frills establishment is its value. The 24-hour X-rated arcade, which opened in 2012, hawks a combination of regular and pornographic videos in the front and features four private booths and a main viewing area with a flat-screen TV in the basement. 

ticket price: $10 for 12 hours of unlimited booth access (with re-entry). 

Next door at Sunset Video it became clear that not all sketchy-looking porn shops are created equal. This place was a dump. Though perhaps that’s comforting for a certain type of clientele that wants to casually consume porn. Half of the lights were out, making the mock-wood paneled walls look like the forgotten sound stage of a failed sitcom. They too offered “all kind of video,” but they delivered. The front of the store stocked regular movies strewn about in no particular order – a DVD compilation of clips from The Colgate Comedy Hour next to a VHS copy of Kramer vs. Kramer – then, past the register, there was a set of stairs that led down into the adult section, creating what is essentially a porn pit or, for the real estate crowd, a certain split-level elegance.

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Blue Door Video

87 1st Ave, New York, 10003

   

The longstanding East Village haunt is notable for its whopping seven booths, three of which come equipped with gloryholes. In 2008, it was the site of a series of high-profile prostitution stings that ended in allegations of false arrest.

ticket price: $10 for booth access; $1/minute to keep the footage rolling.

Finally, I headed into manhattan to check out Blue Door Video. This place had everything. Aisles dedicated to magazines and sex toys, high ceilings, vibrating buttocks.

I walked past the roughly 15-foot-long glass display case that serves as a partition between the clerk and the customer to the register, and asked the manager on duty where I could find a copy of This Ain’t Curb Your Enthusiasm: The XXX Parody. He walked me to a part of the video section that featured a whole line of parody titles available for $35 each. They had the Seinfeld parody, the Cheers parody, the Scrubs parody, the Sopranos parody – The Sopornos, ha! – even a Taxi parody, but not the one I was looking for. “I guess we sold out,” said the man. “If you want I can order it for you.”

It’s no wonder there were all these different porn shops here. They have nothing to do with each other. They all serve a unique purpose. Each demographic has its specific tastes and 3rd Ave caters to the masses. If Video City was the alt record shop in town, and Sunset Video was a questionable bodega peddling essentials, Blue Door Video was the family business the entire community could be proud of!

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The last porn theaters in the age of the internet. Image 13.

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Fun fact: the massive and colorful Mahayana Buddhist Temple in Manhattan's Chinatown neighborhood was built on the former site of The Rosemary Theater, which looped adult films until 1996. 

27 percent (730,000) of NYC households lack broadband Internet at home. Source

17 percent (533,000) of NYC households do not have a computer at home. Source

I pictured the owner stopping by with his kids, and as they stood there eating ice cream cones, he would place a hand on their shoulders and say, “One day, this will all be yours.” Ah, the American Dream. Then they would run off giggling and play that walkie-talkie game children play by attaching two Fleshlights together with a string.

So maybe the internet has fucked everything, and maybe there’s no reason to leave the comfort of your bedroom if all you want is a quick thrill of dubious provenance, but the porn theaters and booths of New York City are proof that if you desire a tangible connection to the act, you can still get it. There’s a whole world of smut out there, beckoning you to come experience it. Or, experience it before you come.