Departments: City Journal: The Last Porn Palace


AUGUST 3, 1984. Disco is finally and officially dead. Hair metal is in, in a big way. And the feminist movement just saw its first progress in a long time, thanks to Walter Mondale’s announcement that Geraldine Ferraro, a Congresswoman from New York, will be his running mate in the November face-off with Ronald Reagan. It is, by any measure, a truly historic moment in the free world.

But on this particular day in Philadelphia, another history-making woman, one the feminists don’t hold in quite such high esteem, is attracting onlookers at the corner of 22nd and Market streets.

Marilyn Chambers: a lanky gal with breezy blond hair, teacup-size breasts, and a tight black leather miniskirt. The same Marilyn Chambers who was once the puritanical Ivory Snow girl, before transforming into a prurient Wasp who took it all off — and had not just sex but, Oh my God! Sex with a black man! — in 1972’s Behind the Green Door, one of the first hard-core porno films widely distributed in the United States.

Chambers is in Philadelphia to promote her newest film, Insatiable II, the creatively named and ho-hum sequel to 1980’s Insatiable, one of the last great porno films, which featured a rigorous rear-entry romp with the legendarily equipped John Holmes. For this Philadelphia screening of the follow-up, Chambers is heading to the city’s premiere skin-flick palace, the Forum Theater, at 2208 Market Street.

As randy men pay $5.50 each to watch the on-screen Chambers in threesomes, twosomes, and energetic solo performances, the real-life version steps out of a long white Lincoln Continental into the thickness of Philadelphia in August. She smiles for rose-toting fans, signs autographs, and chats with Inquirer reporter Dick Polman about just-dethroned Miss America Vanessa Williams.

“I think the pageant should definitely update their moral regulations,” Chambers says. “I mean, this is the 1980s now.”

Hers is a brief appearance. It seems most of the men are too occupied with the naked Two-­Dimensional Chambers to be bothered with the clothed Actual Chambers in the Forum lobby.

Before speeding off, Chambers tells the small crowd about her investments in the blossoming videocassette business and predicts the death of the Forum and all theaters like it within a decade.

This is 1984.

WELL, HAIR METAL died off. (Sorry, Cinderella.) Vanessa Williams sold six million records. Reagan won 49 states. And Marilyn Chambers, conspicuously more bosomy than when she played the role of that insatiable debutante, ran for vice president herself in 2004.

And the Forum? Despite Chambers’s predictions, it’s still open for business, apparently surviving, if not thriving. Take a stroll to the corner of 22nd and Market today and you’ll see a large black-and-white marquee jutting out over the sidewalk:

TWO XXX ADULT HITS
EXCLUSIVE FIRST RUN
NEW SHOWS EVERY FRIDAY
AND TUESDAY


There’s girl-on-girl porn. Guy-on-girl porn. S&M porn. B&D porn. MILF porn. Bukkake porn. Black porn. White porn. Asian porn. Latino porn. From 10 a.m. to 4 a.m. Every day.

This dilapidated one-story brick building holds the dubious distinction of being the last of the great porno theaters of Philadelphia — and there once were many. The Art Holiday was another holdover, closing just last year. But you probably never saw the Art Holiday, because it was at 4204 Kensington Avenue. And when’s the last time you were anywhere near Kensington Avenue?

But the Forum is hard to miss. It’s in the shadow of the Cira Centre, a one-minute drive from 30th Street Station. It’s a block from Trader Joe’s. It’s practically across the street from the rising, $165 million, 43-story glass Murano residential tower. Immediately next door are the 23 Condominiums, with their billboard promising “sophisticated urban living.”

Other than that nagging homicide problem, this city has been on a persistent upswing for years, as publications like the New York Times and National Geographic have recognized. So how can the Forum still exist, surrounded by people paying millions for condos and hundreds for dinner?

Not only that, but what purpose could a porno theater possibly serve when I can sit here at my desk as I write this and pay $9.95 for access to thousands of adult movie titles?

The names of the features at the Forum only offer a small hint. On a recent day, the titles Own My Ass #2: Tear Me a New One, Mami Culo Grande 5: Fully Exposed and Bang Bus #16 were explicitly advertised on eye-level signage on each side of the entrance. Someone had taken a black marker to key areas, presumably so as not to flout obscenity laws, which we’re pretty sure still exist. Somewhere. Just not inside the Forum.

But more on that later.

THE FORUM’S doors opened in 1975, in the middle of an era dubbed “Porno Chic.” Ushered in by the sexual revolution and movies such as Behind the Green Door, Deep Throat and The Devil In Miss Jones, this was a time when hard-core (movies that depict actual penetration) was projected for the masses in adult movie theaters — and some mainstream theaters — everywhere. Prior to Porno Chic, porn films were limited to the soft-core Skinemax genre (with simulated sex and moan-filled overdubs) and incredibly bad, usually silent explicit stag films.

Once Porno Chic erupted, there was immense public demand, and there were soon many hundreds of theaters nationwide. In Philadelphia, lots of full-time adult cinemas operated simultaneously, including the Studio at 16th and Market, the Philmont in the Far Northeast, the Lincoln Drive-In (yes, a porn drive-in) on Roosevelt Boulevard, and the Forum.

Porno Chic brought with it real soundtracks, the occasional sense  of   humor, story lines, legitimate filmmaking techniques, and, of course, the all-important “money shot.” Worldly people — couples of opposite and same sexes, swingers, celebrities like Johnny Carson, Jack Nicholson, Norman Mailer, Angela Lansbury and Truman Capote — lined up around the block to see Linda Lovelace’s superhuman esophageal feats in Deep Throat and the psychedelic interracial intercourse of Behind the Green Door, all on glorious 35mm film.


“There was really just this art to it all,” remembers Ray Murray, the CEO of TLA Entertainment, which owns the artsy video stores and the film-distribution company with the same name. In 1972, at 17, Murray probably got to see more sex than any other kid his age, as a member of IATSE Local 307, the projectionists union. He worked all the great porno houses, including the Forum, and even got paid $11 an hour — in 1972, mind you — to do it. “At most of the theaters, there wasn’t a sleazy thing to it,” he says. “There was a certain production value to the movies and to the way that we presented them. … It all seemed relatively — respectable.”

This swinging, laissez-faire porn hysteria lasted until the early ’80s, when two great interstellar forces combined to change everything: the technology-loving Japanese, and the obscenity-loathing Gipper. The former invented the VCR, enabling us to watch porn at home. The latter longed to rid us of fornicatory fun forever. Ronald Reagan’s sweeping conservatism and his Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, best remembered as the Meese Commission, temporarily succeeded in getting such soft-core publications as Playboy off many store shelves and pushing much of the business into our bedrooms, where the VCR was ready to accept it.

The porn theaters didn’t stand a chance. In 1983 and 1984 — the year of Marilyn Chambers’s aforementioned Philadelphia visit — 3,200 new adult videotapes were released; meanwhile, 280 porn theaters went out of business across the country. And there was a direct negative correlation between the studios’ productivity and their production standards. Marilyn Chambers’s Behind the Green Door was made for $60,000 in 1972. By the mid-’80s, the studios were churning out shoddily made videos at a fraction of that. But customers didn’t seem to care, happily shelling out $89.95 for a movie in those days.

“The aesthetics just vanished,” laments Murray, “and they never returned. With the VCR’s fast-forward button, the movies just became a series of scenes — just quickies and a handheld video camera.”

Marilyn Chambers, now a 55-year-old mother in California, concurs: “It was a crazy time back in its heyday. We’d have soundtracks recorded in England, helicopter shots, Ferraris, yachts. But today, there’s just scene after scene, and no one cares. They’ve done everything. You want to see a girl get gang-banged by 60 guys? They have that for you. It’s too much quantity and absolutely no quality.”

TODAY, PORN exists in a different world. Adult videotape sales were long ago surpassed by DVD sales. And now DVD sales are sluggish because of the Internet. You can sit at home and stream a seemingly limitless number of adult titles, thanks to companies like Ray Murray’s TLA. You can even have a live video chat with a gal who will do your bidding as you enjoy her, or at least a pixilated version of her, from the comfort of your home.


So, I wondered, what amazing business practices have allowed the Forum to remain open in the age of virtual sex? To find out, I decided to track down the masterminds behind the theater. In my search for the owners, I came across Anthony Trombetta, a 64-year old grandfather who has been involved in the porn business for decades. Trombetta was convicted in 1975 on federal charges of transporting women across state lines for prostitution, and he was named in the Meese Commission’s 1986 report as Philadelphia’s porn kingpin. The report also mentioned alleged ties between a company he operated and the Gambino crime family, once led by John Gotti. But the most valuable piece of information in my pursuit came from a 2004 “Ask the Geator” column in Atlantic City Weekly in which the Geator, a.k.a. Jerry Blavat, mentions an Anthony Trombetta who was once a crooner in the doo-wop band Rick & the Masters.

“Tony Trombetta is a dear, dear friend,” said the Geator by cell phone in between gigs. “Do you want me to put you in touch with him?” The Geator put me on hold, and a few moments later, Trombetta was conferenced in, though he didn’t seem very happy to hear from me. He said that business at the Forum isn’t what it once was, then agreed to a sit-down to talk about it more, suggesting that I call him in a few days to set something up. Several calls and one letter later, I realized Trombetta wasn’t talking.

So I moved on to the other name that kept popping up in my research: Richard Basciano. Basciano was once described by the New York Times as the “emperor of Times Square smut,” before Rudy Giuliani shut down most of those dens of iniquity, including the infamous Show World on Eighth Avenue, where Basciano had partnered with a Gambino crime family member who was murdered at the request of Gotti. Basciano was also best buds with lecherous Philadelphia slumlord Sam Rappaport, who named him executor of his estate.

The Geator didn’t offer to do a three-way this time, but I did hear a rumor that Basciano would probably show up at Blavat’s birthday party at Memories in Margate in July. So down to Margate I went, joining the likes of Bob Brady, Stu Bykofsky and Chuck Peruto. Basciano was there, and I did get a brief audience with him, which amounted to him telling me, “Listen, kid, I’ve been out of that business for 20 years. Talk to Tony Trombetta.”

Clearly, another approach was necessary, one that I had tried to avoid for as long as possible: setting foot inside the Forum.

AN ACQUAINTANCE of mine, whom we’ll call Robert, once told me over drinks that he had, on occasion, visited the Forum. This is something that never really made any sense to me, since Robert is a very out and proud gay man, and the Forum shows straight movies. So I called Robert one Sunday night and asked him if he was game for a trip to the theater, to help clear up my confusion.


Even though it was dark outside and there wasn’t really anyone around, I found myself checking over my shoulder to make sure no one saw me as I paid $7 to the burly guy in the Plexiglas-enclosed box office on the street and made my way through the glass door beyond. Robert and I had agreed to split up once inside the theater and meet outside again in 20 minutes, whereupon we would compare experiences. I bypassed the snack and soda machines and pushed open the final door, revealing a long room whose only light appeared to be coming from the screen, which, at this moment, depicted a gynecologist’s view of a woman being digitally manipulated by a man.

It was so dark inside that I had to wait a few minutes for my eyes to adjust before I could find a seat. There appeared to be only a handful of men in the theater — maybe a dozen — but there was plenty of action in the room, judging by the grunts and heavy breathing, not to mention the, uh, slurping sounds. Within five minutes of my arrival, a handsome young linebacker-type with a baseball cap and an Eagles jersey approached me and asked, “Can I help you out?” I said something like, “No, I’m okay, but thank you.” After all, my mother, proud as she must be to read this, did raise a polite child. As the scene played out endlessly on-screen, a couple of other guys approached me and lingered in the aisle, but nothing was said, and they walked away. Then a man, probably in his 60s, sat in the row behind me, one seat to my left. It quickly became obvious that a certain part of his body was no longer contained, and he leaned over and whispered something near my head. I thought it would be prudent to wait for Robert in the lobby.

Robert came out right on schedule, and on the car ride home informed me that in less than half an hour he had fellated two men. Men he didn’t know. Men whose names he didn’t get. Men who, I’m sure, weren’t aware, as I was unaware prior to this ride home, that Robert has full-blown AIDS. Not HIV. Full. Blown. AIDS.

I decided to avoid the moral and ethical issues here and just stick with the facts. “So, all those guys in the Forum are gay?” I asked him.

“No, I don’t think so,” he replied. “I think you have a lot of guys who maybe can’t get a date, so they go to the theater, watch straight sex from their seats as a guy goes down on them. It doesn’t really matter if it’s a guy or a girl, it feels the same, and it’s so dark, you really don’t know who is doing what. … And I like doing it, it gets me off.”


In the following weeks, I visited the Forum again, on different days and at different hours, just to see if that Sunday with Robert was an off night for the theater. It wasn’t. Time and time again, I was propositioned, flashed, leered at, and, on one occasion, groped. After my sixth visit, I decided I had taken plenty for the team and called off my research.

CLEARLY, THE “somewhat respectable” days that Ray Murray reminisced about are long gone. And the Forum can’t possibly be generating much revenue, though I’m surprised more men don’t go, since there are very few places in the world where a guy can pay $7 and be virtually guaranteed an anonymous and physically satisfying, albeit possibly diseased, real-life sexual encounter with another person. Given Basciano’s and Trombetta’s sketchy backgrounds, it’s easy to fantasize that the Forum is a front for something. But there’s certainly no evidence of that. In fact, Basciano and Trombetta are now both squeaky-clean, at least from a legal perspective, even if the patrons of the Forum are not, and Basciano is likely holding onto the building for a far less sexy reason: real estate.

Alan Casnoff, one of the developers of the Murano condominiums, says he has repeatedly tried to buy the Forum from Richard Basciano, but that Basciano won’t budge. “He has unrealistic expectations about the value of the site,” says Casnoff. “He told us he is going to develop it into some luxury thing — that hasn’t happened. But the entire area is changing. Do we love it being across the street? Of course we don’t. But look at 42nd Street, Times Square. Those theaters all disappeared. They have no purpose.”

Soon, Basciano may not have a choice. Prior to my Forum visits, I called Michael Nutter’s office to get his thoughts on the theater, and to find out whether he might clean up Philadelphia the same way Rudy Giuliani cleaned up Times Square, maybe starting with the Forum. Through his spokesperson, he declined comment, indicating that he was concentrating on getting elected. But after I witnessed the red-light activity inside, I called him again with a firsthand report.

“Let me be very clear that I have never been to the theater,” he emphasized. “But these kinds of places are the last of a dinosaur breed of facilities that certainly need to be inspected to see what’s going on. If there’s illegal activity taking place, then of course the illegal activity should be stopped, or the place should be closed. Whether it’s at 22nd and Market or anywhere else in the city, there’s a certain quality of life we should have. This kind of activity cannot be tolerated.”

Just before press time, I finally got a call from Richard Basciano, brokered, of course, by Jerry Blavat. Basciano indicated that he has every intention of developing the Forum property, though he was unable to offer a time frame for doing so. He also noted that then-mayor Ed Rendell sent him personal letters of commendation for his development activities in Center City. But whether the Forum is closed down by an obscenity sweep under the impending reformist administration, as happened in Times Square, or whether Basciano or Casnoff converts the Forum into a business that Murano residents might actually utilize — say, a Starbucks or Banana Republic — it’s pretty clear that people are going to have to watch dirty movies and have their random sexual encounters somewhere other than at 2208 Market Street. And as more condos soar into the skyline, as Stephen Starr opens yet another restaurant, this little piece of seedy Philadelphia history will be happily forgotten.

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