IN and OUT and All ABOUT

By Josh Eliot

 

The year was 1991. Catalina Video’s GM, Chris Mann, had left the company and started running things over at Video Team. As soon as Chris was OUT, The new GM, Mike, was IN. He was handpicked for the position by David Weiss, William Higgins' right hand man. Weiss and Higgins had an investment business called Drake’s Bookstore on Melrose Avenue in Hollywood. Mike had proven himself to be a great manager when they put him in charge of the high end bookstore and he kept the business in the black when tough times called for radical changes. The first was when MOM (the “Merchants on Melrose”), a group representing about 3000 residents, complained to city officials. All the peep show booths needed to be removed because the city investigators found Drake's and another shop named Taboo in violation of the zoning code intended to keep adult entertainment stores away from schools and residential areas. The battles lasted many years, before and after Mike came to manage Catalina Video’s operations. The city also demanded that they reduce the percentage of sex-related adult products in each store, replacing content with products unrelated to sexuality. Drake's eventually closed.

I’m sure it was a real pain in the ass for him dealing with this stuff over and over again. Catalina must have felt like an escape to him. We were a pretty well-oiled machine when he came aboard. Scott Masters was producer, I managed the video crew and John Travis was one of the top rated directors of the time, bringing success and big bucks in sales from movies like Powertool and Undercover. Chi Chi LaRue and his best friend, Kevin, worked in sales and promotion. TJ worked in the art department and designed all the boxes and one sheets. Costello Presley was composing and providing all the music for the movies, and Chet Thomas was the full time editor. As soon as Mike came into power, he started shopping for a new location in Reseda. Our palatial North Hollywood headquarters was too big and expensive to suit Mike’s taste and he had one thing in mind: stop the bleeding of money. In the early 90s, the sales started to decline on new releases as the market was suddenly overblown with competition. We were all kinds of shocked when we saw the size of the new place. The warehouse was a decent size, and Mike’s office could have easily been split into three, but the rest was divided into small offices just big enough for a desk and a path to walk around it. Chet had a nice space for editing, though it was also supposed to be where Costello stayed, but shortly after moving to the new location Costello Presley left the company.

 

Vintage Catalina promotional ad
Vintage Catalina promotional ad designed by TJ
 
Josh Eliot and TJ

Josh Eliot and TJ

 

From the very start, we were shown that Mike and Chris Mann were very different in their management style. There was tension between Scott Masters and Mike regarding how things were handled in the production department. The good ole days of blowing money on non-essential things was definitely gone for good. It wasn’t so drastic that our company cars were taken away or anything like that, but we would be tightening our belts on everything that had to do with production expenses. Things started to boil over when Scott Masters and John Travis were told that royalties were a thing of the past and the company would no longer compensate them monthly on their previous movies' sales. They settled on a flat fee. All future movies would be on a flat fee basis as well.

My contract with Catalina never included royalties from the get go, so there weren’t any financial changes for me. The whole thing between Masters, Travis and Mike came to a head behind closed doors and, like a flick of the switch, Masters and Travis were OUT. Masters called to tell me they were parting ways, but assured me that they would be starting their own production company (later to be called Studio 2000). He wanted me to leave Catalina with them and join them on their venture, but could offer no financial detail on how and when I would be compensated. It was in limbo. Deep down, I really did not want to leave Catalina, because I had a great rapport with Mike and all the other associates. Luckily for me, before Masters could come back with a concrete offer, Mike pulled me aside at my 30th birthday party at the Gold Coast Bar in West Hollywood and offered me the job of Catalina’s producer, which I instantly accepted. The whirlwind began, and for the next 15 years we pumped out two to three movies a month until our very last production: Hot Buttered Cop Porn in 2006. Sometime over the next number of years, once David Weiss passed away in Amsterdam, Mike quietly purchased the company from William Higgins.

 

Hot Buttered Cop Porn box covers

Hot Buttered Cop Porn original and re-release box covers

 

After wrapping Cop Porn, we spent the next three years remastering and re-releasing all of our VHS movies onto DVD. It was kind of a relief to have the pressure of producing lifted from my shoulders and I could focus strictly on video editing, something I thoroughly enjoy. Going back to my early teens when I would sit on the living room floor with my 8mm editing unit, complete with splicing tapes, editing my home movies like Avalanche, Bionic Boy vs Big Foot, Crash, Earth Quake, and The Last Voyage. You can see trailers of those movies on my YouTube channel if you like disaster movies or if you just want to torture yourself! Here’s the link to: Josh Eliot, What A Disaster.

 

Josh Eliot's What a Disaster 8mm movie images

 

OUT of the blue one day in 2009, Mike came to visit me in Palm Desert, where I had moved to while continuing to edit and remaster for the company. I was shocked and surprised to hear that he was selling the business known as Catalina Video to Channel 1 Releasing. C1R had several partners including Chi Chi LaRue, so it seemed like it was a great choice for the library to go to them. He explained that part of the negotiation of the sale included keeping me and a couple Catalina employees on payroll for two years from the sale date. Though I was asked to produce new content for them, the thought of producing again was a real turn off to me, so I ultimately decided to only work as an editor for them, which they agreed to.

Two years to the very date of the company’s purchase of Catalina Video, I got my walking papers, and just like that, I was OUT.

 

 

Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment
That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?
BEHIND THE (not so) GREEN DOOR
The BOOM BOOM Room
CATCHING UP with Tom DeSimone
Everybody’s FREE to FEEL GOOD
SCANDAL at the Coral Sands Motel
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Castro Theatre
DEEP INSIDE THE CASTRO: The Midnight Sun
RSVP: 2 Weeks Working on a Gay Cruise Ship
VOYAGER of the Damned
I'M NOT A LESBIAN DIRECTOR
Diving Into SoMa/Folsom: THE FOLSOM STREET FAIR
Diving into SoMa/Folsom: A TALE OF TWO STUDS
BALL BROTH
My 1992 “Porn Set” Diary
Out of Print
There’s a Gloryhole WHERE??!
LUNCH HOUR: When the Big Boys Eat

 
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BEHIND THE (not so) GREEN DOOR

By Josh Eliot

 

Years before starting work with Catalina Video in 1980, I lived on the corner of O’Farrell and Leavenworth Streets in the “Upper Tenderloin” (as I like to think of it) in San Francisco. A typical walk up to Polk Street, where my friends and I would tend to eat dinner, would take me right past the Mitchell Brother’s O’Farrell Theatre. In 1972, the Mitchell Brothers' first, and most famous, full length adult feature Behind the Green Door was released. The movie was filmed inside the theater and featured the debut performance of Marilyn Chambers who, at the time of its release, was the cover model on the Ivory Snow laundry detergent boxes. That fact hit the newspapers and magazines, helping the brother’s $60,000.00 investment earn them a profit of over 50 million dollars!

 

Marilyn Chambers; The Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theatre & Art Theatres Marilyn Chambers; The Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theatre & Art Theatres

 

Of course I didn’t know any of this information at the time, I just loved the fantastic way they painted the building, with whales, tigers and all sorts of wild animals. I guess it was pretty wild inside as well! It felt like they were always showing Green Door either as the headliner or as a second feature to a new release. Boy, that print must have had a lot of edit tape splices from being run through the projector so much! I didn’t realize how much of a classic it was at the time. I lived in a studio apartment that I shared with Abraham, a classmate at the Art Institute. Abraham mentioned that he had never seen Deep Throat, which was playing on a double bill with The Devil in Miss Jones at the Art Theatres in the “Lower Tenderloin,” evidently for a good ten years straight! We went to an afternoon showing and the place was packed! As expected, the print was choppy as hell and at one point got stuck in the projector and started to burn. It wasn’t pretty when the house lights went up while they fixed it, but that’s what made the experience all the more fabulous in my book. We were both kind of surprised how low-budget “Throat” was and how “Miss Jones” looked like an old lady! Abraham starred in my class assignment for instructor George Kuchar titled Behind Blue Eyes (Tap this link to my YouTube Channel if you want to see my very first 8mm feature.) Behind Blue Eyes? Did I subconsciously come up with that title because I kept seeing Behind the Green Door on the marquee? Hmmm. I never got to see the Mitchell Brother’s movie but I always wondered, just what the hell went on behind that door?

 

Behind Blue Eyes poster

Behind Blue Eyes poster

 

Flash forward, way forward, from 1980 to 1989. I received the news that Catalina, for whom I’d been working for about one and a half years, was closing down the soundstage and moving production back to Los Angeles. It was rough saying goodbye to my friends and crew members, because I was the only one Scott Masters and John Travis had convinced general manager Chris Mann to take back with them to run production in Los Angeles. They found me a condo in West Hollywood a few blocks from Scott Masters' house and I moved in. First thing Monday morning, Masters and I drove to the Catalina offices in North Hollywood where I was reunited with Chet Thomas, the editor, who I became friends with when he came up to San Francisco to shoot his “earthquake porn,” The Big One, and I also reunited with Chi Chi LaRue whom I'd met once before. When I was in Chet’s editing suite, we were talking about musical scores. The first couple of movies I made in San Francisco were sent to Chet for editing, not allowing me to have any input on specifics, music, titles or anything. After shooting the scenes, I never saw the footage again until it was out on VHS tape. In a few days I would be starting my third movie, Hard to Be Good, about a young corn-fed stud heading off to a big city college. Costello Presley was credited for music on all of the Higgins and Catalina releases and I wanted to see if he would create a theme song with vocals for the title sequence.

 

<em>The Big One</em> and <em>Hard to Be Good</em>

Behind Blue Eyes poster

 

Chet walked me over to a random door in the middle of the warehouse, which was access to Costello’s area. “Should I knock?” I asked. “Oh hell no… You’ll freak him out.” Chet told me that the only way to communicate with Costello was to write a note with the type of music you wanted and slip it under his door. “You’ll never see him in person, he’s a bit of a recluse,” Chet explained. When William Higgins high tailed it to Amsterdam then Prague, he allowed Costello to move into a private space in the warehouse. Evidently Costello Presley only left that room after everyone went home for the night. No one ever saw him, or if they did it was a rarity. So, I wrote my note and magically a cassette tape was waiting for me one morning with the song “Beauty, Beauty,” with music and lyrics by Costello Presley. The only problem was that by the time I got that cassette in my hot little hand, Hard to Be Good was already finished and released, so I held onto it and used it in my future movie Easy Riders. (Honestly I’m not 100% sure he wrote and recorded it for me or if he had used it for something in the past and gave it to me as “new for you.”)

Again I found myself wondering what was going on “behind that door” of his to cause such a delay of my request. I’m pretty certain that it wasn’t as exciting as what was going on behind Marilyn Chambers' Green Door! (If he was living there, where did he shower?) About a year later, the Catalina offices moved to a smaller facility in Reseda. During the move, I actually saw Costello Presley for the first time! He was leaving with a couple of knapsacks filled with his belongings, as he wasn’t allowed to “shack-up” in the new building. That day, the music stopped; Costello Presley walked out of the Catalina offices and we never heard from him again. It was kind of sad. We continued re-using music from his cassette tape collection and credited “Music by Rock Hard” on the movies, until we met Sonic Seduction, who scored our movies until the company was sold to Channel 1.

 


Bio of Josh Eliot:

At the age of 25 in 1987, Josh Eliot was hired by Catalina Video by John Travis (Brentwood Video) and Scott Masters (Nova Video). Travis trained Eliot on his style of videography and mentored him on the art of directing. Josh directed his first movie, Runaways, in 1987. By 2009 when Josh parted ways with Catalina Video, he'd produced and directed hundreds of features and won numerous awards for Best Screenplay, Videography, Editing, and Directing. He was entered into the GayVN Hall of fame in 2002. 

 

You can read Josh Eliot's previous blogs for Bijou here:

Coming out of my WET SHORTS
FRANK ROSS, The Boss
Our CALIGULA Moment

That BUTTHOLE Just Winked at Me!
DREAMLAND: The Other Place
A Salty Fuck in Saugatuck
Somebody, Call a FLUFFER!
The Late Great JOHN TRAVIS, My POWERTOOL Mentor
(Un)Easy Riders
7 Years with Colt Model MARK RUTTER
Super NOVA
Whatever Happened to NEELY O’HARA?
Is That AL PARKER In Your Photo?
DOWN BY LAW: My $1,000,000 Mistake
We Waited 8hrs for a Cum Shot... Is That a World Record?
Don't Wear "Short Shorts" on the #38 Geary to LANDS END
How Straight Are You Really?

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I Know I'll Have Many Other Homes, But Never a Place Like This: A Brief-ish History of Bijou Theater Parties

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

 

Bijou exterior and upstairs map
Bijou Theater exterior and upstairs map

I first went to the Bijou Theater in 2008. It was a snowy day that March. I was in my last month of being 21 – quite an eventful year. It was weeks after I met my first real girlfriend, who I would wind up being with five and a half years. At the beginning of my 21st year, I had my first kiss. (I was a very late bloomer.) Months later, I first had sex (in the bathroom of the longstanding goth club, Neo, another Chicago landmark that closed mere months before the Bijou Theater in 2015). Shortly afterwards, I began going to S/M events and getting curious about the sexual spaces in the city.

The snowy March evening in question, I attended one of Bijou's Wayward Sisters parties with a group of friends. These parties were a blast. They generally got good turn outs and lively crowds – mostly younger art students and predominantly women, though a big mix of folks were present, including Bijou regulars. (There were intentionally never any gender restrictions at the Bijou, unlike many other gay adult businesses. Bijou owner Steven Toushin welcomed all adults and his attitude was always, “No one should be left out; it shouldn't be an exclusive space.”)

At these parties, David Boyer from Chicago's leather bar, Touche, would hand out beers in the back garden and spank the recipients. People DJed in the theater area and danced on the stage and, upstairs, explored the space, cruised, had sex, talked to each other through glory holes. That night, I wound up in the sling in the dungeon, making out with two of the girls I'd shown up with, while some Bijou regulars stood around in the dark and jacked off, a few of our other friends peeping at this display through a window. I later went outside and saw my dude friends and some other guys standing in a circle on the balcony with their dicks whipped out, comparing them while deep in conversation.

Bijou exterior and upstairs map
Bijou's upstairs

About six months after attending this party, I wound up answering a Craigslist ad seeking an editor for a gay porn company; an ad so brief it was almost cryptic. When I went in for the interview, it was a very pleasant surprise to realize it was for Bijou and that, in addition to the theater, Bijou was also a vintage gay porn company. I was a filmmaker with a particular interest in '60s sexploitation films and LGBTQ film history and a burgeoning interest in '70s porn, so this was extremely up my alley. I very much wanted the job, even more after Steven discussed the company and its history and philosophy, so I was thrilled when I picked up the call confirming that I got it.

The Wayward Sisters events were still running when I got hired at the Bijou office and, in total, operated for around a year and a half. Steven recalls once showing up at a Wayward Sisters party with his partner and doing a flogging and fisting scene in the dungeon. As they played, party-goers wandered by and started gathering, their conversations soon growing silent as they watched intently. Afterwards, a group of young women came over to talk to his partner and pay compliments about the scene. I went to one or two more of these parties before they wound up being discontinued not long after the person who originally ran them moved to Europe.

But let's back up much further, well before my time.

Wells Street in 1976 and 1970s Bijou Theater ad
Wells Street, 1976, and '70s Bijou Theater ad

The Bijou Theater opened in 1970 in Chicago's Old Town neighborhood on Wells Street, where it was in the proximity of several other gay and sexual businesses. The first film that played there was Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech, named after the Nixon dog. The next was a gay porn film. In 1980, it expanded to a second floor, with a maze of glory hole booths and a dungeon room. By then, it was open 24/7 and people partied there late into the night. Touche and other gay bars would bus folks over and the crowd from Carol's Speakeasy, located next door, regularly spilled into Bijou (sometimes for free through its back door) after hours. During these decades, the theater endured numerous police raids, obscenity busts, bomb threats, and more, but it kept running. In addition to porn films on Bijou's screen, these first few decades saw live performances on stage by many of the films' major stars, including Al Parker, Richard Locke, Lee Ryder, Peter Berlin, Jim Cassidy, and Casey Donovan (and Colt stars later on in the 2000s).

Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater
Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater, April 1980

From 2000 to 2002, Miss Tiger and her Erotic Cabaret, featuring the Bijou Boys, took to the Bijou's stage. Drag performer Miss Tiger's events were elaborately staged erotic revues featuring theatrical pieces, humor, musical numbers, strip shows, live sex acts, and more. One notable show incorporated a Gregorian chant playing as a man came out dressed as a priest and with four men dressed as choir boys. They all read from Bibles, then the choir boys took turns sucking the priest's dick on stage.

Ad for live appearances by Peter Berlin at the Bijou Theater
Ads for Miss Tiger's Erotic Cabaret

Not long after I began working at the office, a fellow employee asked me if I wanted to help out with one of the theater's strip shows. I wound up running lights and music for these each month. Another co-worker, Bryan, took over as host for a long while and he incorporated stand up comedy into the Nude Revues. We often made elaborate videos to feature during the intros and during intermission. Finally, Michael, who worked in the box office, took over hosting. He had a great rapport with the customers, which made for a comfortable flow. (At the final Nude Revue before the theater's closing in 2015, he ended the show by singing a poignant song, which brought tears to many an eye in the crowd.)

Bjiou Boys Nude Revue posters
Bijou Boys Nude Revue posters

Bijou held a big 40th anniversary party in the first months of 2011. This was hosted by David Boyer, and the packed audience took in live music performances of classic gay porn theme songs accompanied by dancers (one of whom poured orange juice all over her naked body to a very noisy cover of the theme to Arthur Bressan Jr.'s 1984 film, Juice), videos about gay porn history and Bijou's history (both viewable at the bottom of the Bijou Theater page on our website), words from Steven Toushin, a two foot tall ejaculating dick cake (made by my girlfriend), and a strip show.

Dancers, bands, and dick cake from the Bjiou's 40th anniversary

Bijou Theater 40th anniversary party photos


During the 2000s, more people were approaching Steven with interest in doing events at the theater, as the dynamic at the bars was changing. The first huge event to be staged there by organizers from outside the theater during my era in the 2010s was the release party for the vintage gay porn soundtracks of Patrick Cowley by Dark Entries Records on Valentine's Day of 2014. DJs played in the dungeon (which got crowded, hot, and sweaty) and others played downstairs on the stage while clips from the movies Cowley scored were shown on screen. This event illuminated some new possibilities for hosting parties in the space that were influential during the theater's final two years, during which we worked with many different organizers and artists.

Later that month, a friend of mine staged reading of an erotic play he'd co-written about Abraham's Lincoln alleged gay relationship. This event segued into a year or so when a friend in the same circle proposed doing monthly variety shows at the theater. I helped him run these and they were chaotic, sometimes thrilling, and often messy installments called Upstairs/Downstairs, featuring performance art, video art, experimental film, punk bands, noise musicians, installations, DJs, and stand up comedy. Some highlights: a performance featuring a corn cob strap-on covered in I Can't Believe It's Not Butter; legendary Chicago bands and performance artists taking to the stage and finding creative ways to utilize the space; a night when I had to mop milk, piss, and cum off the floor of the dungeon after the show; and a fake human sacrifice and haunted house.

Dancers, bands, and dick cake from the Bjiou's 40th anniversary

Upstairs/Downstairs poster; performance by Chicago legends Ono and a "human sacrifce"


With these and following events, inspired by the broadly mixed crowd and dynamic use of the building seen in the Wayward Sisters and Patrick Cowley parties, we tried to find more opportunities for newcomers - across a range of ages and genders - to feel welcome in the theater, while also hopefully being an interesting change of pace for the customers who had called it home for decades. Finding this balance was tough and sometimes tense, but a worthwhile endeavor. Steven was interested in people trying new and different things at the theater and he gave them pretty much free reign in what they planned (basically unheard of), though he often suggested to organizers that one successful approach to the uniqueness of the Bijou was allowing things to unfold throughout the entire venue. The staff of the theater went above and beyond during the events in these final years, which often required a huge amount of extra work.

During this span of time, S+S Project hosted an exciting show highlighting the work of many talented local artists, including installations of artwork, video art screening in the theater, and performances on stage and upstairs (featuring nudity, lard, and balloons). Afterwards, we hung around late into the night in the dungeon while DJs kept playing.

A couple of large queer dance parties were thrown by Chances Dances – one for Halloween and one for Valentine's Day. These included DJs, performers, vintage lesbian porn, and more.

The Men's Room parties also came to the Bijou during this time and hosted several events. These quickly turned massive, culminating in a sprawlingly large and debaucherous one during the IML weekend of the theater's final year. These nights featured music on both levels and erotic performance art (once incorporating fireplay and once featuring piercing play; in the latter scenario, a disco ball was strung up to the performer's cock and balls and when the needles pierced into his chest were tugged out, blood spilled down his body and onto the disco ball).

Chances Dances and Men's Room poster
Chances Dances and Men's Room posters

In the same era, we held an intimate memorial service in the theater, hosted by the folks I went to my initial Wayward Sisters party with, for their friend Wiley, a long-time Bijou regular who loved the place and had recently died. His friends shared memories and screened videos they'd made with Wiley in the theater to a small gathering that also included theater attendees and employees who'd known him.

In the fall of 2015, we got the terrible news that the Bijou was being forced to close, as the result of a legal battle with its landlord. We quickly scheduled a series of events for its final week, David Boyer running several great Touche parties and classic porn films playing 24/7 on the screen. We set up one last party on the theater's final night in operation, and I welcomed anyone who was interested in participating to contact me. We had an overwhelming response.

The night saw wild performance art in the dungeon, live music, beautiful dance performances on stage, DJs doing disco sets in the dungeon, classic porn clips in the theater, erotic videos by local artists screening upstairs, a photobooth and roaming photos by GlitterGuts (all of which you can see here), and I even, in one gorgeous moment, walked by to see a person sawing out a section of the glory hole booths while fucking someone. (Several panels were removed for posterity, Steven keeping some and the person who removed them continuing to this day to install pieces of the Bijou in art shows and other spaces around the country.)

Glitter Guts final party photos
Forced Into Feminity and more from the final party by GlitterGuts

Many friends and strangers talked and fucked. Intergenerational conversations were happening throughout the night, as many people from all different points in the theater's history (and newcomers) showed up. I finally managed to have sex in the theater (in one of the booths, with my then-girlfriend). People were so appreciative of the space, each other, and the history, and being able to be free to do whatever they wanted there, engaging enthusiastically in the way I'd always hoped for. A few asked if they could keep the faded vintage porn film posters on the wall and we took these down and gave them out. One DJ (who'd been involved in putting on several previous events) played an entire new score to the Frank Ross classic Made in the Shade in the theater, which thoughtfully included a sample of the lead performer's final line: “I know I'll have many other homes, but never a place like this.”

Final scene from Made in the Shade
Final scene from Made in the Shade (1985)

This party ran until the next morning. As the remaining stragglers lingered, I found myself alone in the dungeon as Donna Summers' Last Dance came on the playlist, and I danced and cried.

Party remnants
Party remnants

The rest of that day is a blur. I may have napped in the office or not slept at all. A few of us, including Steven, David, Bijou's custodian Shrodney, and I, had to take down the screen and clear out any remaining equipment by the end of the night before the property was turned over to its new owners. We climbed ladders to disconnect lights from lighting rigs, cleared out the projection booth, and packed everything up. Shrodney and I made a final pass through the upstairs, which was a wreck from the party (we didn't have to clean up after it for once), and removed lightbulbs and signage and took photos of the graffiti on the remaining glory hole booths. We headed down the spiral staircase for the last time and shut the door to that room, placing a peacock feather we found, left over from one of the previous night's performers, on top of the door frame.

Screen removal, peacock feather, graffiti: final photos taken in the Bijou
Screen removal, peacock feather, graffiti: final photos taken in the Bijou

We all finished our work and headed out, locking the front door for the first time in 35 years. Steven had to install a lock for this, because the front door didn't even have a functioning one – the theater had been open every day all those years, even through fires and bomb threats, since it became a 24/7 establishment in 1980.

Weeks later, a large group of my friends, moved by their experiences there, held a beautiful memorial service for the Bijou Theater in their own space, which was deeply in the spirit of the venue. I've seen its spirit continue on in gatherings of friends, sexual spaces, and porn screenings since, and hope to continue to catch glimpses of it as the years pass.

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It's Art and It's Porn: The Legacy of Arch Brown

It's Art and It's Porn: The Legacy of Arch Brown
By Madam Bubby

 

“Zee art film … “ I remember that campy scene in Valley of the Dolls where the beautiful Jennifer North played by the beautiful Sharon Tate has to get a job making soft porn films for a sleazy French movie director. Jennifer complains that a beautiful scenery and a bare bottom doesn't make art. 


That may have been the case with those many of those XXX movies about "boobies, boobies, boobies, boobies" that Neely O'Hara laments she didn't have, but the gay filmmakers that emerged from the gay liberation movement of the 1970s radically changed in many ways, at least for many communities in major urban areas, the perception that gay films were either pornographic peep shows, exercises in camp, or mainstream films where a gay character commits suicide after being outed. 

 

One of these filmmakers was Arch Brown, who made a number of gay porn classics, including the particularly notable The Night Before, which was created with and produced by Jack Deveau, Bob Alvarez, and co. of the legendary Hand in Hand Films (read more on them in our blog on Hand in Hand/Deveau, our interview with Alvarez, the Hand in Hand Films wikipedia article, or in the book Good Hot Stuff: The Life & Times of Gay Film Pioneer Jack Deveau).

 

The Night Before poster image


Arch Brown

Arch did not even set out to make gay films, much less films that - because of explicit sex - were deemed pornographic. 

He was born in Chicago as Arnold Kreuger in 1936. After attending Northwestern University, he came to New York City, the destination of so many artistically-inclined and LGBTQ people during the 1960s (and before!). His parents thought it would be respectable for him to go into television (perhaps because less overtly gay-oriented than the actual theater), but he switched majors and decided he wanted to write and direct plays. (Many in the 1970s NYC gay porn world had direct ties to theater, including Alvarez, Wakefield Poole, and Casey Donovan.)

He first worked at Circle Square in the Village, but then he switched careers and got a job in advertising. After contracting hepatitis, he had to quit that job, and ended up, after picking up a guy in Central Park who liked him and his camera expertise, began making “home movies.” But apparently his home movies weren't at the level of crude amateur ones of the peep show variety, and they ended up showing in the private gay movie club, Cinema 7. 

According to an interview in the 1970s gay magazine Michael's Thing, “Andy Warhol's Interview got to him, and Variety sent one of their guys downtown to take a look at these new-fangled movies.”

I wonder if Warhol saw something of his own transformation of new realist techniques such as collage used in his own pop art in Arch Brown's concretely realistic, but also surrealism-infused, films of gay men's sexual relationships. 

These films were realistic because the sex was actually occurring on the screen, themes and characters (and their emotions) came out of real gay life of the time and place, and they also creatively used materials from everyday life at that time, ranging from pop music to advertising. 

Arch Brown perfected the above approaches when he collaborated with Hand in Hand on The Night Before (available from Bijou on DVD and Streaming; images featured below). 

 

This surreal porn classic offers a funny, touching, and realistic look at lovers and their emotional responses to both jealousy and carnal lust. Casting a group of nine men of varied types and cock sizes, the film begins with two average guys, Hank (Coke Hennessy) and Paul (Michael Cade - aka omni-present man of many hats in the NYC gay porn world Frank Ross), who meet and fall in love in New York City when Hank helps photographer Paul with a shoot in the park. 

 

Cast of The Night Before

At Paul's place, they check out photos that he's taken, including one of Paul with another man, both naked. Hank and Paul's ensuing relationship and lust develops through dinners, visiting an art gallery, picking out a kitten, and making out in the dark room. 

They have their first touching and intimate sexual encounter after this (with no live sound, but a great orchestral score by frequent Hand in Hand composer and Arch Brown collaborator David Earnest): Paul passionately eats out Hank's asshole and rolls around the bed with him to fall into a 69 session. Paul later stands and humps Hank's throat before filling his butt with cock; they go to bed after sex. 

Sounds simple enough, but at this point Brown takes us into the surreal world of Hank's dreams (or paranoid fantasies). In his dreams, Hank watches Paul hungrily sucking one man's thick prick after seducing him and fucking another man's tight asshole, while Hank himself sucks, then fucks, a delivery man in the basement of a building. 

Also occurring in this dream sexual montage are: Paul fucking the hairy ass of the kitten seller on a roof, Paul and Hank painting each other's naked bodies and kissing in a shower, cocks appearing through curtains to be sucked, two professional dancers in a vintage Advocate cover photo coming to life and dancing naked to an operetic score, and Hank participating in an orgy where a cock emerges from a fruit bowl and a massive double-headed dildo seems to fantastically penetrate entire bodies. 

Dancers in The Night Before
Orgy scene from The Night Before


The dream depicts what Brown terms "lover's paranoia," the kind of insecurity one feels when one falls too hard for someone too fast. 

What's interesting here is how some elements of the film were influenced by Brown's own life (a camera shoot in the park), and how artistic mediums (in this case, painting and photography, which themselves have always undergone a rather fraught relationship!) can both concretely and symbolically convey various dynamics of sexual attraction. 

In 1974, according to Variety, this classic gay porn film was one of the 50 top-grossing movies at the 55th Street Playhouse in New York City, and The Advocate said of this Arch Brown masterpiece, "proves that a little Cocteau, a dash of Fellini, and sex do mix well." 

 

For a deeper dive behind the scenes of The Night Before, check out this podcast episode from Ask Any Buddy.

 

Vintage 55th Street Playhouse movie ads


Starting in 1976, Brown made a series of films for P.M. Productions, including the gay porn spoof of Charlie's AngelsHarley's Angels, and also classics like All Tied UpFive Hard PiecesHot FlashesMuscle BoundPier Groups (which we now carry on DVD & VOD), and Dynamite, which often included popular stars like Jack Wrangler, Jayson MacBride, Keith Anthoni, and Eric Ryan among their cast members. His other work outside of P.M. and Hand in Hand includes such titles as (Bijou releases) Trips and So Many Men So Little Time.

Vintage posters for Dynamite and Harley's Angels


Brown said in his interview in Michael's Thing, that he didn't want to be political; he basically wanted to make a good fuck film, but his films aren't just two guys fucking, nor are they apolitical. They come out of a sociopolitical movement that wanted to carve out a visible niche in New York's arts community, and they also, without hitting the viewer over the head with slogans, realistically show the challenges of gay sexual relationships in a world just starting to break down closets of fear and hiding. (Just observe the interesting commentary on the NYC piers' significance to LGBTQ culture and their looming demolition in Pier Groups and the psychological dimensions of out-ness and gay romance and sexuality in The Night Before.)

Brown himself took advantage of a new climate of tolerance.  According to his obituary (he died in 2012), in the late 1970s, Brown began writing plays, which he continued to do into the 2000s. His first play, News Boy, was his most successful, receiving an Off Broadway production in 1979; it focused on the coming out of the gay son of a conservative politician. 

A 1998 comedy by Brown, FREEZE!, received the Eric Bentley Playwriting Prize that year and has been produced several times. 

During the last decade of his life, Brown founded and ran the Thorny Theater in Palm Springs, which mounted several gay-themed plays each season; the theater closed in 2010. 

After his partner, Bruce Brown, died in 1993 (Arch used his lover's last name professionally), Brown established the Arch and Bruce Brown Foundation, which ran until several years ago, giving grants to queer playwrights and to theater groups mounting LGBTQ-themed plays, as well as sponsoring periodic literary competitions that awarded prizes to playwrights and fiction writers whose works are “based on, or inspired by, a historic person, culture, event, or work of art.” 

 

And, fascinatingly, an unpublished manuscript was discovered shortly after Arch Brown's death and published in 2017 as his memoir, A Pornographer.

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