At the Adonis

posted by guest blogger Miriam Webster

Adonis Theater, NYC
The Adonis Theater (photo source: back2stonewall)

The history of the popular 1970s/1980s gay porn theater, the Adonis Theater - the setting and subject of the classic Hand in Hand Films release A Night at the Adonis (Jack Deveau, 1978) - is discussed in an article we recently came across at back2stonewall. The article states that the Adonis Theater was originally built as the Tivoli Theater in 1921. Initially a vaudeville house, it then became a movie theater before its final incarnation as a porn theater/cruising palace. The Adonis was such a hot venue in the 1970s that, the article states, “it was hard to find a seat... but that was all that was hard to find. Patrons would literally avoid the seats under the balcony's edge at busy times for fear of being showered with semen from high above.”
 

Adonis Theater interior
Adonis Theater interior (photo source: back2stonewall)

Adonis Theater balcony
Adonis Theater interior

Deveau's film (which Bijou is excited to announce that we are currently finishing re-restoring for a new and improved re-release next week) is an incredibly well-made, hot, entertaining, and historically intriguing look at this venue. The film does an excellent job capturing - in attractive photography that roams the building as it follows its ensemble cast - the physical layout of the space and the atmosphere created there, as well as featuring the theater's actual staff (their real ticket taker appears in the film in a memorable cameo) and detailing its cruising and sex rituals.
 

A Night at the Adonis poster
Adonis Theater sign in A Night at the Adonis
Adonis Theater ticket taker in A Night at the Adonis
Queue of men waiting to get into the theater in A Night at the Adonis
Men cruising on the balcony in A Night at the Adonis
Theatergoers and staff in A Night at the Adonis

An insightful IMDb review points to some other notable ways the film illustrates some of the nuances of New York City gay culture in the 1970s. Characters bump into each other and have roundabout connections at this particular night at the Adonis, and, through this, the film deals with “both the very local, small-town 'everyone knows everyone else' nature of the then queer community and the odd coincidences and synchronicities that can happen when cruising takes place.”

One of the lead characters (played by hunky Malo, of porn and mainstream film), passes up a pick up attempt by his boss (porn superstar Jack Wrangler) with the intention of staying home to read a hefty volume, Gay American History, but, as this review says, the book only “tells him tales of sodomites of fallen times who were persecuted, tortured, and murdered by the state; Malo's subsequent visit to the Adonis makes a new kind of American gay history, which is... itself a vanished, historical past now."
 

Malo during the filming of A Night at the Adonis
Malo during the filming of A Night at the Adonis

The review points out that Deveau's film manages to “communicate the ways in which human beings locate themselves in history and space, therein creating themselves through a shared culture” and how an ambitious new employee character embodies “a bit of a prophesy of the future, wherein gay normative self-images in the West will be shaped by business-studies kids out to make bucks from the new gay communities.”

A Night at the Adonis played at the Adonis Theater, itself, and the back2stonewall article quotes an internet posting about the unusual experience of watching it on that very screen: “it was rather odd to be in the exact theater that was being depicted... sort of a movie coming to life all around you. What was happening on the screen was also happening in real life as you were watching the film.”
 

Guys cruising in the theater seats in A Night at the Adonis
Guys cruising in the theater seats in A Night at the Adonis

A Night at the Adonis is one of NYC-based studio Hand in Hand Films' productions set in and about a specific gay New York City sex space/landmark. Another is Times Square Strip (1983), set at the Gaiety Theatre, which focuses on the on and off stage antics of the dancers at the Gaiety Male Burlesk.
 

The Gaiety Theatre exterior
Gaiety Male Burlesk ad
The Gaity Theatre and Gaiety Male Burlesk ad

Times, like Adonis, is an ensemble piece set over the course of one night, full of breezy, quippy dialogue, and - though it isn't as full a portrait of its location as is Adonis (it occasionally ventures outside the building for sexual escapades) – it spends considerable time depicting the performances taking place on stage.
 

Dancers performing in Times Square Strip
The MC in Times Square Strip
Dancers and the MC in Times Square Strip

Wikipedia notes that The Gaiety Theatre was open for nearly 30 years, from 1976 until 2005, and, according to a 2005 New York Times article, attracted mainstream attention “after photos of Madonna and some of the club's dancers were included in her book Sex (1992).” These visitors included John Waters, Divine, Andy Warhol, RuPaul, Diane Keaton, and Shirley MacLaine. The club had an “unrivaled ability to survive, despite the strict zoning laws instituted during the Giuliani administration, thanks to a location just outside a restricted area.” Wikipedia also mentions a few well-known dancers who performed at the theater, including porn stars Joey Stefano, Johnny Harden, Kip Noll, and Leo Ford.

The Adonis Theater, however, did not survive New York City's changes to Times Square, with Mayor Ed Koch “using the AIDS epidemic to clean up Times Square” and “trying to get the theater closed down to tidy it up for the building of the monolith Worldwide Plaza, soon to be built on the next block.” The Adonis attempted to relocate to another theater building at this time, but did not last long there and this second Adonis was closed “in 1994 by the City's Health Department after a raid revealed high-risk sexual activities taking place among patrons.” The original Adonis was demolished in 1995, though a vivid portrait of what it once was remains in Deveau's classic film. In watching it, you almost feel as if you are there.
 

Bathroom sex in A Night at the Adonis
Jayson MacBride and Malo exiting the theater smiling in A Night at the Adonis
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Bisexual Boxer Emile Griffith and a Deadly Fight

Emile Griffith

On March 24, 1962, bisexual (or gay) boxer Emile Griffith knocked out his opponent, Benny Paret, at Madison Square Garden. In round 12, Griffith trapped Paret in a corner; by that time, his opponent had stopped punching back. Griffith held his opponent's shoulder to keep him in position while using his free hand to hit Paret.
 

Griffith knocks out Paret

The audience was shocked; the famous author Norman Mailer, who wrote about it in his essay, “The Death of Benny Paret,” claimed it was the hardest he had ever seen a man hit another man. At this point, the referee, Ruby Goldstein, stepped in, an awarded Griffith a win by a “technical knockout.” Paret slid to the floor; he was carried out on a stretcher and died ten days later in a hospital.

There's a back story here to this admittedly brutal incident, and it ties into the intense homophobia of the time, and the double life Emile Griffith had to lead. He visited the gay bars during that period, and he even hung out in the then-seedy Times Square where, the time before the fight, according to Donald McRae's book A Man's World: The Double Life of Emile Griffith, he “laughed and danced with the Hispanic gay crowd and the old drag queens.”

Before this fight, Emile was able to live this life: be a man's man in the hypermasculine world of boxing, and apparently hold court with the queens of the period on women's hat styles (in fact, he started out working in a women's hat factory, and his shirtless physique (he requested permission to work that way in the heat) caught the attention of the owner, who got him involved in the world of boxing).
 

Emile Griffith news clipping

But, in the weigh-in before the fight, Paret called Griffith a maricón, which means faggot. Members of the press and officials from the New York Boxing Commission witnessed this exchange. And, in pre-fight interviews with the press, Paret's manager portrayed Griffith as effeminate and thus an unworthy opponent for the hypermasculine Paret. Paret also touched Griffith's ass when he called him the slur, apparently enraging him.

The consequences of this homophobia were indeed deadly. Even though Griffith told a television interviewer that he was proud to be the welterweight champion again, and expressed hopes for Paret's recovery, Paret's death resulted in insults and hate mail. And many sources claim that even though Griffith continued to box for 15 more years, he lost his enthusiasm for the sport. Emile blamed himself for the incident; it always haunted him.

Griffith married a woman in 1971 by the name of Mercedes Donastorg. After retiring from boxing in 1977, he worked as a corrections officer at juvenile detention facility in New Jersey.

But Griffith was still struggling with his overall identity. In 1992, he was viciously beaten in New York City after leaving a gay bar. He was in the hospital for four months with serious kidney damage, and under the care of his adoptive son, began a slow mental and physical decline, but also some serious soul-searching.

He told Sports Illustrated in 2005, “I love men and women the same, but if you ask me which is better … I like women.”

Yet, another reporter for the New York Times, Bob Hebert, about that time, asked him if he was gay, and Griffith struggled to answer. He said he no longer wanted to hide, and he wanted to ride that year in the New York Gay Pride Parade.
 

Emile Griffith older

Other interviews with him do emphasize that he did not like labels about his identity.

Yet the one label everyone remembers him by I think should not just be that deadly fight, but his place in the International Boxing Hall of Fame; no other boxer in boxing history had fought more championship rounds, not even the great Muhammad Ali.

Emile Griffith died on July 23, 2013 at the age of 75.

There's a complex legacy here in Griffith's struggles and triumphs, and documentaries and plays and books and even an opera have struggled to understand and express a turbulent double life that exploded savagely in a literal arena which glorifies a violence it claims to sublimate.
 

Ring of Fire, a film about Emile Griffith
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