My investigation into the eastern block of 7th Avenue between 47th and 48th Streets began with the secret porno theater of Playland Gifts and continued through a look at the artifacts of the Mayfair movie palace. These discoveries made me curious about the whole block.
It's a rarity because it's one of the few blocks in Times Square that has not been recently demolished for glass towers. Every building standing on it has been standing for a long time (except the Mayfair, they rose after 1910). You can actually imagine the past here.
I've put together pretty much every image of this block I could find from the past 40 years. Let's take a tour of what used to be, and what is still hidden behind the billboards and souvenir shops.
It's nighttime on Times Square. Standing on the northern end of the block, on the corner of 48th and 7th Ave., start off the night with an Orange Julius and a hot dog to charge your batteries. Next, duck into the Doll theater, where the "Sexsational School for Sex Arts" beckons you above a sign for "Live XXX Acts." Take a seat inside and enjoy the double features interspersed with live sex performances, both onstage and in the audience members' laps.
Russ Kick writes that The Doll "was basically a mellow, secure place. Less assault-prone than 8th Avenue's Venus, although Japanese tourists were frequent targets for toilet muggings." Dom Deluise cruises by--he gives you an autograph. "The projectionist sold Percodans," says Kick, "the live sex-show teams sold coke and pot." Choose your poison.
Head up the stairs to the Satin Ballroom for "dime-a-dance" Topless Dancing and more. "There were rumors that Rod Stewart and Robert De Niro" showed up here, says Sleazegrinder, "but that De Niro just wanted to engage in conversation with one of the girls." You watch the dancers and soon slip into a dark corner with one of them. The room smells of sweat and cheap perfume.
After your adventure at the Doll, you're hungry again. Where to eat? Wrote the Hungover Gourmet, "As with everywhere, you had a McDonald's, probably the worst one in the city. It was so rough you wouldn't be surprised to find a dead baby left in a shopping bag under a table. The other culinary offerings were slim pickins for such a tourist mecca: paper thin Boar's Head pastrami sandwiches from a deli, a thoroughly nauseating cheap Chinese lunch special from Peking Express, which thoughtfully offered a dollar off to the Doll Theater's patrons."
The dollar-off coupon will come in handy next time you visit the Doll, so you stop for egg rolls right next door at Peking Express before continuing on under the marquee for the Spanish-language Cine 1 & 2.
Your Spanish is rusty, but the images onscreen speak a universal language. Time speeds up here, the 1970s roll into the 1980s, the Cine 1 & 2 becomes The Fantasy Twin. Upstairs, the old Aaron Banks Karate Academy has closed and porn has moved in--more movies, now showing man-on-man action. The upper-floor windows have been plastered over with a modern screen of concrete, casting you into a deeper darkness.
The egg rolls, hot dog, and Orange Julius turn in your stomach.
Time speeds up again, a few more years, another decade, and the theater is taken over by its growing neighbor, becoming part of the sprawling Show Follies Center. The place boasts 4 theaters, 8 XXX movies, all for one low price. Table dancing! All nude revue!
With a pocketful of quarters and a fistful of dollars, you spend a long time in this place. Up and down the stairs, the mini theaters seem to multiply. It's a maze of smut. As you move through the throbbing gloom, you catch fragments of your reflection in the mirrored diamonds on the wall. You don't quite recognize yourself.
It's been a long night. You stop next door for coffee and a bear claw at Old Fashion Donuts. As you lift the coffee cup to your face, you notice your hand smells like cheap perfume, but you can't recall which body it came from. You consider a legit movie at the Embassy to cleanse your palate. When you get outside, the sun is rising on the avenue. As your eyes adjust to daylight, you see it's all gone.
You turn around. The Donuts shop and the Embassy have been replaced with souvenir stores. You look up--all the buildings are covered with billboards, several stories high.
Show Follies, too, is a souvenir shop, with only a few mirrored pieces of glass remaining to mark what used to be. You rush inside to find more mirrored glass among the "New York Princess" t-shirts and snow globes. Downstairs you find a forgotten porno theater, a ripped screen, the seats piled with t-shirts, seats where you sat just last night. Two store clerks grab you by the arms and haul you up the stairs, tossing you out onto the sidewalk.
The Doll today
Next door, Peking Express has become another souvenir shop. And the Doll? The Doll is a Smiler's deli, its front piled with billboards. All you recognize are the crenelations at the top of the building, poking up from the heads of Guess models.
You step inside. The girls are gone. The live sex stage has been replaced with a salad bar. Up the stairs you find nothing but a room full of tables. No dancers. No stink of sweat. A couple is eating their breakfast beneath the fluorescent tubes. They look at you as if you'd just stumbled in from a netherworld. And then they look away. In your pocket, a dollar-off coupon from Peking Express tells you it wasn't a hallucination. It was real.
Inside The Doll today