Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Between 47 and 48

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.

bustalk, 1981

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.

circa 1980s

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.

photobucket, 1993

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

Show Follies


Anonymous said...

Thanks for that great story!

I marvel at the disney-fication of Times Square and how fast it happened.


ibrosey said...

IMDB says "The Sacketts" aired in May 1979. An ad for it is in the upper left of the first 80s photo.

ibrosey said...

Great, evocative tour, by the way. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Some of your best work yet, Jeremiah. It's just amazing to see you so activated by your commentary and observations that you've become an archaeologist of sorts. Please don't ever stop!

Anonymous said...

To anonymous at 8:11am,

There's actually a good book called "Times Square Roulette: Remaking the City Icon" that chronicles the transformation - actually went on over several decades.

Also, Taxi Driver is screening at Film Forum, restored, if anyone wants to bask in this era on the big screen.

Ed said...

While its true that the actual Disney corporation has a presence in the "new" Times Square, I hate the term "Disneyfication" to describe the transformation of much of New York because Disney World is actually a pretty interesting place. There is at least more to see there than delis and mediocre restaurants.

Mykola ( Mick) Dementiuk said...

Also on 47 St & Broadway was the Orleans movie house showing X rated films. Outside, on the front wall, was a mimic of a balcony from New Orleans, hence its name. It must have been known by a different name at one time because it was much too old. The stairway inside was very lush and wide, leading up to a large room but there was never anything in that room so you followed the stairs to a different level and came upon the movie theater. I can't remember if there was a different entrance to the theater area, seems that there would be one, because you entered the theater from the very top of the stairs, looking downwards. You would go down, pass to the other side then go back up again, on the other side. There would be a door, which you entered and find yourself surrounded by sexual partners of every age, from the very young to the very old. God, did I spend a lifetime in that room in just a few hours, whew! As it was, I never did see any X rated film in that movie house, had different interests, you might say.

Marty Wombacher said...

What a great tour through time! One of your best posts ever! Great writing and photos as always. That last shot sadly says it all. Bright lights, big clean orange walls. Time to go back in time and redeem that coupon.

Laura Goggin Photography said...

Awesome, thanks for the cheap night in Times Square! I feel I must go wash my hands now... ;)

Jeremiah Moss said...

wish we all really could go back for that tour!

ibrosey, that Sacketts billboard confounded me. i think maybe it went up in 1979 and then no one bothered to take it down for awhile. but i could be wrong.

BirdOnAWire said...

I just wanted to add that the beauty salon above the Chinese place, Jaffry's, was the place my mother and her mother went to have their hair straightened from maybe the '50s through the '80s (they did to me too until I was old enough to oppose it). It was run by an old man, Mr. Jaffry, who had a top-secret patent on his foul-smelling straightening formula, which caused my head to burn, itch and peel, but left my hair perfectly straight. The women who worked for him had to sign a lifelong contract to not divulge his secret! Of course since I was a child I didn't notice all the porn stuff surrounding the salon.

Ennuipoet said...

Thanks for the time travel, Jerimiah. My first visit was in 1988 getting off a bus at PABT, 18 and in town on a weekend pass from Fort Dix NJ. I was terrified and mesmerized by Times Square. When I came back in 2004, I was just horrified.

Mark said...


I'd like to go back even further!

Jeremiah Moss said...

BirdonaWire, thank you for sharing your memories about the beauty salon. i thought maybe it was just a supplier. love it when readers fill in the blanks.

Ken Mac said...

That was so evocative. It should be animated by the original Disney dudes.
Taxi Driver at Film Forum is a new print using what I was told is a "4K scanning profess to bring out more details." I just thought it was way too bright. Taxi Driver should not be bright. Even though the world is a darker place today. Again, a great piece I could see in the New Yorker

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks Ken. i was thinking about seeing the new print of Taxi Driver, but maybe not if it's bright and shiny.

ish said...

Great urban archeology here. Nice work.

On another block of Seventh Avenue up there, one of the ones now long ripped down, there was a kind of gay theme park sex club...several floors, sparse attendance...early/mid 1980s. My memory doesn't remind me which block or what its name was.

Anonymous said...

As a regular reader of your blog, I was thrilled to see my dad's business in your photos - he's the owner of Jaffry's. Mr. Jaffry owned the salon and my dad was a chemist who came up with the Hair Straitner formula. Jack Jaffry and my dad were in business together until Mr. Jaffry died and my father continued to make the hair straightener to sell to other salons and distributors until he retired. I remember going to that block when I was a kid so my dad could stop by the salon. Even then I thought, this is some rough area.

Jeremiah Moss said...

thanks for writing, Anon, i love it when family members of the places here write in. is Jaffry's where hair-straightening began?

Anonymous said...

No...the practice of hair straightening goes back a ways. There's a great scene in Spike Lee's movie Malcolm X where he straightens his hair - and it hurts pretty bad!