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Forgotten Gay History – The Infamous Adonis Movie Theater NYC (1975 – 1988)

The 1,433-seat Adonis Theater, was originally built as the Tivoli Theater in 1921 was one of a kind.  A grandly opulent movie theater on Eighth Avenue and 51st Street which in its declining year was revamped for stud romping, porn and anonymous sex.  It was a cinema palace that survived by giving Doris Day and Rock Hudson (oh the irony of it all) the pink slip and brought in Jack Wrangler, Kip Knoll, Richard Locke and the Falcon Video-Pac guys to survive and became one of New York’s most popular and infamous adult all male theaters in the 1970’s and early 80’s.

Not much history remains of the Adonis in books or on the internet just a few fading memories of those who who wandered its dark interior in days and nights of an era long gone by.

The Adonis came complete with a grand lobby and a balcony flanked by solid two-story Ionic columns.  Even as men prowled the aisles looking for sex the vast grandness of the theater could not be overlooked. Even Variety, even went so far to peg it as the largest and most lavish gay porn theaters in New York City.

In the late 70’s the Adonis was a sexual amusement part.  While the images of Jack Wrangler and Movies by Joe Gage flickered on the screen men in the aisles, the seats, the balcony and anywhere they could would act out their own sexual fantasies.  Sundays were so crowded that it was hard to find a seat in Adonis 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 above.

The Adonis  was crowded at most times of the day, and night. Sleazy, and dark, it attracted a fun, fast crowd. Instead of popcorn you could buy small tubs of lube, cockrings and poppers at the concession stand.  If one didn’t have the $7 admission you could easily meet someone in front of the theater to pay your entrance fee.

The Adonis’ house manager had a stake in the career of iconic (and short) porn star Jack Wrangler, and in 1977 a  film called A Night at the Adonis  was shot in the theater.  Theater employees such as Bertha the cashier acted in bit roles, and as soon as a print was readied it was on the screen at The Adonis.

A net posting by Oliver Penn recalls the movie.  . . “it was rather odd to be in the exact theatre that was being depicted on the screen, 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.”

But the theaters size, age, and the outbreak of AIDS epidemic took its toll.  There were also serious structural problems,  in the mid-’80’s the balcony collapsed. Luckily no one was hurt

Real estate developers that had a stake in the neighborhood  and Mayor Ed Koch who was using the AIDS epidemic to clean up Times Square was 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. One prospective tenant, a a homophobic law firm law firm Cravath, Swain & Moore, stipulated that the theaterhad to close. The plaza’s developer, William Zeckendorf, subsequently bought up the site, and that was the beginning of the end of the Adonis.

Later a bizarre  postscript to this story surfaced when a partner in said law firm David Schwartz—instrumental in shuttering the Adonis—was murdered by an 18-year-old male prostitute whom he’d spent the day with at his Connecticut summer home and then taken to a sleazy Bronx motel. Schwartz had been stabbed 27 times.  It turned out that this moral pillar of the community liked to engage in rough gay sex and had been living a double life for years.

But The Adonis did live on for a bit and transferred its name to another theater owned by  further south on Eighth Avenue, at 44th Street which was quickly outfitted with campy Greek statues and roman columns but it wasn’t the same.  Not long after the city of New York was doing its best close down every gay sex establisment in NYC and “new” Adonis was eventually closed in 1994 by the City’s Health Department after a raid revealed high-risk sexual activities taking place among patrons.

The grand old Adonis would stand like a grey ghost until the spring of 1995 on its corner of 8th Avenue and 51st Street until it was demolished. Now its memory is a ghostly reminder of the heyday of gay sexual freedom in a now scared and scary post-AIDs world.

 

 

 

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Will Kohler

Will Kohler is a noted LGBT historian, journalist and owner of Back2Stonewall.com. A longtime gay activist, Will fought on the front lines of the AIDS epidemic with ACT-UP and continues fighting today for LGBT acceptance and full equality. Will’s work has been referenced in notable media venues as MSNBC and BBC News, The Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Hollywood Reporter, and Raw Story,

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43 thoughts on “Forgotten Gay History – The Infamous Adonis Movie Theater NYC (1975 – 1988)”

  1. I swear, gay men seemed to be better looking in those days. I wonder if it was because the community was so much more about youth and we all looked and dressed alike? We also lived a much more secretive life and it lent to the excitement. I really miss those days.

    1. You’re right. The guys were more macho looking then and they could have been young say early 20’s but they looked manly yet mature and don’t forget sexy.

  2. I remember the Adonis from when I was just a student at Manhattan School of Music. At 19, I was very popular there and always cruised the aisles and balcony once a week after class. My favorite was Rodney the doorman. He was a friendly straight guy who always looked out for me and wanted to move to Florida. We became fast friends, an unusual combination of a white upper middle class kid and a Black low class middle aged man. New York was very different in the 1980’s, a magical place where people were not as greedy or mean as they are today. I walk by the locale of the old Adonis now and see a Rite Aid and a bank beneath a luxury apartment tower called The Longacre. I’d much rather have the Adonis back. New York sure has declined since Koch and Juliani who ruined this once great town. Thank goodness we still have San Francisco to escape to.

  3. I remember the Adonis fondly. i was about 20 when i started going in the late 1970s and still remember many great sexual episodes and a few funny ones. it seemed like “Le Beau Mec” played there forever. I remember a very popular movie too about a runner, but don’t remember the name. the song “love is in the air” was part of it though. I miss those days. I’d take the train in from Long Island, hit Times Square and end up at the Adonis or The David.

  4. I went to the Adonis only once, around 1980. My boyfriend and I were first-time tourists in New York City. I remember a big, dark, spooky, empty theater. My boyfriend and I had a good time in the top row of the balcony. Two or three other guys watched at a little distance. It seemed like the little group were the only people there.

    I have always imagined William Zeckendorf sitting down in front of the owner of the Adonis, opening his checkbook, and saying, “How much should I make the check for?”

  5. I went to the Adonis in my early and mid 20’s, from the late 80’s to the early 90’s. It was a remarkable place to cruise, with a wide variety of guys. The fact that it was so large you could actually have an encounter without a crowd (unless that’s what you wanted) was a major plus. The other midtown theater, the David, was too small for comfortable cruising. Sadly, the younger generation will not know how fun this kind of cruising could be; they are too spoiled with the internet. There are still a few local peep show stores around, but the guys who go there are older like me.

  6. The first time I discovered the Adonis was in 1985 when I was 25.It was magical.I fell in love with the place,so in 1986 I managed to draw a ground plan with the purpose to make a small scale handicraft someday! I saw for the first time Jeff Stryker in 3 films (first screening in December 1987 & January 1988): Power Tool, Stryker Force, In Hot Pursuit. I will not forget the real action in the tea room in the foyer.New York will just never be the same without it!

  7. I have a copy of the film “A Night at the Adonis” which was difficult to obtain as you can imagine.About ten years ago I was able to find a video- bookstore in Hudson street,Greenwich Village,which specialized in gay culture.The year after,the store closed.I rented it,bought a VC player and cables,connected it to the VCR at home(I was visiting) and recorded it. There was no other way. The important thing about the film,certainly,is not the sex,which is indifferent,but rather the few glimpses of that haven for gays: The spacious entrance with intricate marble panels,the glass doors, the drinking fountain on the wall,erased from memory, the oval cut-out in the “foyer”,the bar which in my time had been moved under the artwork by Tom of Finland,the glimpses into the toilets with their tiles and modern wash-basins…
    The toilet behind the”painting”had a small lobby with small,colored mirrors instead of tiles,reminiscent of a disco club.It invited you to be there-not to leave as soon as you could.The toilets were home-clean and there was a discreet berry-like smell in the air,coming from some kind of detergent.
    With the music coming from the screen,I almost felt part of the action.What
    a civilized place the Adonis was! Perhaps because it was run by a lady.

  8. I started going to the Adonis starting in December of 1975 just when I came of age and I remember it well. The excitement was awesome and the action was great from the balcony to the seats to the bathrooms. The guys were sexy back then and many looked macho and I think the last time I was there was back in 1980. Besides the Adonis there was a slew of other gay movie theatres such as the David, Kings, Eros I, the Gaiety, and the Jewel on 3rd Avenue, and don’t forget about the great bathhouses such as the Club on 1st Ave and 1st street, St. Marks, Mans Country. The gay community has more rights today than back then but there was a sense of excitement and a new sense of freedom in the mid to late 70’s that will never be captured again and for that I miss those days.

  9. My first time to The Adonis was the summer of 1982, I was 19 from Texas and visiting New York for the first time. Went back to NY the following September and again went there. Left and went around the corner to The King Cinema (on 49th Street) and had oral sex for the first time in my life! Wow, the memories!

  10. back then I lived on 51rst st between 8th and ninth.i didn’t know it then, but future star john goodman lived across the street.1975 was the year I finally came out.i used to go to the Adonis during the day. I almost always met someone and at least twice I took young guys in their twenties home with me. I once had sex with a boy in one of the men’s room stalls,and another boy in the next stall was standing on the toilet watching us. I ended up taking the boy standing on the toilet home with me .he was a Korean boy and did not really speak English,but we had fun anyway.coming out in the seventies was unbelievable.we had bars,discos ,the baths and there was always the streets.oh well!

    1. It comes from a map of midtown Manhattan “in detailed axonometric projection” back in 1985.It is a pity I never took a picture from 50th st. The Adonis was not just the facade.By the way does anybody have an idea what there was behind all that glass? A foyer,offices? It must have been a big room over the entrance hall but I never found the way to go there…

  11. As a 22yo in the late 70’s I came ‘out’ at the Adonis and had my first gay sex experience there. It was in the balcony with a slightly older, thirties, very handsome man who was wearing a wedding band. He looked like a suburban type on his way home after work. I was kind of nervous but he gave me one phenomenal blow job that led me to return many times for more. The most sex took place in the balcony and you always sat one seat in from the aisle if you wanted someone to join you. Usually in little time someone did. I remember once seeing this very macho hunk in a blue parka getting blown at the top on the balcony on a platform and when I got closer I saw about six guys kneeling in the dark and lined up waiting to be next for him. He just nonchalantly watched the movie. This place was a little raunchy but a blast of sexual adventure and fun..

  12. Thank you to all the guys who responded and told their stories here. It was a special time in gay history and I wish I could have been there to cruise, too. Unfortunately, only visited the David once when my Navy ship was there in 1977. Your remembrances make it real and as I expected, they’ll always be with you. What joy and fun you guys had!

  13. This seems an invitation for us to share some memories.Well,back in 1985 my first time at the Adonis, I discovered the magic of the glory holes in the toilets on the 2nd floor.Two cubicles divided by a wooden panel in a small inner room.To get there you had to pass through a bigger entrance hall with mirror-tiles like a disco and push two saloon type doors to get to the cubicles.It was interesting to look through the glory hole to see what the other person was doing.One afternoon,next to me sat a handsome blond boy slightly younger than I was. I remember glancing at him not too obviously as he was sucking a very handsome young man with a beautiful cock.I have a picture of him looking at me through the glory hole with white come dripping from his mouth.After a while, it was my turn.A man in his thirties with a big fat cock entered my cubicle.I remember they used to flash it before entering.Now it was my “friend’s” turn to watch and I enjoyed giving him a show. Later on,another handsome youth stood in front of his cubicle stroking his small-to-medium cock taking his time.We both watched him as the guy was cute indeed,ever so slowly stroking himself, not knowing whether he was waiting for a nod to get in.Suddenly,he sent streaks of sperm towards my friend.The scene left me dizzy for some time afterwards because I was unprepared for something like that.As my friend proceeded to clean some drops off his new white shoes,I wondered what the other guy meant: You might reject me but I take no chances? When my friend left,he gave me one last look. Sharing this story makes me feel better.I hope it’s acceptable and won’t be deleted…

    1. If you want to read a first-rate account of a night at the Adonis,I am giving you this bit of information: In the early eighties I used to read Variations magazine,a publication of Penthouse.I do have the “article” in album with photocopies but I am not sure of the year.1981? 1982? The title of the article is Backroom Sex at the Cinema and I hope somebody wil be able to find it and upload it….

    1. Ah,yes.Finally I got it right! Now,guys look into that picture.The year is 1936,I have looked it up on google,it is before the War and I just wish I could walk past those doors and see that interior in its heyday! For some reason it has such an allure,I do not care about the sex,it is the building I want back.I want to discover what is behind the glass paneling,it is more a psychological trip,not an adventure.I was there in early 1988 and I remember a sign prohibiting access upstairs:”balcony closed for repairs”…

  14. When I had my uncle in New York and I could visit,because now it is out of the question,I also used to go to The New York Public Library,188 Madison Ave.In the basement they keep magazines where many people use to go for research.There is also a microfilm room.Now,if this site is serious about researching,you can also try the Picture Collection which is almost opposite the “headquarters” of the Library(41 st.&5 ave.) You need books about theaters,of course.Years ago,I visited the “Playpen” and on one of the walls in the ground floor there was a very good ground plan designed by a firm,I don’t remember what kind,law firm?urban planning dept.?You New Yorkers will come up with something,I am sure(and post it here!)

    1. I mean it was a plan drawn by a professional,perhaps for their own security reasons.Perhaps there was a similar one at the Adonis. But,just in case,I have kept my own detailed one guys,back in 1986.I will polish it and upload it just for those of you who never saw my beloved Adonis. Be a little patient…

  15. As a 20 year old, I got my very first bj in an aisle of the Adonis back in 1981. I took a long time, I guess, because by the time I finished, a mob scene had gathered around us. I couldn’t believe how good it felt to ejaculate in a mouth, and was surprised that the guy who had just sucked me off didn’t seem to expect me to return the favor. When I got home I checked my still slimy cock and saw that I had a subdural hematoma on the head – the bj itself did kind of feel like an industrial vacuum cleaner.

  16. Since I was just visiting,I went few times to the Adonis but enough to feel that NY just wouldn’t be the same without it. It was the fantasyland.Thirty years ago, in April 1986,I spent a long afternoon there,sitting in the toilets (I always cleaned the seat with alcohol),stroking myself and letting an occasional good looking guy in. After four hours I decided it was time to leave that spot and went to the “wardrobe” a tiny room between the bar and the stairs leading to the balcony. It still had a faded light blue velvet curtain at the front, covering the interior. A young blond guy was there and I had a good time sucking his cock oblivious to time and other guys coming in.When he came he breathed hard to muffle any sound and it was beautiful. Still kneeling, I felt another guy stroking my erect cock and before long I just lay back on the floor enjoying a strong orgasm not caring who heard me. Four hours stroking myself made the trick! Next year the curtain was gone, another sign of decline…

  17. Here is a plan I promised you a long time ago.Now that I have started,I will post another one in October showing the upper tier above the balcony. The plan is very accurate. Of course I would appreciate any comments. There are parts of the theatre I never saw, for example the space behind the facade.

  18. http://i.imgur.com/hOPez0U.png
    This a plan of the two balconies. I made the “rough” design in 1986 but with precision in mind. I am not sure about the two diagonal aisles in the lower balcony, perhaps they were perpendicular and I will appreciate any comments.
    Ah,yes,”Pizza boy” was on the screen…

  19. http://i.imgur.com/sf7TiL1.jpg

    This plan combines the first floor with a more accurate plan of the basement and ground floor toilets,the seats under the balcony(“orchestra floor”) and the entrance.I have drawn a plan of the foyer which,although I never saw it, I have concluded as I put floor plan upon floor plan that the entrance to it must have been through the “disco john”.I mean there was john but no “disco”. There is no other way through.A wall was built blocking the entrance to the foyer sometime in 1975 just before the old Tivoli re-opened as the Adonis…

  20. Only went there once, in the early ’80s with my boyfriend (now my husband of 33 years!) I remember it was huge and dark and pretty sleazy but it was fun. My boyfriend kept a tight arm around me as I was young and slim and blonde and definitely attracted some attention. The movie was one of those California-guy-goes-hitch-hiking and keeps getting picked up for various sexual adventures. I thought it was fun to watch it in such a large, erotically charged place. I remember reading once that, back in its “movie palace” days, they used to show movies outdoors on the roof in the summertime (not a big problem in the silent movie era). If you looked up while passing by, you could still see remnants of the outdoor seating and garden urns up there.

  21. Will, if A NIGHT AT THE ADONIS is the film; I do believe that I was in it. I had just moved to the city from North Carolina after finishing graduate school. And it was a very easy environment to enjoy!

  22. WOW do I remember this place! I moved to NYC in 1977. I was 19 and lived on the Upper West Side in a suite of rooms at the Hotel Olcott at W. 72nd Street and Central Park West (next to the Dakota). I remember as a very young man being inside this old theatre and, of course, seeing its faded opulence all around me and wondering about its past history. I wish I could go back and pay even more attention to the building itself. That what fascinates me now. But I was young and lured by the other things. The men seemed, as others have noted, hotter then. We had a different type of sexual energy born of youthful new-found freedoms. And yes, we all dressed the same in that sort of Castro clone macho jeans, t-shirts, leather jackets and boots thing. I would do the Adonis by day and the Mineshaft by night. I was in heaven. I can still smell the place. It all comes back to me now. I remember the interior being lit by a ghostly blue/black light. Everything and everyone seemed magical inside. I can still see the intricate tiling of the restroom floors, chipping away and falling apart, the walls and the Romanesque and baroque flourishes of the interior architecture. I remember thinking that the building must have had an illustrious past and was now a mere shell of its former glory, crumbling all around. But I couldn’t understand why something that had clearly been so richly appointed could be left to fade and decay in such a manner. To see what she became in her old age was very sad. And yet she (the old Tivoli building) had one last burst of glory in her (as the Adonis) for she sheltered the activities of my pre-AIDS generation in our golden age of sexual liberation.

  23. A woman I once worked with told me her grandmother, who happened to own the entire block my local art cinema called The Adonis was on, had no idea what perversions she was supporting. Most famous for the internationally acclaimed “Pizza Boy: He Delivers.”

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