An oldie but a goodie.
The 1,433-seat Adonis Theater was originally built as the Tivoli Theater in 1921 by Billy Rose for Fanny Brice of all people and it was one of a kind. But as time went by the grandly opulent vaudeville house turned movie theater on Eighth Avenue and 51st Street in its declining years became famous for anonymous stud romping, porn, and SEX SEX 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 bringing in and out and in again Jack Wrangler, Kip Knoll, Richard Locke, and the infamous Falcon Video-Pac guys to survive and became one of New York’s most popular ALL-GAY adult theater in the 1970s and early 1980’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 if not somewhat faded grandness of the theater could not be overlooked. Even Variety went so far as to peg it as the largest and most lavish gay porn theater 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, the bathrooms, and anywhere they could find would act out their 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 avoid the seats under the balcony’s edge at busy times for fear of being showered with semen from high 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, cock rings, and poppers at the concession stand. And for “boys on a budget” 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 porn star Jack Wrangler. So 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 theater 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 theater’s size, age, and the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic took its toll. There were also some serious structural problems because of its age and lack of upkeep. In the mid-’80 the balcony collapsed. Luckily no one was hurt
Real estate developers that had a stake in the neighborhood and deeply closeted Mayor Ed Koch who was using the AIDS epidemic to clean up Times Square 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 homophobic law firm Cravath, Swain & Moore, stipulated that the theater had to close before Worldwide Plaza was built. The plaza’s developer, William Zeckendorf, subsequently bought up the site, and that was the beginning of the end of the Adonis.
Later a little-known 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 took to a sleazy Bronx motel. Schwartz had been stabbed 27 times. It turned out that this moral pillar of the community who had a wife and three children liked rough street trade and had been living a double life for years.
But The Adonis did live on for a bit longer 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 to close down every gay sex establishment 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 Theatre 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-AID world.
Do you have stories about The Adonis or other forgotten NYC gay places? If so leave them in the comments.