Times Square in the 1970s: Grindhouses, peep shows and XXX neon nostalgia

PODCAST 42nd Street After Hours. Cinema and sleaze. Nostalgia and fantasy. The story of a real and imagined New York.

Take a trip with us down the grittiest streets in Times Square — the faded marquees of the grindhouses, the neon-lit prurient delights of Eighth Avenue at night.

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Times Square in the 1970s was all about fantasy — from the second-run theaters of 42nd Street to the pornographic pleasures of the adult bookstores next door. And yet our ideas of this place and time are also caught in a bit of fantastic nostalgia. In memory it becomes an erotic theme park, a quaint corner of New York City history. Sometimes its stark everyday reality is forgotten.

In this show we focus on a couple of Times Square’s most notorious streets from the period — 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue — and provide historical context for the seediness they were known for in this era.

Those glowing marquees disguise a theatrical history that dates from the beginning of Times Square, once hosting productions by the likes of Florenz Ziegfeld and Oscar Hammerstein. And the sex industries themselves trace back to the early seedy days of the Tenderloin neighborhood. They coalesced around Port Authority Bus Terminal (aka ‘the cavern of squalor’) to produce a gritty scene that was at once alluring, dangerous, and quintessentially New York.

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The song featured in this week’s episode was

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Our special thanks to HBO and the new drama series The Deuce for sponsoring this special episode. Follow along with the Bowery Boys on Twitter (@Boweryboys) this Sunday, Sept. 10, at 9pm as we watch the show live and share historical context to some of the action being shown.

One still from the show:

The real Times Square (looking the opposite way):

Flickr/GentleGiant

 

The look of 42nd Street in the early 1960s. See the New Amsterdam across the street (and the Fascination arcade next to it). Both films The Green Helmet and Parrish are from 1961, but since this was a row of second-row houses by this point, the date could be later.

Courtesy Flickr/Michael Donovan

Port Authority bus terminal in 1965. The north wing ( which would face onto 42nd Street) opened in 1979.

Courtesy Museum of the City of New York/Dexter Press

Here’s the New Amsterdam Theater in 1903, the year construction was completed — one year before the area would be called Times Square.

The theaters on 42nd Street on the north side, 1968. Note the exhibition of “international films.” The grindhouse classic The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill was released in 1966.

The same set of marquees in 1973

Dan McCoy/Environmental Protection Agency

The Apollo Theater, pictured above, as seen below in 1922. It has already transitioned into film exhibition. (Silver Wings is a famously ‘lost’ film directed by John Ford.)

The Selwyn through the years. 1918:

1971

1980s

Courtesy Jeremiah’s Old New York

The corner of 42nd Street and Seventh Avenues, 1970

Eighth Avenue also had its share of erotic theaters including the Eros (732 8th Avenue) and the Adonis (839 8th Avenue).

 

A couple amazing photographs by Maggie Hopp. (See the rest here).

Maggie Hopp photographer
Maggie Hopp photographer

 

The zone illustrated via the “Sex Entertainment Use Map,” in William Kornblum, West 42nd Street: “The Bright Light Zone” (New York: Graduate School and University Center of the City University of New York, 1978). Courtesy of City University of New York.

 

 

Taken from a 1976 film Virgins In Heart which played on 42nd Street

Inside the Show World Center, 1982

Courtesy Vanishing New York

Terminal Bar in 1981. It closed the following year. Slate has a wonderful collection of images from its bartender Sheldon Nadelman.

The bar shot from the Port Authority, 1981. Sheldon Nadelman

A 2003 documentary about the history of Terminal Bar. Worth watching!

RECOMMENDED READIING:
The Devil’s Playground: A Century of Pleasure and Profit in Times Square by James Traub
Down 42nd Street: Sex, Money, Culture and Politics at the Crossroads of the World by Marc Eliot
The Forbidden Apple: A Century of Sex & Sin in New York City by Kat Long
Ghosts of 42nd Street, A History of America’s Most Infamous Block by Anthony Bianco

RELATED BOWERY BOYS PODCASTS:

#195 Midnight In Times Square

#118 A History of Times Square

#186 Hell’s Kitchen: New York’s Wild West

  • Catherine Carey

    Yes! Recalling frightening memories…..being chased by streetwalkers, enticed by pimps, stopped by police as a runaway, porno in the windows, and the smell – bleggh! in 1980 my sister called her husband from a pay phone on 9th Ave and 42nd St. I felt eyes on me….fear….two leather clad dudes one licking his lips….I hung up the phone and hissed, “go now”….Thank you! Now I’m giggling.

  • jposner

    One minor correction: Lion King was not the first production in the New Amsterdam Theater after Disney renovated it.

    In May 1997, Disney had the New Amsterdam host a nine performance run of a staged concert production of a new musical called King David, written by Alan Menkin and Tim Rice. It had originally been conceived for the 3000th anniversary of the founding of Jerusalem, but ran into some complications. Disney picked it up, and produced the concerts an the inaugural performances in the newly renovated space, several months before Lion King premiered there.