I spent much of my youth in the slums of downtown Houston, Texas. The Heights was an especially dangerous neighborhood. You got mugged by the kids from school if you looked like an easy mark. The houses on my street—including mine—were all falling apart in their frames, looming above junked cars that lined the gutters. The pavement on every street was pockmarked and smelled of doom. I once watched a couple of Mexicans saunter down one of those streets, sadistically kicking a dog nearly to death. The poor animal kept coming back for more, whining for food, and that just tickled the hell out of those two subhuman creeps. I still want to kill them both with my bare hands. I mean, who wouldn’t, right?
Anyway, the point is, it was a ghetto.
You survived there mostly by keeping your head down and minding your own business. Sometimes you had to fight. I wasn’t exactly a hard kid, though I sowed some wild oats from time to time. I went to movies, played in a band, kept out of trouble mostly. Once, I was busted for getting high in a sleazy movie theatre with my friends. The cops took pity on us, swiped our weed, then sent us home in a cab. Today, the Houston Heights have been reworked, re-developed and appear now as some bizarre lopsided inner city dream, where million-dollar mansions park just down the street from 50 year old businesses that are still standing against the elements, like matchstick men facing a high wind. There are no zoning laws in Houston and yet downtown real estate comes at a heavy price. Eventually everyone wants to upgrade. The shitty house I used to live in as a 13 year old kid has been replaced by an immense five story townhome that cost more than three mil to build. And all I can ever think of whenever I walk by the place now is that a couple of sadistic shitheads once kicked a dog to nearly to death on that street.
This sort of incident would have been laughed at by the crazed denizens of the New York Deuce, an accelerated bizarro-world of such garish proportions and so many light years away from those trivial experiences in Houston that, at the time, my little mind could have hardly conceived of it. Any of it, man.
This was Times Square of the fairly distant past, a grotty slipstream of peep shows, adult novelty stands and MOVIE THEATRES that have now become legendary for all the right reasons. In its day, the Deuce was the writhing epicenter of a land swimming in glorious sleaze and perversions. I had never seen anything like this when I was exposed to its crumbling remnants in the year 1994. This was long after the zoning laws that destroyed the beating heart of 42nd street were passed and most of the theaters and adult bookstores had been shut down, with just a few stragglers dotting the landscape. This was also my first visit to New York City, and I felt as if a great truth had been revealed to me—one which I had been far too late to absorb completely and righteously. In fact, I was convinced, as I looked out over the post-apocalyptic battlements of a long-lost war between the Hustlers and the Dudley Do-Right developers, that these were the streets I had been meant to die on.
Even in ’94 (the image pictured above), I could smell that this had been my kinda place.
A lot of that came down to the awesome idea of so many goddamn movie theatres packed shoulder to shoulder and all the pretty lights that once flashed here, perhaps even sleazier and more garish than the tacky neon grime of Las Vegas. But if I am honest with myself—really and truly honest with myself—it was the siren song of something else that attracted my twisted sensibilities. You see, a lot of people who romanticize this sleazebag sector of lost Americana tend to edit out something very important:
Movie buffs and film historians can rail all they like about the cinematic traditions and such that marked X at this particular spot (I am, after all, one of those people), but very few of them would have had the balls to actually survive in such a place. Even when I returned in 1998, the raw, rancid ghost of it still lingered there like a terrifying backwash of collective inhumanity. At 24 years old, I cried real tears, because I knew this was where I had belonged as a child. Instead of being baptized here, knifed in an alley and left for dead by an overdressed pimp, I’d had the shit kicked out of me in a drive-in movie theater in Texas by over-amped rednecks, who then spit in my face and stole my girlfriend.
I’m not exaggerating, people. Missing the Deuce really made me cry.
I wanted to die on 42nd Street.
To fully understand why I felt this way, you’d probably have to know more about my upbringing—my intense dislike of “the finer things,” my stubborn refusal to live in a nicer home, no matter how much money I have in the bank, my true and obsessive love of all things sleazy in the world of cinema—but I’m pretty sure you get the idea. I am a man of particular tastes and obsessions. (I also spent a lot of my early youth living in a backwoods shack in the middle of Deliverance Country USA, but that’s a whole other tale.) I should point out that Houston in the 1980s was still a very big city, and was no stranger to such horrors, albeit in much less concentrated doses. We had grindhouses and megaplexes that were just as garish, and even a few downtown, such as the MAJESTIC METRO, a truly rancid operation, where I took in NIGHT OF THE ZOMBIES and REVENGE OF THE DEAD during their initial theatrical runs in the states. The place smelled like moldy cheese and paint peeled off the walls. You could hear water dripping from leaks in the roof. My father and I were accosted many times by panhandlers and propositioned at least twice by hustlers looking to kick a dog to death. Here is a photo of the place when it was still called The Ritz:
It looks like this now, a renovated ballroom you can rent out at several thousand bucks a night for your teenager’s bat mitzvah:
Anyway, back to 1998: I reacted to these incredible new revelations about NYC by diving into as much research as I could stand about the Deuce and its many perversions. This was much harder in the late 90s and early oughts, when the internet hadn’t yet taken over the world. I wanted to SEE what I had missed. I wanted to FEEL the sleaze on my skin. I spoke with men and women who had been there. Looked at photographs taken at the scene of the crime. Read books and watched movies that immortalized the experience. I had already become something of en expert in the types of movies that were shown in the awe-inspiring theaters of The Deuce . . . and now I was getting a good whiff of the avenues they lived in for so long, before video and forward-thinking wiped them out. Film nerds tend to forget that the Deuce wasn’t just about cinemas and peep shows. There was also the food, the trinket shops, the video arcades, adult book stores, bars and strip clubs. There was even a karate school. You could choke down a hot dog from a corner stand and chase it with a two dollar cocktail in a tavern the size of a closet just at the edge of Times Square, some of which were after-hours joints that stayed open ‘till dawn. The Deuce bled its sleazy influence to many of the surrounding streets, going on for miles, really. It was like some retro-bizarre version of Disneyland for freaks. (Which is ironic because now, that’s exactly what the place looks like.) And the human traffic came in all shapes, sizes, races, creeds, religions, and professions—most of them illegal.
To have seen it with my own eyes . . .
Anyway . . . the point of this blog is to remind those among you who may be unfamiliar with the many hellish wonders of the long-lost Times Square. Not the romanticized version—but the sleaze, the horrors, the outright DANGER that thrived there. Now that we live in such an awesome pushbutton techno-future, it’s not that hard to point the way. The work has been done for you, baby. There are many books, websites and motion pictures that do the nasty street scene of yesteryear, such as:
CLICK THE 25 CENT BUTTON ABOVE to have a look at what is possibly the most comprehensive website devoted to all things NYC that are endangered or in the past. And when you are done there check this one out:
CLICK the ROXY for some wild photos and lots of text, along with some LINKS where you can buy a number of highly revealing books about the Deuce. And speaking of books:
SLEAZOID EXPRESS may be the most celebrated publication on the Times Square film scene, and it’s mostly deserving of its reputation, because it truly knows its subject and brings the experience with both hands. Its authors Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford have actually lived there and the book puts you right in the thick of the action, describing in great detail the denizens, peccadillos and movie theatres that once existed in the very heart of darkness. Regrettably, MUCH of the book’s length is given over to a scholarly discussion of the films that played in the theatres, all in a highly critically subjective style. (Heap praise on DON’T ANSWER THE PHONE and rail on Fulci’s ZOMBIE as “idiotic?” Beats me.) Still in all, this may be the best depiction of the DANGER yet put on paper. The text really goes the distance, pulling few punches. The book is quite short on photos, however . . . and seeing is believing, of course, so check out the following films:
This is the most famous depiction of the greasy flipside of NYC, and there’s lots of Deuce action here. The above-pictured BLU-RAY of this film brings it all into sharper relief than ever before, especially in the notorious scene where Travis Bickle takes his lovely date to a porno theatre to see SOMETIME SWEET SUSAN.
Even more fun and infinitely lesser known is this film:
You might have also seen it as:
It’s written and directed by James Glickenhaus, who gave us both EXTERMINATORS and THE SOLDIER (all wonderfully tacky Deuce exploitation classics), and who did business out of the Big Apple for many years before this film and several others led him to ruin. BLUE JEAN COP/SHAKEDOWN is his sleazebag CITIZEN KANE, a surreal mish-mash of disparate cop movie sensibilities, teetering on a weird threshold between respectable thriller and total slime-time. And it is also a loving valentine to the old 42nd Street.
Sam Elliot’s blue jean cop character actually lives in one of the Deuce’s most famous theaters, and Glickenhaus stages whole sections of the film there, including a big action sequence, complete with stunts, car rolls and shootouts. This was a bigger budget film than Glickenhaus had ever attempted before, partially funded on a negative pickup deal with Universal Pictures, and his ambitions in setting such elaborate scenes inside the Deuce is commendable, for so many reasons. You can get this on Netflix and Amazon in HD and I highly recommend it for 42nd Street completests.
Also, check out this one again:
It’s a classic, but on BLU RAY the details are even sharper and the full 16mm aspect ratio of the film is revealed for the first time, allowing us to see so much more of the seamy NYC backdrop. (The film was cropped in theatrical release and originally on video.) BASKET CASE is also one of the films that actually showed on the Deuce—made, marketed and exhibited by native New Yorkers and set in the grittiest depths of the city.
Um. What the fuck, right?
Well, believe it or not, LAST ACTION HERO was ALSO SHOT ON 42ND STREET. One of the “themes” of the film is that “the real world” is really, really awful, compared to the “movie world.” (Which is kind of an ironic thing when you think about it for more than a few seconds.) And so they decided to shoot all the “real world” scenes in the decaying remnants of the old Deuce, in 1991, when most of it was still there. In fact, the magic movie theatre featured in the film is actually one of the Deuce’s most beloved grindhouses. Can you tell which one?
(I still wish Arnold would shoot that fuckin’ kid, though.)
There’s a really awesome and totally CHEAP Blu-ray out now from Mill Creek that captures all the scum of the period gloriously . . . GET IT!
Here’s another place you can go to learn more. CLICK Sly Stallone to get there:
CLICK the HOT DOG for a great food article by Bill and Michelle:
Some amazing photo sets here. Click the word LUSTY:
And CLICK here, too, for some more great pix:
Finally, some videos that collect a few of the things I’ve discussed, while adding some other stuff:
Oh . . . and if, for some reason, you want a better look at the awesome films associated with these paradisiac shitholes, you could do a lot worse than to check out Synapse Films lovely HD trailer collections, such as this one, which I did the cover art for: