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20 Years of Love & Sex
20-Year Timeline: From the beginning of AIDS awareness to outed cartoon sponges.
Love Is a Drug: Once the realm of poets, artists and philosophers, love has been exposed as biochemistry.
When Porn Wore Sideburns: In San Jose's golden age of smut, real fans converged in the dark at theaters like the Burbank, the New Paris and the Pussycat.
Gay Nineties: Twenty years of queers in the South Bay.
The Joy of Mix: Want a real window into the soul? Don't look into the eyes—look at the CD collection.
Victims Gone Wild: How feminism has messed up relationships.
Borderless Dating: In the valley, young couples aren't afraid of diversity.
Twenty Years of Tom Cruise: What were we thinking?

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When Porn Wore Sideburns

In San Jose's golden age of smut, real fans converged in the dark at theaters like the Burbank, the New Paris and the Pussycat.

By Jackie Treehorn

JUST LIKE St. Patrick's Day is the one day everyone gets to pretend to be Irish, Valentine's Day is the day it's OK to watch porn. God must have loved him some porn fans, because he sure made a lot of them. A second mighty wave of porn chic seems well on the verge of returning.

The upcoming documentary Inside Deep Throat argues that, at a gross of $600 million, Deep Throat is the biggest box-office smash in history. Meanwhile, Legs McNeil—author of the punk-rock odyssey Please Kill Me—is unveiling his history The Other Hollywood: The Uncensored Oral History of the Porn Film Industry. Jenna Jameson's How to Make Love Like a Porn Star recently sat on the bestseller list.

And that veteran smut star, the slovenly Ron Jeremy, has already been profiled in a documentary and needs no introduction. Once described in ads as the "Charlie Chaplin of porn," Jeremy is more likely porn's Rodney Dangerfield. Or maybe its Chris Farley.

By the time Metro was hatched in 1985, porn had already been an essential part of keeping downtown San Jose edgy. The paper's first office shared a wall with the Pussycat Theater on South First Street. You've heard of the Wailing Wall? This was the Groaning Wall. Labored breathing and cries of ecstasy always leaked into the office.

Still, in 1985, porn's chic days were starting to pass—1975 was the year porn theaters really peaked in this area. By the mid-'70s, the Santa Clara Valley went for porno films like a hog goes for slops. Don't let any revisionist city historians tell you otherwise.

Roster of Sin

Take a quick glance at the San Jose Mercury News' movie page during that era. Adult movies were playing at the New Paris (at 25 W. San Salvador St., currently a parking lot). The roster of sin included the Town and Country Theater in Sunnyvale, the Cambrian Twin on Hillsdale, the Towne Theater on the Alameda (later to be a respectable art house and now an Indian film palace), and the aforementioned Pussycat at South First and San Salvador streets.

Across the street from the Pussycat, the Studio Theater went for adult movies by the end of 1975. Finally, so did the 800-plus-capacity Burbank Theater on Bascom. That's not to mention the quarter arcades and adult bookstores that no scholar has bothered to survey—or the go-go bars like the Streaker in Palo Alto and the Bachelor Club in San Jose.

Porn was so in style that even nonporn films masqueraded as porn. David Wolper's chaste documentary about the mating rituals of animals, Birds Do It, Bees Do It, was listed on the adult-film page, even though a tag line pleaded, "Take the whole family." Even at the quad at Blossom Hill, they booked The Owl and the Pussycat—a forgotten sex farce with Barbra Streisand—sporting its circle-X rating.

And the valley's first drive-in theater (1946), the San Jose Auto Movie, went hardcore in the '70s, after years of soft-core cheerleader operas. Urban legends about car crashes induced by sky-high porn must remain just that—legend. Still, imagine explaining that kind of death to St. Peter.

Of the dozen adult theaters that did brisk business between San Francisco's Geneva Avenue and Gilroy, only one remains: San Mateo's Palm Theater. "The Hairy Palm," as local jokers call it, has been playing adult films for 35 years, perhaps a California record. There is still a polite gent on the answering machine. Call the phone number and discover that Lord of Asses Edition No. 4 is playing precisely at 4:15pm. At "the peninsula's showcase of adult entertainment" ladies always get in for free! Lucky.

The SL-7200 Betamax, the first affordable videotape recorder, was released in 1976. It had some of its cachet as the toy of the age because you could watch Deep Throat on it. Some (such as the online Wikipedia) argue that JVC's VHS format overwhelmed Beta because more porn titles were available to the consumer on VHS.

Just as the churning of online porn powers the turbines of the Internet, pornography helped establish the VCR as a common household appliance. Technology drove the taste for porn behind closed doors. Call it one more part of the vanishing of public space. It starts in increments. First you're bowling alone, then you're wanking alone.

Daydream for a moment about the warm reaction in 2005 if some entrepreneur opened a porno theater in the Cambrian Shopping Center. For God's sake, think of the children! The Redevelopment Agency would have a live Holstein, complete with horns and cowbell, if a smut palace opened on First Street. Times have changed, but the question remains: How could the valley have prospered for so long, with its moral backbone collapsed?

The Budding of Bree

The mid-'80 were my introduction to porn, valley style. Oh, it was wrong, so very wrong, to even be standing on the same block of Bascom Avenue with that huge phallic tower of the Burbank Theater, burning with its German Expressionist neon.

It was enormous: a monolith of sin. The management disguised the outside with black-and-white posters of 1930s movie stars like Jean Harlow and Joan Crawford. The signs signified a link between Hollywood and, well, North Hollywood.

The posters weren't totally off-base. Tonight's picture was The Budding of Bree, Henri Paris' shot-for-shot remake of All About Eve, complete with vintage 1950s lingerie, good color photography and a smirking bald stud playing George Sanders.

Stepping into the Burbank, you smelled mildew, stale popcorn and spilled soda. A sharp, floral disinfectant hovered in the air, possibly Janitor in a Drum. When the curtained door pulled back, all the patrons would swivel their heads to see if you were a girl or a cop.

Dazzled by the sudden darkness and the sight of 15-foot genitals churning on a full-size screen, you'd try to find a seat that didn't bring you too near the other solitary patrons. The Burbank had loge seats in the back in case you wanted to share a couch with a patron for some reason. Advantage: vinyl, so they were regularly cleaned. Disadvantage: they creaked like a rusty swing set.

Porn movies were the last films left on a time schedule that all movies once used to share. Up until the ad campaign for Hitchcock's Psycho made a big deal about punctuality, it was expected that moviegoers would drift in, whenever they felt like drifting in.

The rigid plotting of the average Hollywood studio movie made it easy to tell who was the culprit and who was the victim, who was the lover and who was the lovee.

Even today, when channel surfing, it's easy to pick up the thread of an old Hollywood movie midway. Obviously porn didn't suffer from any remote possibility of narrative confusion. Moreover, the advantage of arriving after the show started was that no one saw your face in the dark.

I know some of the neighbors hated the Burbank Theater. The discarded rascal wrappers left on the streets. The gray men, hovering around the back exit, gazing significantly at passersby. The odd crack whore strutting her diseased stuff on Bascom and Moorpark.

Yet more people then who'd probably not care to recall it in public must have partaken of the Burbank Theater's 16 years as a smut theater (from the early '70s to 2000). Convenient in the suburbs, it was also located right next to a freeway for quick getaway.

It always cheered me to see its marquee shedding its evil light on the valley's crossroads, at 17 and I-280. That tower was rough, homely, an essential part of San Jose's unlovely, prune-picking, skunk-working blue-collar vibe—all swept aside by the tide of wealth that hit us in the last 20 years.

I made a last trip to the Burbank Theater in the late 1990s. A mistake. Porn was no longer exhibited on 35 mm film. Instead the stage bore a video screen onto which the tape was projected. Shot-on-tape porn was usually ugly, and this was particularly ugly.

With this particularly streaky projection system, the movie had all the visual quality of a Steelers game projected on the back wall of a tavern. And the management kept some of the house lights up, to prevent the sort of activity I doubt that any reader of this newspaper would like to think about. The Burbank was hurling down the skids and well on its way to being closed as a public nuisance by Santa Clara County in 2000.

By the early 1990s, all the porn theaters in the valley had gotten eerie; the Pussycat downtown was heavily muscled by the coppers, who used to cruise looking for an easy Pee-wee Herman arrest. Caught many a culprit white-handed, they did. The theaters are gone or transformed, but the movies remain. Here in the Bay Area, particularly San Francisco, the hip indulge in "ironic" rewatchings of stroke movies at midnight shows and avant-garde video spaces.

There is a lot to chortle at. The flab. The sideburns. The wooly backs. The stinky polyester clothes. The clownlike lapels and elephant bell-bottoms. Those purple bruises on the performers' asses that nobody was temporarily inspired enough to dust with some Max Factor.

The music invites, nay, deserves ridicule—unenthusiastic, post-dubbed bass-heavy soundtracks, frequently pirated from the intro to the Doors' "L.A. Woman."

This supposedly classic era of porn needs a re-evaluation. For every Devil in Miss Jones or The Opening of Misty Beethoven, there was plenty of justly forgotten smut. The cult porn picture Smoker is smart, perverse and obviously conceived by people who loved Roman Polanski. Technically, it's a failure. The camera is just never in the right place.

Debbie Does Dallas just became an off-Broadway musical. Didn't see it, but it has to be better than its source. Most of the actresses in the original were as tough as a bag of 10-penny nails. As a friend put it—"In San Francisco, they made porn for the self-expression. In New York, they made porn to buy heroin." Debbie Does Dallas is very much a New York movie.

As for new porn, it's often rough stuff. Too much jack-hammering, way too much bugger-mugger. All those shaved genitals imply that someone caught a case of the crotch crustaceans, and swore "never again." Not to mention homemade tattoos, the razor acrylic nails and the silicone-grown soccer mams.

Amateur porn is a prettier picture. Today a voyeur can download from worthy websites such as an all-vegan porn site, veganporn.com. Since the action is shot-on-digital, there is no animal-bone emulsion binding the color to the celluloid to guilt out friends of the animals. Joyofspex.com serves up a cornucopia of bright-eyed, bespectacled nerd babes. And then, there is Montreal's answer to Betty Page, Seska (Seska.com). Not that I ever look at this online smut, of course.

The safety of the home gets too safe sometimes. Who wouldn't miss that sinking feeling inside as you bought a ticket under a blazing marquee. Crossing the threshold, we ex-Baptists could literally feel Satan dragging a screwdriver across the highly polished finish of our souls. How one's stomach would plummet, seeing that contemptuous punk-rocker seated behind the dusty glass concession counter, in which exactly three petrified boxes of Lemonheads rested. As if you were going to let the concessionaire stall you! Into the darkness where you belong, cockroach!

And the peculiar darkness of those theaters is extinct for good. The truth was you really did not know what you were going to get when you slipped out of the normal world and into the world of porn. The fast-forward button on the VCR, the menu button on the DVD, save time, leading viewers right to the scenes they want.

What's lost is the sense of anticipation—of wondering if that the movie would go where you hoped it might. That was the quality that porn movies had in common with real movies.


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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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