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The Lost Adult Theaters of Pasadena

Sep 7, 2015
Oaks_Theatre_on_Fair_Oaks_Blvd

The Oaks Theatre, 85 N. Fair Oaks Avenue, in an undated photo. (Via Pasadena Digital History Collaboration.)

They were called “dirty movie houses,” “adult cinemas,” or “girlie theaters.” From 1959 until about 1990, Pasadena had roughly ten of them, ranging from soft-core “nudie cutie” houses to hardcore venues. Some were former picture palaces fallen on hard times; others little more than dingy-looking storefronts – but before the Internet, DVDs and Blu-Ray cornered the adult market, they turned a lively profit.

In the 1950s, as television began to attract more and more viewers, Pasadena’s movie theaters began to employ new tactics to lure patrons. Some added air-conditioning, comfortable seating, and other amenities. Others began delving into an untapped market: pornographic films. Thus began a short-lived era in Pasadena history, one characterized by an ongoing fight over what was considered “obscene” and the limits of free speech.

Oaks Theatre, 85 N. Fair Oaks Avenue (1959-1977)

1977

The Oaks theater at right, and construction on the Parsons Corporation complex that replaced it, 1977.

The Oaks Theatre in Old Town was the first to switch to a pornographic format. It was originally called Fisher’s Theater, then the Savoy, and from 1916 to 1925 was the home of Gilmor Brown’s Pasadena Players – the forerunners of today’s Pasadena Playhouse. It was so well-known in its day that that it even appeared in author The Graduate author Charles Webb’s Pasadena-set novel The Marriage of a Young Stockbroker (1970).

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Oaks Theatre owner Harold E. Wenzler, 1961. (L.A. Times.)

Operated by Harold E. Wenzler, a well-liked local businessman, the theater started showing European art house films in the late 1950s. These included Room at the Top, a critically-acclaimed British film, and L’Amant de lady Chatterley, a French film that was banned across the U.S. from 1955 until 1959 for “promoting adultery.” The latter landed Wenzler in trouble with the City of Pasadena – the first in a string of incidents for the theater operator. This was the same decade, after all, in which Langston Hughes’s poetry was removed from Pasadena school libraries for being “subversive.” The city, which still had a film censorship board at that point, demanded Wenzler edit the film. Wenzler refused, and was eventually successful in helping to abolish the censorship law in 1961.

Still, the city took less kindly to the pornographic films Wenzler began to exhibit in 1959. These included Tijuana After Midnite (1954), a film IMDb describes as “just various strippers of the era (based in L.A.) doing their acts in front of a stationary camera with 6th-rate comedians trying to do stolen material between the (semi) strips. No plot, no story line and strictly intended for the back-alley grind-house theatres of the larger USA cities.”

Wenzler also ran afoul of the San Gabriel and Arcadia PTA in 1961. They objected to a recorded phone message on the Oaks’ answering machine “delivered over the phone by a sultry-voiced woman identifying herself as a strip tease dancer.” They called it “a detriment to the morals of our children.” Wenzler, in response, told the L.A. Times: “There are no lewd, immoral or obscene words used in the message […] Besides, the voice invites the called visit the theater if you’re old enough.

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The north side of the Oaks Theatre, in a photo taken from Holly Street, facing southeast. (Via Pasadena Digital History Collaboration.)

The same year, Wenzler was arrested – along with his projectionist – for showing a film called Unadorned Nudist. Then again, for supposedly selling prints of a porn flick called First Fling at the candy counter. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court, where he lost, and in 1964, he was sentenced to 30 days in jail and a fine of $525.

It didn’t deter him though. He continued to show “lewd films.” In May 1966, Wenzler and his projectionist (a different one this time) were arrested again by a vice squad officer.

Wenzler was arrested numerous other times, and in one instance brought an obscenity case all the way to the Supreme Court.

By the 1970s, Wenzler had graduated from French art films to “all-male films from Frisco” – hardcore gay films like Meat Rack that screened in a 30-seat upstairs theater called the “Tom Kat.” Downstairs, he showed straight porn like Her Night Out and The Champagne Party. In 1974, the Oaks described itself in ads as “the best adult bargain in town.”

By 1975, the Pasadena Redevelopment Agency, the behemoth responsible for the destruction of countless historic buildings, had greased the wheels for the Parsons Corporation to move into the block the Oaks occupied. In early 1977, the theater was razed.

Crown Theater, 129 N. Raymond Avenue (1970s)

A Christian group pickets Pasadena's Crown Theater, 1974. (Photo from the Pasadena Star-News.)

A Christian group pickets Pasadena’s Crown Theater, 1974. (Photo from the Pasadena Star-News.)

Dec 14 1973

Ad from the Los Angeles Times, December 14th, 1973. (Via Pasadena Public Library.)

The Crown began as Jensen’s Raymond Theater, a glorious picture palace, in 1921. By the 1970s, however, the theater’s glory days had passed, and it began showing Deep Throat, a controversial porn film, from noon to midnight. As a result, the proprietors were sued by the City of Pasadena for exhibiting obscene material, and in 1974, a group calling itself Christians of Pasadena picketed the theater and led a prayer vigil in front of the ticket office. By 1977, the theater had switched formats and began showing mainstream films again.

Cinema 1200, 1200 E. Walnut Street (1970-1978?) – also known as the “Intercom”

Cinema 1200 - 2

Former site of Cinema 1200. (Via Google Maps.)

Cinema 1200 was a tiny, squalid, 24-hour adult theater with just 49 seats that also sold “magazines, novels, novelties, and films,” according to a 1973 Pasadena Star-News ad. It opened in 1970, as “Pasadena’s Newest and Most Exclusive Adult Theatre for the discriminating taste” and advertised itself as “the finest in hardcore entertainment.” As such, it was raided several times by the Pasadena Police Department, who confiscated various “obscene material.” In 1973, its owner, Michael Hein, was charged with obscenity by the City of Pasadena, along with the owners of several other theaters.

By 1978, it had become Falcon Cable TV, and today the same building houses Pacific Design Upholstery.

Sexa Adult Theater, 2086 E. Colorado, also called the “Denmark” (1970-1971)
Sexa Theater
This theater, which doubled somewhat unsavorily as a “model studio,” barely lasted a year before a citizens’ group managed to shut it down. The building was eventually demolished and replaced with a Hertz rental car lot.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Venus Adult Theater, 2226 and 964 E. Colorado Boulevard (1969-1989)
1974

The Venus advertised itself proudly as “the experienced adult theater” (whatever that meant). Like the Sexa and Cinema 1200, it was also raided by the police. In 1969 the owner, Donald Goulet, and two of his employees — all in their 20s — were arrested by the Pasadena Police Department and charged with “exhibiting a lewd movie.” The movie, wrote the L.A. Times, showed “three women and a man, all nude, in a variety of sexual activities, but short of intercourse.” The film was confiscated and not returned. Still, the Venus endured longer than any other Pasadena adult theater, though it moved locations sometime in the 1980s – farther west, across from the Academy Theater. In 1985, the Pasadena Weekly reported that patrons could take in three adult films for five dollars – “usually third or fourth run features that ‘classier’ joints […] have long since stopped showing.” Today, both locations where the Venus once operated have been torn down, replaced with a Middle Eastern restaurant and a shopping center, respectively.

The Pussycat (State) Theater, 770 E. Colorado Boulevard (1984-1989)
In 1918, the roughly 800-seat Florence Theatre opened, and enjoyed many years as a mainstream cinema along the busy Colorado thoroughfare. In 1984, however, it was purchased by Pussycat Theaters, an adult theater chain that operated from 1966 until the early 2000s. They owned the theater until 1989, when it started showing Chinese films. It was then converted into an art house/revival theater before closing in 2000. In March 1985 the Pasadena Weekly wrote, “The Pussycat is as clean as any other movie house on Colorado and has well-dressed, polite employees and the typical concession stand. Inside the theater, however, it is unusually dark, facilitating both privacy and trysts between couples (almost exclusively men) in the back of the theater.” (A photo of the Pussycat can be found here.)

Cine 73, 73 N. Fair Oaks Avenue (1969-1970)
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Not much is known about this theater, which was operated by Stanley Smith, and was open for just a year. The building housing it was also demolished to make way for the Parsons Corporation.

Joy Adult Theater, 75 N. Raymond Avenue (1970?-1)

joy
This theater was ordered closed by the city in 1971, and its owner, William Porter, fined $500 for exhibiting an “obscene film.” Little else is known about the theater.

Gino’s Adult Theatre, 1453 N. Lake Avenue (1965-1973?) — also known as “Gianone’s Steak House”
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Gino’s Adult Theatre, which was roughly where Big Mama’s Rib Shack now stands (and possibly in the same building), was evidently one of the only Pasadena adult theaters to offer both films and live entertainment. It claimed to be Pasadena’s only totally nude theater, though two other venues in East Pasadena boasted the same. Gino’s biggest claim to fame, however? Caltech scientist Richard Feynman used to go “five to six times a week,” according to a 1969 L.A. Times article. “When my calculations didn’t work out, I would watch the girls,” he told the paper. Even with this pedigree, the city tried to shut down Gino’s many times. In 1972, owner Angelo Gianone was sentenced 30 days in jail for supposedly operating without an entertainment license. By 1978, Gino’s had become Peking Inn, a Chinese restaurant.




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