Things We Look at in the Dark

Written by Simon Abrams on . Posted in Posts.

We begin our tour at the Southeast corner of West 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue. Peter Chiarella, better known as porno historian and trench coat personality 42nd Street Pete, is my guide. He points out where the old Anco Theatre used to be—“A real nest of rotten eggs,” he says. “It was pretty much a haven for changesnatchers, junkies and career criminals.

Basically, what happened is if they ripped you off, they’d go out through the back. There was an alley built into the rest of the theaters that went all the way around the right side of the block here.”

The Times Square Chiarella describes to me is the Times Square people know from Taxi Driver: “Wild West City,” as Chiarella puts it. In fact, the old Hilton Theater, which was the exterior theater in the scene in Taxi Driver where Travis Bickle takes a date to a Swedish porn movie, was just up the block. Chiarella tells me about how he was once stabbed in front of it with a screwdriver.

“I was hanging out with these two call girls,” Chiarella says. “We had struck up this symbiotic relationship: I was a smoker and I had the weed and they had the pussy so it all worked. I used to stay with them on-and-off on the Lower East Side and my deal was, if they had a client that they didn’t know before, I would walk ’em to the client, make sure he saw me, make sure he knew I’d be back in an hour.”

He continues, “This one chick, Lisa, was white, the other was Candy, she was Asian, and I was walking [Candy] back one night and this crazy fucker just came out of nowhere, swinging. And I jumped in front of her, hero that I am, and I got stabbed in the leg with a screwdriver. So I managed to get my little toy out and started swinging at him with my blade. I got a nice puncture wound, right near the femoral artery… I lived, like anything else.”

Chiarella now spends his time and money on trying to bring back a bygone era with a series of DVDs that historically contextualize porn, the least reputable of cinematic genres. Busty Bombshells of the Atom Age is his latest collection of 8-millimeter cheesecake loops that used to screen in booths at porn stores. His DVDs are color-corrected and provide a brief history of where each film screened and why it’s important in a booklet, as well as in video segments featured on the DVD itself. Chiarella’s preservation deserves much admiration, even if he is restoring things we only look at in the dark. (Watch the trailer here.)

Chiarella first started commuting into Manhattan from West Orange, N.J., in the mid-’60s. “I used to cut high school and come over,” Chiarella explains. “We used to go to the Village to go drinking but then one day I made that left turn instead of that right turn out of Port Authority, came down here and got hooked on the whole deal.”

With Vietnam on, few options seemed open to the young man. “There was actually no sense in my trying to pursue a normal life because too many of my buddies got thrown over there and came back in body bags. That’s part of the reason why I went over here, because when you think you have no future, which I didn’t at that point, you figure, ‘What the fuck? Might as well do it all.’” Chiarella worked for New York City Liquidators, a wholesale retail supply chain that used to provide pornography to local stores.

Chiarella blames the marked decline of the area on the AIDS crisis and the influx of drugs that he says started to become rampant around 1985. This is what gave politicians, like Mayor Giuliani, the leverage they later needed to clean up the area.

Giuliani’s aggressive crackdown on the area in the ’90s was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but Chiarella says the change was necessary: “People were still hanging on into the ’90s but it was basically guys dealing drugs out of boarded-up storefronts. It just turned more dangerous than ever. It was bad in the ’70s but people could deal with it. But once the crack and the AIDS shit came in, and people were drugged out and mugging people—fuck it, it wasn’t even safe.”

Chiarella doesn’t romanticize the perils that plagued Times Square, but he does have a soft spot for the movie theaters that used to pepper the streets. He tells me of 10-foot-tall standees of Lee Van Cleef and double bills of Make Them Die Slowly and Savage Man, Savage Beast, and looking up hungrily at marquees as if they were “smorgasbords.” It’s a lived history of film that’s fast disappearing, Chiarella laments. Horror movies especially seem to be the genre whose rise and fall most closely emulates the area’s. He credits transgressive independent films from the mid- to late- ’60s, like Blood Feast and Night of the Living Dead, giving the latter film’s director, George Romero, credit for being “the first guy to cast a black lead as a hero; that guy had a vision.”

Chiarella then compares that with the predominance of “shock value” in today’s horror. “The envelope’s already been pushed,” Chiarella says. “Mondo Cane in ’63 started it; you’ve killed people in every way possible… so why not go back to scaring people?

“You used to have all these genres of exploitation,” he elaborates. “The biker films, the sexploitation, the drug films, the gang films, spaghetti westerns, blaxtaploitation, horror, sci-fi, gore. That was the era. It’s generic now. Nobody gives a shit.”