The Venus Theatre is what one might call a disgusting shithole. Located in Vancouver at 720 Main Street, in what most refer to as the toughest, roughest neighbourhood in all of Canada, the Venus is the kind of entertainment venue where you have to be a total badass to even show up — heck there’s a scary biker bar right next door. So why would one forego a nice relaxed jerk-off session provided by your home entertainment system for this inhospitable level of hell?
The element of danger, that’s why. The streetwalking hookers. The drugs. The sleaze. The grime. The smell of sweat and sex. Oh, and pizza. They sold stale cardboard-looking pizza for 99 cents a slice in the lobby until just a couple years ago. I never worked up the nerve to put it my my mouth.
This classic two-tiered building (at one time a majestic vaudeville theatre called “THE IMPERIAL” which opened in 1912) is now the kinda smut den yo’ mama warned you about, with the upper balcony where most of the public debauchery happens. You take your life in your hands going up those stairs, and a valid fear of touching any surface in the place is replaced by concern for falling flat on your ass due to the fact that the only light is provided by the crappy old-fashioned 3-light video system illuminating the screen with it’s hardcore pink images flashing, flickering and moaning.
The scene is a tad nightmarish. Chairs held to together with duct tape, wads of used toilet paper on the floor, constant eerie moaning crackling out of the soundsystem speakers, the hazy stench of piss in the air — and at any given time a guy getting sucked by a hooker or another guy. Humanoid shapes in the darkness take in the action, leering and waiting.
Couples can rent a VIP room and watch movies in private, but most freaks just crash out on one of the filthy couches positioned at the bottom of the balcony seating. Here they smoke some rock, get their cocks sucked, or watch someone else getting a BJ. But it’s buyer beware, as the whores in there are diseased, practically feral, and been known to rip off their customers. The late ‘90s XXX video on the screen seems totally secondary, and just playing for atmosphere.
Rumor has it the owners are getting ready to sell the property, which will no doubt lead to it being bulldozed. Half-a-million dollar condos have sprung up all around the block the Venus inhabits, and with the real estate market the way it is in Vancouver right now, the smart money is on its demise coming much sooner than later. I’ll be very surprised if it survives to 2008, in fact.
Further up the hill on Main street on the 2300 block is my neighbourhood porn theatre — The Fox. I live about 7 blocks away, but for years never ventured anywhere near it since it was obvious that only gay dudes went in there to cruise for other gay dudes. Like the Venus, it seemed like asking for trouble to even buy a ticket, but as I became more entrenched in publishing my magazine Cinema Sewer, which is focused on classic porn and exploitation, getting to know the place on an intimate level became a priority.
I couldn’t ignore the building’s unique presence what with the constant 365-day-a-year screenings of old skool favourites starring naked luminaries such as Seka, Serena, John Holmes, and Jamie Gillis. I would go on to see some of my favourite porn films to this day in that theatre, sipping smuggled in beer and munching Chinese rice crackers.
My first experience at the Fox wasn’t a great one. I walked in off the street and asked for an interview with the first person inside that I saw, which got me kicked right out of the place almost before I could finish my sentence. I mean, if the Chinese guy (who I later found out was a fellow named Mr. Li) working there had a broom in his hand, I’m sure he would have chased me out the door beating my head with it. I pointed at my camera and stammered out an assurance that I was friendly, and that I just wanted a few words with him — but thanks to the language barrier and his intensely paranoid attitude, I didn’t get any.
Quite by chance I later befriended a guy that would go on to become a Cinema Sewer contributor and stage his own successful “Return to Porno Chic” events at the Fox — Dmidtrui Otis. He came into the music store I was working in and asked for porn soundtracks, and we found that we had a mutual interest in the history of these movies, as well as the Fox. A history that over the years we would excitedly share with one another as we deduced more and more of its timeline.
Our first exciting discovery (well OK — it was Dmidtrui’s discovery, but “our” sounds better) was that this unassuming little shit-scab of a theatre had outlived thousands of other 35mm porn houses across the continent. By the mid-to-late ’80s, the advent of the VCR had massacred the adult movie theatre landscape, with the few survivors converting to video projection when the 35mm porn print distribution service crumbled into nothing. That meant no film prints, and no film prints meant no theatres.
Previously “The Savoy Cinema” in the early ‘80s, where owner/operator Sean Daly programmed 3D movies like THE STEWARDESSES, and HOUSE OF WAX, the venue became The Fox after a few years when an East Indian family bought the business and turned it into a porn theater. Instead of relying on a distributor like most smut houses, they bought over 150 adult film prints of their own to rotate in groups of two a week throughout the year. A few years after that Mr. Li and his wife bought the films and the building, and Li’s cousin ended up buying the aforementioned Venus Theatre down the street as well.
With the laborious and thankless process of film projection compared with the utter ease of simply sticking a VHS tape or a DVD in a player, none of the other fuck-screens on the continent still had the gorgeous flicker of projected film on a celluloid screen. The Fox was now IT. A dinosaur. We were astounded.
Dmidtrui put in weeks of detective work to make absolutely sure there weren’t any other screens still regularly playing 35mm porn, and despite a few fakers (there was one in Toronto that comes to mind) he was able to announce the fact that this was indeed the last one during a beer and sweat-soaked sold out screening of DEEP THROAT and BEHIND THE GREEN DOOR.
It was the evening of Saturday June 16th, 2001, and it was an enormously awesome evening for me, because it was the night that our neighbourhood was reintroduced to that stinky den of sin. For decades barely anyone except chronic masturbating old men had ventured through its doors, and now there was a line-up of nearly everyone I knew going down the fucking block, with about 70 people turned away at the door. Dmidtrui had pulled off something special, and the raincoat regulars were totally confused.
“Jesus Christ!” one old booze hound exclaimed to me as he walked into the lobby, “I’ve been coming here for, well, what is it now? Well about 20 years I’ll bet. 20 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this!”
I sold $140 worth of Cinema Sewer to the masses, and positioned as I was next to the men’s bathroom, I had the true pleasure of snorting lungfuls of festering stench all evening. The theatre itself, packed with sweating, scantily clad patrons also began to give off a rank odour, but I couldn’t stop smiling. This type of seedy filthy atmosphere was the way these movies were meant to be seen. These people wouldn’t ever forget this night. They were tourists in a den of depravity and filth (a place they wouldn’t set foot in normally) but made safe for one night by the effect of “a happening.”
Stepping into the Fox Cinema was like no other film experience I’ve ever had, but I can only assume that it was like legendary Time Square grindhouses such as the Avon, The Globe, and The Lyric. This was a cum-soaked time capsule that glides you right back to the late ‘70s, a cinema-going experience that simply didn’t exist anymore to a generation of film fans obsessed with immaculate DVD transfers and THX surround sound. It felt nasty. It felt dirty. It made us feel alive.
Our experience watching films seated amongst the usual patrons on any given night (as well as our trips upstairs to the projection booth once Dmidtrui had befriended the Li’s) told us that the quality of the prints ranged from abysmal to pretty decent. Taking into account that most of them have been played over and over for 15-20 years, they’ve held up retardedly well.
Surviving a night at the Fox was easier once you knew the unwritten rules. The middle of the theatre was a “no mans land”. Sit there, and you’re usually safe from being approached by gentlemen aching to suck your balls. The Cruising goes like so: you go for a saunter and find a suitable partner in the first few, or last few rows in the back. Then you sit down a couple seats away from them so this “patron of the arts” can size you up. If he moves closer, that means “rock on,” and the pair will often move to some seats in the first three rows where blowjobs and/or handjobs take place, and once the dirty deed is done, gents usually leap from their seats and bolt for the back door. Friendly chit-chat of any kind is totally frowned upon.
“I loved that back exit. EVERYONE exited through there”, my gay friend Spuzz told me when I asked him about cruising the Fox. “To be seen exiting was like a major thing”. Spuzz told me lots of funny stories about being groped in the dark, the time a guy brought a girl in and everyone took turns banging her, and about the old fart who got in trouble for leaving his dick hanging out the front of his pants.
As ballsy as he was for taking part in sexual shenanigans with gawd-knows-who in the theater, even Spuzz didn’t have the guts to venture into the men’s room. Vanessa Del Rio once told me that she loved going into mens room’s in porn theaters because the pheromone-heavy smell of men’s piss makes her horny. She would have loved the Fox. Walking through the door to that dank graffiti-scrawled shit-pit was like being boxed in the face with a glove made out of sweat, cum and urine.
I witnessed some pretty amazing situations and met some interesting people, myself. Watching Dmidtrui almost get in a fist fight in the lobby with two extremely upset female theater-goers who seemed intent on getting their money back because they disagreed with the concept of depictions of sex mixed with violence in 1977’s DISCO DOLLS was one such experience. The two were wracked with righteous indignation and decided to make a major scene and tried to rile people up, but found zero takers for their cause, and were shown the door.
Another weird one during a screening of 1985’s A COMING OF ANGELS (a great porn version of “Charlie’s Angels“) comes to mind: A reprobate who reeked of whiz snuck in the back door and confided to me in a slurred speech that he hated porn. The mere idea that a porn theater existed in his hood gave his rage enough fuel to “come down here and and fuckin’ firebomb this place”. Ironically, when confronted he contentedly coughed up $8 and took a seat. (??)
In August 2002 Ron Jeremy showed up for a night of porn trailers, and that was quite a scene. Witnessing usually chaste girls I knew pull their tits out for a hairy, old, short guy — who if he wasn’t famous, could be confused for a homeless street crazy — was rather bizarre. But here these star-fuckers were, flipping their boobs out for him to sign, or dashing upstairs to the projectionists booth to double-team his groin in the tiny, cramped bathroom. After that he left the theatre and went to the Templeton cafe downtown where Ron got another blowjob in their bathroom from YET another desperate scenester. Wow, that’s something to brag about… you got to suck the cock of a fat, sweaty, unfunny cheapskate along with a million other people over the last 30 years. Go you.
Soon after, Kier-La Janisse (Curator of the Cinemuerte film festival and then employee of Black Dog Video on Cambie Street) and several other partners arranged to take over the Fox on the weekends and make the theatre into a cult movie theatre under the name “Criminal Cinema”. This was a fantastic idea which excited me to no end. Unfortunately, it was an idea that the Li’s capitalised upon by charging an overinflated rental fee to the filmic entrepreneurs, pricing them right out of business.
Kier-la and crew made a valiant attempt to make the place a little more hospitable by ripping out the notorious elevated seating area at the back — which was a trashed shitpit of broken movie seats and a dubious arena for patron’s various sordid acts. They also slapped new paint on the walls, put a new carpet in the lobby, and arranged for an amazing mural of Scott Baio to be painted in the girls room. All at no fee to their unimpressed landlord.
It died nearly immediately due to a total lack of support from local moviegoers. None of the people who had been pleading for a retro grindhouse theatre that would play exploitation film prints showed up. My wife and I saw incredible rare screenings of EL TOPO, BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA, GIMMIE SHELTER and STREETS OF FIRE with an average “crowd” of ten people in a room that can fit 300.
Advertising was good, admission was only $5, and there was plenty of popcorn and cheap beer on tap. The only thing missing were people who would brave the Fox, people who weren’t scared to walk through the door, people who weren’t disgusted by what they thought it stood for. Film enthusiast and Cinema Sewer reader Kieran summed up the situation nicely:
“I went to the showing of BRING ME THE HEAD OF ALFREDO GARCIA. I got there early with Kier-la, Darren and some others from the Black Dog crew. After downing a few beers and chatting, we ran outside for a quick smoke before the show began.The others finished first, and I was last to go in, extinguishing the smoke. Darren calls to me “Come on, it’s starting”, and just at that moment, a well-dressed woman is walking past the doors, she mutters aloud: “Yeah, you don’t want to be late for the circle jerk, perv.” I was fuckin’ SPEECHLESS. I laughed and felt embarrassed/ashamed at the same time.”
Keirien and I both figure that fear of incidents identical to the one he experienced were a major factor in keeping people away, but I don’t care to allow supposed film fanatics to use it as an excuse. To this day I haven’t forgiven the movie geeks in this city for dropping the ball on that one.
But the real heartbreak was yet to come.
Friday, July 17th 2003 was the last day the FOX screened 35mm prints before switching over to a DVD projection system. The theater still exists today screening modern porn DVD releases, but that was the day an era ended, and we saw the curtain draw on a long, sordid linage of pornographic history. The Fox: adult movie house for nearly twenty years, and the last (and perhaps longest running) 35mm porn theatre ever.
REST IN PEACE. I still miss you.
This is Robin Bougie‘s last regular article for the Gutter. Bad news for fans of his stuff, but good news for those of you who have an itch to write a thoughtful article about an artform considered beneath consideration: a videogame you’re impressed by? A romance that’s a cut above? Shoot your ideas to email@example.com. We pay $50 on publication.