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Can New Jersey's Last Porn Theater Survive Gentrification?

Newark's Little Theater has been running continuously since the 1920s. But as a growing number of America's historic porn theaters are shuttered, its days may be numbered.

The Little Theater in Newark, New Jersey is one of the last operating porn theaters in America. All photos by the author

Ask any of the Little Theater's neighbors how they feel about running their businesses near the last porn theater in Newark, New Jersey, and most of them will shrug. "It's a phenomenally quiet place—nobody bothers anybody," said the manager of the Broad Street Cafe next door. She's run the cafe for 18 years, but the Little Theater has been there "longer than any of us, except the churches."

It's true. The nearby churches have congregated since the 1800s, and the Little Theater has been running continuously since the 1920s, making it one of the oldest running adult theaters in the United States. And with the recent shuttering of many of America's historic porn theaters—Chicago's Bijou, San Francisco's Tea Room, Philly's Forum and Sansom Cinema, Portland's Paris Theatre—puts the Little Theater among a dying breed.

The theater is wedged among banks, corporate buildings, and historic churches on Broad Street, one of Newark's major thoroughfares. Stepping past the gruff ticket-taker—admission is $10—walk down a hallway lined with Renaissance painting reproductions, patrons enter the main corridor, which feeds into a 299-seat theater. Onscreen, the films seem like a random selection from your garden-variety porn site. A few men occupy seats, alone or in pairs, but most of the crowd congregates at the back of the theater behind a dugout-like wall.

On its best days, the theater fills up hundreds of its seats; but on a recent weekday afternoon, there was exactly one guest in a seat, and five more scattered throughout the theater. Derrick, a 29-year-old man from a nearby city, told me it was his second visit. The first was during a memorable weekend last year, when he says there were about 200 people squirming in their seats. This time, Derrick sat alone, bored and a little high, hoping the action would pick up as the evening sets in.

Near the screen are exit doors, which lead into hallways where men occasionally disappear. Back in the main hallway there are benches, and a few television monitors with more porn, as well as a men's bathroom, an unused ladies' room, and a few arcade games—though it's clear people don't come to the Little Theater to play games.

At the end of the hall, there's a small, dimly-lit spiral staircase leading to the all-male room—a closet-sized area with six not-quite-matching chairs and a flatscreen TV streaming gay porn. It's dark, but not as dark as an even smaller room behind the TV, where men occasionally slip away. You can't see anyone having sex back there, but you can sometimes hear it.

There's a social contract at the Little Theater—not one that would apply in other public spaces, but a collective sense of propriety nonetheless. Derrick made a point to tell me he always uses condoms when he's here, and when I politely rebuffed an older man who groped me in the main theater, he smiled and moved on. I've seen white, black, Latino, and Asian men mingle here more intimately than in just about any other social institution, without the "no blacks, no Asians, no fats," filters that have become commonplace on apps like Grindr. Once, I watched a guy strolling an aisle pause to chat briefly with a man stroking away in a seat. He leaned over, gave the stroker a few friendly tugs, and ambled away. Hollywood romcoms usually don't even come close to such casual sweetness.

The Little Theater's projection room

Danny, who has run the Little Theater since 1966 and asked that we not print his last name, since the theater operates in legally dubious territory, emphasized his patrons' decency. "These are people you sit and have coffee with, nice human beings," he told me.

In the 1930s, the theater screened films in Yiddish and German, but by the next decade, had begun its gradual shift toward smut. It fared well with nudist and softcore films in the 1960s, but the softer stuff carried little cash value. After an initial spike in attendance when the theater began showing hardcore porn in the 1970s, the audience has continually waned, thanks to home video and then the internet.

And yet, the Little Theater continues screening films, every day from 10 AM to 10 PM. It's a uniquely queer space, both for men who are proudly gay and those who identify as straight but have ways to compartmentalize their excursions. Richard, a black man in his mid-40s, said he has come here three or four times a month since 1989. He appreciates the sexual opportunities but also the chance to "just hang out," albeit with a shrinking number of patrons. One middle-aged Asian man comes simply to hang out alone in the big empty room downstairs, leisurely pawing at himself without anyone's judgement.

Not everyone in Newark appreciates the Little Theater, though. "Vile is an understatement," wrote one commenter in a review of the place on CruisingforSex.com. "It's all fun and games until your toddler is abducted and found dismembered along the Passaic River," warned another on the local website Glocally Newark.

The threat of losing spaces like the Little Theater is both a local and national tragedy, for very little else in America offers an experience as multiracial, cross-class, and sexually fluid as the Little Theater. Here in Newark, it's still alive—but barely.Outside the theater, downtown Newark is undergoing dramatic redevelopment—and men trading blowjobs in an old porn theater is not exactly part of the city plan. The Whole Foods slated to open two blocks away is more like on message, intended to attract middle-class residents to the area.

"If somebody had told me forty years ago I'd still be here in 2016, I'd have laughed at them," Danny told me. The theater was busted once in the 70s, when it tried to compete with the popularity of Deep Throat by screening Deep Sleep, a feature-length porn comedy shot in nearby Paterson, New Jersey. The Little Theater never moved out of the legal gray zone, but it's avoided any issues since.

So the Little Theater abides, if tenuously. If—or more likely, when—it finally closes, Newark will lose a major piece of its film history, its sexual history, and its soul. But against all odds, long may its floors stay sticky.

Whitney Strub is the author of Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right and Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle Over Sexual Expression. He blogs about pornography in Newark here.