It took me three passes before I could bring myself to open the unmarked black door on East 4th Street, the one an older man had entered after trying to cruise me near a rack of Citi Bikes. Inside was a steep staircase, painted deep orange, leading down into a basement lobby. There was a framed poster on the wall: Eyes Wide Shut, the Stanley Kubrick film in which an overcurious New Yorker stumbles into an orgy of anonymous, Bacchanalian sex.
As I descended to the lobby, the smell of cleaning fluid wafted up. Downstairs, a well-groomed Latino man sat behind a ticket window where signs advertised “films from unknown studios/filmmakers” and hours of 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. No words were spoken; no words are needed in a place like this. I passed across a $20 bill and he returned my change ($8) with an origami fold and a wink so brazen it nearly deserved a tip. Then a buzzer sounded: the security latch released, and I pushed through a turnstile into the fusty darkness of the Bijou Film Forum.
After my eyes adjusted, I noticed a long empty bar, opening out over a dark room where a handful of men wandered around looking lost. In its accretion of surreal details, the theater’s lounge area resembled something from a David Lynch movie: tables and chairs out of a jazz club, an old TV flickering telenovelas, a solitaire arcade machine, large drawings of Elvis and Ray Charles, posters for The Rugrats Movie and, of all things, The Bachelor.
The modest screening room contained about 100 seats. The screen, where one would expect to see hardcore flicks of rough trade and borderline-illegal sex acts, was instead showing Last Holiday, the 2006 feel-good comedy in which Queen Latifah is misdiagnosed with a terminal illness.
I did a circuit, sticking my head in a small locker room and nodding to the older man from the Citi Bikes. The toilet was painted more of that dark orange, but the stall graffiti was disappointingly beige (“KILL OBAMA”). As I moved through the darkness, men circled me like lions around a jittery gazelle, and I lept from space to space, eluding eye contact, which works as a kind of consent here: “Yes, take me now.”
According to photographer Stephen Barker, who documented New York sex clubs during the early ’90s, the Bijou opened around that time.
I first became intrigued by New York’s gay porn theaters after visiting the museum-like Bowery loft of artist and DJ Scott Ewalt. Ewalt had lived near Times Square in the wild, pre-Giuliani days of the late 1980s. “There was literally women walking around in lingerie and fur coats,” he recalled, “and kung fu stores, and exploitation movies, and deflated blow up dolls that were kind of collapsing in all the windows.”
There was also a group of all-male theaters occupying converted movie palaces — places like the 1,433-seat Adonis Theatre, which the legendary porn director Jack Deveau had immortalized in A Night at the Adonis (1978), starring Jack Wranger and Mandingo. (“The ladies room’s right here,” says one character to Wranger. “I guess it doesn’t get much use,” Wranger says, to which his friend replies: “Guess again.”)
By the time Ewalt came along, these Times Square theaters were already pretty run down — mold on the walls, water in the basement — but they retained a certain voyeuristic appeal, and men came to trawl for sex, watch drag queens like Chi Chi LaRue, or, like Ewalt himself, revel in the subversive thrill of it all.
One day in the early 1990s, Ewalt watched construction workers dismantling the conspicuous neon sign of the Adonis “like they were cutting a loaf of bread.” He realized history was being lost, and it spurred him to start collecting signs and memorabilia in a preservation effort that now commandeers most of his apartment. Partly, he told me, the signs were really beautiful; “but I kind of like that they all played a part in the timeline of the sexual revolution.”
Back at the Bijou, I clocked the age and builds of the other men: older, mostly 50s, some with bellies, others wearing clothes and baseball caps that made them seem closeted, possibly married. As I did a lap through the corridor that hugs the cinema in a U-shape, they stepped to the doorways of dark, cell-like booths outfitted with wooden benches. They silently invited me in by flashing their cocks. One man began to trail me, so I slipped into the cinema and sat down to watch Ms. Latifah contemplate suicide on the ledge of a hotel. The soundtrack was the man’s belt buckle, clattering to the floor. Moaning.
It is an incredible space, but then the Bijou Film Forum, like the Adonis, has its own remarkable history. In the 1950s and 60s, when drag was still considered dangerously subversive (and illegal), queens performed a famous revue here in the mafia-run Club 82, “New York’s After-Dark Rendezvous.” Elizabeth Taylor was known to drop by, along with other forward-thinking celebrities, and it’s said that Errol Flynn once played the piano with his penis.
By the 1970s, the subterranean rooms were absorbing glam rock and avant garde punk, including sounds by The Stilettos, featuring an up-and-coming Debbie Harry. Ron Wood of the Rolling Stones even took a turn at the theater in 1990, launching a music club that seems to have lasted a red hot second. Since its halcyon days, in other words, the black door has hidden queers and iconoclasts, letting them do whatever they want, street-level society be damned.
These days, the theater is owned by Nicolas Nicolaou, who also owns Cinema Village on East 12th Street, the Alpine Cinema in Bay Ridge and Cinemart Cinemas in Forest Hills. He was briefly an owner of the renowned Bleecker Street Cinema and also of another Bijou Cinema, on Third Avenue. The latter was shut down in 1989, with the city’s health commissioner accusing Nicolaou of “essentially operating an AIDS breeding ground with profit being the driving force.” He briefly revived it as an offshoot of Cinema Village. (Today it’s the site of an apartment building where one-bedrooms go for around $4,000 a month.)
There’s no mention of the current-day Bijou on its sister theaters’ Websites, and it doesn’t have a site of its own. You won’t even find it on Yelp, as mentions of it are pretty much confined to cruising sites — a rather amazing feat in the media-saturated East Village.
The hidden, subterranean movie house near the corner of East 4th Street and Third Avenue is a throwback to the Bijou of yore, a piece of New York’s past that the property developers have forgotten to scrub clean; and an important reminder during Pride Week that not all gay culture can readily blend into the mainstream — that, for many people, subversion is part of the story too, and something worth acknowledging with more than a token visit to the Stonewall Inn.
As I pushed through the turnstile to exit the theater, the man at the box office banged on his glass window. “Next time,” he said gruffly, “exit through the back door.” How clandestine! It was the first thing anybody had said to me at the Bijou Film Forum, and I loved it.