Mickey Cooks The Tenderloin

by

02/24/2002

234 W 42nd St, New York, Ny 10036

Neighborhood: Times Square

Imagine a 20th-century history of the United States that omitted the 1900s, 1930s, 1950s, and 1960s. Something of the kind has attended the chronicling of Times Square’s latest identity as Disneytown, Goofyville, or Mickeymart. Most accounts of West 42nd Street’s conversion have been content to say that for decades the district was a magnet for penny- ante drug dealers, dollar-ante hookers, and hard-core video marts offering all the pubic hair you could peep, and that this followed an earlier era when the Deuce and its environs represented the theater capital of the nation.

Well, yes and no. The theater part is right. Between the end of World War I and the onset of the Great Depression, in particular, legitimate theater was Times Square; in the 1927-28 season alone, 76 houses hosted a record 264 plays. Equally true, up to the arrival of Disney’s bulldozers, those doorway whisperers hadn’t been collecting for war veterans, those plastic red miniskirts on the street corners hadn’t been the overflow from a Bryant Park fashion soiree, and those XXX window signs hadn’t been advertising Tic-Tac-Toe. But the routing of the hustling and the horny by the Lion King was hardly the first time that real estate speculation and moral rearmament had teamed up to declare new beginnings for the neighborhood. As far back as the end of the 19th century, theater impresario Oscar Hammerstein and New York Times founder Adolph Ochs were grabbing up land with the city’s blessings because it spelled doom for a chain of bordellos that had become pastures for New York’s upper crust. Again on the eve of World War II, after the economic collapse of the 1930s had curtailed theater building and 42nd Street had started flaunting the loin in Tenderloin, City Hall labored to rally cash-short entrepreneurs to come up with a master plan for eliminating the area’s thriving prostitution, burlesque shows, and movie grind houses.

And then there were the 1950s and 1960s, when Times Square was a hub for soft-core tease pictures. Trust me on this. Together with many other aspiring or delusional writers, actors, and cameramen, I made a few bucks from the neighborhood in this period. Among other things, that was how I ended up working for a popular songwriter who couldn’t speak the English language, for one producer who would later make his fortune by marrying one of the world’s biggest- selling novelists, and for a second producer who gave original meaning to the concept of international productions. It wasn’t exactly like trailing after a circus elephant with a broom, but it was still a way of breaking into show business.

Because a considerable part of the district’s trade was servicemen on leave, the New York police moved gingerly around Times Square during World War II. They didn’t move much more energetically after the war, either–for the most part, the city relying on feeble rezoning strategies to discourage the spread of sleaze businesses, on Hollywood censorship statutes for keeping what it saw as lewdness off the screen, and on a more-bark-than-bite ordinance passed by the Fiorello La Guardia administration banning even the use of the word burlesque on advertising posters. Then the Korean War broke out, a new wave of soldiers and sailors at liberty established beachheads between Seventh and Eighth avenues, and City Hall’s relative inertia looked like foresight. The neighborhood’s neon signs became synonymous with the illicit and its sidewalks began spilling over with posses of midnight cowboys.

Always, though, there were movies as the front, facade, and marquee of the district. And one byproduct of the more entrenched seaminess was that office space in surrounding skyscrapers was lapped up at cheaper rates by a lot of self- styled film producers. Whether they had actually ever produced anything or had merely snapped photos at some in- law’s wedding, they relished their midtown addresses, if only to be able to say they were available for lunch at Sardi’s or Gallagher’s (provided a prospective backer picked up the tab). Occupying other offices were the distributors–sometimes the producers wearing a second hat, but often also accountants, bookkeepers, and attorneys with ambitions (or bills) beyond their nine-to-five jobs. My own favorite was a dentist we’ll call Doctor Klein. Operating from an aerie floor in the Paramount Building, Doctor Klein was accustomed to seating a patient in his dental chair, sticking a saliva tube in the wretch’s mouth, then darting across the hall to his separate office for Klein Productions, where he proceeded to haggle on the phone with the manager of some Ohio theater chain about the cut he expected for his new bikers-and-their-broads movie. Only when he heard the saliva tube clogging too angrily would he rush back to his stranded patient.

There were several kinds of features that found their way into the Times Square soft-core circuit. The earliest, especially popular in the late 1940s and early 1950s, were the straightforward striptease revues headlining the likes of Lili St. Cyr and Tempest Storm. Basically just filmed burlesque acts, they observed the same proprieties about holding on to G-strings and pasties that, on the same site only a few years before, had protected (most of the time) live performers from arrest. More than one Doctor Klein had also kept himself in novocaine by acquiring the rights to a German or Scandinavian nudist camp documentary. It required only the most modest of investments for the budding Sam Goldwyn to have prints made, hire an actor to read some addle-minded paean to the joys of bare-assed volley ball, and then repackage the result as Sin Under the Sun.

Another source of material was the dregs of European studios. This isn’t to be confused with the tonier efforts of Brigitte Bardot and other continental actresses skilled at taking off their bras with their backs to the camera. While those ladies appeared regularly at the foreign- language Apollo, other 42nd Street theaters accommodated Grade Z gangster tales that sounded as though they had been dubbed into English by a crew of British-accented drunks in Malta. Their cachet in the eyes of Times Square exhibitors was that they invariably included motorcycles, striptease clubs, and/or rape scenes–ideal billboard fodder.

The rise of the independent producer in Hollywood in the mid-1950s had a dribble-down effect on 42nd Street. With so many filmmakers bent on filling the void left by the breakup of the big studios, mountains of celluloid rose toward the sky seeking distribution. When none was to be found through orthodox channels, desperate producers and investors turned to Tenderloin operators, recouping some of their outlay in exchange for agreeing to the addition of a few gratuitous sex scenes. This usually meant that an originally intended whodunit would go out as Sylvia’s Midnight Orgies. In some cases a Times Square buyer might obtain the rights to two or three of these stillborn independent jobs and splice them together, leaving audiences to wonder what those American Gothic characters in Maine had to do with those slobbering rednecks in Alabama and how could they all be peeking through the same bedroom keyhole to watch Melissa get ready for bed.

* * *

It was the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni who introduced me to Joe Brenner, a Tenderloin operator nonpareil. I was in a Broadway luncheonette talking with a friend about how sensual Antonioni had made his love scenes between Monica Vitti and Alain Delon in The Eclipse when a sharp-faced man with wavy gray hair and frameless glasses suddenly leaned over from the next booth and asked me to repeat what I had been saying. Within seconds of hearing again our ever-so sophisticated theories about the differences between the sexual and the sensual, Brenner was inviting me and my friend to accompany him to a screening room to help him evaluate some police melodrama he was thinking about buying. Since it was either see his free movie or drink more watery coffee, we went along with him.

The picture turned out to be an endless grainy exercise apparently shot in a busy airplane hangar. For the most part, two paunchy community theater actors sat around as cops in a squad room bitching about their frigid wives, leering to each other at reminders of past encounters with hookers, and daydreaming about these oafish conquests. Whenever a blurrier than normal lens announced a flashback to a striptease or a bedroom scene, Brenner sat up in his seat and muttered, “Now let’s see if this one is sexual or sensual.” By the time the projection was over, he had decided not to buy the picture because, notwithstanding the fact that he had never actually seen an Antonioni film, it didn’t have “any of that Italian guy’s touch.”

What might have been merely an anecdote for the afternoon became a few dollars when I was asked to clear my calendar the following day for another screening, this time for a Danish picture Brenner had “heard good things about.” Returning to the screening room the next day, I was introduced to a surly character named Porter who was then directing what Brenner referred to as “my biggest production right now.” Porter clearly thought he had more important things to do than watch seduction scenes from Danish movies, and while Brenner was conferring in the booth with the projectionist, he sneaked in a couple of zingers about “all this European crap” and the people who fell for it. The screening room lights dimmed, and Brenner stepped back inside to say: “We’re going to cut right to the screwing scenes. The radio’s saying something about Kennedy being shot. Now watch this and tell me why it’s so sensual.”

It’s absolutely true everyone remembers in detail where they were on November 22, 1963. I was watching the seduction scenes from the Danish feature A Stranger Knocks in a Ninth Avenue screening room, then earnestly debating their exploitation value with Brenner (“That’s exactly what I’m looking for!”) and Porter (“Give me that Dane’s money and I’ll do better than that shit in my sleep!”). Even more vividly, I recall the elevator ride down to the street. By then John Kennedy had died in Dallas, and, floor by floor, stunned workers in the building entered the car to get a breath of air downstairs. Feeling the need to break the gathering pall around him, Brenner nudged Porter in the arm, asking aloud: “You know Abraham Lincoln was a Jew?” Deep in his own thoughts about how to pocket some Danish kroner, Porter just shook his head, saying no, he had never heard that. “Oh, yeah, he was shot in the temple, wasn’t he?” All these years later I remain convinced that only some overwhelming impotence–a group dread of endless disabling shocks–saved Brenner from having at least one pair of hands wrapped around his throat.

In his own field, though, Joe Brenner had a genius to match Antonioni’s. Rather than wait for dubbed European dreck to wash up in New York harbor, he made regular trips to London to scout the British B-movie scene. “You pay a few more bucks for an English picture than a French or German one,” he explained, “but you make most of that back by saving on dubbing. Sometimes you even get something that makes sense.”

Not that Brenner entertained serious hopes of discovering a feature already suitable for his market; his more modest target was a picture that would lend itself to insertion work without much expense. The ideal case was the project he was then working on with Porter. Originally, the movie was a humdrum British tale about a gang that robs a bank and makes off with the attractive teller as a hostage. What made Brenner reach for his wallet to buy U.S. rights were two scenes in the melodrama. In the first one, the gang leader rescues the teller from one of his goons, throws her into the bedroom where she is being held, turns off the light, and locks the door against any further attacks. In the second one, the leader and the teller realize they love one another, exchange a tepid kiss, accidentally knock over a lamp, and freeze in fear that they’ve been overheard by an ambitious punk in the gang who wants to take over the crew.

For Brenner the key to both scenes was the light being extinguished. This enabled him to cut into the action, hire a New York actor and actress who in the darkness might (with substantial audience imagination) be the British players, and add some soft-core, naked gropings. These were the scenes Porter was directing in a photo studio near the Garment District.

At least part of the time. What else Porter was doing was inviting a succession of cronies to the photo studio to demonstrate that he was an unappreciated Alfred Hitchcock. In drafting me as a special production liaison between him and Porter, Brenner was livid that he had to think twice about what should have been only a two-day shoot but what had in fact already extended into a second week. Or, in his words: “What the hell’s he shooting over there–Lawrence of Arabia?”

Porter wouldn’t have laughed at the comparison. When he wasn’t telling the actor playing the gang leader-in-the-dark that he couldn’t act or complaining that the actress playing the teller-in-the-dark needed to go on a diet, he was ushering visiting friends over to his viewfinder so they could admire his angles on the flophouse cot that was standing in for the room where the hostage was being held. “Know where I learned that?” he was prone to asking his groupies. “From Pudovkin, the great Russian director! We were in a film unit together during the war and he showed me things Hollywood still can’t do! What you’re seeing there is the same framing he used in Mother!”

Brenner might not have known who Vsevolod Pudovkin was, but he didn’t have to think twice about who the mother was. When Porter began demanding “10 or 12 extras” for a nightclub striptease scene that he suddenly deemed essential for beefing up the British sequences of the Scotland Yard manhunt for the bank robbers, creative differences between the front office and the set reached critical mass. Then, after a couple of days of threatened walkouts by Porter (“The day I need Joe Brenner to make a living I go into a different craft!”) and threatened firings by Brenner (“I walk over to the Port Authority, I find a Porter coming off every bus!”), there was a compromise–the soundman and me. Porter had won his point about the striptease insert, but Brenner wasn’t about to pay a dozen extras, even if they figured to be the dealers, hookers, and drifters he had scooped up from 42nd Street at $10 a head for his other productions. Instead, he announced with the glow of Cecil B. DeMille revealing his solution to the Red Sea sequence in The Ten Commandments, the soundman and I would take turns holding a glass of iced tea at a cafe table and project leers at the stripper. And with that it was a wrap.

For a few months Brenner phoned to set up more screening room consultations on that elusive sensuality. The closest he came to it was acquiring the distribution rights to an Ingmar Bergman import that, in between shrieks and lengthy silences over the bleakness of the human condition, showed some naked actresses going at one another. But both of us also had a moment of glory from our most serious collaboration. Mine came the day I was passing the Rialto theater and was dismayed to see my leer at the stripper blown up to Godzilla proportions on posters around the box office. The down side to this, I realized instantly, was that I would have to keep my parents away from Times Square for the foreseeable future. The up side, of course, was that I was able to boast to actor friends that I had reached Broadway before they had.

Brenner’s success was the kind he valued most–financial. Apparently in the interests of filling up space, a weekly magazine sent a clown of a reviewer to see the bank heist film that had taken on the new title of The Seducers. The reviewer was so taken with the professional production and the competent acting (the original British cast included Shakespearean veteran Kenneth Haigh as the gang leader, “Man from UNCLE” co-star David McCallum as the homicidal punk, and the then-Mrs. McCallum and the future Mrs. Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, as the teller) that he urged his readers to be less hasty about condemning the quality of 42nd Street soft-core releases. His only reservations, he said, were about a couple of unnecessary sex scenes and a nightclub striptease. Thanks to that review and some campy follow-ups by other periodicals, The Seducers went out across the country as the top biller to the most recent Cannes Film Festival winner.

“It’s a great business, isn’t it?” Brenner laughed. “I’d never leave Times Square.”

Which is more or less what Traci Lords and Donald Duck said after him.

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