Video Killed the Pornography Star

If you're looking for a porn theater in St. Louis, head east -- the Colony is all you'll find

The blue movie, or stag film, used to show up on ancient projectors in the basement of the Moose Lodge or the Kiwanis Club on select evenings. The movies were grainy black-and-white, cheaply produced, featuring fleshy women and men who always kept their socks on. It was a strangely public, and strangely private, form of entertainment, with "city fathers" getting their jollies together in a select group. After a night of unmentionable delights, they were free to go back into middle-class life and commit the usual acts of Babbittry, their secret kept by the band of brothers. The sound of that old whirring reel-to-reel probably elicits some sort of erotic response from veterans of such times, something like Proust's madeleines.

Hidden pleasure became passé in '60s, the decade of exposure. I Am Curious (Yellow), out of Sweden, was lucky enough to have the U.S. Customs Service attempt to keep it out of the country (nudity, simulated sex), which allowed it to gross a whopping (in those days) $20 million.

When a taste for the explicit is awakened, the only thing to do is to feed it and make it more explicit. In the early '70s, Deep Throat and Behind the Green Door did boffo box office, moving "dirty" movies out of the Shriners' basement and into the mass market. Shady little theaters appeared in towns across America. Smut became an industry.

It's hard to connect the word "pleasure" with the Colony Theatre.
Jennifer Silverberg
It's hard to connect the word "pleasure" with the Colony Theatre.

Not in St. Louis, though. Various cultural historians consulted for this article did not see Deep Throat or Behind the Green Door or even I Am Curious (Yellow) in St. Louis. They were never shown here. St. Louis was, and is, a soft-core town only. Dirty movies could only be found across the river, unless, as one local confides, you were invited to policemen's parties, where confiscated merchandise was often shown.

There were theaters that tried to get by presenting movies such as Candy Stripers, which featured naked women and simulated sex -- no male frontal nudity, no pubic hair, no actual penetration and certainly no money shots (as are now seen in legit films such as Happiness and There's Something About Mary). Downtown there was the Towne, of which there is not even a palimpsest to be found anymore. There was the Olympia Drive-in on St. Charles Rock Road. The Fine Arts, on Olive -- a beautiful building with glass brick, ornate ironwork and little faux gas lamps -- is for sale. Currently the home of Higher Heights Christian Church, it went through various incarnations in a brief span of time, from soft to hardcore to art house.

The "golden age" of pornography, which is chronicled so adeptly in the hit film Boogie Nights, passed by with St. Louis hardly noticing. For a brief period during the '70s, porn filmmakers aspired to make more than just fuck movies. They entertained such narrative conventions as plot and character. They thought of how the subject of sex was ideal for satire. Films such as The Opening of Misty Beethoven got made, managing to be both sexy and funny.

Then video, and too much cocaine, killed the pornography star. Video was cheap to produce and cheap to market, and people could entertain their private kinks in their own homes -- the fraternal brothers were there only if you wanted them. The triple-X theaters began closing in the '80s.

"Who would go to a theater when they can get their rocks off at home?" says Ed, the owner/manager of the Colony, the last remaining triple-X house in the region. Ed (who really isn't interested in being in the newspapers, so leave it at Ed) has operated the Colony for 30 years. A dilapidated wooden structure on a foundation of cinderblocks, the Colony sits unobtrusively on the East St. Louis/Washington Park border, not far from the Grace Union Methodist Church and close to a new housing development in one of the worst zones of poverty in the region. To Ed, the rows of new homes mean nothing more than "more shootin'," which he's prepared for -- the butt end of a .45 is prominently displayed in the pocket of his blue jeans.

Dressed in a white T-shirt that reveals a bit of a paunch, Ed has white hair and dark eyebrows. His face is constantly on the verge of grimacing, which he does with each drag off his cigarette. He is one tough guy and wants people to know it. In the Colony's reception booth, which sits high above the patrons, there are a number of surveillance monitors with which Ed and the personnel keep an eye on things. If there's trouble, "I start shootin'," Ed asserts. "I don't give a shit." The original Colony (this is actually the Colony II) was farther down the street, into East St. Louis. Because Trouble knew that Ed would shoot, Trouble stayed on the other side of the street from the old Colony.

Tough guy that he is, Ed still lets out a brief sigh of ennui when talking about the days since the advent of video: "It's a dying business. I'd sell it if I could." When asked about the "golden age" of porno, when performers such as John Holmes (Boogie Nights is loosely based on his career) were stars, Ed dismisses the nostalgia, saying, "Hell, I was in business before all those motherfuckers."

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