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They seem to appear out of nowhere, beamed from some twilit world into the glare of midday Georgetown. They move sluggishly down trendy M Street, paying no mind to the fancy restaurants thronged with Washington’s elite lunchtime crowd: Haute cuisine and political conversation don’t mean diddley to these solitary pilgrims. The darkened temple awaits.

Though stunned and disoriented by the sun, they navigate well-worn paths, guided not only by habit but by some primitive, irresistible urge. Apparitions from the city’s seedy past, they arrive—one by one—at the place that has meant so much to them for so many years: the small, cozy Biograph, D.C.’s last remaining porn theater, which closes at the end of June.

Lone warriors in a lost cause, they are a dying breed, their numbers dwindled by the adult-video revolution and the martyrdom of Pee-wee Herman. Now at its peak popularity as home entertainment, porn has hit a new low of acceptability as public spectacle. Exiled from the modern Bay Colony, these moral lepers continue to patronize adult theaters while their righteous brethren receive private blessings via cable TV and VCR.

As dedicated as Godard groupies, as devout as Bresson disciples, they gather to pay homage to their own version of Fassbinder’s Holy Whore—the naked, moaning goddess of hard-core cinema. No X-rated film is beneath their rapt attention, and Hollywood’s celebrity soft-core be damned. Popeyed descendants of Cecil B. De Mille’s puritanical but easily titillated audiences, they have retained the sense of sin those moviegoers felt in the early-century palaces of excess. But instead of shouting at the screen and waving hankies, these silent spectators use handfuls of napkins to show their appreciation for the movie. Flesh and fantasy, indeed.

On this bright weekday an elderly, bald man clicks through the turnstile and eases into the lobby of the Biograph. He’s sporting a purple golf shirt and shorts with loafers, a pipe clenched in his mouth. He heads for the water fountain and takes a long drink, as if he’d just trudged over from Virginia in the heat and needed a complete refill.

“I come in here about every week,” he explains, knocking the dregs from his pipe into an ashtray. “I think it’s too bad it’s going to go by the boards. I prefer coming to the theater—I think there’s a big difference seeing it with an audience.”

The regular watches his cohorts pass solemnly through the

turnstile into the lobby: another baldie in shorts with burgundy socks pulled up to his knees, a disheveled, dreadlocked man holding a plastic bag who orders a bucket of popcorn, several businessmen in standard Washingtonian blue suits (all in dark shades for anonymity), an ancient who probably grew up watching silent movies, a rumpled guy in baggy trousers. Nobody says a word as each ducks into the theater.

Glancing at his watch, the regular gets anxious: It’s almost noon, and the day’s first feature, Taboo 14, begins in just a few minutes. “I’m going in to watch it now,” he smiles, flashing a set of bright false teeth. Turning to the concession stand, he asks absent-mindedly, as if it long ago became a personal mantra, “So this is your last month?”

“Yes it is,” says the manager.

Shaking his head sadly, the old man opens the door and disappears into the darkened theater.

“It takes them a while to actually figure out we’re really closing,” sighs the manager. “We’ve been telling them that we were going to close for almost two years, but it still hasn’t sunk in for a lot of them. I wouldn’t be surprised if on July 1 the porn guys are out there at 12 o’clock.”

Since the ’60s, the Biograph has been the city’s premiere showcase for cinema as an art form. But for years, it has also provided the only public refuge for adult films in the District. Its closing, obviously a blow to local cinéastes, is devastating for connoisseurs of X-rated cinema. Quite simply, it’s all they have left: While there’s still a slew of repertory theaters in Washington, the Biograph’s weekday matinees have offered the final hope for the skinflick crowd.

More than just another porn venue biting the dust, the demise of the Biograph marks the official end of Washington’s blue period.

Back in the swinging ’70s and ’80s, the nation’s capital was Sodom on the Potomac, a swamp buzzing with X-rated theaters, among the many neon-lit attractions of a teeming porno racket. The names of these now-defunct places form a salacious litany that brings tears to the eyes of nostalgic veterans of the scene. Among countless fly-by-nights, many lasted for years: Casino Royal Adult Theater, the Plaza Burlesk, and the Trans-Lux on 14th Street NW, the Playhouse on 15th Street NW, the Gayety Theatre on 9th Street NW, the Stanton Art Theater on 18th Street NE. For gay audiences, there was Le Salon on 14th Street NW, the Mark II Cinema on K Street NW, and the Follies on O Street SE.

It was the age of Deep Throat, and the local sex-for-sale scene featured not only triple-X adult theaters but strip joints, massage parlors, hookers, peep shows, and porn emporiums of all sorts. A thriving red-light district blinked 24 hours a day a block from the White House throughout Reagan’s reign. In the early ’80s, anthropologist Jack McIver Weatherford studied D.C.’s notorious sex districts and was appalled with his findings: “In my quest, I haunted the businesses along Fourteenth Street, the Washington Strip lined with brightly flashing marquees, each gaudier than the next,” wrote Weatherford in his 1985 book, Porn Row. “I found the natives more inscrutable than Washington politicians, more savage than Ecuadorian headhunters, and, in the end, more tragic than any other people I had ever encountered.”

For the most part, however, porn enjoyed a widespread acceptance during that freewheeling era that it would never again attain. Couples would often attend X-rated movies together (“Ladies FREE with Paid Escort!”), and even arty theaters like the Biograph presented midnight screenings of the genre’s classics, like Behind the Green Door, Misty Beethoven, and Debbie Does Dallas.

In the summer of 1989, business was slow at the Biograph; it can often be a real chore peddling the latest Finnish auteur to a jaded public. So the management tried something new: “I was out of town and we were having a bad week,” recalls Biograph owner Alan Rubin. “My partner Lenny was running the theater that week and he said, ‘Let’s try some of the adult movies in the afternoon—the place is sitting empty, we’re paying rent on it anyway.’ So we played Misty Beethoven, and a lot of people came. So we said ‘Wow.’ So we did it again the next week and the next, and all of a sudden it was a regular thing.”

The weekday porn matinees have been a Biograph staple ever since. The daily audience nearly always numbers around 50. Many are longtime regulars—nearly half pay the senior citizens’ discount rate of $3. Considering that some stay for two screenings of both double features, it’s quite a bargain. Likewise, the shows make sound business sense for the Biograph: It takes only one employee to run the daytime operation, which brings in the steady flow of money that Rubin says allows him to book more daring avant-garde films for the night screenings. “It’s been very helpful for us. Whatever we take in during the day, it lowers our overhead by that much, so we can take more chances on independent and foreign films.”

Porn palace by day, art house by night: The Biograph has been one of the few repertory theaters—if not the only one—boasting such a split personality. “I’m probably the only one in the country doing it,” says Rubin. “It still blows people’s minds when I talk to other theater owners. I think they have a problem with it.”

They’re not the only ones less than keen about such skinflicks as The Devil in Miss Jones helping to fund the D.C. premiere of Berlin Alexanderplatz. When Misty Beethoven first screened in afternoon shows, letters of protest poured in, and some Dupont Circle feminists even boycotted the theater. Rubin met with the group’s leader, but neither backed down: “She was calling people that go to these movies ‘scumbags,’ so I said, ‘Who are you to say? Those people have a right to see whatever movie they want to see. You’re so sanctimonious about it. Suppose they called you an elitist snob for coming to see foreign films?’”

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Of course, many “elitist snobs” harbor no dislike for on-screen sex—if Marilyn Chambers in Insatiable isn’t their speed, perhaps some French costume drama in which everybody takes their clothes off while discussing Rousseau. One of Woody Allen’s best riffs details his early obsession with Bergman movies, not for their Nordic existentialism but for their bevy of Nordic, existential—and naked—women. Rubin can usually predict which art movie will pack the house: “If we play a foreign film and there’s a lot of nudity, it does well because people say, ‘Oh, there’s some tits but there’s subtitles, so that makes it all right: It’s ART! It’s ART!’”

Despite the initial resistance, the matinees have quietly become a clandestine D.C. tradition for those of the porn-theater persuasion; their presence—advertised discreetly on a small letterboard near the door—hasn’t stirred any controversies in tony Georgetown. And the police don’t bother the patrons.

Moreover, the Biograph has long been the only game in town. In the late ’80s, D.C.’s adult-theater scene was in its death throes, without any help from anti-porn activists. Real estate attrition and development had fizzled the Strip, as owners sold their downtown properties for millions. Moreover, the burgeoning home-video market made it easier for hard-core customers to stay home, so the remaining theaters struggled. By the early ’90s, the Biograph was the last porn theater left.

But the glory days were gone forever, and America had changed its tolerant attitude. In the summer of 1991, comedian Pee-wee Herman was arrested by undercover detectives outside a Sarasota, Fla., adult theater; authorities charged that Herman exposed himself and masturbated twice during a screening of an X-rated flick, Catalina Tiger Shark. (According to the manager, one of the Biograph porn guys, a lawyer who often works in D.C., happened to be in the Florida cinema during the show at which Herman got busted.) The scandal ruined Herman’s career. For many, the incident simply begged the questions: How could Pee-wee be so stupid, and anyway, who in the hell goes to a porno theater in the Video Age?

At the Biograph, it was business as usual. In the murder capital, the cops have more to worry about than indecent exposure. The customers don’t vary much: businessmen, maybe some college kids, the occasional group of Japanese tourists, extremely rare instances of couples. But mostly, it’s been the porn guys keeping the matinees in business.

“They have their own reasons for coming here,” says Rubin, who knows many of the regulars. “There’s a sort of camaraderie—it’s a place to go to get out of the house for a few hours.”

Now, though, the Biograph is closing, and Rubin says there won’t be any porn matinees at the new location: “It probably won’t be necessary—we’ll have five screens and a huge cash flow,” he says. “This is truly the end.”

Inside the theater, Taboo 14 casts its

spell on the hushed audience.

The image on the screen is a murky, blurry monochrome, but that doesn’t bother the crowd a whit. The matinees have long featured projected videos: The porn market went direct-to-video years ago, and besides, the theater’s vintage film prints just plain wore out.

Without the flooding light of film, the theater remains darker than the typical cinema, allowing the patrons more privacy to indulge in their personal relationship with the movie. The dozen spectators sit respectfully apart; a general rustling from the seats prevails, punctuated by frequent trips to the bathroom and the lobby water fountain.

Like many of the films in the series, Taboo 14 is about incest. After the opening scene—a 10-minute tryst with a nurse—the main character (a dead ringer for Billy Ray Cyrus with a goatee) escapes from a mental asylum to track down a sister he’s never met. Yes, reader, he finds her, and she happens to be a woman played by Anna Malle, a vivacious veteran of many previous smut movies. The couple spends the rest of the movie breaking as many taboos as possible. But in the final scene, he discovers she’s not really his sister, which means all that huffing and puffing wasn’t really incest after all: Betrayed and furious, he runs off into the woods howling like some rabid animal. Anna is left breathing heavily at the crossroads, ready for the next sequel.

During the movie, another dozen customers have joined the audience, with a few hasty departures. For the rest of the afternoon, this haphazard traffic flow continues, regardless of the movies’ starting times. While some businessmen stay for only 20 minutes or so before heading back to the office, regulars often remain for the entire four-film marathon.

After Taboo 14’s credits fade, the next movie begins without a moment’s interruption. Directed by a woman, Dirty Western 2: Smokin’ Guns is a refreshing and lighthearted period piece, especially compared with the dark-themed Taboo. It’s the story of a band of ex-Confederates with heavy-metal haircuts who befriend a stagecoachful of prostitutes heading for San Francisco. They spend the movie pairing up in the barn, in the meadow, in the woods, in the outdoor bathtub, and finally, in the stagecoach itself: Roosters crow, horses neigh, couples shout, and everybody makes the nature scene. (Well, hell, Unforgiven didn’t have much of a plot, either, and it won Eastwood an Oscar.)

Throughout Dirty Western 2, the audience offers the utmost attention to the onscreen action. No cinema club ever watched a movie so closely—it’s just that these spectators will leave the moviehouse without coffee or discussion. Here in the dark, they can be alone with the movie, while at the same time, surrounded by their comrades in arms, they also know they’re not alone after all.

“They’re the easiest crowd there is to handle here,” says the manager in the lobby. “They’re usually very nervous and timid, no questions asked, and there’s very little candies and popcorn sold.”

“Same faces, same guys, mostly,” says the manager, who’s been working the porn shift since it started. “The porn guys don’t care what movie’s playing, and it doesn’t matter if they get here in the middle of the movie.”

The manager claims that he can predict, with 95-percent accuracy, which pedestrians turn out to be porn guys—without even seeing their faces. “All I have to see is the bottom half as they walk by. The shoes they wear, the cut of their pants, their gait—there’s a real similarity in those folks. I actually think they come not so much to see the movie as to see each other….When this is a CVS store, it’ll take ’em two years. They’ll still be coming in—some primal instinct or something.”

“I assume when they leave the door that they just evaporate,” he says. “I can’t believe any of them have families and real places that they live.”

The final show of Dirty Western 2 is ending: Once again, the stagecoach rocks back and forth, the rooster crows, and everything comes together. The credits roll as the few remaining spectators slink out of the theater; one stays in the lobby.

A few minutes later, a theater employee wearing yellow rubber gloves strides through the lobby, gripping a garbage bag. “Filthy perverts,” he mutters. “Those fucking animals.” In the old days, he used to double as the “pecker checker,” monitoring the theater to make sure nothing got out of hand. But that hasn’t been necessary for a while: Most customers mind their own business.

He’s just finished cleaning the theater, getting it ready for the evening screenings of foreign films, starting with a 5:45 showing of Who Killed Pasolini? He says he discovers all kinds of items after the matinees: “We’ve found screwdrivers with Vaseline on them. We find bottles of vodka, cigarette butts. We often find articles of women’s clothing that guys’ll bring in—panties or bras. We have one guy who must work in a hotel, because he continually leaves washcloths. In fact, we oughtta have a little lost-and-found or something for all this.”

At the water fountain, a short, elderly man stands alone, apparently in no hurry to leave; the manager introduces him as a loyal regular.

Obviously a man of leisure, he’s wearing a baseball cap, a summer shirt, brown pants the texture of motel drapes, and a pair of old sneakers. A retired barber, the 69-year-old lives in D.C. and has faithfully attended the matinees ever since they began. Back in the old days, he used to frequent the Gayety Theater, where he often helped out the owner, a friend. After the Gayety closed, he became a regular at the Biograph.

“I like going to the movies,” he says. “I don’t rent videos, that’s why I come here—I like the atmosphere. I don’t want a VCR, I don’t want to get addicted to that stuff. I got a buddy whose apartment you can’t even get into because there’s videos everywhere. It’s full of videos. He’s from Brazil and he really likes bondage movies, but I can’t stand those.”

He says the afternoon’s movies were OK—he preferred the western—but he doesn’t really care much for the new X-rated fare: “Today’s stars are nothing,” he grouses. “They don’t even know how to act—it’s just sex.”

For him, the old porn queens possessed charisma, and he met many of them in person at the Gayety: “They were real, and they really knew how to act,” he says. “I liked Seka. I liked Nina Hartley. I liked Vanessa Del Rio—everybody liked Vanessa. I liked Lisa De Leeuw. I liked Hyapatia Lee—she played in Physical. Hyapatia Lee, she was a dance instructor before she got into porno, and she could do so many different things and different roles. The ones today, it’s just sex. There’s no plot. It’s all sex, but everybody knows what that is—they want to see a story.”

He also misses the high visual quality of the old film prints: “Video always looks blurred,” he says. “Film is so vibrant.” But what can you do? It’s all video these days. That’s OK, he’ll take what he can get as long as he can see it in a theater, where these movies were meant to be shown, he says, not in somebody’s living room.

He’s got some friends he sees at the Biograph, and he has warm regards for the management, but mostly he drops by just to kill time. He takes a bus into Georgetown and he always stays for the whole afternoon.

“You get a lot of people coming to hang out, but I don’t get involved with that,” he says with disgust. “Some of the guys that come in here, I really don’t like what they do. They gotta stand behind me and ejaculate and all that stuff. You don’t need it—they’re exhibitionists. These movies, they’re not innocent, but it’s what you make of them.”

He watches the customers of the first evening show trickle into the lobby and line up at the espresso machine.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the people who come [to the matinees],” he says. “They wear sunglasses when they get out of here ’cause they don’t want to be seen. I’m not ashamed being seen here. Everybody knows I was over at the Gayety for years. If you respect yourself, then how can anybody say anything about it?”

Now that the Biograph is closing, he has nowhere to go. The only other porn venue left in the D.C. area is the Foxchase in Alexandria, but he won’t go there because he got into an argument with the manager.

He says he’ll take the memories of the Biograph and leave it at that:

“I will miss coming here. But don’t worry about it, I can go anywhere; I got friends all over. It was nice while it lasted, but everything comes to an end.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Michelle Gienow.