October 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 6
Pornography seems to be doing very well these days. Every fair-sized town has its “adult-book store,” and x-rated feature films have advanced from their first big-city beachheads of the midigGo’s to occupy theatres in suburban shopping centers. Naturally, the vigorous state of the industry has not gone unnoticed. A national news magazine, for instance, devoted a cover story to the proliferation of pornographic films, topless bars, and what are universally and euphemistically known as “massage parlors.”
Those who fear that all this is yet another indication of the imminent disintegration of our society might take heart from a study made by one Franklin Fretz in 1912. In a book entitled The Furnished Room Problem in Philadelphia , Fretz discussed patterns of life in the city’s rooming-house district. He was appalled by the licentious diversions available to the people who lived there. Here is what he saw:
Amusement places of every kind abound in the district. … On April i, 1910, there were eighteen places of amusement on Eighth street between Race and Vine. … This block is a regular midway of license and pleasure, drawing the rabble from all parts of the city.
On Arch street are found a number of vile theatres such as the Trocadero, the Dime Museum, and others. … At Broad and Fairmount avenue is The Grand, which until two years ago was one of the most popular theatres in the city, but which has now been converted into a moving-picture and vaudeville house. What is to be the outcome of all this melodrama, music, picture-shows, vaudeville, etc? Archbishop Parley, of New York City, says: “The stage is worse today than it was in the days of paganism. We see today men and women—old men and women—who ought to know better, bringing their young to these orgies of obscenity. …”
A certain amount of amusement is both necessary and desirable in this age of the industrial revolution. … We need more amusements today than ever before. It seems, however, that the character of our amusements is degenerating. The trail of the Tenderloin is on our stage. What does this mean? It means that a trivial, pleasure-loving, hectic class of men and women, who make up so large a part of the theatrical audiences of Broadway, New York, are imposing their standards, their vulgarity upon the American stage. It means, as Walter Prichard Eaton, in Success Magazine for April, 1909, declares: “That today, as the result of the tyrannical dominance of a group of New York theatrical managers over the theatres of the entire country, an unprecedented wave of licentiousness in theatrical entertainment has arisen and is moving out from the Tenderloin, into the real United States. Vaudeville is already inundated. Musical comedy has in the past two or three y ars sunk in many cases to the level of back-alley Parisian indecency. The dramatic stage has felt the influence and let down the gates to forces of the rankest suggestiveness. And this is because such plays ‘pay’ in the Tenderloin of New York City, and so acquire a reputation that piques curiosity throughout the country.”
… It is a remarkable fact that the average “roomer” prefers a clean play or a decent “moving-picture” show to the trash of the tenderloin theatres … even though the cheap theatres flaunt their suggestive plays in his eyes on bill-boards at every corner he passes. On a single bill-board, in this district we saw the following “ads” very suggestively illustrated: “Miss Innocence,” “The Girl from Rector’s,” “Out Saloming Salome,” “The Queen of the Moulin Rouge,” “Cleopatra Dance,” “The Whooping Cough Girl.”
… Perhaps you may be a little skeptical as to the indecent character of many of these shows. You may even be a trifle annoyed by this suggestion of “lurking danger,” and may question the writer’s standard of “decency,” and think it prudish or hyper-critical. You don’t go to such shows. Your pleasant surroundings seem quite as pleasant as ever, you are sure people are just as moral. Is it not “poison,” or a danger to the adolescent mind when half-naked women make suggestive gestures, in the glare of the footlights, directly in the face of the boy? Songs are sung, and gross dialogue spoken that are indecent and suggestive. Ten years ago Mr. Keith would not allow an actress who impersonated a French maid in a sketch at his Boston theatre to wear silk stockings, because silk stockings were suggestive of fast life. Today many “headliners” who are women, appear on the vaudeville stage with no stockings at all. Barefoot dancers are common occurrences. Recently a dance was done in this city by a woman who was apparelled only in jewels and spangles. She did not even wear a gauze skirt.
Last year a professional woman swimmer appeared in a skin-tight union suit, and in order to make the act, which is naturally only an athletic exhibition, suggestive, the managers put on the stage a man with a camera to impersonate a peeper. In the “Follies of 1910” a young woman applies to the manager for a position in vaudeville, stating that she has a figure which will please. The manager replies: “I am from Missouri and must be shown.” She throws off a silk robe which she is wearing and stands before the audience without any clothing, save a skin-colored loin cloth.
The “Soul Kiss” is full of suggestions of impurity. “The Queen of the Moulin Rouge” is said to go the limit. It depicts alleged Parisian life. Paris revolted at two of its dancers. Assaults on the physical passions are made throughout the play. The “Girl from Rector’s” is a made over play from a vile French farce. In Trenton, New Jersey, the police ordered the posters for this play off the fences, and finally closed the play up.
… There are more than one thousand transients in Philadelphia hotels every day. Every night these visitors go to see some show. The visiting buyer must be entertained. Such an entertainer told me how he had procured seats for a visiting buyer from Williamsport to see [a decent show]. The buyer sneered contemptuously. “Say,” he remarked, “I get to Philly once or twice a year. Do you think I want to go to a Sunday-school convention or a pink tea?” The seats were sold, and tickets procured for the Trocadero.
And other forms of entertainment are available to these visitors:
The Evening Item of March 11, 1911, had forty-one ads in the “Personals” giving the locations of “massage parlors,” which are nothing more nor less than houses of prostitution. “Mass. Young Operators,” “Mass. Bath, Two New Attendants,” “Mass. New Young Expert,” … “Mass. Magnetic Treatment,” “Mass. Satisfaction,” … “Mass. Bath, New French Nurse”—are some of the ads.
And, of course, there are films:
The most popular amusement in our city today is the moving picture show. It is found everywhere. It is commonly called “The Movies,” or the “Moves.” Thousands of school children attend the “movies” daily. The so-called tenderloin … is filled with “movies.” The moving picture show is a cheap form of amusement and is capable of doing a great deal of good. For instance, the work being done on the Panama Canal could be shown or the progress made in irrigation in the West, or the processes of raising cattle and shipping them to market, or the intricacies in making a Panama hat, etc. Instead of this we have such scenes as shop-lifting, lynching, etc., depicted.
… We are ready to admit all the evils of which the moving picture shows are accused. We believe, however, that we shall recognize their good side in the future, as surely as we see the evils associated with the “movies” at present.