The Last Days of a Porn Palace

Harold Gussin never expected that one day he'd end up running a porn theater. When he started working at the Polk, a theater in Jackson Heights, Queens, it was the late 1950s and the Polk was just a regular movie house. But only a decade later, it was starting to show films like charscalex98 Carmen, Babcharscalex98 y, an update on the opera that was billed as "Carmen in modern undress!" And for the next 40 years, the Polk showed nine dirty films a day. The place got increasingly run-down. By last winter, there were only five flickering bulbs above the entrance.

The marquee had big red neon letters that said "POLK," but two had burned out. And the only poster outside was of a girl in a slip glancing over her shoulder, looking as if she belonged on the cover of a '50s pulp novel. "At least once in every young man's life there's an older woman," it said above her head.

But somehow, the Polk had managed to stay open way after Times Square had been transformed from sleazy sex market to tourist trap. In fact, by early 2006, it was one of only three big theaters left where people could watch porn on the big screen in the city. In late February, though, the place closed down for good. Mr. G., now 75, had been sick. "I just couldn't take care of it no more," he said. But lately, he often wishes it were still open. "I would have something to do," he said—although he always felt a bit conflicted about running the Polk. "It's not a nice thing to have a man show dirty movies," he explained. "I am embarrassed." He still managed to show up almost every night for 30 years. A short man, he almost always wore a bowler hat and a black overcoat with a white handkerchief in the breast pocket. He would arrive at 9 p.m. and then stay for about an hour, until it closed.

It was easy to see that the Polk, built in 1938, had once been elegant. The 599-seat theater was art deco, and some of the original light fixtures were still on the walls. The little ticket booth outside was the original, too, although the glass had become cloudy with age. But business at the Polk hadn't been going so well. There were only about 12 customers a night. Part of the problem was the projectors, which were over half a century old. The porn was always tinted red, and sometimes it was so blurry it was hard to tell what was armpit and what was pubic hair.

The titles were listed in capital letters on a piece of paper taped to the ticket booth. Inside, there was a blue heart-shaped ashtray, a baby animal calendar, and a bouquet of fake pink flowers. Some nights the teller was Sharon Dobossy, 62, who had taken the job at the Polk to pay for food for her 16 cats. She had smooth, pale skin, and a Hungarian accent that turned many of her Ws to Vs. She spent her shifts smoking Misty 120s and applying and reapplying her lipstick. Occasionally, Mr. G. would pop his head in the ticket booth to ask a question. One night, he did this and then stopped for a moment. "Why do you keep putting on lipstick?" he asked. "There's no one here." Sharon just gave him a haughty look.

Sharon felt conflicted about working at the Polk too. "I got to get out of here," Sharon said. "This is a sin to work at a porno movie theater. Every morning I go to church. It's the only way I manage."

Other shifts the teller was Paola. Occasionally she sat in the booth, knitting, but when it was nice she would stand outside the booth, leaning suggestively against the wall, wearing lipstick and tight jeans. She looked a bit like she'd had a sex change, and as it turned out, she had. She never went inside, she said, because it was dangerous for a lady. And besides, she said, it stank.

It did. It smelled like piss, rubber, and old carpet. What it did not smell like was sex. No one was getting laid at the Polk. And it was not because of the signs in the lobby, "No Sex," with "Sex" crossed out and "Smoking" written below. If the patrons wanted to get any, they needed to take care of it themselves. They spent a lot of time going to the bathroom upstairs, but they also spent a lot of time wandering through the dimly lit lobby. In one corner there were seven fire extinguishers. There was a display case cluttered with old calendars and empty Arizona Iced Tea bottles. And at the far end of the room there was a staircase that led up to the second floor, where there was an old phone booth with a little ledge to sit on, except that there was no phone.

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The cats' meow: Sharon Dobossy
photo: Nicholas Burnham
Mr. G. never paid much attention to all this. "All it needs is a good paint job," is what he said about the theater. "Look at it, it's so nice." He was sitting in the lobby, dwarfed by a regal-looking chair with a leopard-skin print. "If I get better, I'm gonna put in American, European pictures. Years ago they were playing here," he said. He trailed off. "Last year or so it went down, down, down. People don't want it anymore. They see it on TV. Or they buy it and watch it at home."
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