In our city of squeaky-clean fast-casual food spots, pun-name craft beer, and opulent new apartment blocks on every corner, it's becoming increasingly tougher to remember a time when Portland was a rough-and-tumble backwater. But just a few decades ago, an economically depressed 1970s Portland was home to scores of dirty bookstores, dirty theaters, dirty massage parlors and something called "lotion studios." At the height of Portland sleaze, more than a dozen adult businesses were within a few blocks of City Hall, and the city played host to at least 15 adult movie theaters.
In 2012, then-Portland State University graduate student Elizabeth Morehead completed a dissertation called "Public Policy and Sexual Geography in Portland, Oregon, 1970-2010." Morehead, now working in PSU's College of Urban and Public Affairs, spoke to WW about the glory days of dirty Old Portland and its downfall in the 1980s. We reconstructed a map of most of those theaters at porn cinema's citywide peak in 1974. If you were raised in Portland, ask your parents about their favorites!
The Advent of the Dirty Movie Theater
When national cinema chains began building multiscreen megaplexes in the suburbs and malls, small urban theaters were forced to change their business models to compete.
"In the '70s, there was a movement toward multiplexes for mainstream cinema," says Morehead. "What became adult theaters had developed as old vaudeville or neighborhood movie theaters. The larger chains started to develop, and these older theaters weren't as lucrative as they used to be."
And then a little movie called Deep Throat came along.
The film, released in 1972, revolutionized pornography with better production and actual storylines.
"There was a change in the way adult films were made, to make them longer and more like a full-length film, to have storylines, which they didn't have before—and greater production values," explains Morehead. "Prior to that, an adult film might be available, but it would be very short, something you might watch in a small arcade or adult bookstore. They became longer, and many existing theaters were repurposed to show films like that."
Where Were They?
Old Town and Chinatown have been synonymous with Portland vice for more than a century, but the city's adult theaters were strewn across town.
"In many ways, they followed the geography of the old commercial districts that are still in a lot of city neighborhoods," says Morehead. "There was a theater in Northeast Portland along MLK [Boulevard], there was one in Sellwood, there was one on Clinton Street. They were in existing commercial hubs and not one specific part of the city."
But Old Town became a hub for adult businesses other than theaters. "It's different if you look at other kinds of adult entertainment," Morehead adds. "The pornography stores that weren't movie theaters tended to cluster more in Lownsdale [immediately east of City Hall]; later, in Old Town. With a movie theater, it's harder to move."
As former neighborhood movie theaters were converted to adult movie theaters, and as adult businesses began springing up across town, Portlanders got mad, especially about porn theaters near schools.
"People mainly complained about adult businesses being located near schools or near paths that children walk past," says Morehead. "Increasingly, as prostitution was associated with some of the businesses, people who were more family-centric didn't approve of those businesses being in their communities. There was a big push that, if the city couldn't zone all of the businesses out, to get them moved to one area."
The End of an Era
As it turns out, most people didn't want to go to a dirty movie theater if they didn't have to.
"The late '70s would've been the heyday of the adult movie theater," says Morehead. "After that, what changed was the introduction of the VCR, and different ways you could get adult entertainment in hotel rooms. Now you could more privately watch videos in your own home, go to a hotel and get a pay-per-view movie."
According to Morehead, the peak of Portland's adult theater boom was 1974, when 18 theaters were playing feature-length adult films all over town—although there were plenty of arcades and bookstores playing shorts throughout this period as well.
By 1982, the number of adult theaters in Portland had shrunk to five. Of those five, only one remains open today: the Oregon Theater on Southeast Division Street.
But you can see the remnants of Portland's filthy past in the marquees of renovated theaters. The Star and Paris theaters in Old Town are now music venues. The Clinton Street Theater bounced from traditional theater to adult theater and back again, now hosting odd documentaries and the country's longest continuous weekly screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The Aladdin Theater in Brooklyn that now hosts bluegrass shows was famous for playing Deep Throat for 14 years straight.