When Porn Was Young

(Published in the Winter/New Year 2008 issue of Cinema Retro magazine)
The University of Miami’s film school was a haphazard hodgepodge in the 70s, but we had some cool instructors. One of them was just about to shed his night job and asked if I wanted it. It involved film, and the pay was good. I said sure. His endorsement made the interview pro forma, so one fine, sweltering evening I found myself in the projectionist’s booth of The Paramount Theater, a humongous Miami Beach shrine to motion pictures. I never counted, but this 30s-era monolith must’ve had over a thousand seats. There were towering Cecil B. DeMille-style babe statues with wheat staffs and inscrutable lidded eyes cast up at sixty-foot ceilings, miles of lavish wallpaper and gilt trim, and a lush red velvet curtain embracing a screen the size of Duluth.
Even in the dark, it was unmistakably falling apart. An audience of two dozen was a good crowd. The Paramount had become a porn palace, a Babylon by the Beach, and I was the night projectionist. This was not a gig I’d be writing home to mom about.
Each night at 5 P.M., I’d arrive at The Paramount with a knapsack of textbooks and a bag lunch, climb up and up to the top of this cavernous seedy amphitheater and lock myself into a claustrophobic booth for 7 hours. Sandwiched between giant twin 35mm arc-light anachronisms, my projector was a dinky 16mm with a custom lens and bulb that threw a pale rectangle of pimply humpers across the yawning divide, dimly illuminating about 3/5ths of the huge screen. Partially pulled curtains lamely concealed the discrepancy while exposing gaping tears in its fabric.

Porn’s no novelty today— you need security specialists to fend it off— but in the 70s, the film phenomenon “Deep Throat” was a novelty that caught mainstream attention. Long since appropriated and immortalized by Watergate, few perhaps realize Deep Throat’s groundbreaking reputation as the first high-concept porn film. The beautiful and hapless heroine has a birth defect: her clitoris is unaccountably located in her throat, compelling a win-win solution for fellatio fetishists.
Or so I’m told. I never saw— or screened that classic. The spools I changed once an hour had the lowest common denominator rut and splooge stuff with cameraman shadows, lousy jazz soundtracks and acting that’d make Ed Wood droop. Week in and out, I ran indistinguishable cloned boff-fests, and got lots of studying done.

Then one evening, Jerry, the day projectionist handed off his shift with uncharacteristic excitement. “Wait’ll you see this one,” he said, patting the queued up reel. “It’s a film,” he marveled. Jerry never talked like this before. Jerry actually never talked at all that I recalled. He scared me a little.
“What is it?” I asked warily.
“Just watch,” he answered with some sort of weird satyr-sagacity, departing the booth on happy little hooves. I glanced over at the opened can and read the magic-markered title written on white adhesive tape: “The Devil in Miss Jones.”
At the appointed time—somewhere between 5:15 and when I felt like it— I hit the switch and began the first of hundreds of viewings of a bona fide porn landmark. I sat on the stool gazing out my little window, amazed by an actual movie with actual hot damn in your face sex. Actual sets, lighting, production design, editing, acting, plot—and a haunting original symphonic score. Distilled from its original 35mm stock to 16mm, it still blew away anything I’d shown before on that clattering machine.
“The Devil in Miss Jones” was a revelation and a blessing to a dissolute young film student, and so— um, legitimate— that I invited my girlfriend up for an evening in the booth. She was basically catholic (upper or lower case) regarding sex, but got pretty involved in watching it, right up until the snake bit, which was a predictable buzz kill even if you’re not particularly biblically disposed. Erotic equilibrium’s tricky stuff.

There’s a peculiar follow-up to this recollection. One evening in the dorm apartment, that haunting music I’d become so familiar with in the porn theater came drifting from the living room, and I ran in to see a Prince Machiavelli perfume commercial on television, playing the theme from “Devil in Miss Jones.” I was gobsmacked, explaining the audacious absurdity to my puzzled roommates. I could not conceive that this esteemed cosmetic brand had deliberately used a notorious porn movie’s score in their ad.
Sure enough, I saw the commercial a few weeks later: identical except for new music.
I thereafter imagined some fired fool ad man sitting out there in the dark of my theater with a box of Kleenex, feeling blue and horny watching Miss Spelvin put the devil through his paces.