Show World's World
Show World is the Cony Island of the sex industry -- to which Disney's
recent take-over of Times Square is a pale mockery -- a hold out from
the flush years when 42nd was the sex capital of the world. The history
of the place goes back to the roots of New York City entertainment and
vice, when Broadway battled Bowery with high and low brow performance,
and taverns from the Battery to Central Park promised back room sexual
encounters they rarely delivered. Before Vaudeville, before the Zigfield
Follies, radio, TV, and X-rated movies, places like Show World existed.
In its heyday, Show World seemed more like a Disney attraction than the
fine theaters now being restored in the area, full of flashing lights
and bright pictures, with men handing out discount circulars on the
street, part of the street culture that included sidewalk prostitution
near the Greyhound terminal, and immigrant houses of prostitution above
the 42nd Street stores.
For decades men came here from the suburbs seeking sex, men pulling up
in cars or trucks or vans clutching fists full of cash as long-legged
ladies eased in.
"You want a date, mister?" was always their question, and the answer was
Sometimes, these men and boys even got what they came for, often as not,
they left behind more than they wanted, lured up into the vacant
buildings along the west side of 8th or 9th Avenue, where they found a
pistol or knife at their throat and a pimp's fingers feeling through
their pockets for wallets or jewelry.
Show World Center, unlike the hundreds of peep show arcades that dotted
the center of Manhattan, was a new-comer, opening for business in 1975
as part of the post-free-love era of the 1960s. It boasted of a few
dozen dozen coin-operated, phonebooth-sized, 8-mm. film peepshows,
similar to the silent-movie style projectors that predominated New York
in the oughts of this century, before the invention of the more
conventional movie theater, but instead of showing loops of Buster
Keaton or Charlie Chaplan, Show World's protectors showed porn.
As part of the Plato's Retreat era of sexuality, Show World also had
stalls with coin-operated windows that opened to a space containing nude
dancers -- which customers could actually touch, for an additional
charge, something Show World has since ceased. And though modeled after
many of the shows that originated in the Bowery in the 1880s, Show
World's innovations included the first tamper-proof peep-show
mechanisms, the first token-operated systems and the first video-peep
I first visited the peep shows on 42nd Street in 1969 when I was on a
weekend pass from the United States Army. I was lonely and scared, and
still a virgin, believing I'd never get sex unless I paid for it. Times
Square dazzled me with its lights and endless activity, tourists
mingling with street people in a mad dance I didn't then understand. Few
noticed me as I stumbled from bar to bar, the topless dancers at
Metopole on Broadway and the live sex acts in places very similar to
Show World, only making my ache worse.
Yet even then, the place haunted me with its contradictions, with its
glitter and slime, other men ogling me from the recessed corners, making
whispered offers at me for sex. That was the era of "Midnight Cowboy,"
and a thriving street life full of equal contradictions, prostitutes and
social workers, pimps and police, beggars and Jesus Freaks. You could
buy anything along that block bcorners, making whispered offers at me
for sex. That was the era of "Midnight Cowboy," and a thrivin
During my early search for sex, I hooked up with three other soldiers,
just then out of Vietnam. Several transvestites tried to lure us into an
vacant building. A fight ensued. Someone pulled a gun. In the midst of
smoke and moaning, I fled, the echo of the shot reverberating around me
in the lure us into an vacant building. A fight ensued. Someone pulled a
gun. In the midst of smoke and moaning, I fled
Although I'd heard about Sue's act at Show World in 1984, I didn't know
about the invitations she'd sent until someone called me on the
telephone. She had most likely thought up the name of her act: "Sister
Sue and the Lewd Brothers" from a classic string of pre-Civil War whore
houses called "Seven Sisters Row," houses near 25th Street and 7th
Avenue in which seven sisters operated side by side. Their claim to fame
were the gold-engraved invitations they sent to the rich businessmen
staying at the posh 5th Avenue hotels. But instead of sending
invitations to wealthy businessmen, Sue sent her invitations for her
former professors and classmates.
"Sue was not ashamed of what she did," said Glenn Kenny. "In fact, she
sent fliers to her old friends and professors announcing the occasion.
She made calls to personally invite some of her old professors, and some
did show up -- though I'm sure none would admit being there."
While no one accused Sue of prostitution, many of the girls who worked
at Show World used it as an advertising medium.
"You can take the girl out of the booth, but you can't take the booth
out of the girl," is a common saying among the staff, indicating the
kind of person who would perform there or that such women change once
they take on the job.
I never saw one of Sue's invitation, nor did she specifically invite me
to the affair, possibly still miffed about my refusing to go to her
parties in college. But Mike or Mat (I don't remember who) called me
about the invitation. He hadn't actually received one himself, but Glenn
had and so had many of Sue's professors. Mat (I think) asked if I wanted
to tag along.
"But we weren't invited," I said, so startled at the news I could not
immediately think of a better excuse not to go. I had seen the inside of
Show World and it disgusted me in the same way Screw Magazine did, both
bearing the same stench of social sickness.
"For God's sake, this is a peep show, not a party at the Plaza," Mat
said. "She's letting it all hangout and I -- for one -- intend to be
there when she does. That girl has driven me crazy since I first met her
and I intend to get something for that, if only a peek at her snatch."
I still refused. I didn't want to see Sue in some public spectacle. I'd
been through it all. I wasn't just disturbed by the shooting during my
previous visit, but by the pattern of acts that had followed, from the
porn scene in LA out of which I had dragged my ex-wife, then later, the
prostitution scene in Pennsylvania. Some people found such things
attractive, but I wasn't one of these, and frankly, the whole thing
surprised me. Even with all the rumors about Sue's crazy, mixed-up life,
I presumed she would grow out of it. My ex-wife had fallen prey to that
world because of sheer stupidity, Sue had brains, and therefore, many
more choices. Her settling for the skin trade angered me.
A peep show! For God's sake, couldn't she do any better than that?
Even with all the rumors at college, Sue had seemed among the up and
coming crowd, a woman with talent and drive enough to make something
great out of herself, part of that group of talents like Glenn Kenny or
Michael Alexander who you knew were destined for something significant.
Yet, Sue always seemed lonely to me, someone floating on the outside of
every social group. Even as editor of the newspaper, she seemed alone,
untrusting, in off moments, staring into space. Her flirting, her sexual
encounters, her freak outs seemed part seemed devoid of meaning, hardly
relaying information about who she was or how she felt. She trusted no
one with such information, believing in the medieval dictate that such
knowledge was far too dangerous to leave in the hands of fools. And to
Sue, people were either fools or cads, who she had to use or defend
herself against. While Sue could weave through campus social life with
the skill of a seamstress, she was never apart of that or any society.
I later learned that the show didn't go on as planned. For some reason,
she couldn't perform the usual act. But in order not to disappoint her
invited guests, Sue lead them to a go-go bar across the street, where
she put on an alternative show.
Just after this, I took my first trip to Show World and surveyed the
streets I had avoided since my previous visit to that area The streets
had grown worse. Brothels operated openly. You could pick up Screw
Magazine and get the exact address any whore house in the city. Many
still operated above the stores along the south side of 42nd Street with
shills standing on the sidewalk ushering men up the stairs. The older or
uglier women stood near hotel or bar doorways, repeating the same tired
phrase: "You want a date, Mister? I go upstairs with you real cheap."
Unlike my first visit, the area had lost some of its glitz. Dark and
dangerous men huddled in doorways, eyeing me, evaluating me as I passed.
The city seemed under siege, with the war between the pimps and vice
cops underlying the artificial glitter.
I could see the death in the eyes of prostitutes who whored themselves
now in the age of AIDS. In the 19th Century, such women survived a
little over two years once they'd sunk so low. Many of these women
wouldn't last so long, succumbing to drugs, disease or violence. Many
already suffered serious psychological problems.
No one did open business inside Show World. Too many cops watched for an
infraction, uniformed and plainclothes cops, some on-duty, some not, who
ease through one of the four doors an into the maze of corridors that
made up the interior, stairs winding through this cavern of flashing
lights and open invitations. But over the years, the place has attracted
its share of violence, and after Sue was long through with it as a
venue, someone would get shot here, and girls who danced here, would
wind up dead in their uptown apartment.
Police officials, while citing no particular problem with Show World
itself, claim that the sex industry itself brings people into contact
with "a shadowy world, a subculture, where there is drugs and violence,"
and "The reason that you find so many officers in the immediate vicinity
of Show World is because that's where two major beats - Eighth Avenue
and forty-second Street - intersect. The police are not called in to
Show World very often because it is not a focus of criminal activity."
On the lowest level of Show World, which is open every day all year,
offers discount movies. Some men stay here for days, following the
tradition of the other porno theaters along 42nd Street. They eat via
the vending machines until they run out of money. On the fourth floor,
Show world offered more expensive but also more specific films.
The ground floor is shaped like an L with mirrors and lights
broadcasting out onto the dismal 8th Avenue on one side, and 42nd on the
other. These walls are lined with video peepshow booths. A red light
over each booth says whether it is in use or not. Some of these booths
are wide enough to accommodate couples. Here a quarter buys 30 seconds
of porno film viewing.
But these are only intended to lure patrons on, drawing them deeper into
its webwork of sexual frustration, where each level brings people into
closer contact with the real thing, sucking up men's money with
promises. This, too, was modeled on the Bowery shows of the 1870s when
men were drawn through a maze of rooms with promises of greater and more
wonderful visions just beyond the next door, each man forced to spend
and spend until -- in one case -- they came to the ultimate fantasy, a
supposed naked woman, which was actually some poor sheep shaved. Men
were then escorted to a back alley where they could rant and rave as
much as they wanted. Plenty of more suckers were coming in the front
door at that very moment. The staff at Show World call their operations
"The anxiety business," with the idea of making men spend money. But as
in 1870s Bowery game, what these patrons wanted couldn't be found.
On the second floor were the Private Fantasy Booth arcades where signs
make it clear that patrons are not to touch the girls. Nearly two dozen
women stand outside the booths, dressed in costumes suited to almost any
"Each Private Fantasy Booth is a workplace ingeniously designed to
facilitate its inhabitants' task of churning testosterone into dollars,"
wrote Mark Kramer, in a 1994 article investigating the death of two Show
World performers. "The Girls Girls Girls of Show World's Private Fantasy
Booths are not employees of the management but "tenants" who sign an
actual landlord / tenant agreement to occupy the enclosure. The women
are expected to generate a certain number of token drops, and if they
can't, the booth is turned over to a tenant who can. Moreover, the
landlord reserves the right to levy a cash fine for infractions such as
Passing patrons, wrote Krammer enticed into the booths by means of
"winks, moist smiles and the briefest of come-hither verbal exchanges."
Arrangements must be done within 30 seconds or male token-attendants
step in to interrupt the conversation, with their sales of tokens.
When I went there in 1985, the girls teased patrons, letting them jerk
themselves off while talking on the telephones. Each night, cleaning
ladies sprayed out the booths, scraping up the sticky mess with
spackling knives, scraping the stain of cum from the windows in the
booths that looked onto the show room where Sister Sue and the Lewd
Brothers did their act. The masters here, came later with the key,
emptying the token into a canvas sack, though many of the tokens stuck
together, moistened by cum and sweat.
I could never bring myself to masturbate in public the way many of the
other men did, locked in their phone booth-size cubicles for the
Peep-A-Live stage as they popped tokens into a slot. (The price was $2
in 1984 and $5 by 1994).
The tokens kept the shudder up on the sex show window, allowing them to
view a naked girl being porked by one or more naked men. This was all
illusion anyway, made more unreal by the glass and that sickly look
horny men get on their faces just before they cum. For a dollar, I could
sit in another booth where a woman sat face to face with me through
another plate of glass. I could talk dirty to her the way men later
could via the telephone lines.
In these Private Fantasy Booths, an early version of phone sex, women
(called Booth Babies) shared their sexual secretes from behind a thick
pane of glass. Booth Babies and the dancers on the stage could earn as
much as $500 a shift.
Most of the men who came to Show World over the years are not perverts,
though many do masturbate in the booths. In fact, in the early 1990s,
more than 4,000 men, women and couples a day pushed into Show World for
a glimpse at its wares.
Few men know of the constant surveillance going on, the cameras among
the flashing lights and the men in a room elsewhere watching monitors
for signs of trouble.
"Show World management is clearly aware of the security problems that
arise in the handling of as unstable a raw ingredient as human desire
-especially when cash is brought into the mix," wrote Krammer in 1994. "
Vigilant security guards at Show World's front and back doors weed out
persons drunk or high or underage. Unseemly behavior such as pot-smoking
in the peeps or touching the `booth babies' is swiftly and expertlhuman
During my 1985 visit most of the other rooms in this vast maze of
flashing lights and sexual attractions were open, but the
phone-booth-like enclosures surrounding the show room allowed for much
more privacy, here men fitting tokens to keep the viewing window open
with one hand while masturbating with the other. If you looked past the
actors, however, you could see the faces of the other men, leering up,
their stares so full of frustrated lust that they seem like caged
animals in a 19th century freak show. They were the real spectacle here,
they were the beasts who couldn't keep their sexual appetites fed, and
in their minds they put themselves on the stage, raping the women, or
the man, or being raped. They had no more control over the situation
than the actors had, feeding token after token into a slot in order to
keep their fantasy alive. And it was upon these men that Sue fed,
stealing their energy as she encourage them to stoke, knowing that they
could not harm her through the window, except with their stares.
From inside the circle of windows, from on the stage where the sex acts
go on, the actors do engage in a sense of power, their applause coming
with the jerking up of windows, men feeding the token slot again and
again, as their tension mounts. While I never talked to Sue about her
act, I talked to others, dancers on the New Jersey circuit who said they
had done the Show World act.
"Let me put it this way," a dancer in Passaic once told me. "It's not
Maybe all this was an outgrowth of the porn she wrote for Screw when
still at school, something clicking inside her head that she might make
more by actually performing the stuff. Maybe it was the forty year old
men who laid her down on the stained rugs of Plato's Retreat when she
was sixteen, telling her not to move or scream, telling her was going to
enjoy it. Maybe it was the man in the dark when she was still three, who
eased up to her bed, who undid his zipper, who told her after he had
committed his act for her not to tell anyone, especially Mommy.
Maybe, when on that stage, she relieved and got even for those horrors
that shaped her early life. But she didn't restrict this to the stage,
as her life with her two Todds eventually showed. Nor did she let rehab
interfere with her fixation, since Mark -- the man she met at the first
of two rehabs -- was one of her lovers in the show.
"As a precaution against present and future masked men and assorted
characters who might follow their Private Fantasy out into the street,
the women attempt to camouflage themselves back into the urban anonymity
whence they came," Krammer wrote. "They tuck their hair under hats with
the brims pulled low, switch wigs, don sunglasses and scarves and
khaffayehs, and bundle into raincoats. They do not even glance at their
replacements, who arrive wearing the same many-layered mufti. This is
where the fantasy is meant to stop, and where the sisterhood of the
booth ends. With no good-byes, without looking back, they hurtle out the
doors of Show World into waiting taxis."
Sue would later continue this pattern when leaving dance clubs
throughout Manhattan, even after she allegedly vanished from Nutley in