Friday October 30, 2009
The closure of the Shaft adult cinema in Swanston Street marks the end of a colourful, if tawdry, chapter in the life of the city, writes Dominic Cadden. Melbourne has lost a bit of its colour - specifically, the colour blue, and the odd flash of pink. Landmark, eyesore or road sign to Sodom, the Shaft Cinema, which screened erotic films for more than 30 years, has slipped away to the great neon strip in the sky and taken a little piece of the city with it. Over three decades, the cinema served as a battlefield for the Victorian vice squad and a testing ground for social mores and censorship laws. The Shaft was an up-yours to the onward march of developers and grand council gentrification schemes. Now technology, soaring rents and council pressure has all but put the lid on the coffin of Melbourne's adult cinemas. Over the short but illustrious history of an industry that's had more ups and downs than half-price Wednesday at a split-level brothel, the Shaft Cinema, launched in 1978 as Melbourne's first adult cinema purpose-built for erotic films, saw it all: as its proprietor, who asked for the sake of anonymity that we call him Kevin Hall, recalls: "We were among the earliest businesses of any kind to put in video surveillance. It made interesting viewing - there were judges, attorney-generals and other politicians, newsreaders, even weather forecasters."Hall had owned the (family-friendly) Astrojet Cinema at Tullamarine, but when attendances deteriorated with the arrival of colour television in 1975, he saw a market for an adult theatre after he got wind of the revenues made by one called the Barrel. (Though in those days, the Barrel was better described as a "grindhouse" cinema; one customer, after watching The Texas Chainsaw Massacre there in 1977, described it as "an endless bus ride to hell, four seats wide with a gangway down the middle".) Hall knew of the success of the Pussycat Cinema chain in the United States, which had mounted as many as 70 theatres on the back of erotic films. He was also trying to escape the squeeze on profits from the major exhibitors, who held all the rights to distributing mainstream blockbusters. "I thought that R€‘rated product wouldn't be as carefully guarded," he says, "but that wasn't the case."The Shaft was left to screen bottom-of-the-barrel films that, thanks to censorship laws, were not only low-budget but, to the audience's irritation, more lewd than rude. "One of our first movies was The Dean's Wife and it had people pretending to have sex in their white underpants," says Hall. "The customers were so upset and agitated that they used to throw tickets at us." To boost business, the Shaft brought in striptease artists and other live shows, advertising "Live Double Woman Act On a Stage" and "All New Flying Pussy Act - You Can Almost Touch Them!". "This was a similar situation to what happened with early cinema from 1900 to the 1920s," says Jill Matthews, Professor of History at ANU. "You always had a pretty much mixed program of sort of vaudeville, with films just being one of the acts."At the time, striptease appeared at only one or two expensive cabarets around Melbourne, where well-policed liquor licensing laws ensured shows were tame. Standards of propriety were a little more flexible at the Shaft, recalls Hall. "All of a sudden, we had queues right up to Lonsdale Street. We still had the same boring movies, but people were prepared to sit through them for the live shows in between. Over time, we brought in themed live shows, everything from mud wrestling to people in bubble baths to something we crassly called 'pussy on a swing', with a performer swinging over the audience's heads." The Shaft had the striptease-cinema double show to itself for more than nine months, but it wasn't without complications, says Hall. "When we first started striptease in 1978, the Victorian vice squad would come down when we had a new live show and we'd put it on just for them so they could tell us if it was OK. Then one day, they declined our invitation." Shortly after, vice-squad officers charged and took away a projectionist in front of an audience of about 100 people because some legally bought nude slides had been inserted into the colour wheel projecting on the wall behind a live act titled "Bondage and Desire". In the end, a magistrate went to the cinema to see the offending images for himself and determined that the slides were just a special effect - but this was the start of ongoing problems with the vice squad."They used to turn up in force. There was even a strange situation when they took away and charged one live performer because they said, 'If you can see any 'pink', it's an offence.' But there was no 'pink' because 'she' was really a he. Unfortunately, she was too embarrassed to defend herself - she preferred to just accept the prosecution."Still, Hall's business thrived enough to allow him to roll the profits into acquiring other cinemas in the CBD such as the Albany and Cinema 69'r. Competitors, meanwhile, began cinemas such as the Star and Dendy and other adult premises such as the Club X and Venus shops. "Having the cinemas and the adult bookshops and sex-toy shops and nightclubs all in the same area means that you had an audience that could move around this inner-city adult hub for its night out," says Jill Matthews. "This kind of interaction put going to an adult cinema in a context that was very distinct and still offered competition to video once it arrived." The boom in Melbourne's adult cinemas coincided with what might be described as the golden age of pornography, if there ever was such a thing - big-budget American movies that were shot on 35-millimetre film and often used the same sets as the major hit movies of their day. Some titles, such as Emmanuelle and Deep Throat, even crossed over to become mainstream cult movies. "Without a doubt, our most successful movie was Slip Up," Hall recalls. The plot - oh yes, there is one - sees Dr Charles Cherrypopper of the Institute of Sexual Research develop a device that causes every man in the nation to suffer an instant and permanent erection. He activates it and in the resulting confusion, attempts to take over the government. "It was quite kitsch and funny but everyone loved it. It ran for six weeks - often movies were turned over after just one week - and then we moved it to a smaller cinema where it ran for another six weeks."Other titles included Women of Love, Below the Belt, Cave of Love, Real Pleasure, Sex Machine and Desperate Living - advertised as "the ultimate in filth". Siv: A Swedish Girl promised "a whirlpool of lust". Ticket prices were set at just 50 cents more than the going price at Hoyts, but despite higher staffing, the Shaft's profitability was comparable to the major cinemas because of the high turnover rate - the seats could be refilled every hour. For the price of a ticket, you could also stay all day if you wanted - and many did. In most cases, there were two or three different movies in a row before they started repeating, and after every movie there was a live show. "You could see 15 live shows in a day," says Hall. "Generally, each live show had a different performer and when a number of these cinemas were operating, we could move the girls around." There were 21st birthday parties and bucks' nights, but the typical customers were men over 35. "We used to get so many senior citizens, particularly during the Anzac Day marches. I think it was just somewhere safe and comfortable to go and have a rest and feel like they are in some kind of communal activity. Then you had guys in their middle age who were actually connoisseurs of the films. They could tell you all about the director and who was the fifth lead actress - they treated the films very seriously." Indeed, some believe these cinemas did more than simply provide titillation and cheap laughs. "The Shaft's role as a facilitator of social change through the '70s and the '80s has been vastly underrated," says Robbie Swan, public officer for the Australian Sex Party. "They showed films with interracial sex, bisexuality, lesbianism, all in a very positive light. Let's not forget that hundreds of thousands of young and impressionable men saw these films and for many of them at the time, a relationship of any kind with a black man or woman, for instance, was a very taboo thing."The advent of video hit all cinemas hard - between 1983 and 1984 there was a 22 per cent drop in attendances nationwide, which produced the custom of "half-price Tuesdays". Adult cinemas suffered most. Despite the "X" that often marked adult venues, the adult cinemas were allowed to screen only classified material that was R-rated. Yet, initially, there were no controls on the X-rated videos flooding into the country. They were being duplicated in homes and even sold in service stations. In 1984 the Northern Territory and the ACT legalised a new X 18+ classification, which permitted actual sexual activity (between adults only, no violence in any context). Even though Melbourne's adult cinemas were still, in theory, restricted to screening R-rated movies, the acknowledgement of an X 18+ category elsewhere helped push the boundaries of what was acceptable in adult cinemas, though police remained vigilant. "In one case, a police constable was ordered to sit in the Shaft for a week," Hall says. Meanwhile, the cinemas were coming under pressure from the rise in value of their prime inner-city sites. "When we started, many of these venues were almost un-lettable," Hall says. The cinemas had first taken over the newsreel theatres that were often in basements or on the first floor for cost effectiveness; from the mid-1980s, Melbourne Council had pushed to get adult premises of the street.Adult premises often had to pay above-market rents and cinemas tried to increase their economies of scale: in 1992 the Shaft became a twin cinema (which forced seats closer together and was unpopular with regular patrons) and added an adult bookshop and the lurid "coin in the slot" peep shows that even other adult industry performers looked down their noses at. Melbourne crime novelist and former stripper Leigh Redhead detailed the scene in Peepshow:"I was lying on my back in the peepshow at the Shaft Cinema, legs in the air, wearing a peekaboo nightie and no knickers. Two of the six booths were occupied, and every time one of the guys put a coin in I heard a buzz, the glass went from opaque to clear, and a small orange light came on above the window. It cost them two dollars for 45 seconds, and I got a dollar of that."Adult cinemas lost much of their younger market with the arrival of table-top dancing in 1989 at the Santa Fe Hotel in Russell Street. "It was hard going for five years or so before Attorney-General Jan Wade put restrictions on table-top dancing (through the Prostitution Control Act 1994) and we started to get more customers back," Hall says. By now, the Shaft's live performers had shed their G€‘strings forever. "The table-top dancing in hotels seemed to draw political and therefore police attention away from our stage shows. We weren't an alcohol licensed premise, so the only control was the then Police Offences Act, which was left open to the interpretation of an individual officer."From 1990 the Shaft's business declined irreparably due to the development of the Swanston Walk - "a mall where trams could still run you over". The Walk opened in 1992, but Hall estimates that it took four to five years for pedestrian traffic to return to previous numbers. In the meantime, customers had been diverted to Elizabeth Street, where the Crazy Horse adult cinema flourished.Yet the internet had an unpredictably positive effect on adult cinemas, which became popular for swingers and "doggers" (strangers who arrange to meet in public for anonymous sex), who set the venue as a meeting point through online forums. "Most people tended to go to the cinemas on their own, but we certainly had swingers," says Hall. "As long as they weren't disturbing other customers, we were pretty broadminded. When we had woman soliciting, though, we tried to move them on because a lot of the blokes, believe it or not, don't like that."As a tongue-in-cheek response to the success of Village Cinemas' Gold Class, the Shaft recently added a Blue Class lounge with blu-ray films, Dolby sound and wide reclining seats for those who might like a little extra space. "But what we tended to find was that on weekends, when we operated 24 hours, people who had missed the last tram or train used it as a cheap place to sleep over." Fortunately for him, Kevin Hall had other businesses that were usually less erratic, not to mention erotic. "With children at a religious school, I avoided mentioning my adult businesses around other parents but it always amazed me how conversation around the barbecue would always finish up on sex. They'd be managing directors of companies who often seem to know more about the products and services we sell than I personally do." Melbourne's last remaining adult cinemas are the Crazy Horse and the Dendy Adult Cinema.