The Strand isn't dark yet, but how long can the lights stay on?

People still come to KC's only porn theater, but how long can the Strand stay turned on? 

The Strand isn't dark yet, but how long can the lights stay on?

click to enlarge STRAND-17.jpg

Barrett Emke

On New Year's Day, two men, huddled in winter coats, were sitting in a boxy, 90-seat screening room — the main auditorium inside the Strand Theatre, at 35th Street and Troost. It was noon — and, on any other day, a busy hour at the last adult theater operating in Kansas City. Up on the screen — a stretch of vinyl the size of a dining-room table — a woman was fellating a very large penis.

Nearly a century ago, a very different organ commanded attention in this space: the $10,000 Wurlitzer that accompanied the silent films people arrived to see in "The newest, most luxurious theater in Kansas City," according to a Kansas City Times advertisement. The room holding the two men on this cold January afternoon is what remains of the original, 750-seat auditorium, which has been divided and subdivided over the past three decades. There is nothing luxurious about it.

In January 1917, the Strand sold tickets to thousands of people a week for Caprice, starring Mary Pickford, known as America's sweetheart. In September 1984, the big draw at the Strand — by then a 200-seat blight — was Sunday's "Amateur Strip Night."

In the seats closest to a burlesque-style runway, several fraternity brothers, each holding a flashlight, howled as each of the strippers stepped forward, aiming the beams at the women's crotches. A pint-sized performer going by Purple Rain used her fingers to spread herself open. Another woman slathered her nude body with oil and slid across the stage, to deafening applause.

After the show was over, the lights in the auditorium dimmed, and the projector cranked to life. The porn movie that night showed straight sex. Anyone wanting to see man-on-man action retreated to the Strand's former second-floor balcony, which had been turned into a smaller, 60-seat screening room showing hard-core gay porn.

No one there that night knew it at the time, but this was the high point — if you can call it that — for dirty-movie theaters in Kansas City. By the end of the 1980s, the VCR had completed its conquest of the XXX market, rendering the experience of watching a pornographic movie in a public theater obsolete. Thanks to the videocassette, any living room or bedroom in Olathe or Raytown could instantly become an at-home Pink Pussycat Theater. The old indignities — the shameful drive to a bad neighborhood, the peril of being recognized, the constant threat of being rounded up in a raid — were now for only the most old-fashioned or risk-aroused consumers. (And within another two decades, the Internet upset the marketplace yet again.)

"Why do people need to rent films anymore?" wonders Dick Snow, the longtime owner of the Strand Theatre. "They can watch porn — free porn, I might add — on their iPhones."

When Snow, who owns and operates Bazooka's Showgirls, bought the Strand Theatre in 1980, it had already been an X-rated house for nearly 20 years. Porn has always been big business in Kansas City.

Just ask Jerry Medlin, who owned a percentage of the Strand in the 1970s with the late Charles Setter (who later sold the Strand to Snow). Prior to taking over the Strand in 1972, Setter and Medlin had operated a 150-seat porno house called the Astro — inside Union Station. When the Astro played Deep Throat, Medlin recalls, "We had lines from the theater to the parking lot. It was a huge hit."

Still, for a brief moment during Medlin's tenure at the Strand, he and Setter tried returning mainstream entertainment to the theater.

"I can't quite remember why, but we stopped showing X-rated films and we played Mandingo," he says. The R-rated 1975 movie, involving James Mason and slaves trained to fight, wasn't exactly the return of Mary Pickford. "It didn't do so well," Medlin says, "so we went back to X-rated movies."

Porn had by then become something of a civic booster — it kept old, sometimes historic buildings erect. Screening dirty movies was a cheap way to profitably use what once were family-friendly neighborhood movie theaters, structures that had by the 1960s become obsolete and expensive to maintain.

Places like the Strand had aged from glistening meccas to respectable second-run movie houses. Hollywood sent its hottest releases first to the big palaces in a city's urban core, and next to smaller, neighborhood theaters — places that were, in Kansas City, built along thriving streetcar lines. KC's busiest streetcar routes followed Main, Troost, Prospect, and Independence Avenue; dozens of movie theaters dotted those thoroughfares. But the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in the 1948 United States v. Paramount Pictures antitrust case leveled the old distribution platform, and within a couple of decades the second-run cinema would be a thing of the past.

"We get a lot of customers who come in and remember watching movies here when they were kids," says Michael Inman, who has worked behind the front counter of the Strand for five years. He was one of those children himself. "I grew up near here," he says. "A relative would bring me here to watch movies in the late 1950s."

The Strand was a popular family theater for decades. A newspaper advertisement from January 10, 1953, lists that day's shows — a double feature of The Asphalt Jungle, with Marilyn Monroe, and The Skipper Surprised His Wife, with Robert Walker — and a further incentive: "A free comic book for every boy and girl."

When the Strand Theatre opened in 1916, there were 25 other neighborhood movie houses operating in the city. Many of those small theaters are still standing, though not in use. Some have been converted to churches (the Prospect, the Oak Park) or warehouses. When Snow bought the Strand, two other historic small theaters were flourishing as porn palaces: the 1912 Kimo Theater, at 3319 Main (Snow turned it into the Dove in 1979), and the 1923 Rockhill Theater (at 46th Street and Troost). Both structures have since been razed.

"They didn't show movies at the old Rockhill," Snow says. "They had peep-show arcades and naked girls who danced behind glass windows."

There was also the Old Chelsea, in the River Market, but that structure had been built as a warehouse. Until it stopped showing adult films in 2000, it was the most glamorous place in town to see an X-rated film — relatively speaking, anyway. "It always seemed clean," one regular customer says. "It didn't smell like the Strand."

The Strand does have its own peculiar fragrance, the smell of old arousal. It's a suite of disinfectant, bodily fluids, cheap aftershave — and popcorn.

There's a small popper at the front counter, near the entrance. The bags of popcorn are small but free for the asking, and they sit near the space where the original concession stand used to be, when this was a prouder kind of cinema.

"The Strand had a wonderful candy assortment," says a 70-something woman who attended matinee shows at the theater in the 1940s, "much better than the one at the Isis, down the street."

A forlorn, coin-operated vending machine now sits near the auditorium entrance. There isn't much of a selection — a couple of candy bars, a few bags of chips — for the patron who might feel hunger pangs after watching scenes of anal sex.

Originally, two storefront businesses flanked the Strand: a barbershop to the south and a beauty salon to the north. The space once occupied by the beauty salon is now stocked with a few novelties (an easy-to-install sex swing, for example) and a modest selection of rental DVDs, including Fat Hos and Black Cock and I Like 'Em White, Volume 4.

"We don't get much rental business anymore," Snow says. "It used to be very lucrative."

Strippers (women or gay men) haven't performed regularly at the theater since the late 1980s. "We have occasional female strippers for special occasions," Snow says.

When the Strand auditorium was divided up again in the 1990s, the other half of the space was turned into four peep-show booths — without doors — where X-rated videos could be viewed without a lot of privacy. A former Strand regular says: "Part of the fun of the peep booths in the 1980s was that you could stumble in drunk, buy a handful of tokens, and have a lot of risky sex behind closed doors. Those days are long gone."

The Strand's grand opening, on July 1, 1916, showcased Bobbie of the Ballet, with Louise Lovely, an event advertised in that day's newspaper as full of "pleasing surprises." The ad promised: "With its ventilation and fan system, cool evenings are assured."

Fast-forward 88 years: A not-so-pleasing surprise awaits a Strand patron named Dan Renzi, the Kansas City native who achieved national fame as a housemate on the 1996 season of MTV's Real World series. Renzi was arrested for indecent exposure in the Strand's second-floor theater in May 2004. "He was pleasuring himself, exposing his genitals," Sgt. Brad Dumit later told The Pitch.

Renzi's TV celebrity assured that the vice bust earned plenty of publicity ("Real World Housemate Pulls a Pee-Wee," the Smoking Gun website reported) — something he should have known. The Strand's gay mini-cinema had a reputation for occasional public pee-wee-pulling since the balcony theater had opened in 1981. To publicize the new gay attraction that year, Snow flew in filmmaker Joe Gage, creator of the popular X-rated Kansas City Trucking Co., which was filmed in Los Angeles and Palm Springs.

"I remember my visit to Kansas City very well for two specific incidents," Gage says. "I had just completed work on a movie called Heatstroke and I took it to Kansas City to hold its first public screening. When the print arrived at the Strand, I discovered that the fourth reel was missing. There was no time to have it sent from New York, so I gritted my teeth, and the show went on without it. No one in the audience noticed.

"Afterward, everybody went to a local gay watering hole, where various fellows were brought over to the bar and introduced to me," Gage continues. "When I asked one gentleman how he liked the film, he shrugged and said, 'Not much. Nobody was very good.' Just then, there was a commotion at the front entrance, and a group of uniformed policemen appeared. I turned to my host and asked, "Is this ...?' He nodded and said, 'A raid.' "

Gage recalls that he and everyone else in the bar were held for 30 minutes while IDs were checked. "Then the cops left, and socializing resumed."

Gage recalls his Strand personal appearance as the only one of his career outside New York and San Francisco.

What makes the Strand a local cultural icon is the simple fact of its survival. Through two world wars and the changing fortunes of its neighborhood, it outlasted all of the other cinemas in the area. The Barrymore, the Bancroft, the Glory, the Mozart, the Gillham — they're all parking lots now.

But does the Strand have a future? The place isn't nearly as financially successful today as it was even two decades ago. The Internet has crushed the adult-theater business. "I'm not sure what the new business model is," says Snow, who admits that he'd consider selling the place if a buyer emerged. "It's an old building," he says. "They're costly to maintain."

Jori Sackin, a 32-year-old painter, musician and video artist, loves the place. "For about a year, I was totally obsessed with the Strand," he says. Sackin rented the Strand's auditorium two years ago for a one-night screening of Space Thang, a short movie he made with collaborator Pat Vamos.

"It was a film made specifically to be shown at the Strand, combining animation and clips of old 1970s sexploitation movies. Not the sex scenes but the parts in between. We had music and performance art that night, and we oversold the place. It only seats between 80 to 90 people, and we had 150 people show up. Everyone was so excited to be in the Strand."

Sackin sees the 96-year-old theater as a future urban multicultural arts center. "I have considered buying it," he says. "I go back and forth on the idea. I mean, there are issues. There's no parking, and the location is kind of strange. It's not that it's a bad neighborhood — in fact, it's almost desolate at night. But the building's not in good shape, and it hasn't been fully utilized in a long time. There are four apartments upstairs and the two retail spaces on each side of the lobby. You would have to imagine what the neighborhood might be in the next 20 years. Troost needs new businesses making money and attracting people."

For him, though, the Strand has no stigma. "The interesting story to me about the Strand is what people think it is and what it really is," he says. "When I was putting together my project, I really got to know the place and the people who work there. The guys working in the theater are the sweetest, nicest guys. It's this great small-business story."

But how long can this theater continue as it is? Sackin's arts-center vision would require a kind of gentrification that seems virtually impossible for this stretch of Troost. But at least one Hyde Park resident says seismic shift is on its way.

Jinx Wallace, a 25-year resident of Hyde Park, a few blocks from the Strand, points out that the redevelopment of her neighborhood from blighted to sought-after single-family homes "didn't happen overnight."

"All positive changes take awhile," she says. "Look, the evolution of the Crossroads as an arts district didn't happen overnight, either. And now that rents in that area are so expensive, artists are looking at other neighborhoods, including Troost. One of my neighbors has already turned a building on Troost into artist studios. And with so many of the old buildings on Armour being turned into market-rate apartments, there are possibilities that we couldn't imagine 20 years ago."

So what, she wonders, does Troost need in order to become a viable retail community again. "There's still a lot of disagreement about that," she says. "But yes, I'd like to see the Strand continue to operate in some fashion on Troost, especially if it brings more creative people to the neighborhood."

When the Strand marks its 100th anniversary in three years, it may not be open anymore — as a porn theater, anyway. Snow says he isn't planning that far ahead. But after so many years grinding away in the shadows, this stubborn piece of KC history may find its way into the light again. The Strand's sexiest days might be ahead.

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