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."