Gritty Old Times Square: The History of Show World Center, “The McDonalds of Sex”

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Next week, we’ll be launching our newest tour, which will explore the remnants of Gritty OId Times Square of the 1970’s. Back then, the neighborhood was an exciting, dangerous and racially and sexually diverse place, frequented by both locals and tourists. Today, most of Times Square has been carefully obliterated by generic hotels, soulless office buildings, and Walt Disney musicals, but there are still a few vestiges of its seedy past—if you know where to look. This article is written by Robert Brenner, the tour guide of Gritty Old Times Square.

Buy tickets to an upcoming tour of the Remnants of Gritty Old Times Square here:

Gritty Old Times Square

After Martin Hodas, the King of the Peeps, retired, Richard Basciano became the new, undisputed King of Porn in Times Square. He opened Show World Center, the city’s largest sex emporium, in 1977 at 669 Eighth Avenue, and built his own porn empire.

Show World Center occupied the first four stories of a twelve-story building, and had 22,000 square feet of retail space. It had something for everyone: X-rated films, peepshows, adult books, live sex acts—e.g., a woman who shot hardboiled eggs from her vavajay into the audience, like a t-shirt cannon—and in-store appearances by name porn stars.

(Two of my fondest possessions are autographed photos of me with Annie Sprinkle—Teenage Deviants, Deep Inside Annie Sprinkle—and Robyn Bird—Debbie Does Dallas, The Robyn Bird Show. Sprinkle is naked and dangling her bodacious tatas on my head; Bird is naked and sitting on my lap. Ah, those were the days!)

Basciano was a different type of smut merchant from Hodas. Unlike Hodas, he kept a low profile; he didn’t talk to the press, except through his lawyer. He was rarely photographed in public; he stayed most of the time in his luxury penthouse on the top three floors of Show World Center, which included a private gym and a full-size boxing ring. (He was a boxer in his youth.) He wasn’t a swinger; he was into money, not sex.

Most important, unlike Hodas, Basciano was never arrested, let alone went to jail. Despite repeated attempts by authorities to bust him on something—anything—they never could make any charges stick. He ran a “clean” operation, always just inside the law.

(One of Basciano’s business partners, Robert Di Bernardo, was not so lucky. Bernardo was a member of the Gambino crime family. He disappeared mysteriously in 1986. It was subsequently revealed he was wacked by Sammy “The Bull” Gravano on orders from John Gotti, “the Dapper Don.”)

Show World Center was called “The McDonalds of Sex.” Like McDonalds, Basciano opened up franchises around Times Square. There was Show Palace Theater at 670 Eighth Avenue and Show Follies Theater at 713 Seventh Avenue. Today they are, respectively, a Westin Hotel and a souvenir shop called Playland Gifts.

In the 1990s, then Mayor Rudy Giuliani pushed through zoning changes designed to crush the sex industry. Henceforth, sex-oriented businesses like Show World Center could no longer operate within five hundred feet of houses of worship—like Holy Cross church, just around the corner at 329 West 42nd Street. Basciano fought back legally, demanding to know what constituted a “sex-oriented business.”

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A judge ruled that more than 40% of a business’s retail space must be devoted to sex-oriented merchandise, like porno tapes and peepshows—the infamous “60/40 rule.” Basciano promptly converted 60% of Show World Center’s retail space to non-sex oriented merchandise, like kung fu tapes and I Love NY t-shirts. Even 40% of 22,000 square feet was still a lot of square feet.

Show World Center still exists today, albeit in debased form. Gone are the live sex acts and in-store appearance by name porn starts. Most of the space is now rented out to non-sexual theatrical productions, like That Physics Show—“family fun for all ages!”—and Drunk Shakespeare. And, as far as I know, Richard Basciano still lives on the top three floors, although I’ve never had the nerve to ring his doorbell. Stop by and say hello. Say that I sent you.

Get a ticket to our Gritty Old Times Square tour:

Gritty Old Times Square

Next, check out The Top 10 Secrets of Times Square NYC and the 10 Most Blinged Out Signage in NYC’s Times Square.

 Show World Center, times square

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