From Fellini to Deep Throat

When it switched from classic films to pornography the Alray Theater learned a basic lesson: smut smells. 

The first theater in Houston to show Deep Throat was also the first theater to show the currently revived King of Hearts as well as Antonioni’s Red Desert, Truffaut’s The Soft Skin, Godard’s Vivre Sa Vie, and many other films from the finest European directors. The Alray, in spite of this illustrious past, has been showing films like Deep Throat for almost five years. Ray Boriski, the Alray’s manager since 1959, is not especially happy about the changes in times, tastes, and economics that forced him to transform his theater. On the other hand, he’s not especially sad about them either.

The Alray is on Fulton Street, an obscure thoroughfare in a disintegrating part of north Houston. It was originally the Lindale theater and was built in 1940, long before the age of freeways, when neighborhood theaters were exactly that, places where local families could go on foot for an evening’s entertainment. But when Ray became interested in the theater in 1959, the neighborhood theater business was declining, at least in Houston, and the Alray stood empty. It had last been used as headquarters for something called the Southern Baptist Pentacostal Institute.

Boriski and a partner leased the theater for $50 a month and named it by combining their two first names. With the theater came a pair of 35-millimeter projectors which worked more or less on whim. Boriski couldn’t afford to replace them until years later. He bought 700 theater seats from the old Hippodrome Theater in Dallas; his father, who through the years was a jack-of-all trades at the Alray, installed them and kept them in repair. Boriski bought the screen for $25 from the old Isis in Houston, repainted it himself, patched the holes, and still uses it today.

Boriski and his partner leased the theater intending to show family films. They hoped to draw their clientele from the surrounding area, a neighborhood far enough from downtown Houston to seem in need of a nearby theater. But the days of the family theater really were over, even by 1959. They showed a series of innocuous Hollywood movies and no one came. In an attempt to re­coup their losses, Ray showed a film that in 1959 was as notorious as Deep Throat is today, Russ Meyer’s The Im­moral Mr. Teas. The film had been featured in a photo spread in Playboy and it opened at the Alray, to packed houses. The theater even started open­ing for matinees.

Films like Mr. Teas were known as “nudies.” They were the forerunners of the contemporary pornographic film, al­though they were very mild by current standards. Their plots and characters existed for the sole purpose of produc­ing situations where a woman could appear nude. Door-to-door salesmen were a favorite motif; their knocks were invariably answered by women who had chosen to do the most amazing things, like bake a cake, in the altogether. The women tended to stand rather still and let the camera play over them, since there was rarely any physical contact or any of what has come to be known as “full frontal nudity.” Russ Meyer, who through the years earned the en­viable title of “King of the Nudies,” is now something of a cult figure. He has been honored at film festivals and has been the subject of graduate disserta­tions. Other directors, who later made reputations in Hollywood, cut their teeth on the nudies, among them Francis Ford Gopolla, who directed The God­father.

Ray and his partner continued show­ing nudies for a month or two until the priest of his partner’s parish made a comment about the evil of such films and Ray’s partner decided he didn’t want to be part of the nudie business anymore. They went back to showing family movies and once again, no one came. Then they tried Mexican films which had an equal lack of success. By that time Ray’s partner wanted out of the Alray altogether and Ray began running the theater on his own.

He did not want to go back to show­ing nudies even though they were the only shows that had been at all success­ful in his theater. He got no sense of personal satisfaction from showing them. He knew about the Thalia theater in New York which was showing new films from the Italian, French, and Jap­anese directors who, though still general­ly unknown in the United States, were beginning to evoke some interest. Ray was interested in those films himself, be­lieved in them in a way he didn’t believe in the Hollywood, movies being made at the time and in a way that he certainly couldn’t believe in nudies. He decided to see if he could make a theater showing foreign films work in Houston. It worked, barely, and for ten years Ray Boriski was able to hang on.

It wasn’t easy. His average gross was only $700 a week and some weeks he didn’t even gross $300. He had one em­ployee, a union projectionist. He did all the rest of the work himself. He took tickets, made the free coffee he gave away in small paper cups, ordered the films, swept up at night, kept his own books, cleaned out the urinals. When he got married, he had to call around to his friends to find someone who would run the theater for him for one night. The next day he was back at work.

In the early Sixties the phrase “French film” was invariably accompanied by a leer. Public awareness of directors like Fellini, Antonioni, Godard, and Truf­faut, an awareness which would blos­som later in the decade, was only be ginning to sprout, mostly on college campuses. “I had a small core of regu­lars,” Boriski recalls, “which was just large enough to cover my expenses. But to make any money at all, and I’ve never made much, I had to attract some people, just a few people, outside that core.”

On the other hand, this limited de­mand meant that the films he showed could be rented from distributors for

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