As of 2018, one of the last two remaining adult theaters in Los Angeles sat on a nondescript stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard. Even though it was among the last of it's kind, the Tiki Adult Theater barely stood out from neighboring markets and restaurants. It's a stark change from what it would have been during the “Golden Age of Porn,” a period from the late '60s to the early '80s considered the heyday of the adult movie theater.
The sexual revolution of the 1960s brought more relaxed attitudes towards sex and made space for what many considered an artistic exploration of erotic pursuits. As attitudes shifted, the tantalizing industry blossomed across the country. Pornography broke into the mainstream and made stars out of its actors, with adult theaters often holding flashy premieres that attracted audiences across all genders and social classes.
The time of the adult theater came to a swift end as censorship laws and the rise of VHS cut into their profits. The 1980s ushered in a wave of cultural conservatism, and the convenience of watching in private rendered the picture houses obsolete.
Before adult theaters were in vogue, suggestive content was limited to the margins of polite society. Amateurs shot and acted in their own films, sometimes developing the films themselves in bathtubs. Showing their handiwork was prohibited, though, and could result in prison time. The films were instead distributed by underground networks and seedy traveling salesmen. One of the few places where the footage could see the light of day was in a place where the lights shone red.
Cathouses served as the first adult theaters. Already a carnival of flesh, establishments that offered sexual services were the natural place for screening rooms where visitors could enjoy illicit viewings for an extra charge.
Porn stepped into the mainstream in the 1970s. Adult theaters filled the night with a neon glow, a long way from covert screenings under the cover of darkness. Stars like Linda Lovelace became household names. Lovelace's most famous film, Deep Throat, drew crowds from all walks of life, including middle-class couples and former First Lady Jackie Onassis.
In 1985, a poll found that more Americans could identify Lovelace more so than the former secretary of state Henry Kissinger.
Although the industry was no longer marginal during the Golden Age, many genres remained underrepresented. Gay porn is available at the click of a button on the internet, but in the '60s, '70s, and '80s, there were theaters that specialized in gay cinema.
These locations became hubs of LGBTQ solidarity and activism. They were a safe place to meet because they offered a shield from judgment found in the outside world. Visitors could simply be themselves inside those walls without the risk of judgment or stigma.
In 1966, a struggling drive-in theater in Durand, MI, decided to start showing adult films. It was an overnight sensation. People drove from all over the state to see the "Durand Dirties," and the attention helped economically stimulate the depressed rural town. The Durand Dirties soon became a chain and spread to other rural areas that were in search of a business boost.
By the mid-'70s, there were more than 70 of these branded drive-ins throughout the country.