Show World is the last of the old Times Square porn palaces.
It was, in the words of one anti-porn city official, the “flagship of the sex industry of New York.” It was a 22,000-square-foot den that originally opened in 1975, built at a cost of $400,000. In its heyday, nearly 100 women worked a rotating peep show on the second floor each day. It featured couples simulating copulation onstage… until they dropped the ‘simulation’ part. It featured triple-X fare to sate every desire. And in addition to hundreds of unknown people, many adult film stars often performed there.
Last year we featured an article by Guy Gonzalez about working in Times Square sex parlors (‘Hot Thrills and Cold Chills: Working on 42nd Street in the 1980s‘), and a selection of photographs taken by photographer Vivienne Maricevic showing a number of adult film performers who worked in the area (‘Vivienne Maricevic: Times Square 1980s – Sex, Porn & Burlesk‘).
But what was it like to witness a performance at Show World itself?
The Rialto Report recently came across a series of previously unpublished photographs taken by Vivienne in the early to mid 1980s. Vivienne was in a unique position. She was the only professional photographer who was allowed free rein to take pictures of the shows there. Her remarkable photographs show first-hand the gritty, raw, and sometimes playful nature of the sex shows.
We’re deeply grateful to Vivienne for allowing us to showcase a selection of her photographs here. To learn more about her work, visit her website.
Richard Basciano and Show World
The brain behind Show World, Richard Carmello Basciano, was born in Baltimore to Margaret and Nicholas Basciano on July 16, 1925. His father was a professional boxer, and Richie soon developed a passion for the noble art too. Later he would keep a full-size boxing ring in his penthouse over the Show World premises.
After graduating from high school and serving in the Navy during World War II, Richie started selling sex magazines and buying real estate in New York. In the early 1960s, he became partners with Robert DiBernardo. DiBernardo, or ‘DiB’ (pronounced Dee-Bee), was twelve years younger than Richie, but already a member of the Gambino crime family and one of John Gotti‘s subordinates. He was reputed to control much of commercial pornography in the U.S.
In the early 1970s, Richie bought a succession of properties in the Times Square area, and started a series of adult book stores and sex clubs. He wasn’t alone – by the time he opened Show World in the mid-1970s, there were nearly 150 sex shops in the neighborhood.
But Show World was a different beast than other run-of-the-mill porno locations. It was a sleek, 22,000-square-foot pornographic playground, designed to be the flagship enterprise of Richie’s empire. It was an immediate success.
It was an era of frequent police busts, and Show World’s high profile meant that it was often picked on by city authorities eager for some positive publicity. With the assistance and protection of DiB, Richie rarely got into trouble. His only ever criminal record was a no-contest plea in 1968 to federal fraud charges stemming from a coupon scheme when he worked for a Baltimore newspaper.
Part of the reason that he was able to keep his nose clean was that, unlike peers such as Marty Hodas, Richie always shunned the limelight. He had no desire to become a lightening rod for local politicians or the cops, and so led a secretive life away from the glare of publicity. The Rialto Report attempted to interview him numerous times, contacting him directly and through intermediaries, but without success.
Most Show World workers rarely saw him either. Richie hired a coterie of heavies who insulated him from contact with the outside world. The writer Josh Alan Friedman remembers, “He employed boxers from his ultra-private gym, which occupied a floor of the building, to serve as quarter cashiers. They were tough ghetto guys and functioned as Basciano’s army. They were very good at throwing out anyone who misbehaved. Pimps came in to recruit girls and they got bounced violently.”
Show World succeeded in part because of its ability to change with the times. At first, patrons watched girls gyrating in the nude for 25 cents. When time — fractions of a minute per quarter — elapsed, metal shutters dropped, blocking the view until more coins were inserted. Simultaneously, a light outside the booth signaled the moonlighting boxers. “They pounded on the door and shouted, ‘Get your tokens in,’ ” Friedman recalls, adding that non-refundable octagonal gold tokens, depicting a naked dancer with floating musical notes, replaced quarters to deter patrons from busting into coin boxes. “Disco music blasted, aisles were crowded with shamed men . . . The place was more about high anxiety than sex.”
Besides the token system, other Show World innovations included high-tech rigging for the movie booths, which showed seconds of triple-X footage for 25 cents. Thus, porn videos replaced 8-millimeter loops, offering 10 different titles per booth.
Business truly boomed when Basciano removed peep-show windows around 1978, allowing dancers to reach in, touch patrons and be touched in turn. Aggressive women made hundreds per shift. “Anything that you can imagine being done through a porthole for a $1 tip was done,” says Friedman. “All kinds of body parts went through those portholes.”
The growing success of Show World wasn’t without trouble – especially when local elections were taking place. In 1977 Mayor Abe Beame, facing a difficult re-election campaign, targeted the clean-up of Times Square – and Show World in particular – by personally leading a raid to close down the sex emporium.
As reported in the newspaper: “About 100 Show World patrons who paid $5 each to watch on-stage sex acts were rousted by the raiding party. Some seedy, some well-dressed, they came blinking into bright sunshine. Some covered their faces, but others offered wide smiles to the sidewalk audience.”
The raids were largely just for show. Basciano and his management team would quietly go to court to obtain permission to re-open pending a hearing, and would usually be back in business within 24 hours.
It was rare that anyone associated with Show World would kick up a fuss at being targeted by publicity-seeking politicians. But one person who refused to accept the harassment was sex-show impresario, Rod Swenson. Swenson, who went on to be manager and partner of The Plasmatics‘ Wendy O. Williams, was responsible for the live shows in Show World. He sued the city for $3 million, alleging ‘Gestapo tactics’ and stating that the mayor’s actions were “true obscenity in its rawest form.”
The raids of 1977 did nothing to dent the progress of Show World. On the contrary, the establishment went through a major and expensive upgrade that year.
But it wasn’t only the city officials that found places like Show World reprehensible. In the late 1970s, the newly formed Women Against Pornography (WAP), a radical feminist activist group based out of New York, started tours of the area to raise consciousness about the effects of pornography on society’s view of women.
Group organizer, Barbara Mehrhof, stated: “Pornography is pathologically destructive to women’s self-image and endangers our welfare in real-life.”
As reported in a newspaper at the time: “Armed with maps, quarters for peep show movies and a wealth of curiosity, bands of women of all ages and backgrounds gather at the group’s Times Square storefront and proceed toward the blinking signs offering “Girls! Girls! Girls!” and “Topless and Bottomless”.
True to Show World’s publicity-shy business model, they were turned away from the entrance of the building: “No women allowed without escorts,” said the guard.
But perhaps Show World’s most consistent foe was a mild-mannered man from Poughkeepsie, NY. Robert G. Rappleyea was the pastor emeritus of the Roman Catholic Church of the Holy Cross on 42d Street near Eighth Avenue in Manhattan. He was also a fiercely outspoken critic of the sexually oriented businesses that multiplied in the Times Square area during the 1970s.
His primary target was Show World, which he described as “a supermarket pornographic shop.” He contended that the sex industry brought a high increase in mugging, assault, and drugs. The NYPD agreed, and named their most valued police horse, ‘Rapp’, in his honor.
In 1982, Show World was again in the news. The Wall Street Journal reported that the source of the funds for the 1977 upgrade had been a loan from the federal government – meaning that as the mayor had been trying to close Richie’s sex business down, it had been undergoing a major expansion thanks to government assistance.
Understandably, the New York authorities were outraged, and demanded that the loan be canceled and all the money repaid. They were too late: Show World had been so successful that it had already repaid its loan well ahead of schedule.
Porn stars had started appearing at Show World more frequently, and were a major and lucrative draw. Fan favorites like Marilyn Chambers, Kandi Barbour, Sue Nero, Sharon Mitchell, Nina Hartley and others could be seen in dancing shows – and some of them went further, engaging in more direct and physical contact with the audience.
Nina Hartley at Show World
Meanwhile Richie ran his business like a corporate CEO. “His operations are cookie-cutter clean; they are the McDonald’s of the whole sex industry,” William H. Daly, director of the Mayor’s Office of Midtown Enforcement, was quoted as saying.
The mid 1980s, however, brought more serious challenges.
First there was AIDS, which had a chilling effect. “There were fewer girls there, gay people were dying left and right, everyone was scared,” Friedman says. “Show World may not have been happy-happy in its prime, but it was exciting and dirty and horny and crowded.” In the midst of AIDS, that was no longer true.
Then there was the crack epidemic. Sex show performer Tim Connelly remembers: “Suddenly things got skeevier. Customers looked scarier than they used to. If a girl walked out to get coffee, there was always a decent chance she was not coming back. Half of them were drug addicts.”
Compounding the problems, porn enterprises around Times Square started getting shut down by authorities – and this time, they were being shut down for good. Plain-clothes cops became increasingly common and so did arrests.
Show World was no longer able to rely upon the support of Robert ‘DiB’ DiBernardo either. In 1986, after phoning his family on Long Island, DiB left work in his Mercedes and was never seen again. His fate was revealed in 1992 at an organized-crime trial: He had been killed by Sammy ‘The Bull’ Gravano for crossing mob boss John Gotti.
The 1990s brought new restrictions — via zoning laws and the 40/60 rule, which forced sex-shop owners to maintain 60 percent non-sexual stock — that ate into profits. In 1998, New York City officials ordered that no sex-oriented business could be located within 500 feet of a church, a school or a residence, defining such a business as one whose sales are at least 40 percent sex-oriented.
As a result, by 1998, the ‘live nude girls’ at Show World were gone. Most of the Show World space once reserved for pornography and sex had morphed into, among other things, a comedy club called the Laugh Factory and a haunted house called Times Scare.
Show World shrank to a tamed-down, fractional footprint of what it had been: crossword-puzzle books were for sale in the basement. And yet Richie hung on as property values continued to rise, reaping a windfall estimated at $14 million when his Times Square properties were condemned for new office buildings and refurbished entertainment venues.
In 2016, Richie finally declared to Crain’s New York Business, “Show World is going to close. This real estate is very valuable.”
Richard Basciano died on May 1, 2017. He was 91. His last years had been his most difficult, but ironically, his troubles had nothing to do with his porn empire.
He had previously bought the Forum, Philadelphia’s oldest pornographic theater situated at 2136 Market Street, which he was redeveloping. In 2013, an unbraced brick wall of the building collapsed on a one-story Salvation Army thrift store, killing seven people and injuring 12. In January 2017, he was among those found to be liable for the disaster. He was ordered to pay $27 million of the $227 million settlement, the largest personal-injury award in Pennsylvania court history.
“His concern about the accident and those killed and seriously injured weighed upon him very much, and no doubt took a toll on his health,” Mr. Sprague, his lawyer, said.
His sudden death left people wondering about the fate of Show World. It is unclear who inherited the property. Basciano leaves behind his wife, Lois, and three daughters, all from a previous marriage, but no will was made public.
Show World, which operates out of two 12-story buildings at the northwest corner of 42nd Street and Eighth Avenue, is worth millions for the land alone.
Whatever the future has in store for Show World, it was instrumental in establishing the star power of adult film performers. And Vivienne Maricevic was privileged to record the phenomenon with her photographs.
Adult Film Performers at Show World:
(Our podcast interview with Annie can be found here.)
Raven De La Croix
(Our podcast interview with Mitch can be found here.)
Tiffany Clark (and Jose’ Duval)
(Our podcast interview with Tiffany can be found here.)
Unknown Live Sex Performers