At the end of 2018, The Rialto Report published three articles detailing the history of the Avon chain of theaters and the notorious films they generated.
The second story told how a coterie of female performers was shipped in from Maine for live sex shows and explicit films in Avon theaters.
The third story featured Phil Prince, the legendary Avon director and one-time live show performer, who endured the killing of his wife, drug abuse, and a prison stretch, to make some of the most controversial adult films.
In this episode, we look into the life of Joe Davian – the most mysterious figure in the Avon world. He directed some of the earliest of the Avon movies, and many of the most outrageous too.
Since his disappearance in 1981, his life and career has been the subject of conjecture and shrouded in misinformation.
Vague Memories and Half-Truths
It’s remarkable how a little information can go a long away.
It’s even more remarkable when that same information – published in a variety of under-researched books and poorly-sourced articles over the last 30 years – is largely false. Perhaps when the truth is unlikely to emerge, the misinformed and lazy are emboldened.
Take the story of Joe Davian.
He was the notorious director of roughie hardcore films produced in the mid 1970s for the infamous Avon theater group, owned by Murray ‘the Jew’ Offen. The movies featured many of the usual New York XXX acting suspects, before his films gave way to the equally-outrageous cinematic visions of Phil Prince.
But unlike many prolific directors from the era, virtually nothing is known about Joe Davian. Even those who worked with him remember only scant details.
Consider the evidence: Carter Stevens, who appeared in half a dozen Davian films and was something of a go-to actor for Joe, only vaguely recalls the man himself. Sharon Mitchell’s sole recollection is that she was grateful for the consistent work he gave her, but that he was not someone with whom she mixed socially. Jake Teague, the industry’s most consistent old-man character actor, found Davian distant and strange, and speaks of an uneasy menace that enveloped his film sets. And Roger Caine, who did some of his most intense acting work for Davian, only remembers that Joe was a heavyset, stout man, and believes he was an Israeli.
This dearth of information has not prevented people from jumping in to fill in the gaps. Most of the widely-accepted information comes from Bill Landis’ colorful, well-written, though often wildly inaccurate article The Avon Dynasty from the late 1990s: “Davian was a member of an Israeli cadre of pornographers. He had a Dacchau (sic) tattoo. Whether he was actually in a Nazi death camp or it was a ruse so he could return to Israel if he needed to flee the country was a matter of speculation. His associate, Toby Ross, director of gay ‘chicken classics,’ snickered that Davian’s tattoo was the perfect out for an international criminal.”
A few years later, in an article written for Vanessa Del Rio’s Taschen-extravagant coffee-table busting biography, Landis described Davian physically: “a middle-aged man with a full salt-and-pepper beard, medium-length salt-and-pepper hair, and an intimidating Dachau tattoo. He sported the faded mark of the death camp like a signifier, and accessorized it with a khaki military-style jacket. Accentuating this package was the thick foreign accent and deep-set stressed eyes that Vanessa del Rio remembers so well. He had an intense, brooding and mysterious manner that attracted those who could respect his severity and his efforts to translate it into filmmaking.”
To say that Joe liked Vanessa Del Rio would be an understatement: if the purveyor of the sleazy, dirty S/M films can be described as having a muse, Davian’s was the Latin from Manhattan. He cast her as the lead in many of his films, and so unsurprisingly her memories are clearer than most: “Joe Davian’s real name was Joseph Lividovich. He was a nice guy, a really nice guy. I made all my Avon films for him: we all worked on his films. I ran into everybody in the business doing them. In the 70s it was a form of rebellion, to try everything. Joe had been in a concentration camp, had numbers tattooed on his arm and always directed dark movies coming from his experiences.”
The death camp tattoo. It’s an omnipresent detail. It is mentioned in every story about Joe.
And up to now, that’s the sum total of the published information concerning Davian. So what happened to him after he made Manhattan Mistress, his last film, in 1981? On that question, everyone seems to agree. Landis claimed: “Joe Davian disappeared. Carter Stevens says he was shot to death, but others believe he is in Israel, living as a returned Jew.”
George Payne too is adamant that Davian was killed in late 1981, and Vanessa De Rio agrees: “Joe Davian disappeared and we all knew something bad had happened, that he hadn’t just gone away. Everyone heard he’d been ‘disappeared’, if you know what I mean. So I guess that roughies were even rougher than we thought…”
A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.
Who was Joe Davian?
The Real Joe Davian
Joseph Davian was born on January 7, 1934.
His family were eastern European Jews who fled to France at the end of the second world war when Joe was eleven. In 1948, after several traumatic years of moving around the continent fleeing anti-Semitic persecution, the family settled in Nice on the south coast, thirty miles down the road from Cannes. Joe attended Lycée M. Sebastien where he was a half-decent student but excelled as an athlete. Even as a teen, he was strong as an ox and was particularly adept at throwing sports, such as the discus and shot. But it was the hammer where Joe found his biggest success and a natural home.
He joined his local athletic club and dedicated himself to learning the highly technical event, practicing every moment he had. His dedication brought rewards, and he was selected by France to represent the country in international junior competitions. After graduating high school in 1952, he picked up a number of short-term jobs allowing him to stay focused on his training and helping him develop into an elite hammer thrower. Expectations were great: between 1951 and 1955, Joe was always ranked in the top three throwers in Europe in the Under-21 category.
In 1956, disaster struck: Joe suffered a serious injury to his right shoulder that cut short his throwing career. Throwing the hammer had been his life. He had few other interests, and fewer qualifications. So he enrolled in a school for athletic instructors. After completing the qualification he returned to his local club in Nice as an assistant throwing coach. His disciplined approach and technical background were an immediate success, and after two years he was asked to join the French junior national team as an assistant coach for throws – a role he held for four years.
The 1960s was a time when the Communist bloc countries invested heavily in track and field events, hoping to see this reflected in Olympic medals and national glory – and throwing events were specifically targeted. The Romanian athletic federation saw Joe’s success in France, and hired him to be guest coach and lecturer at their Institute for Physical Education (I.C.E.F.) for two years.
After his experience lecturing, Joe returned to France in 1964 keen to bolster his academic credentials. He enrolled in a STAPS course (Sciences and Techniques of Sports and Physical Activities) at the University of Nice where he obtained Bachelor and Master degrees between the years 1965 to 1971.
Armed with his qualifications, not to mention twenty years of experience, Joe set up an athletics consultancy to advise coaches and throwers. The driving force behind his business was a video-driven approach that analyzed and deconstructed a thrower’s technique in slow motion and made recommendations for improvements. Joe had bought himself a camera, and taught himself rudimentary filmmaking techniques. He applied his method to all throwing events, and his revolutionary approach caught on quickly. His consultancy model was simple: he received videos of throwers from around the world who were anxious to improve, and for a fee, he mailed back video instructions, advice, and coaching tips.
Joe now found himself in demand across Europe with many of the athletic federations. The Israeli sports federation was the first to sit up and take notice, hiring Joe to lecture at the Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports, an advanced sports training facility established in 1957. While working there, Joe traveled to Germany: where he advised the country’s elite shot putters, Finland: where he worked with their world-class javelin throwers, and Poland: where he coached their discus athletes, while he also picked up coaching opportunities in Canada and the UK. He lived in Russia for three months to study the country’s training methods.
Joe’s reputation as one of the most forward-thinking coaches grew and he became respected internationally. It helped that he was fluent in French, English, Romanian, and Hebrew, and had a basic knowledge of Italian and Russian.
In 1973, Joe started traveling to the United States, taking part in professional throwing clinics on both the west and east coasts. It was clear that for all his success and contacts in Europe, there were more profitable opportunities in America, especially in the sphere of college-funded sports programs. Joe made New York his base, moving into an apartment on West 12th St, and eventually becoming an American citizen.
At first, Joe found it difficult to break into the elite level of US track and field athletics where many of the key jobs were in the hands of long-term appointees. Looking for alternative sources of income while he established his credentials as a throwing coach, Joe found an opportunity to make films. Not coaching films, but definitely not mainstream films either.
Joe’s entry into the adult film industry was coincidental. It was only when he met a fellow resident in his apartment building that he considered putting his interest in film to a different use. The neighbor in question was Joe Peraino, a New York mobster in the Colombo crime family, and one of the clan who’d financed the ground-breaking pornographic film Deep Throat (1972).
Davian had been fascinated with the sexual abundance of Times Square ever since his first visit to New York. Peraino told Joe that his family weren’t interested in funding any more explicit sex films as they intended moving their newly-founded film operation into the mainstream. But he hooked Joe up with some contacts – including Jack Deveau, owner of the explicit all-male adult film production company, Hand In Hand.
Joe vaguely remembers directing gay movies for Deveau, making friends with X-rated actor and all-round adult business personality Marc Stevens in the process. Marc was well-connected, and introduced Joe to a number of people – including a well-known entertainment attorney friend who was interested in financing a one-off porn film.
Joe made Blow Some My Way (1975) for the attorney – a thin satire of the cigarette marketing industry, starring Marc Stevens in the lead role, and supported by Annie Sprinkle, Carter Stevens and Jake Teague. The movie also featured a well-endowed, black live sex show performer named Steve, who preferred the name Red Baron, and who was making a name for himself in 8mm loops. Steve appeared in live shows at the Avon theaters, and he quickly became a favorite of Joe featuring in several of his future films.
‘Blow Some My Way’ was a low budget learning exercise for Joe. It was a sorry, unfunny mess, with all semblance of plot abandoned a third of the way through its running time in favor of a badly-filmed sweaty orgy. Bizarrely the film also featured a combination of Pink Floyd ambient rock and Eric Weissberg’s dueling banjo soundtrack to Deliverance (1972). Whatever its shortcomings, the experience had served its purpose: Joe was learning the ropes as a filmmaker, and the movie made money. Indeed it was still being shown three years later in theaters across the country.
The film also put Joe on the map. Marc took Joe to meet Stella Stevens, a straight-talking, sassy yenta responsible for operating a string of cash-cow exploitation grindhouses, many featuring ‘Avon’ in their name. The theaters were owned by the shadowy but brilliant Murray Offen. Murray was looking to find people to make cheap sex films that he could show exclusively in his venues
Murray and Stella saw ‘Blow Some My Way’, and figured that Joe could be their man. They offered Joe money to make a series of films for them, but their proposal came attached with conditions: Murray knew what brought the customers into the theaters – and it wasn’t just sex. He made it clear that he needed these movies to be dirtier, more perverse, violent, and nasty, and more misogynistic than the competition. And mindful of the gay films Joe had made, Murray insisted that there was to be no gay male sex. Rape, beatings, and kinky S/M scenes were in: gay sex was completely beyond the pale. Joe agreed to the deal: it was ready money, and that would buy him time while he explored coaching opportunities in the U.S.
Joe’s first film for Avon was Assault of Innocence (1975) – another cheap effort starring Marc Stevens, perhaps best explained by its alternate title ‘Rape! Rape! Rape!’. Remarkably it featured the same Pink Floyd and Deliverance soundtrack as ‘Blow Some My Way.’ It was an inauspicious debut but Joe was up and running.
Over the next few years, Joe assembled a stock company of reliably unhinged performers – including Vanessa Del Rio, Sharon Mitchell, and George Payne – and delivered a succession of increasingly sleazy efforts.
Vanessa describes Joe’s films succinctly: “Today they call them roughies. But back then there was no special name: they were just the ones with sex and S/M in the same movie. They weren’t a fetish thing, like S/M movies today. There were no special clothes, and not many props. They all included spanking, whipping, not much bondage, some ball gags, and fucking, which fetish films usually avoid. Many years later it became that if there was penetration and rough sex, the woman had to have a smile on her face to show that she was enjoying it. Not the men though. You could always punish men. And yes, I did enjoy making them.”
As for the Avon theaters themselves, Vanessa’s memories are equally vivid: “They used to let me in and tell me where I could sit so I wouldn’t be bothered. I was curious to see what I looked like on film, so I’d go to the Avon. It turned me on to sit in the balcony and watch guys jerking off at me.”
As a director, Joe was a strange contradiction: he had a crystal-clear mandate and a ruthless and single-minded vision for what he wanted, but at the same time he preferred a hands-off, unobtrusive style on set. He left the performers to rise to the occasion, relying on their personal kinks to come forth. Perhaps that’s why he repeatedly returned to the sexually-voracious Vanessa: “He liked me because I could always get into what he was trying to do. I was in on it with him, he liked to whisper motivation in my ear before each scene. He always had a mysterious and mischievous look in his eye when he looked at me as if thinking, ‘Boy, what I can do to her!’ and I think it was in that B/D, S/M sorta way! I saw something sadistic in him.”
Rather than being put off by Joe’s misogynistic imagination, Vanessa was fired up by it: “Rape scenes are hot, but I understand objections to them, though I hate to give these things up for other people’s problems. S/M films were good because there was strong physical acting. It got my adrenaline going and we had so little chance to act when everything was one take. There’s a lot of pressure in having to say your lines good one time.”
Sometimes Vanessa was so simpatico with Joe, that she helped him direct scenes: “I did a film called Domination Blue (1976) for him. It was about women in prison and I was one of the prisoners and the guards were supposed to take advantage of us and beat us then we’d all get together and escape and take advantage of the guards. Joe came and whispered to me, “Remember what they did to you the day before,” trying to give me motivation like a real director. I went over to the other actresses and said, “He’s really serious about this scene so I’m just going to whack you really hard because otherwise he’s going to want to keep doing it over and over.” They all agreed that I’d just give it to them really good and that’s how we’d do it. Then most of the footage had to be cut away because of the intensity!”
Jake Teague remembers Joe’s fly-on-the-wall directorial style, but also the occasional outburst when he didn’t get the commitment from his performers that he required – and that was sometimes tough for a performer that was older than the rest. Teague knew nothing about Joe’s athletic background but commented: “He was like a sports coach on set: he’d bark instructions about exactly how he wanted you to position – and he was always looking for something more. More than you’d ever given before. More than he’d ever seen before. Like he wanted you to beat your personal best.”
George Payne liked the physical challenges that Joe set, even if they came with the occasional discomfort: “I remember an S/M sex scene in Manhattan Mistress that we shot in a freezing basement. I was freezing my balls off, but Joe was intense and sweating. He kept saying, ‘This is good. I love this. Keep going!’”
R. Bolla, an actor not known for his extreme tastes, remembered being fascinated with Joe as a person: “I only worked for him a few times, but always found him strangely secretive. I was used to directors who expressed themselves in direct or flamboyant ways. But Joe was different. It was like he was trying to hide for some reason – even though he was the center the shoot! One time I tried to get him to go out with me for dinner or for a drink, saying that I wanted to discuss some movie that he was making… but he was never interested. He seemed a loner to me.”
The truth was that Joe kept to himself for good reason. He never gave much information away because he was smart enough to know that one day he’d probably need to get the hell out of the porn business, and he didn’t want to leave a trail behind him. But being secretive was a double-edged sword: by being uncommunicative, Joe knew that people would add two and two together and get five. They’d get suspicious. In their minds, his Ruskie-accent probably meant that there was something shifty and untoward about him. Joe knew that people had questions about him, but some days he found that amusing. So he played into them, inventing stories about a mysterious, shady background.
Another reason for his secrecy was the extreme nature of his adult films – which certainly weren’t for the fainthearted. Using extortion, assault, revenge, and punishment as his leitmotifs, he fashioned cruel sexual melodramas onto which he built intense and exaggerated sexual scenarios that exuded an unpleasant threat. The often-elaborate plots were driven by noir-ish dialogue and punctuated by sex that wouldn’t be out of place in an illustrated gynecology manual.
Take Domination Blue (1976): ostensibly it’s a woman-in-prison flick, but how many films have you seen involving masturbation scenes that use forks, truncheons, dildos, and Barbie dolls? Or that feature incest, cat-fights, a golden shower, nipple-clamping, whipping, and multiple rapes? Or where the prison food is served on the prison guard’s genitals? Exactly. And just when you can relax because our heroines escape, their freedom is cut short when they all die in a car accident. It’s that kind of film.
Or Appointment with Agony (1976): it may be low on script but it makes up for it in unrestrained sleaze. Hitchhiker Vanessa Del Rio is picked up and gang-raped at knifepoint by a group of criminals. Their next caper involves the abduction of a family who are similarly abused and forced into incestuous sex. And that’s about it. If you ever walked out of Last House on the Left wishing it was more hard-hitting, this was the film for you. (Needless to say Pink Floyd music adorn the sex scenes once again – as it would in most Joe Davian films.)
Joe’s films were devoid of humor – at least intentional humor. In Night of Submission (1976), Joe hired C.J. Laing, one of New York’s most extreme performers, in the lead role of a journalist investigating the bizarre sexual rituals of a cult voodoo underground. The only problem was that C.J. quit after the first scene was shot due to a huge bust-up with Joe, and so Carter Stevens was hired as a narrator to stitch over the plot holes created by C.J.’s absence.
Sometimes the humor was off-screen: in Intimidation (1977), Joe needed to shoot on a yacht so he hired the ever-reliable Carter Stevens to keep the unsuspecting boat owner occupied above deck while he shot two sex scenes in the cabins. Carter enjoyed a bottle of Jack Daniels and a free shipping lesson with the owner, before the ship’s captain confessed that he’d known all about the sex shoot taking place on the boat all along.
The same performers crop up with regularity – many of them lesser names of the business including Suzaye London, Tia von Davis, David Pierce, Clea Carson, Dave Ruby, Crystal Sync and others – each one prized for their unique kinky prowess. Even Joe makes the occasional appearance – such as at the beginning of Night of Submission (1976), where his voice, with its strong European accent, can be heard in voiceover.
Each film was made in a couple of days on a low budget – inexpensive even by the meagre standards of 1970s pornography. Many were shot in Joe’s apartment building on West 12th St, and at apartments belonging to friends in the area. Revenge And Punishment (1977) for example was shot at The Chelsmore at 205 West 15th St, and The Cambridge at 175 West 13th St, among others.
Davian consistently delivered what Murray the Jew demanded, but within a couple of years, he became a victim of his own success – and ambition. Seeing the profitability of his films, Joe demanded more money, more control over the finished product, and more ownership on the back end. Murray wasn’t interested. He had no shortage of perverse volunteers eager to take over. Some of them, like Phil Prince, had no filmmaking experience whatsoever, but it didn’t matter. Murray was ready to move on.
Joe felt cheated. He’d made big money for Murray, and he felt short-changed. So he decided to extract compensation in his way. Phil Prince, who was working for Murray as a theater manager at the time, remembers what happened: “Davian was a thief. He robbed prints from Murray. Murray would pay for the negative then send Davian a copy of the print. You understand what I’m saying, a copy of the negative. But then Davian started making prints himself, and selling them all over the country. When Murray found out about Joe’s side-business, he was mad as hell. Murray called Joe in for a sit-down, and I was on-hand to be the muscle. We shook him down for the money he’d made, and threatened that if he ever did it again, he’d be dead.”
Joe’s relationship with Murray was severed and he was left seeking new patrons for his art. Joe formed his own production company, ‘Joe Davian Productions’, and set out to attract investors. He made a couple of bigger budget films, Girls U.S.A. (1980) and Manhattan Mistress (1981), which featured many of his favorite performers, but this time they were more plot-oriented and avoided the excesses upon which he had built his name. Not that they were entirely devoid of non-consensual sex: in ‘Girls USA’, George Payne and Vanessa play out a scorching abduction scene, involving interrogation and rape, with Vanessa tied to an X-frame.
By his own admission, Joe could’ve continued to make bigger budget adult films into the 1980s. He’d developed a loyal following of actors whom he could rely on for strong sexual performances. And he knew plenty of distributors and investors, who thought of him as someone who could produce cost-efficient pictures that were as-near-as-dammit guaranteed to deliver healthy profits. But there were two roadblocks to Joe’s continued porn career.
Firstly, Joe yearned to get back to track and field athletics. He missed coaching, and he wanted to get involved in developing young athletes who had potential. And secondly, he wanted a family. He’d met a woman and they’d got engaged. She knew nothing of his pornographic film career, and he was determined to keep it that way. He casually mentioned that he’d done some work as a cameraman – mainly on documentaries – but that was in the past. He was a throwing coach now.
And he figured that the only way he could move into the next phase of his life, to erase his history as a XXX filmmaker, was to sever all ties with the adult film world – immediately and completely.
So he did.
By 1982, Joe was 48 years old. Not old by any stretch, but athletics is a young man’s game, and he needed to take work where he could find it. He started coaching on a part-time basis with high schools in the New York area, where he also officiated in regional athletic meets. He took the relevant qualifications, became a certified master official, and slowly started to coach elite throwers again.
Over the next 30 years, Joe became one of the most prominent and successful throwing coaches in the north east, working for colleges, athletics clubs, universities, and ultimately USA Track & Field. He held regular clinics for throwers and coaches, some of them with Soviet hammer great, ex-World and Olympic Champion, Yuriy Sedykh. Occasionally his bluster and inflexible discipline got him into trouble with administrative authorities, but his dedication to success usually won people over. He was still involved in coaching into his 80s.
All the time Joe stayed in New York state, and raised a family. He changed his name a couple of times, but never spoke about his adult film past to anyone until contacted by The Rialto Report.
In January 2020, Joe passed away. A life that had been shrouded in mystery and misinformation had come to an end.
But wait. One more thing: the oft-mentioned tattoo? The proof that Joe had been held in Dachau? The evidence that seemed to explain where Joe’s tortured and violent inspiration came from? The one detail that featured in academic essays, fan-published books… even in the memories of people he worked with?
It never existed. Though the lives of Joe’s relatives had been severely disrupted by the war, Joe and his family insist that none of them were ever detained in concentration camps. And Joe never had a tattoo.