The Avon Dynasty

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DARK SIDENEON NIGHTS MEAN STREETSMANHATTAN VICE

SICK 1970’SSHAUN COSTELLO COLLECTION1980’SJOE DAVIAN COLLECTION
THE AVON DYNASTY
By Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford

Avon specialized in high frequency adult films that premiered at their string of theaters pocketed throughout Times Square. The Avon schematic serviced the most guttural, shameful and maniacally driven sexualities and play acted them out. Avon’s films did not require reviews or sex industry attention. Its reputation spoke for itself. The Avon crew were the bastard children never invited to any adult industry awards ceremonies. Frankly, people were afraid of the directors and cast members. They were too unruly and rough trade. However, no one could argue the fact that Avon made money and hooked the most dedicated audience on the Deuce. The minuscule budgets of the Avon films (shot on 16mm for $5,000 – $10,000) turned into profit within a few weeks run. Afterward, Avon would lease the films out to sub-distributors which played them from the Carolinas to California.

AVON 7 THEATERChelly Wilson was the ipsissimis of Times Square’s pyramid of pornographic film producers, exhibitors, directors and sex performers. A Greek emigre, Mrs. Wilson named her theaters after Hellenic gods of love. Her 8th Avenue theater chain included the Venus, Eros and Adonis Theaters. Although married to a blind man who lived in Puerto Rico, Mrs. Wilson was openly gay, living in a menage situation with two girlfriends in a gaudily furnished apartment above her Eros Theater. People came to her for jobs, money, referrals, help for when they got out of jail, or loans for medical emergencies.

Mrs. Wilson had an illustrious pedigree in the history of bottom draw exploitation movies, bringing the world everything from black and white softcore straight movies to gay hardcore movies. Mrs. Wilson was known to judge the boxoffice potential of a film by measuring the actors’ expansive dick sizes with her hands against the screen. She held a salon, where card games were played between top draw stars including Jamie Gillis, visiting dignitaries such as the Mitchell Brothers, and active directors like Ron Sullivan (aka Henri Pachard).

Mrs. Wilson’s left hand man, Murray, ran the Avon chain. A tall, pasty complexioned, cotton candy haired Miami beacher somewhere between 60 and 80, Murray had been a sax player at the Paris burlesque house during World War II. He subsequently built the Avon empire by taking cheap, decades long commercial leases on various shoebox theaters and grindhouses in Times Square. During their mid-1970s heyday, the Avon chain encompassed the Doll, Avon 7, Paris, Bryant, Avon 42nd, Avon Love, Park Miller, and Avon Hudson theaters. A chronic complainer with a hearing aid, Murray was married but had a wandering eye that focused on Puerto Rican trade.

stella-stevens

Stella Stevens, a former fifties cheesecake model was in charge of hiring and firing at the Avon Theater chain.

Murray’s trusted bookkeeper and office manager was Stella Stevens, a former fifties cheesecake model and outrageous showbiz lesbian of the Shelly Winters school. Stella was responsible for the day to day operations of the theaters, including the hiring and firing of employees. Stella monitored what movies were audience draws. She had two sets of Puerto Rican brothers, the Martinezes and Torreses, working for her most of their adult lives as cashiers, bouncers, projectionists and maintenance men. They were Avon’s market research statisticians. This involved more than telling Stella what movies did well; she could gauge that from the boxoffice. What the brothers delivered was a psychosexual breakdown of the audience at any given time and what movies to provide them. Would it be time to throw in Johnny Wadd or Revenge and Punishment?

Stella made the casting referrals for the Times Square axis of the New York sex industry. She had an uncanny ability to match sexual performers with appropriate jobs. Stella knew everyone, and performers generally liked her. She was a big grizzly who, if she liked you, watched out for you. Stella lived and believed in Avon’s philosophy of offering entertainment that appealed to a specific audience so much that the customers felt they got their money’s worth, and kept running back for more.

Avon Theaters first gained a widespread reputation when they gave Andy Warhol films including My Hustler, Vinyl and Flesh their first big commercial runs when they were still considered racy in the mid 1960s. The homosexual elements of underground films proved to be a box-office draw, so Stella and Murray opened New York’s first all-male theater, the Park Miller, on 43rd Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway. The Park Miller cut a striking figure in the gay lib Mattachine Society era of the late 1960s, with its three balconies and heavy sexual activity. It premiered Pat Rocco’s softcore Hollywood shorts, and also presented packages of Kenneth Anger films for the cruise minded audience.

By 1970, Avon’s straight premiere house, the Hudson, located a block north of the Park Miller on 44th Street, drew crowds with “San Francisco Shorts,” theatrical loops supplied by the West Coast’s Graffiti Productions. Made by hardcore pioneer Howard Ziehm of Mona and Flesh Gordon fame, the loops encompassed both single girl “split beaver” activity and hardcore man-woman action.

Murray and Stella took a cue from Oh! Calcutta!’s nudity on the Broadway stage and integrated it with Murray’s grainy memories of pre-Castro Havana live sex shows. Avon struck Deuce gold when they presented New York’s first live exhibition of male-female sexual activity. Early porno chic superstars Jamie Gillis, Marc (“Mr 10-1/2”) Stevens and Tina and Jason Russell initiated their careers with hardcore loops and these simulated shows. You cold drop a quarter in a peep booth and then walk down 42nd Street to see the same people live on stage. Absurd socially redeeming interludes like Jamie Gillis naked, reciting Shakespeare, were used as a shield against vice raids.

By 1973 the live shows turned hardcore. Black and hispanic couples appeared as performers, with very few whites. The guys were renowned for their enormous endowments and the girls were sexy, too. The basic format included a strip by the woman, followed by some undulations on a dirty mattress, then joined by her male partner, and ending usually with a come shot. Shows were performed to the beat of a disco tape the couple had brought and the projectionist flipped onto the sound system. Avon innovated the “mixed combo” interracial hardcore film with titles like Black Gold and Black Neighbors to mirror the live show, which occurred every hour and a half between films.

dominatrix_without_mercyIn 1975 Avon made a decisive move that would permanently associate its name with violence. Roughies, movies which mixed sadomasochism with sex, had been popular in Times Square since the early 1960s. In the age of hardcore, Avon brought the roughie home. Jason Russell was a porno star graduate of the Avon live shows. He was separating from his wife, Tina; together, they had been the biggest couple in adult films. Jason had been in the S&M hardcore film, Defiance, which was a huge hit. He wanted to get out of acting and into producing, so he went to Mrs. Wilson for funding. Mrs. Wilson knew that hardcore roughies would be a commercially viable genre. The heavy S&M, black and white Olga movies had marathon runs during the 1960s at her Cameo Theater. She was doing well showing Terry Sullivan’s crude San Francisco imports like Masters of Discipline, which were basically rape and mayhem fantasies portrayed by men in stocking masks. With Mrs. Wilson’s financing, Jason hired Shaun Costello to direct the phenomenal Dominatrix Without Mercy.

Shaun was a masochistic legend in New York. A tall, blonde Irish American from Queens with wire-rimmed glasses, he had performed in loops with the Russells and progressed to star in and direct his own one-day wonders. Shaun lived and breathed S&M. As a director, he used a cavalcade of pseudonyms including Warren Evans, Russ Carlson, John Stover, Jack Brickwall and Amanda Barton.

Dominatrix Without Mercy was composed of overlapping vignettes of a day in the life of a Manhattan dominance apartment. Episodes appear fluidly, like subconscious thoughts existing within their own universe. A gallery of New York’s top players, including Marlene Willoughby, Terri Hall, Vanessa Del Rio, Jamie Gillis and Marc Stevens are featured as larger than life exaggerations. The movie utilized a great deal of dominance equipment.

Dominatrix Without Mercy had a marathon run at the Avon Hudson. Avon needed a director to continue making roughies, and Joe Davian was hired. Davian was a member of an Israeli cadre of pornographers. He had a Dacchau 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.

avon_joe-davian-frontDavian created a memorable series of roughies, each one more extreme than the last. His operatic narratives were carried by elaborate narrative twists, snappy dialogue, and unapologetic S&M scenes. Davian’s movies included scenes of gynecological examinations that were not for the surgically squeamish, yet he leavened the action with touches of dark humor. He had a talent for perfect, economical compositions within the tightest budgets and shooting schedules Like Sam Fuller’s B-picture world, Davian’s plots had recurring themes of abduction, prostitution rackets, extortion of political figures, sexual assault and revenge. His eye for the sleazy side of New York created an atmosphere of tangible seediness and threat.

In the sex industry, performers tend to remember directors who were difficult headfuckers. The actors Davian used, if they remember him at all, found him unobtrusive. Sharon Mitchell‘s only recollection of him was of a man who consistently gave her work, and not someone she’d want to get to know more than superficially. Davian, with his multinational experience, employed a fly on the wall technique to bring out the most from his cast members. He designed strikingly kinky, intense, exaggerated images for performers including Sharon Mitchell and Vanessa Del Rio, who built reputations off appearing in his films. With House of DeSade, Domination Blue and Night of Submission, Vanessa Del Rio perfected her wild style approach toward heavy bondage and discipline scenes. Davian also had a knack for casting quirky character types, putting Al Levitsky to his most grandiloquent use as a perverted doctor in Revenge and Punishment.

night_of_submission-frontThe formula Davian had perfected proved so successful that Avon hired a few other colorful characters to riff on it. Mr. Mustard, aka Dick Miller, was a yellow haired curiosity living a condiment lifestyle. He produced Rape Victims and a handful of others. The ubiquitous Carter Stevens, who had traversed every low budget porn genre, contributed his own brand of authentic New York sleaze with Bizarre Styles, Wicked Schoolgirls and House of Sin, a showcase for the dominance talents of the voluptuous Mistress Candice. Shaun Costello, who had initiated the series with Dominatrix Without Mercy, contributed Mistress Electra, featuring the dark, exaggerated good looks and charisma of Marlene Willoughby, as well as the excellent kidnap melodrama, Prisoner of Pleasure.

Phil Prince was the cherry on Avon’s cake. He was their most infamous director, and the most out of control. Phil was a huge, dark haired, Irish American from the Bronx. Phil’s best friend and confidant was fellow Avon employee Pat Rodgers, a Methadone addicted, perverted, tubercular old man. For a small, sickly looking weasel, Pat had committed many violent crimes, particularly armed robbery, frequently landing in stir. Pat was a closet homosexual who claimed to be “straight… but I like to experiment.” Phil looked up to Pat, and Pat gave Phil confidence. The popular rumor was that Pat and Phil were lovers, with Pat playing the male role and Phil cross-dressing to his delight.

Phil had a wife with whom he performed live shows. His reputation was his showstopping come shot aimed directly at the audience, once beaning an unfortunate Popeye between the eyes three rows away. Phil’s show was such a sensation that photos of him humping his wife festooned the front of the Bryant Theater, along with a few choice shots of Stella munching bonbons from her fifties cheesecake heyday.

Avon Sick 1970sBut that wasn’t what was shocking about Phil’s life. Adding to the chaos that was Phil was the murder of his wife. One minute she was sitting home with two friends. The next minute Phil was calling 911, saying that he had discovered a rampage slaying. Phil was the primary suspect. Pat ran a close second because of his history of firearms use. Phil toughed it out and was cleared, but everyone had their doubts about him. One employee remembered that all Phil could talk about the day after the murders was the insurance money he was going to collect. Regardless of Phil’s actual guilt or innocence, the bloodletting had run its course. Anyone who’s seen a real sacrifice knows how impossible it is to forget the image and how easy it is to reproduce. It comes out just like piss.

After the murders, Stella buried Phil behind a desk in the Avon office at the Bryant Theater, where it would be more difficult for him to get into trouble. Phil wanted to move up in the Avon hierarchy. He wanted to be something in life. So what if people thought he was a cretin and a murderer. He’d use it to his advantage. If people wanted to be freaked out and shocked, he could do it.

Phil loved movies, from exploitation horror films to Joe Davian’s epics, which he had admired and studied while working in the theaters. With Pat urging him on, Phil felt he could do better. The amount of ghastly perversion Phil had experienced in life could translate into celluloid as a bang up roughie. When the coast was free of police, Stella referred Phil to Mrs. Wilson for the capital to realize his dream.

Mrs. Wilson set Phil up with Phil Todero, a bewigged old queen who ostensibly managed the Eros Theater. Apart from producing the early John Holmes vehicle Kama Sutra ’71, Todero had been a DJ in the early 1960s payola era. Todero was so low he stole $50 out of the minuscule $125 pay envelopes of the Eros’ male dancers. As Phil’s anonymous producer, Todero would skim from him, too.

Phil began assembling his dream cast. He started off with performers who had impressed him in Davian’s films, particularly Sharon Mitchell. George Payne, the man he chose to incarnate his vision of a maniacal sadist, was a hustler who specialized in abuse scenes. He first gained widespread notice with the 1972 hardcore gay classic, The Back Row, in which he played an anxious midnight cowboy lusting after blonde Fire Island floozie Casey Donovan. George also starred in the Amero Brothers’ all male blockbuster, Kiss Today Goodbye, but he loathed his gay image because it limited his cash flow.

George’s personal and professional relationship with Vanessa Del Rio aided his transition into a straight character actor. A longtime speedfreak and freebase user, George robbed Vanessa of her furs, jewelry and several thousand dollars. Several days later, he returned with the jewels and furs, but no money. Vanessa threw him out and George became known as troublesome. By the time Phil found him, George had deteriorated into a risky, bad off transient. He had been sleeping on a plastic couch by the pay phone of the Amero Brothers’ Broadway Arms Baths. Although George had inexplicably not lost his looks, his hair had reverted to its natural silver because he couldn’t afford dye. Phil went with it, casting him as an older man.

avon-shaun-costelloThe Avon women — Ambrosia Fox, Velvet Summers, Joey Carson, Cheri Champagne and Nico — were cast through a biker named Billy who operated out of Maine. The girls were all graduates of the school of hard knocks, and they spoke in disaffected New England accents. Each made her own unique contributions to Phil’s films. Ambrosia Fox and Velvet Summers, both tiny women, had youthful looks which made them especially well cast. Velvet’s piercings were an extreme masochistic stance long before self mutilation became a fashion trend.

Personally, she was a quiet downhead who stayed in a small Queens, New York apartment overpopulated by cats. Joey Carson was a protoypical busty blonde. Dark, Mediterranean looking Cheri Champagne was equally adept at both dominant and submissive scenes. Nico, the oldest and most menacing, had the cold elegance of a nurse.
Rounding out the crew were the easily accessible Ron Jeremy, who Phil hired because of his strong stomach for disgusting scenes. David Christopher, a seasoned New York one day wonder player, was from a small Massachusetts town, where he had been faithfully ordering Eric Stanton material since he was a teen. He had a huge appetite for sleazy S&M scenes.

Annie Sprinkle and Alan “Spike” Adrian were hired because they were known to do any S&M act, no matter how extreme and debasing. To his cast members, Phil seemed gregarious and easygoing despite his ominous image. Phil himself had been a live sex show performer, so he was reality based in the mechanics of sex work. It made Phil happy that people played out their sexual manias with him as conductor. As Alan Adrian, who pissed in his own mouth in Kneel Before Me, put it: “Phil encouraged me to do the most perverted things.”

Despite his budgetary constraints, Phil succeeded in making a series of movies which vividly express his life. Their lack of money only made them more graphic. Some sets were Phil’s home, some were theater offices, making the films claustrophobic and intense. The movies are well photographed, filled with unexpected camera angles, and action packed. Phil’s work was jagged, fragmentary and primitive, less individual dramas than one long vision. Phil worked fast, often shooting two films a month in weekend long shoots.

The Taming of Rebecca

“The Taming of Rebecca” is available on DVD as part of Alpha Blue Archives’ Boxset “Avon Dynasty – 1980’s”. Click to order.

The Taming of Rebecca was Phil’s first big hit and his most straightforward narrative. Sharon Mitchell plays an abused girl who seeks refuge in a boarding school, only to find it is run by a demented sadist (George Payne). The manic speech, grimacing faces, verbal abuse and shocking sex scenes became the standard of Phil’s films. Stella, cradling her white teacup poodle, is featured in a comic relief cameo. Phil employed the loop package approach of four segments to great effect in Tales From the Bizarre and Dr. Bizarro. Oriental Techniques of Pain and Pleasure was a mobius strip of 42nd Street sexuality. Phil made cameos in Dr. Bizarro and Tales From the Bizarre, wearing his $10 theater work clothes — bell bottom jeans and a sweatshirt. In Kneel Before Me, George plays a man who marries Annie Sprinkle and believes he’s the Marquis De Sade. At this point, Phil was actively flirting with his dangerous image by having George’s character admit to wife murder.

Phil’s movies were among the last porn films to be advertised in New York City tabloids before the ban on adult film ads. He felt competitive with recognized sex industry directors like Ron Sullivan, and it gratified him to see crowds flock to his films. However, as the success of his movies grew, the bigger a drug mess Phil became. He had the girls of a local black pimp named Troy work the audience of the theaters where his pictures were playing. Phil had the Martinez brothers build little trick rooms in the basement of the Doll Theater that looked like the cave in The Taming of Rebecca.

avon_1980s-boxcoverThings quickly soured when vice cops raided the theaters in late 1983. Pat had been living with Phil in Phil’s Staten Island home, where Phil’s second wife and two small children also lived, but both men now disappeared. They took to the road, living in a dilapidated van. Eventually, Pat and Phil surfaced in The New York Post when they attempted to stick up a Haagen Dazs ice cream parlor in the West Village. They were so stoned that the manager thought they were kidding, and when he laughed, they panicked and shot him in the chest. The duo was apprehended six blocks away after a keystone kops chase in which they ran in and out of taxicabs. Phil went to jail for six years.

As Phil wiled away his time in stir, Avon caved into the big business interests that razed Times Square. The theaters closed. Stella briefly hung in there, running a massage parlor on 46th Street. In 1986, the Meese Commission used Phil’s movies as the most rank, foul and violent examples of pornography in the USA. They were considered the pinnacle of sexual exploitation emerging from a criminal element. Besides flinging a legal haziness over mixing S&M with hardcore sex, the Meese Commission was ironically Avon Films’ press agent, granting them the reputation as the roughest of the roughies.

For years, Phil’s movies became increasingly difficult to find, and Joe Davian‘s films existed only as flickering memories in viewers’ minds. This presentation by Alpha Blue Archives makes the Avon Films collection available for the first time.

EPILOGUE

Phil Prince was released in 1990. Phil couldn’t stay away from 42nd Street. He shot and killed an associate from the old Bryant Theater, and is currently serving 25 years to life. Since Phil had gone to jail, Pat couldn’t go on without him. He was quickly arrested for another petty crime, died in jail, and was buried in a mass grave in Potter’s Field.

Joe Davian disappeared. Carter Stevens says he was shot to death, but others believe he is in Israel, living as a returned Jew.

Carter Stevens lives in Pittsburgh, and continues to make fetish pornography.

Mr. Mustard is in poor health in Southern California.

Shaun Costello had to flee New York in 1983 after misappropriating funds intended for film production. Some say he resides in Ohio. George Payne lives like a geriatric prisoner with his wife Diane, who was formerly Ron Sullivan’s casting agent, in an apartment in the Whitestone section of Queens, New York. He now goes by the name George Medved. Twice a year his wife allows him out of his cage so she can collect a small fee for renting her husband out to make non-sex bondage tapes at Adventure Studios.

Vanessa Del Rio and Sharon Mitchell continued to have their own colorful, high profile porn careers. Vanessa popped up playing herself in a cameo on NYPD Blue. Sharon went on to work at a sex worker samaritan phone line and is currently attending medical school.

As for the New England girls, Joey Carson had breast enlargement surgery and is on the strip circuit, as is Cheri Champagne. Nico, Ambrosia Fox and Velvet Summers have never been seen again.

Among sex industry regulars who played in Avon films, Mistress Candice quit the business after being managed by David Christopher. David Christopher runs a company called Snatch in Los Angeles that produces S&M and straight porn tapes. Alan “Spike” Adrian suffers from chronic depression and finds it highly difficult to leave his North Hollywood apartment. Annie Sprinkle and Ron Jeremy still stew in their own juices.

Now that Times Square’s adult theaters no longer exist, Stella Stevens retired to South Florida. Murray still divides his time between Miami and New York. Phil Todero dropped dead of a heart attack while taking care of another old queen dying from AIDS.

Chelly Wilson passed away. She was in her nineties. In the fall of 1997, her daughter Bondi sold the Eros, which was the Wilson Family’s last Times Square adult house. The epicenter of the Deuce that Mrs. Wilson once lorded over is now just a memory.

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