Kristin Battista-Frazee (Charles Martin Photography)

My dad, the pornographer: How "Deep Throat" forever changed my childhood

I had a quiet suburban adolescence until Dad was busted on federal obscenity charges for distributing "Deep Throat"


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Kristin Battista-Frazee
October 19, 2014 10:00PM (UTC)
Excerpted from "The Pornographer's Daughter: A Memoir of Childhood, My Dad and Deep Throat"

“Grosses this week at the Premier are up, and Deep Throat is still bringing in the crowds," said Tony Arnone, my father’s business partner and old college friend.

Dad held the phone closer to his ear lest one of the other salesmen working at the twenty identical desks lined up in the cavernous trading room at W.E. Hutton would hear the man my family called “Uncle Tony” on the other end of the line.

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“Look, I don’t want to keep you,” Tony continued, “but a business opportunity has come up. You remember me mentioning Lou Perry?”

Dad whispered into the phone. “Your Deep Throat contact?”

“The producers are moving the movie nationwide, and pronto,” said Tony. “They need distributors in the Northeast. I think you’d be perfect. All you’d have to do is call up some theaters and pitch them the movie. You get five percent of the distributor’s cut of the gross from whatever theaters you sign.”

My father peered left and right at the large office space. What would his co-workers think if they knew he was having this conversation while on the clock at W.E. Hutton? “Doesn’t sound too hard,” he said after a moment. “Thanks for the offer. I’ll think about it.”

“Man, don’t think too much. These people are ready to go.”

My father knew making a few phone calls and booking sales was basically what he did as a broker, so in that regard, he was incredibly well suited for this opportunity. And he knew Deep Throat would basically sell itself. The film had premiered in Times Square at the World Theater in June 1972 and had been showing in theaters for more than a year. By then, August 1973, it was still hugely popular. In fact, its popularity accelerated. In January of that year, The New York Times Magazine had published an article titled “Porno Chic” that described Deep Throat as a cultural phenomenon, and the article’s author, Ralph Blumenthal, had even hypothesized that based on Deep Throat’s huge crossover success, hardcore pornography would one day merge with traditional movies.

The reasons for the movie’s success are myriad. For one, the film defied convention in that it incorporated a complete plot (albeit a flimsy one). It also boasted a keen sense of humor. The notion of a woman having a clitoris in the back of her throat—perhaps the weirdest and most notorious aspect of Deep Throat—was not seen by most as obscene, but rather hilarious. The film was a household name, even before its bizarre and rather arbitrary connection to the Watergate scandal, with which the term “Deep Throat” is now more popularly associated.

My father had seen the movie shortly after its premiere when he and a group of coworkers had gone to a local theater on their lunch hour to check it out. He appreciated the movie’s unconventional, offbeat storyline, and he was strangely curious about Linda Lovelace’s unique skill set, which left the average viewer dumbfounded about the gag reflex (or, in this case, the lack thereof). The director, Gerard Damiano—himself transformed from Queens hairstylist to porn director—knew he had found a gem when he discovered Linda Lovelace. It seemed part luck and part genius that Damiano was able to pull this movie together in such a short amount time and with very little money.

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After they left the theater, a coworker said to my father, “If my wife could do what Linda Lovelace can do, I might be worried.”

My father laughed. “I just found the plot so weird,” he said. “My wife would probably find it funny. That wacky doctor character, Harry Reems, actually seemed to have some acting talent.”

As my father tells it now, he returned to work that afternoon having no idea that someday he would be involved with the film. But fast forward a year and everything had changed—Deep Throat was an all out sensation. My dad knew that if he didn’t cash in, someone else surely would.

But there was much more to Deep Throat than just a very good business opportunity for my father. This movie was redefining our culture in a controversial way. In April 1973, Deep Throat was banned in New York City as part of Mayor Lindsey’s vow to clean up Times Square. Judge Joel Tyler, in a Manhattan Criminal Court, ruled that the film was indecent and he closed down the showing at the World Theater. The headline on the marquee of the World Theater—“Throat Cut, World Mourns”—seemed to signal the end of Deep Throat. But, in fact, it was just the beginning of the phenomenon. The trial leading up to its ban made the film wildly popular in other parts of the country, which helped fuel rumors that the early court proceedings had actually been staged to create buzz.

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At about the same time, in June 1973, the Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California granted greater power to states in setting their own “community standards” and established the “Miller Test” for communities to decide for themselves if material was obscene. Marvin Miller, the owner of a small mail order business, was convicted of sending sexually oriented ads through the mail. Before this decision, communities had had to apply a national standard to enforce obscenity laws. But Miller v. California clarified that obscenity was no longer solely protected by the First Amendment, which was the beginning of local governments prosecuting obscenity cases around the country, making it illegal in some places (but not all places) to show Deep Throat and other films. Miller v. California made it possible to hold the federal obscenity trials in Bible Belt states and conservatives went into a feeding frenzy to enforce what they saw as the high moral standards of their communities.

Deep Throat also reshaped the sexual landscape for both men and women and carried the torch for sexual pioneers Alfred Kinsey and Williams Johnson and Virginia Masters and the free love time of the 1960s. Sex was something to be embraced and enjoyed, not hidden. The birth control pill was now taken by many women and sex was now free of consequence as well, unleashing a time of experimentation.

The film became a part of the mainstream during a time in our country when people had a growing distrust of its government. My father’s generation had experienced so much turmoil in the 1960s— the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Dr. Martin Luther King, not to mention the agony of the Vietnam War. Then, on the brink of the 1970s, came the Nixon Watergate scandal. The country was ripe for social change. By the end of its multi-year run, the film had grossed hundreds of millions of dollars from a $25,000 initial investment.

My father told me he did not give much thought to the obscenity controversy the movie was stirring across the country or that distributing it might be a risky venture. He believed, perhaps naively, that because Philadelphia was not a small town or located in the Deep South, he was not risking any legal repercussions.

And anyway, this would only be a part-time gig.

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On his way home after work from bustling downtown Philadelphia to suburban Upper Darby, my father would often pick up flowers for my mother. (My mother loved any flower except for carnations; she always called carnations “funeral flowers” and said that they reminded her of an open casket wake, which was the typical way Italians honored the dead.) When he entered the door of our modest row house on Spruce Avenue, he would announce, “I’m home!” and call out to my mother, “Smells good, Frannie. What are you cooking?” Usually I would be watching The Electric Company or Sesame Street in the living room, and I’d jump up to greet him. “How’s my little girl today?” he would ask as he lifted me from the floor and gave me a big hug. It was always so exciting to feel weightless for a half a second. As he made his way to the kitchen—with me watching curiously from behind—he would peer around the doorway to see my mother, with her tall slender frame and jet-black hair pulled into a tight ponytail, busy at the counter or stirring a pot on the stove. My father would stand behind her with the flowers until she turned around. “Oh Anthony, they’re beautiful!” I remember her saying many times, tilting her head slightly to kiss him on the cheek.

On the day my father received the offer from Uncle Tony to distribute Deep Throat, he told my mother at dinner matter-of-factly about his decision. “I’m going to take Tony up on it,” he said. Then he added, “I think I could make us great extra money.”

My mother told me later that she doesn’t remember giving it much thought. She could sense that his gut instincts told him this was a good move and she knew he never ignored his gut instincts. And anyway, she’d been fine with him investing in the Premier Theater. This didn’t seem like a much bigger deal.

In the end, she trusted him.

“If you think it’ll be worthwhile,” she said confidently, looking at the white dahlias he’d brought her that evening.

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And that was that.

* * *

A couple of weeks after talking to Uncle Tony, my father began distributing Deep Throat in earnest. “All of a sudden I was getting lots of phone calls at my office,” my father told me when we talked many years later about his distributing days. “A cottage industry had sprung up overnight.”

“How did you get any W.E. Hutton work done?” I asked. If his phone was ringing off the hook as he described, I imagined that his coworkers at W.E. Hutton must have thought he was selling a helluva lot of stocks. Distributing Deep Throat gave a whole new meaning to the term “moonlighting”; this wasn’t like waiting tables or stocking shelves at a retail store late at night, this tapped into an insatiable demand for racy content and created an outlet for people to express their sexuality. Sex was no longer something to be hidden. This venture was also part entrepreneurial American dream, part pure craziness.

“I worked long hours,” my father answered simply. Then he confessed, “But there were some days that Deep Throat business was all I did.”

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He landed a few small bookings across town, but for his first major booking, he selected the venue strategically: The Midtown Theater, a massive 900-seat, velvet-draped classic movie theater located on Chestnut Street in downtown Philadelphia. Not only was the Midtown in a plum location, it was also part of the huge Budco theater chain and it was the epitome of the 1970s movie-going experience in Philadelphia. If he could land the Midtown, he knew he’d have a leg up in developing a huge clientele in the Philadelphia area.

And, coincidentally, the Midtown is where my father had taken my mom on their first date.

Mitch Goldman, the Budco booking agent, contacted my father and over the next few weeks they discussed the possibility of booking the Midtown. Goldman wanted the movie. Badly. But there was one huge problem . . . they had to convince Claude Schlanger, the conservative owner of the Midtown, to take the film.

“Anthony, man, I want this movie,” Goldman said to my father in his fast-talking New York accent. “But I’m telling you, convincing Schlanger will be like convincing Jesus to sin. He’s a strict German Catholic, for Christ’s sake.”

“You sure? With a name like Schlanger?” my dad said laughing. “This movie is perfect for him.”

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“No, he’s an uptight Kraut, I’m telling you,” Mitch said.

“Okay, I get you. You want me to call him? Just tell me what to do.”

According to my father, hearing this was an epiphany for Goldman.“Anthony, you know, that’s a great idea. He’ll love you. You’re both Villanova grads. You could chat him up about basketball. And you’re Catholic, right?”

“Well . . .”

“Why would he want to take advice from an obnoxious Jew like me?” Goldman asked, snorting laughter through his nose. “Our races don’t exactly have a good history, if you know what I mean.”

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“I’d hardly say I was Catholic, Mitch. My mother does the praying in our family. But if you think it would help, I’ll call him.”

My father banked on charming Schlanger with the latest Wildcat basketball scores and reminiscing about the old days on campus. But after repeated attempts, Schlanger remained adamant: he did not want to be involved in pornography. (It didn’t help that Deep Throat had already showed a year earlier at Theater 1812, also on Chestnut Street, and that it had come and gone without much fanfare.) No matter what my father said and no matter how much evidence he provided of Deep Throat’s recent success across the country, Schlanger would not sign on.

Eventually Goldman took over again and he became relentless. He called Schlanger daily and said things like, “You’re a smart guy, Claude. Can you honestly walk away from all this money? Other theaters around the country are making tens of thousands!”

Finally, about a month later, Schlanger surrendered; he had a sudden Hollywood movie cancellation and needed to fill a hole in his schedule. He decided to give Deep Throat one week.

Goldman and my father were thrilled. But there were still two more hurdles to clear. First, Goldman and my father wanted to charge $5.00 per ticket but Schlanger argued that this was an outrageous price; the average cost of a movie ticket in those days was $1.50. My father was adamant that the public would be willing to pay. He persisted. Finally, after much haggling, Schlanger compromised on $4.00 per ticket.

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The second problem was much more daunting.

The Peraino family—the notorious mob-connected owners of Deep Throat—announced that they did not want to book with the Midtown because Schlanger would only agree to pay by check. The Perainos preferred cash collected at the end of every night by a “checker.” My father felt uneasy, of course, that the Perainos only wanted to deal in cash. But they owned the film so however they conducted business was their prerogative.

In the short time my father had been distributing, he had discovered that dealing with the Perainos was tumultuous and never predictable. But anyone who entered the porn business in those days—especially if they wanted to show Deep Throat—had to deal with the Perainos, for better or worse. Lou Peraino (a.k.a. Lou Perry) was the producer of Deep Throat. Lou’s father, Anthony Peraino (a.k.a. the “old man”) was the head of the family and had given Lou the initial investment money to produce the film. And Lou’s uncle, Joe “The Whale” Peraino (nicknamed for his three-hundred-pound girth), acted as general manager for the Deep Throat distributing business. They were a motley crew, and together they cast an intimidating shadow.

My father has described the Perainos to me as “the gang that couldn’t shoot straight,” after the Jimmy Breslin novel of the same name about mob boss Joey Gallo and the famous screw-ups of his Brooklyn crew. They were unpredictable and arbitrary in the way they made decisions. Above all, they seemed to have secrets, scary secrets, which left people wary and unable to gauge their intentions. There were also many rumors about their mob ties and the physical retaliation people might face going against the family. My father never admitted to any fear in dealing with the Perainos. But he did confess to purposely holding them at arm’s length, like a snake charmer handling a poisonous snake. The lesson here was simple: Be close enough to benefit from the business at hand, but not so close as to become enmeshed in something dangerous. And be careful not to get bitten.

While the Midtown deal was in negotiations, the Perainos’ fledging distribution network was coming together at a rapid, but disorganized, pace. Uncle Tony had established strong ties with the Perainos in the early 1970s while expanding his adult theater business all over South Florida. During that time, he had secured the Perainos’ permission to create a national distribution network for Deep Throat. Thus Uncle Tony was my father’s go-to contact for distributing . . . until, that is, he was abruptly removed from the job following a quick succession of events.

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In the fall of 1973, Anthony Peraino expressed interest in partnering with Uncle Tony and my father at the Premier Theater in Orlando. Essentially, the Perainos wanted a foothold in the brick-and-mortar porn business in Florida.

But my father and Uncle Tony both knew this was an offer they had to refuse. Aligning too closely with the Perainos would be a bad idea. They thought it was possible that they would lose the business due to mismanagement or that they could be pushed out altogether.

“I think we need to separate from the Perainos,” Uncle Tony said.

My father agreed. “They seem to be involved in some bad stuff,” he said.

“Okay, let’s just tell them we’re interested in a localized, small business. I’ll say I know that they’re going to be big time and that’s just not what we’re after.”

“You think they’ll buy that line?” Dad asked.

“God, I hope so. Hopefully they already realize we’re just not like them.”

Separating from the Perainos was key. When considering the future of their theater and the possibility of other theaters to come, my father and Uncle Tony knew any legal or personal complications with the Perainos would put them at great risk.

Uncle Tony hoped to decline the Perainos’ offer in a respectful way, so as to not offend the family while still retaining his access to showing Deep Throat. After a tense meeting, Anthony Peraino accepted their decision by graciously saying, “Let’s part now while we can part as friends.”

But declining the Perainos’ offer came with consequences; immediately after their refusal, Uncle Tony lost his partnership to distribute Deep Throat nationally and became just another theater owner showing the film.

The question now was: Since my father was still a regional distributor, who would his Deep Throat contact be?

The answer was a man named Bobby DeSalvo, a unique character in the twisted story of Deep Throat. Bobby had come out of nowhere. Just a few months prior to the Midtown deal, he had been introduced to the Perainos after Uncle Tony caught him showing an unauthorized copy of Deep Throat in Lake Worth, Florida. Uncle Tony had informed Lou Peraino about the showing because he knew it was a huge problem for anyone to cut into the Perainos’ business.

Lou then paid Bobby an in-person visit. But instead of threatening Bobby as everyone had expected, Lou was so charmed by Bobby that he handed over the rights to show Deep Throat. Lou even made Bobby a partner in their national distributing scheme. Lou liked Bobby because he had had the guts to defy them by showing the bootleg copy of Deep Throat. He viewed Bobby as one of them—an Italian street guy with ambition.

Fortunately for my father, Bobby was very likeable. If my father could no longer have Uncle Tony as his liaison, he was at least happy to have Bobby to deal with the Perainos directly instead of having to do so himself.

So it was Bobby, the Perainos’ trusted advisor, who stepped in to save the Midtown theater deal and who convinced the Perainos that the Midtown would make a ton of money by helping them break into the Philly market. And it was Bobby who instructed my father to book the theater and to take payment by check for that week.

*

On January 10, 1974, Deep Throat opened at the Midtown. The first show would be at noon. When my father awoke that morning, a hard wind was blowing in from the north and the wind chill was about 10 degrees Fahrenheit. He had waited for this day with nervous anticipation, like a child counting the days until Christmas, but now he wasn’t sure if people would venture out on such a painfully cold day.

Nevertheless, this day offered my father a great hope: to be free from both the vacillations of the financial markets and the whims of his investment clients. Deep Throat’s opening had all the feel of launching his own small enterprise. And it smelled like real money, quick money.

Before my father left the house that morning for his usual day at W.E. Hutton, my mother told him, “I feel it, Anthony. It’ll be a hit.”

“I hope you’re right, honey,” my father said nervously. Then he kissed her on the cheek and ran out the door. My mother was just as excited as he was and she called after him, “Let me know if you hear anything!”

As soon as my father reached his office at 9 AM, Goldman called and said, “Anthony, there’s a line around the corner.”

“What?”

“A line around the corner of the Midtown! Hundreds of people!”

“Jesus Christ, Mitch!” my father said in a hoarse whisper so his coworkers wouldn’t hear.

An hour later Goldman called again and his voice sounded giddy. “Anthony, all 900 seats in the theater are full!”

My father could barely contain his excitement. He wanted to jump onto his desk and howl like a wolf. But he realized that the trading room was now bustling around him, so he sat still and responded politely, as if talking to one of his clients:

“Thank you very much for letting me know, Mr. Goldman. I’ll be sure to get back to you later about making further buys.”

Dad realized he had hit the jackpot. He immediately called my mother and told her in a whisper what was happening.

“Oh, my goodness!” my mother said “I told you it would be a big hit. This is great, honey.”

At lunchtime he had to see the crowds for himself, so he walked briskly in the cold to Chestnut Street. He peered up the street and even though he knew what he was going to see, he was still shocked to discover a line of people stretching a hundred yards down the block.

Jesus, I can’t believe all the people, he thought. They must be freezing their asses off!

My father came home that night over the moon about his apparent success. As my mother remembers it, he looked wild-eyed and disheveled, like someone had ransacked his suit into a wrinkled mess.

Even though it was freezing out, he was sweaty around the temples from running home from the EL stop.

“Frannie, I can’t believe it! The crowd outside the theater was unbelievable. I wish you could see it,” said my father, grabbing her around the shoulders and planting a big kiss on her lips.

“That’s just . . . just great news,” she cooed, truly happy that everything seemed to be working out.

“Do you mind if I run downtown after dinner?” he asked. “I want to see how the crowds are tonight.”

She smiled. “Come on. Let’s eat real quick so you can go.”

My father ate quickly, then set off on his impromptu fieldtrip. During the drive, he recalled the numerous calls from Goldman updating him about the massive crowds outside the theater. It was Deep Throat’s grand return to Philadelphia, all made possible by my father.

That week Deep Throat grossed $73,000 at the Midtown, breaking the house record previously held by The Sound of Music, which had grossed $40,000 in the same amount of time. Claude Schlanger was ecstatic and, conveniently forgetting his earlier protests, said to my father, “I knew that was what people wanted to see.”

Deep Throat played at the Midtown for nine weeks and it grossed a weekly average of $50,000. Goldman soon moved it to other Budco theaters like the Goldman Theater on 15th and Chestnut Street, where it was equally successful. The film played in all the Budco theaters in Plymouth, White Marsh, Exton, and Wilmington, Delaware, just to name a few.

And this was just the beginning. Before my father knew what was happening, he had become the primary Northeastern contact point for theater owners to gain access to Deep Throat. He didn’t even have to pick up the phone, as he’d expected. Instead, the theater owners called him. And when they called, which they all inevitably did, my father had the perfect sales pitch: Not only was the Midtown making a mint, but when Deep Throat had played at my father’s theater in Orlando, Dad and Uncle Tony had earned back their initial investment of $25,000 in just one weekend. How could any businessperson argue with numbers like that?

No one could. Everyone wanted a piece of this instant success and my father was in a perfect position to provide it.

Deep Throat was generating about $70,000 a week in each of the theaters where Dad had placed it. In 1973, he earned an additional $25,000 to $30,000 from distributing and, one by one, he landed all the large movie houses in Philadelphia. Considering that his annual salary at W.E. Hutton was $40,000 on a draw versus commission basis, this was excellent pay for a lot less work.

Not bad for a part-time job.

Excerpted from "The Pornographer's Daughter: A Memoir of Childhood, My Dad and Deep Throat" by Kristin Battista-Frazee. Published by Skyhorse Publishing.  Copyright 2014 by Kristin Battista-Frazee. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.


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