Meet the Jewish grandmother who ran New York’s gritty 1970s porn scene

From the late 1960s until the mid-1980s, adult entertainment films dominated the theaters along 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenue in New York City, earning it the nickname “The Deuce”. Throughout the week, those theaters played hardcore pornographic movies for those brave enough to walk the chaotic and disruptive street.

And the person who ran those theaters was Chelly Wilson, a Jewish Greek grandmother.

Wilson, a Holocaust survivor, became one of the most influential figures during the era, eventually producing and distributing adult films in theaters that she owned.

Bunkered in an apartment above the all-male Adonis Theatre, she regularly held court with entertainers, poker players, female lovers and more all while her grandchildren ran at her feet.

A new documentary, Queen of the Deuce by Valerie Kontakos, explores Wilson’s life from escaping Europe during World War II to becoming an unlikely influential figure at the height of the golden era of adult entertainment, with interviews from both friends and family.

“Grandma Chelly was, to us, larger than life. Going into her apartment was always an interesting experience — she was living over a pornographic movie theater,” said one grandchild in the film’s trailer. “She owns most of the porn theaters in New York — and then I’d get that right note, what does your grandmother really do? I was like ‘no, that’s the truth actually,” said another.

Wilson was one of the last people to leave Europe before the Nazi occupation in 1939. She left her two children behind, instructing a caretaker to never turn them over to anyone else, and sought a better life in New York.

Adonis’ marquee (Courtesy of the Wilson family)
Adonis’ marquee (Courtesy of the Wilson family)

And she found a different type of life on 42nd Street in the mid-1970s. The neighborhood’s provocative theaters inspired peep shows and massage parlors to open up around. Sex workers walked the streets at all hours every day. One New York Times article from 1971 claimed “40 prostitutes are arraigned” on a “normal Thursday.”

Muggings and violent crime were constant in the area too.

But when faced with an environment everyone else ran away from, Wilson set up shop above one of the theaters.

Her film career began by playing Greek movies in rented-out theaters to honor her heritage and cater to the Greek community in Manhattan. She married her second husband, Rex Wilson, a film projectionist and the two had a daughter together.

After the war ended, Wilson brought her two children other children to New York. Her connections in the film industry helped her obtain her own movie theaters and seeing how profitable pornographic film showings were, she ventured into the industry.

Chelly Wilson (Courtesy of the Wilson family)
Chelly Wilson (Courtesy of the Wilson family)

The public perception of adult films shifted during the “porno chic” era. Movies like Blue Movie and Deep Throat captivated audiences and critics – pushing the films from taboo to mainstream.

Wilson seized on the era’s lucrative opportunity to build a better life for herself and her family. She unapologetically embraced the envelope-pushing energy – even inviting her female lovers to live with her and her family.

Ms Kotankas, the documentary’s director, writer and producer, knew Wilson personally and said from the moment she met her, she knew she wanted to make a movie about her.

In an article for CBC, she recounted meeting Wilson and her second husband, Rex, at “11 or 12 years old” in Athens.

“I was fascinated and struck by the role reversal I saw that day. Rex had arranged to have a manicure, so there he was, sitting on our balcony getting his nails done, while his wife was holding court in the living room with my mother. They were smoking and drinking coffee, laughing about this, that or the other,” Ms Kotankas wrote.

Through interviews with Wilson’s family and close associates, Ms Kotankas tells a story about a trailblazer who wasn’t afraid to be herself.

Queen of the Deuce is available to stream on Apple TV or Amazon Prime Video.