web statistics

The last peep show

By Dimitrios Otis-contributing writer, Vancouver Courier, 08/31/2005

Downtown Granville was once dominated by movie theatres, pinball arcades, and sex shops. They are slowly disappearing, replaced by nightclubs and bars, as Granville transforms into a booze-based "Entertainment District." Many other businesses have gone under recently. But one longtime enterprise that refuses to die is Movieland Arcade, which fits all three classic diversions under its roof. The pinball and video games are up front, but tucked away in the back is an amalgamation of celluloid and sin that some film advocates believe belongs in a museum.

You see, Movieland Arcade at 906 Granville St. is the last home of authentic, 8mm "peep show" film booths in the world.

"That surprises me, and I know everything that's going on." The voice on the phone is Tony Perry, and when it comes to the adult entertainment industry in B.C., his is no idle boast. Perry was the forerunner of adult book and film distribution here, and has been in the business for close to half a century. Equity magazine once dubbed him "Vancouver's Granddaddy of Porn." But Perry is genuinely taken aback to learn Movieland Arcade is still running peep shows with old films. "Why the hell would he still keep going? I would be stunned if he's making money. Jack is an anachronism."

The "Jack" that Tony Perry is referring to is Jack F. Jung, the man who opened Movieland 33 years ago, and still owns it today.

Perry admits he never got to know Jung, despite being in the same business for several decades. I soon learn why. Jung is extremely secretive. Most workers at Movieland claim never to see him, and will only refer to him as "the owner," even after I repeat his full name several times.

Perry owns stores with peep show booths, but they are all modern video shown on television monitors. He tells me the last time he ran film in a booth was 25 years ago. "I stopped because you couldn't buy product." Perry is bemused that someone would still show film. "So that man is totally living in the past. Isn't that amazing?"

I wonder too-but my request for an interview with Jung, submitted through a Movieland employee, is denied.

Perry comes up with an interesting comparison for Movieland: "It's like going back and seeing the Civil War with the original cast," he says.

The analogy is more apt than you'd think. The American civil war ended in 1865. Twenty-eight years later Thomas Edison unveiled the Kinetoscope, the first machine to show moving pictures on film. The short film ran inside a large wooden box, and was viewed through a magnifying lens set in an opening at the top. Coin-operated, the entertainment device was wildly popular for a time, and became known as a "peep show," because only one person could watch at a time by "peeping" through a little window. The Kinetoscope's private cinematic thrill survives today in the coin-operated wooden booths at Movieland Arcade.

But as the novelty of the Kinetoscope and similar peep shows wore off and film projected on to large screens appeared, promoters began building what were first termed movie palaces. Vancouver got its first in 1910, the Maple Leaf Theatre at 877 Granville St. Peep shows were relegated to amusement parks and fairs. There they would have stayed, except for the sexual revolution several decades later. Part of the "free love" movement of the 1960s and 1970s was increased freedom to see provocative images. In 1966, entrepreneurs in the fast-growing pornography market hit upon a bright idea. The story goes that one or more shady characters came across an old peep show machine on their distribution routes. Peep shows had always been secret havens for risqu‚ film, but these guys put the newly legal sex movies in them. Part of the brainstorm was encasing the film apparatus itself inside a cubicle, so the watcher had privacy.

The new peep shows were a huge hit, spreading across North America and becoming one of the biggest moneymakers in the world of commercial sex product. In the peep show heyday of the mid 1970s, infamous Times Square arcades like Peepland and Peep-O-Rama ran hundreds of machines day and night.

Then the Times Square sleaze-mongers upped the ante by putting "Live Nude Girls" in booths, a concept which wasn't allowed across the border into Canada. British Columbia didn't even permit fully "hardcore" film material until 1983. But demand for the "soft" stuff we could see was enough so that when Jack Jung opened his arcade in 1972, peep show movies were the key offering, as the name of his enterprise made clear.

And now it's a part of film history.

"I really liked that neon sign. I saw, 'Movieland', and wondered, 'What's that?'"

Allan "Fishsticks" Harris had recently arrived from Ontario when curiosity first drew him into Movieland Arcade during the summer of 1989. Now a university grad and family man living in Port Coquitlam, Harris is returning to check out his old haunt.

"I pretty much started going regularly," he says about the old days. "Even then, this was the only place with actual movies." Harris taps on the booth, eliciting a hollow sound from within. "You could hear the faint clickety-clack of the projector inside. That clicking sound made you feel you were in a different world." As I enter the arcade with Harris, I get a sense of that different world right away-and it exists a few decades in the past.

The place can't have changed much since it opened. Part way down the long, cavernous room, a huge, hand-painted sign hangs from the ceiling. It stretches across the full width of the building and reads, in classic 70s shades of yellow, orange, and brown, "Girlie Movie-Theatre for Men."

We walk past the sign, past the vintage '80s Casino Strip video game, and all the way to the back. There stand several banks of nondescript wooden booths, painted a dull grey. These are the last of the movie peep shows, far removed from Times Square. They are not much to look at, but it's what's inside that counts.

Harris points out a tiny red bulb on each booth, which lights up when the film is running. I notice a metal plate on the front of the booths, with a succinct description of the film scrawled on it with a magic marker: "two girls and guy," or "lesbians." Also written down is the date the film was put in. Who changes the movies, I wonder?

To watch a movie, you squeeze sideways and uncomfortably into the narrow opening in the booth. There's a coin slot and a rectangular window at eye level that measures 1-1/2" by 4". Through it you can see a square piece of white paper tacked up inside. This is the movie screen. If that seems a glorified term, it is worth noting that each of these homely grey booths is a separate, provincially-licenced movie theatre. Steven Pelton, of the B.C. Film Classification office, tells me the booths are officially labelled "one-person only" theatres. That makes the Movieland a ten-plex cinema. It beats the new Paramount Vancouver by one screen.

The province may call them theatres, but the City of Vancouver describes the booths in its licence bylaw more frankly as "pornographic film viewers." During an interview, chief licence inspector for Vancouver, Paul Teichroeb, uses the more discreet term "private viewing booths." But the award for best official label goes to our namesake city south of the border. In Vancouver, Washington, the civic government formally describes this type of theatre as a "sexually-oriented adult arcade device."

"I can't believe that they still run scratched and faded 1970s film loops in 2005," says Andrew Lampert, an historian with the Anthology Film Archives in New York City, a film museum founded in 1969 by renowned avante-garde filmmakers Jonas Mekas and Stan Brakhage. "It is really incredible to see that the screens are simply white pieces of paper hung with thumb tacks. I'm really amazed."

Lampert is in Vancouver attending an annual conference of the Association of Moving Image Archivists (AMIA) when I direct him to Movieland for an expert opinion. His subsequent email gushes: "A definite highlight of my trip. Culturally and historically I think it is a dinosaur standing on one leg. I took a few of my colleagues along and we were all overly excited that they still maintain loop projection."

"Looping" refers to the unique method of showing film that peep show devices have used since the 1893 Kinetoscope. Because no projectionist rewinds the film, the movies in peep shows run continuously with the end of the film attached to the beginning. The film is essentially one big loop. The projector needs a special attachment to hold and run the loop-think of an old 8-track tape, which can play over and over, but is coiled up inside the case. Lampert cautions that this is not a simple technical feat.

"Loop projection is a tough thing to pull off, and I've got to assume they have someone regularly taking care of the film." But after several phone calls and visits to Movieland, the only possible maintenance person I can find is a young man named Les, who says he is the manager. Les admits he knows nothing about film. "I'm just here every so often if they need me to do some extra work." He shrugs. Les won't say anything more without permission from Jack Jung, and a list of questions I submit to Jung through Les go unanswered.

I conclude that Jack Jung must still be fixing those tricky Kodak loop mechanisms, and splicing the films when they break. I begin to picture him secretly handling the old celluloid and the vintage projectors, as if Movieland were his own little Cinema Paradiso. Hoping to encounter the mysterious Jung at his arcade, I make several visits near

closing. But only Les ever shows up. I finally try calling Jung at his home in Shaughnessy. A woman with a cheery voice answers. I ask to speak to Mr. Jung. After a long wait a man comes to the phone. His elderly voice is initially friendly, but after I mention my purpose he just says he is "not interested," and hangs up.

"I tried to talk to the owner once, when the door to the film room was open," says my Movieland tour guide Allan Harris. He points to a locked, yellow door behind the booth section. "It looked like he had a couple of hundred little movie reels in there. There was a winding-viewing apparatus on the table. I tried to buy one of the films, but he just refused outright."

Harris says when he patronized Movieland the booths had little doors on them. "One day the doors were just gone." During my quarter-fuelled tour, I enter one booth in a corner showing a very reddish loop with performer hair styles that indicate an early '70s film date. The next booth has, surprisingly, a bisexual scene. Then I find the legendary John Holmes in action, in a silent loop that has been given subtitles, as if they are needed.

"Nice_and_easy" the subtitles helpfully read, as the young Holmes demonstrates his talents. Then, "faster_FASTER!!" These short films, or "loops," were made especially for peep shows back in the day. Harris says they run eight to 10 minutes in length, or $2 if you measure in quarters.

But in the early 1980s, the golden age of film booths came to a sprocket-tearing halt. The industry switched to video and never looked back. As the old projectors broke down they were retired, and the loops had a limited shelf life. Besides the fading and the "magenta" effect of age, they became scratched and broken from continuous play in the loop mechanism. Porn producers stopped making short films altogether by the end of the bad-hair decade. It was the end of an era. But for some reason, Movieland never converted to video, and it did not close down.

Tony Perry recalls approaching Jung sometime in the 1980s about "updating and modernizing his arcade." According to Perry: "Jack said, 'No, no, no! Not interested. Thank you, good bye.' And that was that." So while the porn world turned, Movieland Arcade quietly continued to show its retro film collection in the old wooden booths.

In the fall of 1979, a local R&B band stands on the Granville Street sidewalk to pose for a group photo for their self-produced debut album. Photographer Denise Grant bounces a strobe light off the sidewalk and on to the seven musicians lined up in front of... where else? Movieland Arcade. The album goes on to sell almost a million copies, and includes a little song "Doin' It Right (On the Wrong Side of Town)." The band was the Powder Blues, and, like the Movieland, they are still around and kickin' it old school. Lead guitarist and founder Tom Lavin happily reminisced to me recently about the location for the shot: "Yes, that was my idea, outside the Movieland Arcade. A great sign and a great location; so like the blues... electric yet dingy."

On a recent sunny day in 2005, the doors to Movieland are wide open, letting fresh air into the still-dingy interior. I ask the fellow who changes loonies into quarters for the video games-or the booths-if the movies are popular. He shakes his head with dry amusement, quietly stating "maybe one person a day watches." Allan Harris notes the lack of customers for the film loops is not a recent development. "Even then it was never busy. There was hardly anyone around the booths."

Movie houses are almost gone from Granville Street, which used to be known as "Theatre Row." The Plaza, Caprice, Paradise, Granville Centre, and Capitol 6 theatres have all closed for good. Even the long-established (but video-showing) Kitten adult theatre was finally felled by a wrecker's ball. But Movieland Arcade has kept going through all this. Its longevity is curious, especially considering that Jack Jung also owns the Movieland property and could sell it for a handy profit. For Tony Perry, though, the question is not what will happen to Movieland. "What is intriguing is why is Jack still running those movie booths?" Vancouver's granddaddy of porn just can't figure it out.

The enduring magic of film regularly flickers out from a 35mm projector at beloved film palaces such as Vancouver's historic Ridge and Hollywood theatres. But for one unseen theatre owner, some magic must still trickle out from old 8mm projectors encased in wooden boxes, in an antiquated tradition that he alone keeps alive, and calls Movieland.


Help support this website by making a donation.
Donations of$20 or more recieve a free poster.


All photos copyright © Christian Dahlberg except where stated otherwise. All rights reserved.
Vancouver panorama photo © Vancouver Lookout. www.vancouverlookout.com