The Dark End of the Street
Cordova Street is a small, seedy avenue located somewhere south of oblivion. Jutting obscurely off Vermont near Washington, it’s just another scary street in L.A., a block where something bad could happen at any moment.
Korean churches, clapboard apartment buildings, and fully operational sweatshops are its main attractions. I walk the street deep into the p.m., when everything is whispers and darkness, and packs of work slaves hover on stoops. They speak in foreign tongues, taking a rare break from the relentless tedium inside the shmata factory.
I’m joined by a man – let’s call him Liquid Lips -- who followed a Hollywood dream that took him halfway across the country. He ended up a few miles short, on Cordova. We leave our valuables in the car before we troll for stray memories.
The block is full of sweaty, naked ghosts, each of whom left a small stain on cinematic history… one moan and thrust at a time. Thirty years ago, this was the headquarters of Freeway Films, a throbbing epicenter of L.A.’s nascent cinema of skeeze. The company was something of a grindhouse butchershop (grindhouse was essentially miniscule budgeted films packed with gore, sex and bad acting. Sample title: Blood Orgy of the She Devils). These films were cheesy, cheap, and screened in sixth-rate theaters in bumfuck U.S.A.
However, Freeways’s biggest contribution to the advancement of western civilization may have been in popularizing the single most identifiable character in the history of pornography: Johnny Wadd. Wadd was a private dick played by John C. Holmes, a homely man with no discernabale acting skills, Didn’t matter, though: He had a circus freak penis and could ejaculate on cue. Holmes portrayed Wadd in several films for Freeway in the ‘70s, most notably The Jade Pussycat and the "classic" Tell Them Johnny Wadd is Here.
But… why? “If you have very small ambitions in the world, Holmes is about all you can handle,” Lips explains. “Ugly dude gets famous for big dick, goes down in flames after never having even tried to break into the mainstream. Gee, we all know about a million people who fit that bill.”
Holmes was a cokehead, possibly a murderer, who died from AIDS in 1988. Yet for better or worse, he is the Jesus of the jizz bizz. He died for the sins of a business that today counts its alleged billions while shrouded in comfortable, unassuming office parks in Chatsworth, many miles north of Cordova Street.
Yet unlike the assembly-line mindset that controls the business these days, the ‘70s were truly a golden age. The release of Deep Throat in 1972 ushered in the era of “porn chic.” Straitlaced folks like future L.A. Times film potentate Kenneth Turan raced to figure it all out (in the 1974 book Sinema).
I found some of the answers on my late-night field trip. As Lips and I race down the street on a chilly October night, he points to the rooftops where many Johnny Wadd gun battles played out. If you aren’t familiar with the Wadd ouvre, check out the hilarious roooftop e-creations in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Boogie Nights.
Mr. Lips knocked on Freeway Films’ door in 1976, looking for his big break in movieland. To him, pornography was hardly chic – “Porno chic was not for the slave laborers who worked in porn,” he says. ”It was for some magazine writer in New York back in 1973 who wanted to get laid.” By default, he became an outlaw, but a job was a job.
Today, porn films are merely widgets -- one-day wonders are shot on DV for less than $10,000, Yet ‘70s productions made an honest stab at erotic art, with budgets upward of 100 grand. And Boogie Nights wasn’t far from the truth, according to Lips. “The film nailed it from 1976 to 1982,” he says. “For someone who was on the outside of the biz and had some perspective, PT Anderson hit it out of the park. The only people who hated the movie were the lifers at AVN [an adult-film trade magazine] or some other joint that actually took all that shit seriously.”
Most sex scenes then were filmed either in San Francisco or New York, where the breath of the law didn’t feel so hot. Yet for the Cordova crowd, there could be occasional perks. One time, Lips recalls, a film was missing crucial blow job audio for a particular scene. Starlet Leslee Bovee was called in for some dubbing; she opted for method acting – and the recipient was a lucky editor.
“She needed a real instrument so the editor supplied the organ,” Lips recalls. “That was his big contribution to the history of the movies.”
The sound was crisp and clean and apparently the blow job was fairly amazing as well. Bovee was, after all, a professional. In fact, her moan and groan was so on the money that it was recycled in countless porn flicks in 1978.
But, as Boogie Nights would tragically illustrate, the happy endings wouldn’t last forever. Just as Jack Horner struggled to transition from plotted porn on film to cheapo videos, the business moved over the hill in the ‘80s, and commerce stomped all over art.
Freeway Films got lost in the translation. Yet even as Cordova’s rich history survives as a mere zit on the ass of blue movie history – Johnny Wadd lives on. Series creator Bob Chinn has updated the franchise, remaking and remodeling the private dick for a generation of consumers who never watched a porn in a theater.
From his pit deep in the bowels of hell, John C. Holmes must be burning a little extra hot.