By Van Smith
Published in New York Press, Apr. 7, 1999
Richard Basciano, a 73-year-old Times Square real estate investor, is said to be a personable, intelligent, gracious and charitable gentleman, but he can’t seem to shake his sinister reputation. That’s because he’s also a wealthy pornographer whose longtime business partner, Robert DiBernardo, was a Gambino captain who was whacked by Sammy “The Bull” Graviano on John Gotti’s orders in 1986. With friends like that, it’s hard to be seen as Mr. Clean.
But “Mr Clean” is exactly how some people in law enforcement and other regulators describe Basciano, who owns Show World, Times Square’s sex-selling centerpiece. A veteran FBI agent who claims to have thoroughly scrutinized Basciano says the man is definitely not Mob connected, and that the Basciano surname – which has popped up attached to five other men in New York Mafia circles for the last two generations – is a red herring in reference to Richard Basciano, who comes from Baltimore.
The agent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, believes Basciano’s great success in real estate – in which he built up his Times Square holdings and has been collecting condemnation fees from the state as the area’s redevelopment advances – is due to a combination of luck and uncanny instinct, not to any nebulous underworld connections. Rather, Basciano’s rise since the early 1970s was aided by Samuel Rappaport, a controversial Philadelphia land speculator. Rapport, DiBernardo and Basciano held pornography interests together in Philly; Rapport, who was originally from New York, purchased the Show World property in the mid-1970s and then “flipped it within a year to Basciano,” says another government official, who has followed Basciano’s career for the last 20 years. Rappaport named Basciano one of the two executors of his estate when he died in 1994.
As Basciano’s unbroken asent in the heat-drawing New York pornography industry has endured for almost three decades, his partners and competitors have fallen prey to criminal prosecution. A government anti-smut campaign snared Basciano partners DiBernardo and Theodore Rothstein. Another big Times Square peepster, Martin Hodas, and other less prominent sex salesmen – including Show World employee Clemente D’Alessio – also have been nabbed by the law.
Only Basciano has remained upright and unsullied. This situation, in conjunction with the fact that Basciano’s daughter worked for FBI headquarters until her early retirement in 1981, prompts a question: Did Basciano ever cooperate with the government’s push against porn and organized crime?
Basciano’s lawyer, First Amendment attorney Herald Price Fahringer, bristles at the suggestion that his client was a rat. “Richard Basciano has never cooperated with any law-enforcement agency whatsoever,” he states emphatically. He says his client’s record is easily explained: “The reason he’s still standing is that he’s always stayed well on this side of the law.”
Fahringer points out that when Mayor Rudoph Guiliani instituted new zoning laws as a way to shut down city sex shops, Basciano “immediately complied.” While leading the fight against the new regulations in court, Basciano is also making plans to end adult entertainment at Show World and turn it into a virtual-reality arcade. “We want to become completely, totally non-adult,” Fahringer proclaims.
Top-notch fellow, mobster-associating pornographer, scrupulously law-abiding citizen: This guy Basciano is a bundle of contradictions. Because he’s an intensely private individual who hasn’t spoken to the press since 1982 (when he made the still-remembered statement that pornography is “a deterrent to rape”), trying to pry loose some truth about Basciano and learn how such oxymoronic descriptions apply to him are difficult tasks. By sifting through the records and accounts of his life, and by speaking with those who know him – and are also willing to talk – it is still possible to sketch a portrait of Basciano. Whether the picture that emerges is of a scoundrel or a saint, or of something in between, depends on your perspective. But Basciano’s life has been nothing short of epic.
Richard Carmello Basciano was born July 16, 1925, in Baltimore, the son of Nicholas Joseph Basciano and Margaret Ranzino, the sister of a boxer known as “the original Baltimore Dundee.” Richard’s father was a boxer, too. According to a Veterans Boxing Association tribute to Nicholas Basciano, in 1920 he moved from Philadelphia, where he had “mastered bare knuckle fighting on the rough and tumble streets of South Philly,” to join his brother-in-law in a tailor-shop business in Baltimore’s Little Italy. He came to be known in the fight world as Nick “Double KO” Bass for a memorable fight in DC when he knocked out two opponents in a row. He won the Middleweight Championship of the South in 1930.
Later in life, Richard’s father was active in the International Ladies Garment Union and worked as a bouncer for clubs in Baltimore’s red-light district, The Block. In 1976 Nick Bass was named to the Maryland Boxing Hall of Fame, and annual awards are still conferred in his name by Ring 101, Maryland’s boxing association, thanks in part to Richard Basciano’s financial support.
The chairman of the board of Ring 101, Ray Leonard, explains that “Richard has contributed a lot of money, he gives about $1000 every year [to Ring 101] and he set up a fund in his father’s name. There’s a showcase [of boxing memorabilia] that he set up there” at Martin’s West, a large Baltimore catering hall that often hosts boxing, political fundraisers and gala social events. “If anybody’s having some hard times, he just slips you the money, does it out of his pocket. He does it for guys who are down on their luck.”
Leonard says Richard Basciano “was the businessman of the family, a very nice man, very distinguished.” Asked if Richard ever boxed in Baltimore, Leonard says he “more or less fooled around, sparring in the ring. He never fought competitively, I don’t think, but he stayed in very good shape.”
Richard Basciano’s nephew – also named Nicholas Joseph Basciano, after Richard’s father – is a defense contractor in Anne Arundel County, MD. He remembers in his childhood thinking his uncle was “the strongest man I’d ever seen.” Recalling what he knows about his uncle’s life in Baltimore, he says Richard never went to high school; economic hardship pushed Richard and his brother, John, into the workforce as early as possible. They hawked copies of the Baltimore Sun from street corners together, Nicholas remembers, and Richard later worked in the paper’s distribution department until the late 1950s or early 1960s.
After leaving the Sun, Richard Basciano ran a newspaper and magazine distribution company. He also got into commercial real estate and the restaurant business. As his nephew explains, “his first entree into business was he bought some buildings and started a restaurant, Ricardo’s,” in the Baltimore suburbs. “He was flinging pizzas” even as he was the boss and building owner, Nicholas recalls.
During this period, Richard ran afoul of the law for the first and only time in his life. In 1966, when he was 41 years old, Basciano was indicted for mail fraud in U.S. district court in Baltimore for participating in a scheme involving the sale, at half price, of thousands of food coupons to grocery store owners, who would redeem them for their full cash value from the manufacturers even though the coupons hadn’t been used to purchase merchandise. In 1968, Basciano pleaded nolo contendere to the charges and received a $750 fine and three years’ probation, according to court records. He was released from probation early, September 1969, the records show.
“He brings that up often,” Basciano’s nephew says of the coupon-fraud conviction. “Talk about the blood pressure going up – he just hates that! He always wishes he fought that, because he didn’t do anything wrong. He didn’t have any money, couldn’t fight it.” Getting caught in the scheme was due “either to ignorance or an anomaly in his character,” Nicholas Basciano asserts.
After the fraud bust, Basciano ended his entrepreneurial foray in his hometown. According to his nephew, Basciano may have been inspired by the success of Baltimore’s Block, which was booming in the 1960s and early 1970s, in deciding to go to Philadelphia and enter the pornography business. Sometime during this transition, Nicholas says, Richard “ended up giving that whole block [he owned, where his restaurant was located] to charity.”
In Philadelphia, Basciano met Sam Rappaport. “He was building his business in Philly, and he rented some property from Sam,” Nicholas recalls, and they struck up a close relationship. “I think Sam just felt sorry for him,” Richard’s nephew says. Perhaps their common background in the criminal justice system – Rappaport, too, was convicted of mail fraud by the feds, but he actually served some time – contributed to their sense of fraternity.
Also during the early 1970s, Basciano and Rappaport joined forces with Robert DiBernardo in pornography enterprises in Philadelphia and New York. How and where they met and why they chose to join together in business are questions that no one contacted for this article had answers to. Since Rappaport and DiBernardo are dead, and Basciano isn’t talking, this key piece of information about Richard Basciano remains a secret.
From what is known about DiBernardo, who was often called “Debe,” he wasn’t exactly a savory character. He reportedly came from the Sam DeCavalcante family in New Jersey and handled the Gambino’s substantial pornography interests. A partner with Theodore Rothstein and Nathan Grama (both Basciano business partners as well) in the porn distributors Astro News and Star Distributors, DiBernardo also had ties to mobster-pornographer Michael Zaffarano, who had a heart attack and died in 1980 when he heard he was being indicted on obscenity charges in the same early 1980s antiporn campaign – MIPORN – that tripped up both DiBernardo and Rothstein. Zaffarano was the landlord for Basciano’s first New York peepshow outlet, 1605 Book Center at 1605 Broadway, which was licensed for peeps in 1972, according to a New York Times account.
Al Goldstein has used Astro and Star for the entire 31-year history of his magazine Screw. “The people who distribute Screw,” Goldstein explains, “are like Damon Runyon characters … Do I know they are Mafia? No. I read The New York Times and I was talked to by the FBI, but how would I know? Was there ever a threat from these people to carry me? No. But is it coincidental that no one else has ever come to me in 30 years to distribute Screw? There must be arrangements. You have a cut. Things are carved out.”
Still, Goldstein has a warm spot in his heart for DeBe. “I loved DeBe, because he was classy,” he says. “DeBe dressed well. He had a style about him. And then when he was going to John Gotti’s club all the time, it was even more exciting.”
But it wasn’t just DiBernardo’s wardrobe and personality that makes Goldstein speak well of the dead mobster. “The one time in my life there was a contract on me, DeBe rescinded it,” Goldstein recalls. “It had to do with a girl I was dating who was the ex-wife of a hitman. And I didn’t realize – I met her through a dating service. Basically, the guy was a typical Italian; he lived with a blonde bimbo in a high-rent building, but he didn’t want anyone to date his ex-wife. And I called DeBe when I heard about it and I said, ‘DeBe, there are reasons to kill me, but this isn’t one of them.’ And DeBe had to sit down with Gotti and it was rescinded.”
Goldstein’s edgy stories about DeBe stand in stark contrast to his recollections of DeBe’s longtime business partner, Richard Basciano. “All I could tell you about him is when I ran for sheriff [of Broward County, Fla., which Goldstein has done twice, unsuccessfully], he was very generous. He gave me a very nice contribution, $1000.” Other than that, Goldstein says he once put the hard sell on Basciano to take ads out in Screw for Show World. “I yelled at him – well, you don’t yell at these guys too loudly. I said, how come you don’t advertise in Screw … I was very frustrated. Nobody at Times Square spends a penny with me. Why do they hate me? Because I have a big mouth. I’m nasty and no one owns me.”
In answer to the question of whether Basciano is associated with the mob, Goldstein demurs. “What can I tell you? Is he Mafia? Well, of course, I’ve read that he is, but when I’ve met him, he didn’t have a sign saying, ‘Hi, I’m Mafia.'”
Richard’s nephew Nicholas was shocked when told of his uncle’s ties to DiBernardo. “I never knew that!” he exclaims, and explains that Richard “doesn’t need” to be tied in with organized crime since “he knows, because of the nature of his business, he’s being looked at with a microscope” by law enforcement. Nicholas Basciano admits, though, to having a certain jocular wariness of Richard’s potential for menace; he says jokingly that he hopes he doesn’t end up in the East River for talking to a reporter and that “I know if he wanted to he could probably have some legs broken, but I don’t think he does that.”
There’s a difference of opinion among law enforcement people regarding the question of Basciano’s possible Mafia ties. While a veteran FBI agent who took a long close look at Basciano earlier in his career says there is nothing to suggest that Basciano is a mobster, another FBI agent familiar with Basciano concludes “he’s obviously in with the family, I’d say.” And another government official who’s scrutinized Basciano over the years says, “It’s the first time I’ve heard it that he’s not mobbed up. You don’t do business like that if you’re not mobbed up.” Regarding Basciano’s specific Mafia origins, this official reports that “everybody always says he’s from the Bruno family in Philly, but that’s just speculation.”
No one in law enforcement contacted for this article had any information linking Richard Basciano to the several Mafia-related New Yorkers also named Basciano. Gennaro Basciano and Jerry Basciano were casualties of the Gallo-Colombo mob wars of the 1970s. Gennaro’s son, Dino Basciano, an extremely large, red-haired, tattooed gangster, was accused in the 1990s of a murder conspiracy, of providing guns to infighting Colombo gang members and of cocaine trafficking; he turned informant. Vincent Basciano was implicated, then acquitted of involvement in the Blue Thunder heroin ring in the early 1990s, and is a reputed Mafia associate who turned up recently in John Gotti Jr.’s Mafia roster. Ferdinand Basciano in 1980 was arrested for auto-insurance fraud with the son of convicted mobster John Masiello.
Richard Basciano, though, has no known connection to any of these New York underworld figures.
Herald Fahringer, Basciano’s attorney, says categorically that “the allegations of organized crime, that’s never been true of Richard Basciano. He has never in any way been connected with organized crime.” Fahringer does not see Basciano’s long association with DiBernardo as a mob connection.
Fahringer has been a staunch ally of Basciano for years. And his advocacy is more than your typical lawyer-client relationship. In 1978 Fahringer gave Basciano a sentimental holiday gift. He explained the gift in a letter.
“Dear Richie: I wanted to give you something very special for Christmas that would have meaning and would convey my very deep affection for you. I chose this medal of St. Joan of Arc … St. Joan has been an emblem of courage and faith. I cannot think of any other characteristic that fits you better. You deserve to wear this medal more than anyone else I know, and I hope it brings you good fortune.”
Whether due to this good-luck charm or not, Basciano has indeed enjoyed good fortune. After he left Baltimore to set up porn operations in Philadelphia and New York, and joined forces with Rappaport and DiBernardo – which didn’t happen until he was well into his 40s, had a federal conviction under his belt and had failed in more mainstream business enterprises – the gods of free enterprise finally shined on him.
Starting with his initial foothold in the New York porn industry – the peep show licensed in his name in 1972 at 1605 Broadway, where the Crowne Plaza Hotel now sits – Basciano by the late 1970s was seen as the main competitor of Martin Hodas, “King of the Peeps.” Public records show he was owner or part-owner of at least eight Times Square buildings hosting porn businesses. Basciano’s Show World emporium – the largest of these – quickly became famous for its live sex shows and performances by giants of the adult biz.
During this heyday of Show World, Basciano’s nephew recalls, he brought a famous name up from Baltimore. “He knew the owner of the 2 O’Clock Club,” the famous Blaze Starr, the queen of Baltimore’s Block. “He had her come up to New York just as a special event, I think she was a little worse for wear by then.” (A phone message left for Starr at her home in Maryland was not returned by press time.)
Basciano quickly started cashing in on his real estate holdings. In the 1970s, according to a government official, Basciano had a stake in three porn businesses across from the Citicorp headquarters building on E. 53rd St. The porn shops so annoyed the Citicorp CEO that the bank eventually acquired the properties for a reported $4 million, providing a tidy profit for Basciano.
A pattern suggestive of Basciano’s real estate strategy was thereby started: Buy up properties with porn businesses, run them well and profitably until prevailing, buttoned-down interests in midtown Manhattan seek to improve the neighborhood, then sell high – or wait for state condemnation and initiate protracted, court-adjudicated negotiations to obtain the highest price possible as compensation. In this way, Basciano since the mid-1980s has netted millions.
The strategy is pure Rappaport, who did a similar thing on a much larger scale in Philadelphia – and to much more public outrage, since Rappaport was infamous for letting his Center City properties slide into disrepair. “Basciano probably learned it at Rappaport’s knee, or at his side,” says a government official.
Today, according to Fahringer, “all Richard has left is Show World; he’s sold off or leased out” all the other properties in his empire. Still, he awaits condemnation payments from the state for three properties that have been incorporated in the massive retail-and-entertainment overhaul of 42nd St. between 7th and 8th Aves.
According to Maura Gallucci, a spokeswoman for the quasi-public Empire State Development Corp., negotiated payments for three former Basciano properties, now slated for development by Forest City Ratner and Tishman Construction, are pending from the state. The combined assessment for the properties, which were condemned in 1994 and 1995, is $5.2 million. This is on top of the $8.4 million in condemnation fees he received in 1996 for 210 W. 42nd St., the former site of Video World Center. And the future looks bright. Says one government official, “He stands to make a lot of money from Show World, eventually.”
While Richard Basciano has accumulated much wealth from his real estate dealings, he’s reportedly maintained for much of his life a certain salt-of-the-Earth humility, the result of a low-key nature. Not one for a lot of flash, Basciano has kept his ranch home in suburban Baltimore, a property currently assessed at $158,000. He also has a small condominium in Ft. Lauderdale. His only bow to conspicuous luxury seems to have been a home he built on property he acquired in a suburban neighborhood outside Baltimore in 1993. Now assessed at nearly $1 million, it sits on an acre and a quarter and features tennis courts. “This thing is way out of line for the neighborhood it’s in,” Basciano’s nephew says of the property. “But he wanted to be close to his daughters,” who already lived in the solidly middle-class community.
Many of those interviewed for this article said Basciano seems almost completely uninterested in his porn operations. His were commercial enterprises selling a simple, profitable commodity, they say, and Basciano had no particular affection for the product.
Alex Michelini, a former Daily News reporter now based in Arizona and the last newsman to talk to Basciano, for a 1982 article about a church protest against Show Worlds, says, “His love was boxing. His main claim was that he was trying to develop young boxers, keeping his practice ring in Show World open for disadvantaged teens. He sounded to me like he had absolutely no interest in the other thing. One thing’s for sure, he knew how to stay straight and narrow, at least for the record.”
“He is not a connoisseur of pornography,” says Nicholas Basciano. “It is something his interest in is zero. And he’s very much against any of that stuff getting to minors and the major media.”
Nicholas says his uncle’s poor reputation deriving from his status as a pornographer is completely unfair. “Because of the nature of his business, he’s gotten bad press.” Referring to a public outcry that resulted from a Wall Street Journal report that Show World was the beneficiary of a Small Business Administration loan in the late 1970s, Nicholas says, “He made improvements to his business, and the press jumped all over him. In my opinion, that’s bullshit. He’s never done an illegal thing in his life. His is a closely monitored business. Apparently, pornography is okay on tv, but if you have it closed off and closely monitored, as in Richard’s places, it’s bad.”
Nicholas has deep admiration for his uncle. “What he is is a natural born leader. He’s very intelligent and has a business sense about him – he works 18 hours a day. He’s charitable, anonymously so, and he’s not ostentatious, not a showboat. Even though he has no formal education, he’s got an incredible amount of common sense and he’s a very fair individual.
“I’ve never really heard anybody say anything bad about him,” Nicholas says. “He knows a lot of powerful people in New York, people who respect him, but they would be ashamed to admit it because of his association with pornography.
“I’m not putting the man on a pedestal,” Nicholas Basciano concludes. “I just think he’s getting a bum rap.”
But while he considers his uncle’s poor reputation unfair, Nicholas seems to understand that that’s life for a pornographer. And perhaps it’s a small price to pay for the riches the sex biz has brought to Richard Basciano.