Around the Block: The Colorful Past, Controversial Present, and Uncertain Future of Baltimore’s Red-Light District

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Feb. 2, 2000

Our values have changed,” Joanne Attman proclaims.

Attman and her husband, Ely Attman, own the building at 425 E. Baltimore St., and are thus the landlords of Club Harem, a strip club in Baltimore’s red-light district, the Block. “There’s nothing wrong with sex,” she says in a telephone interview. “There just isn’t. It’s an adult thing, and as long as it stays an adult thing, that’s all that’s important.

“You know,” she continues, “we’ve come a long way, and people do not view sex as a bad thing if they can do all that’s on the Internet, do what they do on TV, and on the phone. So, as far as the Block, the Block is benign.”

The Attmans, like most of the owners of Block property and businesses, do not live in Baltimore City. Their abode, most recently assessed at more than $225,000, is in a new development in Pikesville. Being a nice, suburban couple, the Attmans probably don’t often come down to the Block and look around; as Joanne Attman says, “We don’t really pay any attention to it.” Like most landlords, they just get a check from their tenants and make the necessary improvements to their property. End of story.

But if the Attmans were paying more attention to what’s happening on the Block, they’d know that its problems have little to do with the morality of sex among adults. The area is besieged by negative publicity over drug dealing, prostitution, employment of underage dancers, and the threatening atmosphere some civic and business leaders contend the Block creates in the middle of the downtown business district.

If they were paying attention, the Attmans would know that last May four pipe bombs were found and defused in the Diamond Lounge, a few doors down from their Block property. They’d know that a club next door to their building, the Circus Bar, was ordered to sell its liquor license last October after a former doorman, convicted of dealing drugs from the club, told the Baltimore City Board of License Commissioners (aka the liquor board) that he thought it was “part of my duties” to sell cocaine from the bar. They’d know that in July 1998, the 408 Club was cited by the liquor board for employing two 16-year-old Baltimore County high-school students as dancers and using three rooms above the bar for prostitution. And they’d know that these incidents are just the tip of the iceberg. (For a fuller accounting of Block property owners and the records of businesses there, see “What’s Around the Block”.)

But Joanne Attman doesn’t want to hear about it. “That’s ludicrous,” she says of the idea that a Block employee considered drug dealing part of his job. “You can go anywhere and buy drugs anywhere in the city. You can buy them at school. They’re being sold everywhere. So to focus in on the Block is absolutely ludicrous.” She is adamant that the action on the Block is essentially harmless: “You know, most of the people down there are there to make a living and that’s what they’re doing–a clean living.” With that, the interview ends abruptly.
The way people make their living on the Block isn’t causing ripples just in City Hall and law-enforcement circles; it is fast becoming a divisive issue within the red-light district’s business community itself. Today, two separate entities–Baltimore Entertainment Center Inc. (BEC) and Downtown Entertainment Inc.–claim to represent the interests of Block businesses. Both groups, at least on the face of it, share the same goal: to clean up the Block’s act so that its businesses can work with city leaders to promote the district as a destination for tourists and conventioneers. But their respective members don’t see eye to eye on how to achieve that aim, according to Block sources.

Today, Baltimore Entertainment Center is effectively defunct, although it is still recognized by many on the Block as an ongoing concern. BEC was formed in February 1997 and until a few months ago was represented by Baltimore attorney Claude Edward Hitchcock, a confidant of former Mayor Kurt Schmoke. At the time the group was launched, Hitchcock said it represented a “new breed of owner and operator on the Block” that is “trying to become better citizens and better neighbors.” Hitchcock resigned as BEC’s attorney in September; the following month, the group forfeited its right to operate in Maryland due to its failure to file property-tax returns–a rectifiable situation, should the taxes be brought up to date. (Attempts to speak with Frank Boston III, reportedly BEC’s new attorney, were unsuccessful.)

Days after Hitchcock left BEC, Downtown Entertainment was formed, with Hitchcock as its lawyer and Jacob “Jack” Gresser–the owner of the Gayety Building, a Block landmark, and another former BEC guiding force–as president. Gresser says Downtown Entertainment wants “to go in the direction of a partnership with the city, in respect of getting involved in the conventions that are coming to town, where the city will advertise these particular businesses in their convention brochures and throw the business our way, if possible.” Ultimately, Gresser says, he wants the Block to become like Bourbon Street, New Orleans’ famous playground of vice. So far, eight to 10 of the Block’s two dozen adult-entertainment establishments have joined the new group, he says.

Gresser says the splintering of BEC occurred over the course of last year, culminating about six months ago–“That’s when we decided to go our different ways.” While he’s loath to speak for those who haven’t joined Downtown Entertainment, he says there are “two distinct, different views of how people want to run their business down on the Block. Everybody runs their business differently. Everyone has a responsibility to run their business properly. I would just like to see everyone get together and go in one direction. We really don’t need this diversification.”

That “diversification” has created to some bad blood. “This has not been a walk in the park,” Hitchcock says. “I mean, I’ve gotten calls here in the office on my voice mail, you know, the use of the ‘N’ word, and ‘Who the fuck do you think you are?’ and all. One guy who was a part of [Downtown Entertainment] got his windows bashed in–both in his business and his car–and his family got threatening phone calls over the telephone at home. I’ve gotten it all. I mean, this has not been easy.”

Neither Gresser nor Hitchcock will go into detail about the causes of the split. Other sources familiar with the situation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, are less cagey–they claim the split is between clubs that host prostitution and clubs that don’t.

“Apparently the difference is private rooms, no private rooms,” says one source. “If there are no private rooms, then you obviously can’t have prostitution on the site.” The clubs without private rooms are the ones moving into Downtown Entertainment, he says.

Sources say the new group also wants police officers currently on the Block beat rotated out. “The policemen around there have been around there for years and have a bunch of friendships,” one source says. “If you are there too long, familiarity can breed bad things.”

Hitchcock says Downtown Entertainment has “scheduled an appointment to talk with the new police commissioner [Ronald Daniel] to basically introduce this new organization to him, to give him a feel for what we intend to do, how we intend to run the businesses, [and] to affirm or reaffirm with him our willingness to be cooperative with the Baltimore City Police Department. In fact, we encourage the police department to be active–fair, but active–on the Block.”

Police spokesperson Robert Weinhold says Daniel “has had conversations with representatives from the Block” and recognizes that they want to make the red-light district as crime-free as possible. “We would expect the efforts of the Block representatives to continue, and that all of the establishments and the citizens who work there will be law-abiding in their business efforts.”

Eventually, Hitchcock says, Downtown Entertainment will seek a meeting with Mayor Martin O’Malley, but it has yet to broach the subject with him. For the time being, the new mayor’s approach to managing the situation on the Block remains a mystery. Despite assurances that he would grant an interview for this article, repeated attempts to set up such a meeting were unsuccessful. O’Malley’s press secretary, Tony White, eventually explained that the mayor has yet to formulate his opinions about the Block district and therefore would rather not discuss it at this time.

“Being the entertainment mogul that he is, he’s thinking about” the Block, White says, but this thinking “hasn’t come to fruition yet.”

It would be a stretch to suggest that contributions to O’Malley’s mayoral campaign last year will have a direct impact on his eventual stance. But several Block interests did pledge support for his candidacy, in all likelihood out of a desire to foster access to and good relations with their potent neighbor in City Hall.

Between July and October of 1999, Block interests donated $6,400 to O’Malley’s cause, according to campaign-finance reports. One of Gresser’s businesses, Custom House News, gave $1,000, as did PP&G, which co-owns the strip club Norma Jean’s and is headed by Pete Koroneos, secretary and treasurer of Downtown Entertainment. The law firm O’Malley worked for before he became mayor gave $2,000 to his campaign, and one of its partners, Joseph Omansky, has long represented Block interests. The remaining $2,400 came from other Block lawyers, owners, liquor licensees, and an accountant.
The Block’s generosity toward politicians is a long-established tradition–probably as old as the Block itself. The district sprang up almost immediately after the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, with the Gayety Theater (opened in 1906 at its present site at 403 E. Baltimore St.) becoming its first landmark. Initially, penny arcades and vaudeville venues dominated, but after the repeal of Prohibition the area took off as a dense concentration of bars and burlesque houses.

During the World War II years and into the 1950s, the Block’s reputation spread nationally as striptease acts became the main attraction at many of the nightclubs and, as two out-of-town reporters wrote in 1951, “any and all forms of vice are tolerated and protected. There is a price for everything, and it’s not much.”

With all of the fun and money being generated on the Block, heat from law enforcement was turned up. Various congressional inquiries and grand-jury investigations fingered the Block as an organized-crime stronghold in the 1950s and ’60s, a place where the rackets, gambling and prostitution in particular, thrived and fueled corruption and violence. Even during its heyday–so romanticized by a legion of old-time Baltimoreans and local scribes–the Block was a dangerous place that spawned crime sprees and fear and trepidation among hand-wringing city residents.

If the 1960s were bad on the Block from a criminal-justice standpoint, the ’70s were much worse. Julius “The Lord” Salsbury, the acknowledged king of Block rackets, was finally convicted on federal charges in 1969, only to flee the country the following year. (Never brought to justice, he remains a legendary fugitive.) But with the end of Salsbury’s reign–and perhaps because of the destabilizing effect of his absence–came an era of unprecedented violence in the district. When crime fighters did try to put the screws to the Block, they often ended up embarrassing themselves: A 1971 raid by federal agents produced little in the way of convictions and made law-enforcement appear groundlessly zealous in pursuit of justice for Block racketeers.

With downtown’s renewal into a modern entertainment district, however, the Block gained a sense of legitimacy, due largely to rose-colored memories of its former glory and its faded Damon Runyonesque character. Then-Mayor William Donald Schaefer spared the Block from his wide-swinging wrecking ball as he rebuilt downtown, and in 1977 it received a special designation as an entertainment district. But the Block’s salad days were long gone; drugs and sleaziness continued to define its identity into the 1980s and ’90s.

As Schaefer moved from City Hall to the State House, his tolerance for the Block wore down. Late in his second term as governor, he ordered a four-month investigation of crime on the Block that culminated in a January 1994 Maryland State Police raid in which some 500 state troopers descended on the district and shut it down. Initially, the governor and his troopers made great claims–one drug kingpin and three distributors had been nabbed, an arsenal of guns had been confiscated, the back of criminal interests on the Block had been irreparably broken. But attempts to prosecute those arrested fell apart amid allegations of improprieties and faulty techniques among the investigators. Once again, law enforcement was left red-faced by its flawed attack on the tenderloin.

Schaefer’s raid occurred as his mayoral successor, Kurt Schmoke, was in the midst of his own attempt to put the Block out of his misery, by buying it out and relocating businesses. This economic attack failed, however–community leaders around the city feared porn shops and strip clubs would spring up in their backyards. Ultimately, after a flood of contributions to Schmoke’s campaign committee from Block interests in late 1996, a détente was reached. Fronted by the Schmoke-friendly Hitchcock–who had previously represented other downtown business interests that hoped to end the Block once and for all–Block operators received a respite as City Hall promised to await improvements promised by the newly formed Baltimore Entertainment Center.

The city held up its commitment, providing physical improvements such as new brick sidewalks in 1997, but so far the businesses haven’t held up their end of the bargain by substantially cleaning up their acts. If and how O’Malley reacts remains to be seen.

The mayor may still be forming his ideas on the future of the Block, but a new regulatory era is already underway. In November, the city liquor board started enforcing new rules that hold the threat of revocation of adult-entertainment licenses should club employees commit too many violations.

Hitchcock says Downtown Entertainment welcomes the restrictions. “We frankly saw it as tightening of the regulations in a fashion that we all agreed needed to happen,” he says. “We’ve had some very damaging rulings by the liquor board against some of those clubs down there. People are getting the message–you know, you do this stuff and you will lose your livelihood, period, end of story. You may be able to appeal it until it gets to some point of finality, but the liquor board’s not playing about this because they have taken on a responsibility and their credibility is on the line.”

Perhaps even more significant than the new regulations, from a business standpoint, is a January 1999 court ruling that full nudity is legal at adult-entertainment establishments that opened before 1993. The ruling arose when the Spectrum Gentlemen’s Club in East Baltimore appealed a nude-dancing violation and found a loophole in the law, which had been interpreted to require that dancers be partially clothed while performing. The decision was handed down by Circuit Court Judge Richard Rombro, in his last judicial act before retiring from the bench. (Unnoticed at the time was the fact that the judge’s nephew, Stuart Rombro, is an attorney who represents Gresser’s Custom House News.) Regardless, it’s been good for business on the Block.

Hitchcock downplays the ruling’s practical significance. “There’s no real difference,” he says. “I mean, yeah, rather than you put a little star on the nipple, you can take the star off now.” But he acknowledges that Baltimore strip clubs have become a “more marketable and a bigger revenue-generating business because you can basically say it’s nude dancing.”

And a more marketable Block is a boon for Baltimore, says City Council member Nicholas D’Adamo, a Democrat whose 1st District includes the Block and many other adult-entertainment venues.

“Let’s be honest,” asserts D’Adamo, who acknowledges that he patronizes Block establishments now and again. “Is it a plus for the city of Baltimore? I think it is. I think for out-of-towners to come to the city, it could be a stop on their agenda if they’re staying downtown.” He further maintains that Block businesses employ some 1,000 workers and should be recognized as job-providers.

Of the allegations of vice associated with Block clubs, the council member says, “I think the press has blown it out of proportion. Sure, there are problems down there. But I think there are problems in every bar. It’s just a matter of what you consider a problem. So why pick on the Block?

“You show me a person a week’s being killed on the Block, or a person a week’s being stabbed and almost died–you show me numbers like that, we got a problem,” D’Adamo continues. “But goddammit, there’s a lot of streets in this city that have these problems that are a lot worse than the Block. We need to address that first.” And, for the time being, it appears that’s exactly what the city’s going to do.

The Last Dirty Picture Show: The Heyday of the Apex Theatre Has Come and Gone. Can It Rise Again?

By Van Smith

Published in City Paper, Jan. 27, 2010

Tuesdays are Retro Night at Baltimore’s 580-seat Apex Theatre, meaning old VHS porn tapes are projected on the big screen instead of the usual DVDs. On a recent Tuesday, the onscreen action featured a mustachioed guy with a champion mullet going down on a big-breasted blonde. It’s a long, quiet scene, with no musical accompaniment, so in the cavernous silence it’s hard to miss the sounds in the seats: a zipper zips down front, and in the back, someone’s moving rhythmically. The two other patrons of tonight’s show would seem to be enjoying their solitary, if somewhat public, recreation.

A sign in the foyer baldly declares no sex acts performed in this building, but someone has scratched out the no. After all, pulling the juice in the dark is pretty much what X-rated movie theaters are all about.

Behind the Plexiglas at the Apex’s entrance, DVDs, snacks, and sodas are for sale. The cashier estimates that, on average, five customers an hour pay $10 to pass through the theater’s turnstile. Asked when to visit should one be looking for a crowd, he thinks for a second, takes a sip from his paper cup, and says: “About 1965.”

It’s a funny answer. But for the Apex’s owners, it points to an obvious problem: In today’s smut economy, they may as well be wearing powdered wigs and writing with quills. Porn consumers for decades now have been easily getting off in the privacy of their own homes, thanks to the boom of home-video technology in the 1980s and, more recently, the ubiquity of cheap, or even free, porn on the internet.

Today, according to cinematreasures.org, an ever-growing online catalog of more than 27,400 movie theaters around the globe, the international inventory of adult cinemas is down to 105, with 31 in the United States. They still hang on in big cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, and in less bustling locales, such as Bay City, Mich., Youngstown and Toledo, Ohio, Clarksville, Ind., and East St. Louis, Ill. But they are steadily on the wane. Since the Earle Theatre on Belair Road closed in 2006, the Apex–located on Broadway in Upper Fells Point–is Baltimore’s only remaining adult theater.

Apex owner Isa Mufareh (whose business partner is his son, Maurice) acknowledges that the business model is anachronistic, but says the theater still makes money. “With home entertainment, it’s available everywhere,” he says of adult films. “But keep in mind,” he continues, “there are always some lonely people in this world. Our patrons, many are older people who don’t have that [technology] at home, and they don’t want to be at home alone. They want to mingle with other people who are in the situation they are in. There will always be people like that–we need more of them.” As for profits, Isa Mufareh says the business is “sustaining. We’re not getting rich out of it, just breaking even.”

The routine at the Apex is quite simple. The theater, other than the VCR tapes shown on Tuesdays, screens DVDs. “We buy them by the hundreds,” Mufareh explains. “We just take them out of the box and, well, just show them one after the other. On Thursdays, it’s the gay movies. We get about 100 people coming in on Fridays and Saturdays, half of that in the middle of the week.” As for costs, he says, “normally, there are one or two people working,” manning the cash register, operating the projector, and ensuring that patrons are behaving. Other than that, there are rent, insurance, and utility bills to pay.

Inside, the Apex retains its allure as a historic, single-screen theater. Four fleur-de-lis shaped sconces on the walls shed red light upward, and though a bit rag-tag in places–the ceiling is showing its age, and the bathroom has some plumbing issues–its homely grandeur is generally well-preserved. Upstairs, the projection room serves now as storage (the DVD projector used today is housed behind the last row of seats), but still boasts two vintage Motiograph projectors and some 35mm prints of old porn films, such as Deep Throat, The Devil in Miss Jones III, Education of the Baroness, and Freedom to Love. The marquee, according to erstwhile Senator Theatre proprietor Tom Kiefaber, is “the second best marquee in Baltimore [after the Senator’s] in terms of its look, its maintenance, proper spacing, and matched letters.”

Isa and Maurice Mufareh, along with a third partner–Khalid Darraj, Isa’s nephew, whose one-third share in the business, Isa explains, was purchased by Maurice two years ago–have been running the Apex since 2003. Back when it was first converted from a bowling alley in 1942, it screened major Hollywood releases, but it has been an adult theater exclusively since the mid-1960s. With a market that consists largely of older, technologically unconnected people, the Apex is up against the law of attrition: Such patrons die off, and it’s not clear who, if anyone, will replace them. So the question becomes, how much longer can the Apex survive screening porn?

 

It’s a question that Khalid, Maurice, and Isa, incorporated as KMI Entertainment, tried to resolve several years ago by attempting to turn the Apex into a strip club. After the city liquor board consented to the change, in 2004 the Mufarehs and Darraj applied for a building permit for $250,000 in planned renovations, but zoning officials balked. In court documents, their lawyer, Fred Lauer, argued that “the Apex is used as an adult entertainment business and would continue such use, the only difference being that the adult entertainment would now be live.” The zoning board didn’t buy it, so in 2005 KMI Entertainment appealed to Baltimore City Circuit Court, where judge Evelyn Cannon didn’t buy it either. Live adult entertainment “is not similar in nature” to adult movies, she wrote in her 2006 opinion.

“The neighborhood made a fuss about it and filled up the courtroom,” Isa Mufareh recalls. “We said the law would let us do it, but [zoning officials and the judge] interpreted it differently–they wanted to interpret differently–so we didn’t get it. You can’t fight City Hall–if they don’t want it, then they don’t want it, and that’s that.”

Neither did the Apex’s neighbors. In letters to the zoning board, and in testimony before the board at the June 2005 hearing on the matter, several officials of neighborhood groups stridently opposed KMI Entertainment’s plans, essentially saying they preferred an existing X-rated movie theater to the possibility of a strip club instead–all the while attacking the theater, nonetheless.

“The Apex Pornographic Theater,” offered one letter-writer, “is a stark reminder of the troubled past of the surrounding area. It is time that this business stops being a hindrance, a moral drain and impediment to continued improvements” in the neighborhood. “I would like to see it resurrected as another general movie theater, not an adult theater,” wrote another.

In testimony at the hearing, neighborhood leaders observed that the Apex appeared to be struggling. “I don’t see people coming in, I don’t see people coming out,” said Edward Marcinko, president of the Upper Fells Point Improvement Association, concluding that “they’re not making any money. That’s why they want to bring in a nude adult entertainment complex.” Isa Mufareh, answering boardmembers’ questions, confirmed his dilemma: “No one wants to run a business that is not successful,” he explained, adding that “whatever we do within the law, we hope that we’ll make a profit out of it.”

“Those movie theaters are dying,” Isa Mufareh says today of X-rated cinemas, “but live entertainment is not dying.” Recalling KMI Entertainment’s efforts to bring Apex’s neighbors on board with their strip-club plans, he says: “We tried. We met with them, but everything was against us.”

 

It seems everything was, in fact, against them. The meeting Khalid, Maurice, and Isa had with community leaders, in a failed effort to appease them, occurred on Jan. 14, 2005. But first thing in the morning the day before, KMI Entertainment’s owners awoke to other, more serious troubles: Internal Revenue Service agents with warrants knocking on the doors to their homes, looking to turn up evidence of suspected tax evasion in connection with KMI Enterprises, a company owned by the three men that operated the strip club Christina’s Female Revue on North Point Boulevard in Baltimore County. The resulting searches turned up evidence that KMI Enterprises’ owners also were underreporting their income from KMI Entertainment, doing business as the Apex Theatre.

“I can’t talk about it,” Isa Mufareh says today of the criminal case that resulted–though he contends that “that subject has nothing to do with the Apex Theater.” It is relevant, though. Mufareh and his partners were convicted of underreporting the theater’s income, indicating that the Apex–despite its appearance of barely scraping by–makes enough money screening porn to merit hiding some of its revenues, however ill-advised the tactic turned out to be.

All three owners of KMI Entertainment and KMI Enterprises were charged with tax evasion and pleaded guilty in December 2008. The warrant described the IRS’ undercover operation targeting KMI Enterprises, doing business as Christina’s, and their owners, who had advertised the club for sale. The investigation began in August 2004, just as KMI Entertainment was applying to renovate the Apex Theatre. An agent posing as a prospective buyer called the real-estate agent representing Christina’s, and then, in September, met with Isa Mufareh, who told the agent that “the business was making a profit, but not on paper,” according to the warrant.

Meetings and conversations about the prospective sale continued into December 2004, with Isa Mufareh and Darraj increasingly disclosing the ways in which Christina’s operated under two sets of books, and how they and Maurice siphoned off unreported cash from the business, including through revenues from illegal gambling on video-poker machines. But the owners were cagey about sharing their records of the unreported income. “Isa Mufareh,” the warrant states, “stated that the law can get you for anything, such as money laundering. ‘We have to be careful with who we are dealing with.’ Khalid then stated ‘I do not want to end up someone’s girlfriend in jail.'”

When agents raided their homes on Jan. 13, 2005, the records showing that the Apex Theatre kept two sets of books were recovered from Maurice Mufareh’s house. The plea agreements in the case explain that the three owners each held a one-third share of the Apex, and that each “did in fact receive a one-third share of the earnings of Apex. Comparison between the second set of books recovered for Apex with the tax returns filed in 2003 for KMI Entertainment revealed that the conspirators had engaged in a similar pattern of underreporting the revenues of the theater” as they had with Christina’s. The amount of Apex’s underreporting came to $26,643, according to the plea agreement, compared to almost $300,000 for Christina’s.

As Isa Mufareh sat in a federal courtroom in downtown Baltimore in February 2009, preparing to be sentenced, he appeared comfortable with his fate, laughing and smiling with his attorney, Larry Nathans. Once the hearing got underway, a reason for this became clear: The prosecutor, Michael Hanlon, praised the defendants for taking “a very dignified approach” to the case, saying they were “on the right track from the go,” and recommended that U.S. District Court judge Catherine Blake hand down a lenient sentence.

When Isa Mufareh rose to address the judge, he was profoundly apologetic, acknowledging that “Four years ago, I made a mistake.” He described a long life of hard work and service, and said with sadness that “Two months from today, I will be celebrating my 40th wedding anniversary, perhaps alone.” Blake, after saying “Mr. Mufareh is, I’m sure, punishing himself with regret,” agreed with Hanlon’s recommendation of five months’ imprisonment followed by three years of supervised release, including five months of home detention, and, of course, restitution in the amount of $19,771. The other two defendants received the same sentences, though their restitution amounts were greater: $31,779 for Darraj and $20,667 for Maurice Mufareh.

In 2006, KMI Enterprises and its liquor license for Christina’s was transferred to Marc’s Vision, LLC, and Marcello Burdusi, state records show. KMI Entertainment survives to keep showing porn at the Apex Theater, with Isa and Maurice Mufareh as the remaining partners.

 

“We were thinking about it recently,” Isa Mufareh says, when asked by a reporter whether he’d ever considered showing something other than X-rated flicks at the Apex, “but couldn’t come to any conclusions.” When the possibility is raised of showing Spanish-language films, given the high density of Latinos living in the theater’s immediate vicinity, he says, “You are right, there are thousands. When I go to the theater, they are always asking me if I have any work for them. It could be done.”

Tom Kiefaber, who owned and ran the Senator Theatre as a first-run movie house for major Hollywood releases from the early 1990s until last year, agrees. In fact, he says he’d raised the possibility before with the Apex’s landlord, Mark Wagonheim, who is a beneficiary of the family trust that owns the Apex property. Wagonheim, who did not return a message asking to discuss his family’s history in the film-exhibition business in Baltimore, is the son of Howard “Boots” Wagonheim, Kiefaber explains, who helped chart Baltimore’s film-exhibition history as vice president of Schwaber Theatres.

“That’s what’s needed there,” Kiefaber says of the idea of screening Spanish-language films at the Apex. “That’s what its ideal cinema use would be, because of the population base. If you look at other cities where this is done, the audience can be very loyal and enthusiastic, so much so that it almost becomes a throwback to the heyday of the motion-picture business. There are enough people within walking distance to really make that location one which serves the community. It would be the ideal evolutionary move that not only would be more profitable, but would allow the landlord to improve this historic structure and provide a heightened sense of community. It would be win-win all around.”

Jessica Contreras, the mayor’s office liaison to the Hispanic and Latino community, also agrees. “It would be a great opportunity not only for the community, so they have someplace to go with their families, but also beneficial to the business owner–it would open the door for him to grow his business,” she says, pointing out that, while “no one really knows” the size the Spanish-speaking community in Baltimore, “most people would put it at between 30,000 and 35,000. How great would it be if the community does respond? It’s a very good business opportunity. There’s definitely a market for it.”

Kiefaber cautions that he prefers to be “reticent about telling someone else how to run their business, because I’ve heard enough of that myself over the years,” but he can’t contain his fervor when it comes to this subject. The Apex “is crying out for” Spanish-language film programming, he says, “and has been for years.”

Given the Wagonheims’ long history in Baltimore, Kiefaber adds, a successful shift to Latino films at the Apex would, in a certain sense, be a repeat performance. “What Boots did at the old Parkway Theatre and the Playhouse, it changed our culture in Baltimore, bringing in the Euro films, the art movies. It fostered a salon atmosphere, where people talked about films, engendering a community with common interests in, say, seeing and discussing [Ingmar] Bergman films. The Wagonheims utilized their theaters in Baltimore to change the film-viewing culture here, and I think they probably have an opportunity again with the Apex, don’t they? Sure got my vote.”

Isa Mufareh’s eyes, magnified by thick glasses, look friendly in his round face, and, for being in his mid-60s, he’s quite well-preserved. A short, unassuming man, one would never guess by the look of him that he’s an X-rated movie purveyor who used to be in the strip-club business. And it’s clear, as he gives a tour of his theater, that he’s not out to hurt anyone, only to make money.

“You should never run out of thoughts about improving things,” he says, reflecting on the option of screening Spanish-language movies. “I don’t want to upset the neighborhood. If anything comes up, it is not going to be derogative to the neighbors.”

The Shy Pornographer: Show World’s Owner May Be Times Square’s Last Man Standing

By Van Smith

Published in New York Press, Apr. 7, 1999

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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.

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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.