“The Bijou has never been pretty,” says Steven Toushin, 64, the straight owner of the oldest gay porn theater and sex club in the U.S. “The Bijou is deliciously nasty and I’m going to keep it that way.” As the iconic Old Town fixture preps for Stay Hard, its 40th anniversary bash, its feisty owner reflects:
I was involved in a theater called the Aardvark Theater in Piper’s Alley. Underground films which showed nudity did exceptionally well. My first arrest was on a film called Flaming Creatures, which was a gay-themed film by Jack Smith.
Things started changing in this world and one of them was the opening of adult theaters which then brought gay sexuality into the general public. I just couldn’t walk in and get a theater license, so the first thing we put on was Richard Nixon’s Checkers speech. We put that on for about four or five weeks then went right into adult films, always with gay content.
The theater was built knowing there was going to be a lot of activity in the bathroom. We had a lot of men watching the film, basically looking to cruise, meeting someone in the back, having quick sex and then leaving. My feeling was that the way the theater was going to [thrive], I had to alter it into a sex club.
By 1980 Old Town was much quieter, there was a lot more vacancies. That’s when I started to expand more into a sexual club. Bijou did a good business once I opened up the second floor. I started picking up a lot of people from Carol’s [gay bar next door]. When the bar closed [each night] I had a huge surge of new customers. The party would finally quiet down around 9 or 10am in the morning. There was just an immense amount of people.
In the ’80s came the AIDS crisis. In San Francisco, Merv Silverman closed down all the bathhouses in ’84. Chicago handled the crisis in a much different way. What the gay community did back then with the mayor, was convince him that establishments should stay open [and] hand out HIV material and condoms. The city agreed, which was very commendable for Chicago because in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco all hell broke loose. I managed to stay alive, give out information and condoms. The party continued.
By the early ’90s, this area started to become revitalized. Carol’s closed down in ’91 because [that’s where] Jeffrey Dahmer had picked up my employee Jeremy Wienberger, whom he killed. They couldn’t get over the stigma.
The Internet didn’t affect me that much initially. AOL came about and that actually helped me because people asked questions: Where can I go? What is the best time to go? You could sell product that way. I still did very nice business because there’s wasn’t any “one-handed entertainment” yet on the Internet per se.
By 2000 life started changing. I created the Erotic Cabaret, which I had for four or five years. I had this group of men and we’d put on sexual skits. A priest walks down the aisle and goes up onstage. Three choir boys come up, they’re singing in harmony and one of the choir boys comes over and gets underneath the priest’s robe and starts sucking his dick. So we had live sex onstage, but themed.
Four or five years ago was when the theater business started changing. The Internet was catching up with it. People were going to match sites, VOD sites, free tube sites. When the recession came, I lost tourism and convention business. The party now was quieter.
2011 and beyond
I’m still going. I’m a throwback to when sexual attitude was not clean. It was erotic and fun, had a little bit of danger to it. The Bijou will probably have a few more years of being quiet and then it will start picking up again. Sometimes I sit here and smile. I’ve been to prison two times. I’ve been in business 40 years and how I did it I have no clue. But I’ve survived it all.
The Bijou celebrates 40 years with Stay Hard on Saturday 22.