Being decidedly different

Being decidedly different

A daughter sort-of explains one-of-a-kind Chelly Wilson, Queen of the Deuce

Chelly at home, doing business, in a typical pose. (Courtesy of the Wilson family)
Chelly at home, doing business, in a typical pose. (Courtesy of the Wilson family)

Chelly Wilson ain’t exactly Tony Soprano, but she’s not Mother Teresa either.

Wilson, who flees Greece after an unhappy marriage and just before the Nazis invade, comes to America and discovers streets paved with, well, “special” celluloid, the kind replete with images of, let’s just say, naked people.

She rises from nothing to run several Times Square area porno theaters from the 1960s to the mid-’80s — when Times Square still was Times Square — and earns the sobriquet Queen of the Deuce. (Relax. “The Deuce” is a most likely inocent old nickname for Times Square.)

That also is the name of the documentary that chronicles her rags-to-bitches rise. Actually, documentary is a bit inaccurate. It really is more of a tribute film, a recurring problem when both the director and one of the principal sources of input have close ties with the subject.

I spoke to the director, Valerie Kontakos (who, as a teenager, worked part time in the ticket booth at one of the theaters) and Bondi Walters, one of Chelly’s daughters. Both were helpful in filling in some of the missing pieces.

Chelly (1908-1994) grew up in an Orthodox Jewish (I think it needs Jewish to differentiate from Greek Orthodox) family in Thessaloniki, Greece. She was sent off — very unhappily —at a young age on a marriage arranged by her father. The couple had two children, a boy and a girl. After she divorced him and as war clouds hovered, she left both behind — the boy stayed with the father; the girl was taken in by a gentile friend — while she left for New York.

No one knows for sure how she managed to get into the country. At the time, 1939, there were strict quotas, and immigrants were required to have a sponsor and a job waiting. Bondi says that her mother “had a special permit from the mayor of Athens. That gave her permission to leave, and she was on the last boat that left Greece before the war broke out.”

When she arrived, she supposedly had only five bucks in her pocket. In the film, the narrator says she sold hot dogs, but that seems an unlikely route to the cash necessary to get into the theater business. When I asked for clarification, Bondi said: “I don’t know all the details, but the way that she always told the story was that he [an unnamed benefactor] said, ‘You just run these [hot dog stands] and pay me this much a month. And that’s what will pay it off.’”

No one seems to know who this anonymous character was, but there seems to be agreement on what came next. Chelly rented a theater and showed Greek films she’d imported from her homeland, at least in part to raise money for the Greek postwar recovery effort. She also arranged screenings at cities around the country that had sizable Greek populations.

Her second husband, Rex Wilson — Bondi’s dad — was both a romantic and a business catch. “My dad had portable projectors,” Bondi told me. “So this was a great union, because my mother could take her films all over the country with my dad’s portable projectors and set them up in gymnasiums or whatever and could show them.”

At some point, someone — and, again, it’s not clear who — suggested that Chelly could fill the seats by showing porn films that today would be considered very soft core.

They were right.

Business boomed. She bought theaters she’d previously rented and converted some to show gay porn.

Even with all these unanswered questions, the film is something of a hoot. Think of Chelly as a woman ahead of her time or just as an eccentric. She’d hold court in her apartment above the Adonis Theater, surrounded by family, a couple of her female lovers, and shopping bags full of cash.

The Adonis was one of Chelly Wilson’s theaters. (Courtesy of the Wilson family)

I wondered if Chelly was mobbed up. No, Bondi said. “I mean, I don’t think so. I mean did she know people?”

The question remains unanswered, as Bondi goes on to give an unconvincing rationale for the cash. “The theaters would close late at night. They didn’t do banking. They put the money in a shopping bag and brought it up to the house. It was ready to go to the bank the following day. If it was a weekend, the money didn’t go anywhere for a couple of days.”

Yet I persist. “My experience is that it was not mobbed up,” Bondi says. “Were there some people connected to the industry? I’m sure there were.”

Switching gears, I ask if in retrospect there was something she would have preferred not to go public? Her mom’s female lovers, for instance?

“No,” she says, adding, “you have to think about everything in context. In the ’50s, you didn’t talk about anybody being gay. Today everybody’s gay, so it doesn’t matter.”

What kind of a mom was she? “Interesting,” Bondi replies.

Attentive? “Dependent on the situation…All I know is that I wanted a mother like everybody else’s mother. I wanted my name to be Mary. I didn’t want it to be Bondi. I didn’t want to be different. That’s how I grew up in the ’40s and ’50s. It was ‘don’t be different.’”

Different like her mom.

“Queen of the Deuce” is in theatrical release.

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