MOVIE OF THE WEEK May 24, 2024: QUEEN OF THE DEUCE

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If Chelly Wilson were a fictional character, odds are she’d be deemed “hard to believe” or “too over the top.” But the business-savvy, chain-smoking mom and grandma who came to the United States from Greece in 1939 and operated a string of adult movie theaters in some of the seediest parts of New York City in the 1960s and ’70s is 100 percent real. And, as chronicled in Valerie Kontakos’ documentary Queen of the Deuce, her story is fascinating.

Born to a Jewish family in Thessaloniki, Greece, in 1908, Chelly (whose name was originally Rachel Serrero) grew up, got married — against her will — and had two children before fleeing her home country (and leaving her kids behind) on the last ship to leave Greece before the onset of World War II. She started a new life in New York City, using newsreels to help drum up support for the Greek war effort and then renting out theaters to show movies from Greece and other countries. But it wasn’t until she started experimenting with showing soft-core pornography that things really took off.

Through interviews with friends, colleagues, and family members (she ultimately remarried and had another daughter with her second husband) — as well as archival footage of Manhattan, clips of the movies Chelly distributed, and animations re-creating key scenes in her life — Kontakos paints a picture not just of a singularly fascinating woman, but also of New York City at a critical time in its history. Chelly was on the front lines when hard-core pornography first hit screens in 1969, and the writing was on the wall for her empire when Rudy Giuliani started his crusade to clean up New York, including 42d St. (“the deuce”), where most of Chelly’s theaters were located.

Queen of the Deuce makes it clear that Chelly never apologized for who she was or what she did, from how she made her money to who she had in her bed (she was gay at a time when that was far from a safe thing to be). Her zest for life and acceptance of others are her clear legacies, with her children and grandchildren remembering her fondly and continuing to look for opportunities to succeed both creatively and in business. Chelly Wilson may have been larger than life, but she lived a life that was large enough to truly matter.– Betsy Bozdech

Team #MOTW’s comments:

Pam Grady: Singer Marc Almond recently posted a photo on Instagram in which he stands next to a neon sign, “Eros I,” calling it “a piece of Art with a history.” That history emerges in this captivating documentary that tells the story of Chelly Wilson, the woman who owned Eros I and II and many other New York porn palaces during the 1960s and ‘70s when pornography thrived amidst a seedy Times Square. The figure that emerges is of a fearless individual who met challenges head on and set her own terms for her time – 1908-1194 – on this planet. In a film that blends archival footage, animation, and interviews with her children, grandchildren, and others in her orbit, the life of a Jewish woman who escaped her native Greece before the Holocaust could claim her comes into sharp focus. From a first job running a hot dog stand to becoming a porn entrepreneur and a savvy real estate investor, Chelly set her own terms in business. Ditto for her personal life, where she married two men but found more lasting happiness with woman. Chelly was truly an exceptional woman. And Marc Almond is right – that neon sign does symbolize a lot of history.

Nell Minow: Queen of the Deuce is a story of survival and resilience. The most improbable, even lurid details of Chelly Wilson’s life are never used to shock or titillate; this documentary presents her as fearless, unshakable, sometimes close to ruthless, but willing to do whatever it took to keep her family safe. And, in her own way, she was devoted to her family and community. It is also a glimpse of a transitional moment in the history of New York City, almost making us nostalgic for the era of seedy porn theaters eliminated by gentrification.

Sherin Nicole It’s not easy being queen. Especially when the chessboard skews towards testosterone. Yet Chelly Wilson, a Greek-born Jewish grandmother, ran the game, becoming a monarch of the adult film industry on the scandalous 42nd Street of the 1970s. Directed by Valerie Kontakos, what sets Queen of the Deuce apart from most documentaries is its irreverence contrasted with candor—made evident in its flow from comic strip-styled animation to family testimony. Here we watch the trajectory of a woman’s life: shaking off the control of men, surviving the Holocaust, cutting deals so shrewd they sliced to the bone, loving women while marrying men, and building a legacy that endures. Without question, that’s queen business.

Leslie Combemale There’s nothing like discovering that a place I deemed a dangerous dumpster fire of humanity at one time, actually represented resistance, resilience, and survival. The first time I walked down 42nd street was in the 80s, when it had become, as someone put it, “more dangerous than being a soldier in Vietnam”. I should have known there was a whole lot more to the history of The Deuce, as 42nd street is called, than the drug addicts, sex workers, peep shows, and violence in the streets that plagued it by that time. In the documentary Queen of the Deuce, director/writer/producer Valerie Kontakos reveals the importance of one trailblazing woman, Greek immigrant and badass Chelly Wilson, to its development as a porn mecca. She also puts into perspective how Wilson’s success represented so much more than just making heaps of money in a business seen as immoral or unsavory by the average American. Read full review.

Jennifer Merin Queen of the Deuce, is filmmaker Valerie Kontakos’ captivating documentary profile of Chelly Wilson, a singularly fascinating Greek-Jewish woman who escaped the Holocaust and immigrated to New York City where she established a chain of porn theaters in Times Square. Her legacy, however, is more than porn. She was a generous philanthropist and was openly homosexual when being ‘out’ meant being ostracized and subject to punishment by a homophobically prejudiced justice system. She also smoked cigars and was an avid gambler. Born in Thessaloniki in 1908, Wilson died in New York in 1994. Her personality is so quirky and her story so full of twists that she might have stepped out of a Damon Runyon opus, but the details of her life are convincingly authenticated with archival footage and on camera interviews with those who knew her well. Kontakos also uses animation to illustrate the full arc of Wilson’s life. The archival footage is fuzzy — as it often is — but the film is beautifully crafted and edited. It’s full of surprises and thoroughly entertaining.

Loren King The colorful and unconventional Chelly Wilson’s life story might seem incredible if Queen of the Deuce were not a documentary. The Jewish Wilson fled the Nazis and World War II but the Holocaust claimed nearly her entire family in Greece. She settled in New York City where she sold hot dogs from a truck before buying her first theater, the Cameo, and screening Greek films for the immigrant community. By the 1970s, Wilson owned six X-rated theaters around Times Square and 42nd Street aka “The Deuce.” Author and activist Jeffrey Escoffier credits her as “one of the first, if not the first, to show gay porn in New York City.” Read full review

Liz Whittemore A fierce feminist, mother, Holocaust survivor, and shrewd businesswoman, Chelly Wilson brought everything from chaos to caring for her friends and family from Greece to New York City. Queen of the Deuce introduced audiences to one of the most unique women who dared to be independent and fearless against relentless obstacles. Owner of a string of porn cinemas and perhaps the first unnamed female don of Manhattan, Wilson dared to smash the patriarchy and have a great time building a safe space for the Jewish and LGBTQ communities at the same time.

Sandie Angulo Chen: Director Valerie Kontakos’ documentary Queen of the Deuce is a fascinating tribute to a forward-thinking, pioneering business woman like no other. Chelly Wilson, who hailed from the Ladino-speaking Sephardic community of Salonica, Greece and fled the country for America before the Germans invaded, made a prosperous new life for herself as an adult-movie theater owner in Manhattan’s Times Square aka The Deuce. As her children and grandchildren share, who else could say their mother or grandma owned the most porn theaters in New York? With her keen mind for business and openness to the X-rated film industry, Chelly became a force to be reckoned with, earning her nickname as the titular queen of the City’s infamous block.

Cate Marquis This is not your usual Holocaust survivor story. A Greek-Jewish woman escapes Hitler’s murderous forces, moves to New York, and – opens a chain of porn theaters. Wait, wait, we missed like a million steps there, like making a documentary to help raise money to help her native Greece in fighting the Nazis, escaping a forced marriage, hiding her children back in Greece, and much, much more, on her way to becoming the prosperous, beloved matriarch of a complicated happy family, where what is weird to everyone else is normal to them. But then again there was nothing usual about Chelly Wilson. Queen of the Deuce is one wild ride, the unlikeliest series of crazy and sometimes dangerous events, a story like a far-fetched thriller, an entertaining, jaw-dropping documentary about the woman known as the “Queen of the Deuce,” or sometimes Grandma. Filmmaker Valerie Kontakos’ incredible and wild biographical film about her most unusual grandmother is entertaining and mind-boggling, as unique as the fierce, cigar-smoking Greek-Jewish entrepreneur, philanthropist and pioneer of gay theaters herself. Told with archival footage and stills, interviews with friends, lovers, and family, along with animated sequences, Queen of the Deuce is one strange but astonishing trip.

FILM DETAILS:

Title: Queen of the Deuce

Director: Valerie Kontakos

Release Date: May 24, 2924

Running Time: 78 minutes

Language: English and Greek with English subtitles

Screenwriters: Valerie Kontakos (Documentary)

Distribution Company: Greenwich Entertainment

AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Nikki Fowler, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore

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Edited by Jennifer Merin

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