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The Westwood Art Theater closed its doors last night after screening its final two features: Bouncy Bouncy Big ‘Uns and Cougars in Heat.
Bob Schaefer, who owns the business, said he is retiring, and not necessarily for financial reasons.
The Sylvania Avenue theater, which showed pornographic movies on and off until 1977, when it began showing them almost exclusively, has been breaking even and could continue to limp along, he said.
But Mr. Schaefer turns 65 next month, requires kidney dialysis three times a week, and is ready to call it quits. On Wednesday, he’ll auction off theater fixtures and any leftover adult DVDs, which he said have been selling like hot cakes for a few dollars each.
“I won’t miss it,” he said about leaving the theater business. “I’m very much looking forward to having free time.”
The Westwood has a rich, colorful history, not least because of the legal troubles that rained down on it 40 years ago when city officials prosecuted its employees and private citizens tried to close it over the showing of three X-rated movies, Without a Stitch, The Stewardesses, and Deep Throat.
What will become of the building itself is unclear. The owner, Basim Mulfah, who also owns the Lorraine Motor Hotel downtown, did not return calls.
With a seating capacity of 1,000, the Westwood was considered a monument to a Toledo on the rise when it opened in 1928 as part of a local theater chain.
It was hailed as “one of the major improvements in the marvelous development of the Sylvania Avenue district,” according to a contemporaneous Blade report, which went on to say, “The building is of fireproof construction throughout and is equipped with every convenience for the comfort and safety of the patrons. … This spacious foyer is truly the most beautiful of any in the city, with its terrazzo-tiled floor, its walnut wainscoting from floor to ceiling, and its beamed and vaulted ceiling decorated in carefully blended colors. … Ventilating apparatus has been provided that will automatically change the air completely once every few minutes.”
The theater’s raffish image dates to the late 1960s, when the Westwood’s former owner, Art Theater Guild Inc., which is defunct, started showing skin and sex films in an effort to pump up box-office revenues.
Before that, the Westwood was the premier local venue for foreign movies deemed not commercial enough to be shown by mainstream theaters. Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Francois Truffaut, and Jean-Luc Godard were but a few of the directors whose works graced the screen.
“It was unique. There were neighborhood houses like the Colony and the State [theaters], but the Westwood brought in foreign films and hard-core. It was very important to Toledo because it gave us films we wouldn’t have seen otherwise,” explained Toledo native Sam Schad, who briefly managed the Valentine Theatre in the 1970s and now produces films in Los Angeles.
In the 1950s, the Westwood’s lobby also served as an art shop featuring the works of area and international artists.
For years, even after it began running mostly skin flicks, the Westwood was known for a successful midnight movie series that featured underground and experimental films, many of them by directors destined for fame such as George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski, Andy Warhol, and Brian De Palma.
In the 1980s, when scorchers such as Pleasure Palace and Candy Stripers were over, a crowd lined up Saturdays at 11:45 p.m. in glitter and satin for a midnight presentation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the cult classic from 1975 that combined Frankenstein, Busby Berkeley dance routines, and a cast of intergalactic characters. Rice — for the wedding scene — and all manner of objects and liquids were thrown by the audience.
Mr. Schaefer discontinued the weekly event when the cleanup afterward became too much work.
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In 1973, the Westwood’s manager was found guilty in Toledo Municipal Court of “presenting an obscene performance” by showing Deep Throat. Testifying for the defense were a film instructor from the University of Toledo and two psychologists who defended the film as having entertainment and educational value. The movie had a 55-day run during which 29,000 people saw it. In the end, nobody went to jail and the theater got its print of Deep Throat back after posting a $5,000 bond.
The citizens group brought its action under Ohio’s nuisance law. It failed to shutter the theater and in its effort to do so established legal precedent, according to Harland Britz, who was the theater’s attorney.
“The courts ruled that the nuisance was the movie, not the theater. That was the legal precedent. They could shut down the film, but not the theater,” recalled Mr. Britz, who retired from his Toledo law practice five years ago.
Mr. Schaefer is perhaps an unlikely owner of an adult movie business. He is a retired Toledo Public Schools teacher who did stints at Robinson Junior High, the former Macomber High School, and Waite High School. He bought the business in 1995 for less than $10,000.
“I have to say, I’ve made some good money over the years,” he acknowledged.
Before becoming the owner, he was the Westwood’s manager, and before that its projectionist. His unbroken association with the theater goes back to 1978. Before he retired as a teacher a dozen years ago, his school administrators all knew of his sideline job, he said, and he once even saw a Toledo Public Schools superintendent in the theater.
There will always be a market for porn houses, he believes, even with the easy availability of sex movies on the Internet.
“People come to adult movies not just to watch the movies, but to meet other people,” he said.
And there’s no predicting — or accounting for — tastes, he added.
“I can remember when we first got DVDs in with fat women. The first big star was called Eartha Quake. She weighed more than 400 pounds. I thought, ‘Nobody will want to see this.’ I was wrong. Guys just loved her.”
Contact Carl Ryan at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6050.