Please note: This article is published as an archive copy from Philadelphia City Paper. My City Paper is not affiliated with Philadelphia City Paper. Philadelphia City Paper was an alternative weekly newspaper in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The last edition was published on October 8, 2015.

April 16–23, 1998

city beat


The Last Picture Show

The latest chapter in the battle over a Sansom Street porn theater.

by John McCalla

"There may be
homophobia, there
may be political
pressure, I have no
idea."—Robert Berger,
attorney for Adonis

Attorney Robert Berger literally was surrounded by members of the Center City Residents' Association's zoning committee. He spun around with each curt question hurled his way.

Representing the Adonis Theater, a gay porn movie house at 2026 Sansom St., Berger appeared before the stern-faced committee on April 7 like a kid who hadn't prepared for an important class assignment. "I don't know" became his awkward mantra, which he uttered over and over.

"Where in the building is the theater?" "Is there more than one theater? How many seats? No seats?" No answer. "What's in the basement?"

"Storage?" Berger guessed.

Then someone displayed the advertising clippings—ads from the Philadelphia Gay News depicting a jock-strap-clad buff boy and declaring the spot a "movie complex." Berger shrugged.

"For more than 20 years, the Adonis has been a well-known place," Berger said after he was excused from the committee meeting. "It's hard to imagine something came up for the city to suddenly realize what was there and say, 'What's going on?'"

The Adonis definitely has been well-known over the years, as a place where neighbors suspect gay men go to have sex. And a group of them have wanted it out of the Rittenhouse neighborhood for about as long as it's been open. According to the Department of Licenses and Inspections, neighbor complaints that started a few years ago prompted L&I to start paying closer attention to the theater.

Unlike its bawdier competition, the Adonis sits unadorned on Sansom Street, a window-painted sign the only indication it's there. No neon or movie posters in sight, it could be mistaken for an art-house theater if it weren't for its reputation.

A zoning technicality may give the residents the tool they've been looking for. The theater's owner is Thomas Sherwood, who owns a number of properties on the block, including the World Gym, adjacent to the Adonis. Sherwood has never been a favorite among neighbors, who have tangled with him before over a massage parlor and an attempt at getting a liquor license on the block last fall.

According to neighbors and L&I, Sherwood changed zoning classifications for his entire strip of properties from 2018 to 2026 Sansom St. while constructing the World Gym from Dec. 12, 1989, to Jan. 18, 1995. By changing over from a movie house to a health spa classification, Sherwood blew his defense as a "pre-existing, non-conforming use," according to L&I Deputy Commissioner for Business and Construction Services Ed McLaughlin.

To correct the situation, Sherwood needs to get a zoning variance for the Adonis. Enter the community.

"The community made a complaint and we were being responsive to the community," McLaughlin said. "There were some L&I violations, but not enough to shut them down."

The building's use as a movie house is the technicality that the community came up with, McLaughlin said, praising the trained minds that represent the Center City Residents' Association and the Rittenhouse Police Partnership.

"They brought it to our attention," McLaughlin said. "When it comes to hearings and zonings and permits, they're a very sophisticated community. It's never a lightweight complaint from them. They're sophisticated to the point that their complaints look as though they're coming from L&I."

The zoning violation was not "fatal," McLaughlin said. However, probably trying to avoid a conversation with the community, McLaughlin said, Sherwood opted to appeal the violation to L&I's Board of Review; nevertheless, a hearing is scheduled for April 22 before the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

The two sides will basically be arguing whether the Adonis already has a permit, McLaughlin said. "Their position is they have a permit; ours is, 'No, you changed your permit,'" McLaughlin said.

The Adonis has not been uncooperative with L&I, McLaughlin said, and has cleaned up and complied with other minor violations.

"That's a business as far as we're concerned," McLaughlin said. "We're not making any moral judgments. If they follow the law, then they have the right to do whatever they're doing."

What they're doing or not doing is what the neighbors will be asking at the Board of Review hearing April 22.

"There are a lot of unanswered questions," said Ben Heinzen, president of the Rittenhouse Police Partnership. "What's a movie theater doing with private booths? We need some good and legitimate answers to the questions [Berger] couldn't come up with the other night."

Complaints of men loitering outside the theater late at night and early in the morning on weekends have fueled the community's outrage, Heinzen said. The 2000 block of Sansom Street, he added, is about 50 percent residential, in addition to the ground-floor retail.

And the fight to rid the strip of the Adonis comes at a time crucial to Sansom Street's rebirth, others said. In addition to the Roxy art-house theater, there's the old Wilma Theater (reborn as the Adrienne), a restaurant, and—coming soon—an upscale men's clothing outlet.

"Sansom Street is on the rebound," said local realtor Charles Robbins. "A lot of good things are happening and right now the Adonis does not fit with what the future might hold for Sansom Street. It's up to the neighbors to take a concerted stand."

Berger said Monday that he's still never been inside the Adonis' walls, but stands by his status-quo defense.

"It's not as if the city didn't know what went on in there," Berger said. "In May '97, for the city to suddenly say, 'Oh my goodness, they're showing adult films at the Adonis Theater'—it's just silly.

"Sure, there are people in the neighborhood who would rather not have adult uses there, but to say they didn't know about it is ridiculous," Berger said. "There may be homophobia, there may be political pressure, I have no idea."

"We don't want it in the neighborhood," Heinzen said. "And we don't want a [zoning] variance allowing it. There are residential, religious and cultural institutions nearby. That's what the neighborhood is known for and we don't want any part of it turned into an adult entertainment strip."

Quick and entertaining New York City local news, events, food, arts, sports and more.

contact us

My City Paper

Website powered by cmsbot

My City Paper • ,
Copyright © 2022 My City Paper :: New York City News, Food, Sports and Events.
Website design, managed and hosted by DEP Design,, a New York interactive agency